Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey, originally the abbey church of a Benedictine monastery (closed in 1539) in London. One of England's most important Gothic structures, it is also a national shrine. The first church on the site is believed to date from early in the 7th cent. It was erected by Æthelbert, king of Kent. Edward the Confessor began c.1050 the building of a Norman church, consecrated in 1065. In 1245, Henry III began to demolish the edifice and to build a new eastern portion, thus initiating centuries of construction. The fine octagonal chapter house was built in 1250, and in the 14th cent. the cloisters, abbot's house, and principal monastic buildings were added. The nave was completed in the 16th cent. Early in the 16th cent. Henry VIII finished the Lady Chapel, dedicated to Henry VII. This chapel, in Perpendicular style, is noted for its superb fan vaulting. The two western towers were built (1722–40) by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor. In the late 19th cent. Sir George Gilbert Scott supervised extensive restoration. From that time memorial statues by many academic Victorian sculptors have been added to the decor. The present church is cruciform in plan; both nave and transept have side aisles. The choir is apsidal in plan, and its ring of chapels exhibits the only complete chevet in England. French influence is also seen in the height of the nave, the loftiest in England, and in the strongly emphasized flying buttresses. Nearly every English king and queen since William I has been crowned in Westminster, and it is the burial place of 18 monarchs. England's most notable statesmen and distinguished subjects have been given burial in the Abbey since the 14th cent. In the Poets' Corner in the south transept rest the tombs of Chaucer, Browning, Tennyson, and other great English poets.

See descriptive and historical works by W. R. Lethaby (1906 and 1925), H. F. Westlake (1923), A. E. Henderson (1937), L. E. Tanner (1953), and E. Carpenter (1966); Council of Christians and Jews, The Corners of the Earth … Westminster Abbey in the 900th Anniversary Year (1966).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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