Westminster Abbey is a large Gothic church in Westminster, London, and it’s formally known as the Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster. Traditionally known for coronations and burials of English, and now monarchs of the Commonwealth Realms, it was briefly accorded the status of a cathedral between 1546 and 1556. Today it’s a church where prayers are conducted and is set among the memorials and tombs of famous personalities from British monarchy and history.
The Royal Charter of Queen Elizabeth in 1560 established that the Abbey is governed by the Dean and Chapter of Westminster.
The Abbey is constructed on what was Thorney Island, once a marshy area near the City of London. Two channels of the Tyburn River flanked the island; in their place today are Down
ing Street and Great College Street.
A church was thought to have existed on Thorney Island around 604 AD, the same year that St. Paul’s was founded by Ethelbert, a relative of the East Saxon King. The later royals kept up the tradition, some donated land for church building and several others gave royal artifacts and relics. However, Westminster Abbey is the vision of a truly creative genius, Edward the Confessor who lived from 1042 to 1066. He envisioned a royal structure that included an opulent palace with a monastery as well as an abbey church ideally suited for royal ceremonies and burials.
From the time of the coronations of King Harold and William the Conqueror, all coronations of British monarchs have been held in the Abbey. The St. Edward’s Chair, the throne on which monarchs are seated while being crowned, is contained within the Abbey and used at all coronations from 1308.
The Abbey was later rebuilt in honour of Edward the Confessor, the Royal Saint, by Henry III. Edward the Confessor’s relics were enshrined in the sanctuary and today lie in a burial vault in front of the High Altar.
Apart from the royals who are buried here, there are several poets and writers whose remains have been placed in what is known as “Poets’ Corner”. Some world famous names include Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Rudyard Kipling, John Masefield, John Milton, Laurence Olivier, Jane Austen, Lord Tennyson, William Wordsworth, the Bronte sisters and John Keats.
In later times, it became a significant honour to be buried at the Abbey and several aristocrats, generals, politicians, scientists and doctors have been interred here. Some notable names are Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton. Members of today’s royal family use Windsor Castle as a burial site.
The Abbey is also home to the Westminster School and the Westminster Abbey Choir School. Literate and learned monks were given the responsibility and duties to promote education and charity.
The organ at Westminster Abbey is as famous as the Abbey itself. After several enlargements and redesigns the present organ was commissioned in 1982.
Westminster Abbey is open to visitors to visitors throughout the year, six days a week. The Abbey is closed to visitors on Sundays and religious holidays. A millennium of treasures such as textiles, stained glass windows and paintings are on public display. Guided and audio tours are available in several languages for a paid fee. Visitors also get to see St. Margaret’s Church, the Great and Little Cloisters, the Museum and on specified days, the College Garden.