Friday, September 20, 2013

Building Westminster Abbey - Part 1

Panel from Bayeaux Tapestry; Edward's body carried to Westminster.
The Collegiate Church of St. Peter at Westminster was begun on a site near the Thames where a vision of St. Peter was seen by (appropriately) a fisherman. The fisherman, named Aldrich in the anecdote, may be fictional, but the abbey was fact: we know that a church was there by the early 970s when King Edgar supported St. Dunstan in establishing a community of Benedictine monks. (Edgar was obviously very interested in supporting abbeys: see his other mention here.) The Aldrich story would explain the practice of the Abbey receiving an annual tribute of salmon from Thames fishermen—a tradition that is carried on to this day, with a single salmon being presented to the Abbey annually.*

The Abbey's real prominence came during the reign of Edward the Confessor (1042-1066), who decided it would be suitable for his burial place, but only after some serious upgrading. Edward's building campaign—the first in the Norman Romanesque style to be built in England—resulted in a larger structure whose details are now lost to us, except in the stylized image we find on the Bayeaux Tapestry. Edward died 5 January, 1066 with the Abbey decades away from completion (in 1090), but he made sure it was consecrated while he was still alive, so that he could be buried there right after his death. (The Tapestry even seems to show—in the upper left of the picture above—the work still progressing even while the funeral procession approaches.) The Abbey was used for the coronation of William the Conqueror in late 1066, after that whole Invasion mess. Very little of this era's structure survives now.

Westminster Abbey, as we know it today, was reconstructed during the reign of Henry III. We have more records of materials and workmen surviving from that era, which I will share with you next time.

*At least, some sources report this; however, it is not found anywhere on the Company's website. I'm dubious.

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