Diana, Princess of Wales

Westminster Abbey

Founded by a king, shaped by his successors, Westminster Abbey has long had an important association with the English Monarchy as a place of coronation, burial and, more recently, marriage.

On 25 December 1066 William I was crowned in the Abbey church founded almost exactly a year before when Edward the Confessor's church dedicated to St Peter had been consecrated. Since then, thirty-nine sovereigns have been crowned in the Abbey, the exceptions being Edward V (one of the Princes murdered in the Tower of London in 1483) and King Edward VIII (who abdicated in 1936 before his coronation).

Monarchs were intimately associated with the major phases of building which, over the centuries, shaped the Abbey into its contemporary form. The French Gothic style in which it is seen today is very much the legacy of Henry III. Encouraged by The King, between 1220 and 1245 the monks had erected a Lady Chapel to the east of the romanesque church. Increased royal support from 1245 onwards resulted in the gradual demolition of the romanesque building from the east end and its replacement by a magnificent lofty church which was to house the new shrine of Edward the Confessor (who had been canonised in 1161). When Henry III died in 1272 building work had progressed through sanctuary, transepts and choir just into the nave. The new church, with the crossing to the east of the choir, was designed specially for its role as a coronation church, enabling the whole lantern area to be transformed into a coronation 'theatre'.

Suspended for a century after Henry's death, building work began again at the very end of Edward III's reign, in 1376. Major works, however, did not commence until Henry VII initiated the rebuilding of the Lady Chapel, which took place between 1503 and 1519. This marked the penultimate phase of major building. It derived originally from The King's intention to provide a magnificent housing for a shrine to Henry VI, whose case for canonisation he supported. (Henry VI remains uncanonised and buried at Windsor.) Instead, upon his death in 1509 Henry VII was among the first to be buried in the new chapel which now bears his name. For the next 250 years the abbey became the established burial place for royalty. With just four exceptions - Henry VIII (d. 1547) buried in St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, as was Charles I after his execution in 1649; James II buried in Paris, where he died in exile in 1701; and George I in Hanover where he died in 1727 - all the kings and queens of England and Great Britain from Henry VII to George II (d. 1760) were buried in this beautiful memorial chapel at the east end of the abbey. Altogether, seventeen British sovereigns are buried in Westminster Abbey, together with twelve consorts and a number of their children. Only Henry VII and Elizabeth I have fine monuments: most have only small flat stones in the floor to mark their tomb. (The Abbey's Undercroft Museum contains an interesting group of royal effigies. Originally made of wood or wax, they were carried upon the coffins at the funerals. The earliest now remaining is a wooden effigy of Edward III.)

Glazing of the great west window in the church took place early in the sixteenth century; the West Towers were erected in the eighteenth century. More recently, on the north wall of the nave a line of windows designed by Sir J. Ninian Comper (1864-1960), depicts kings and their contemporary abbots associated with the building of the Abbey Church.

Changes took place in the relationship with royalty following the dissolution of the monastery at Westminster in January 1540. But by the end of that year Henry VIII, no longer recognising papal authority, had established a new cathedral church at Westminster. The former abbot, William Benson, became the new dean and in 1550, when the incumbent of the new diocese of Westminster was translated to the bishopric of Norwich, Westminster joined St Paul's as a second cathedral church in the diocese of London. Under a new charter given in 1560 by the Protestant Elizabeth I, the Abbey became a Royal Peculiar, an independent body within the Church of England, owing allegiance to no diocese but responsible directly to the Sovereign.

Royal weddings at the Abbey are comparatively recent phenomena. The wedding of Princess Mary to Viscount Lascelles in 1922 was followed in 1923 by that of Albert, Duke of York (later King George VI) and Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. As the newly wedded Duchess of York, it was Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother who began the tradition of laying the bridal bouquet on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. Both her daughters, Princess Elizabeth in 1947 and Princess Margaret in 1960, celebrated their marriage within the Abbey. In the following generation both Princess Anne and The Duke of York have married there.

Westminster Abbey is associated with the Order of the Bath, which has used Henry VII's Chapel as its Chapel since the Order's establishment in 1725 and has the Dean of Westminster as Dean of the Order. At the west end of the Chapel hang the banners of The Prince of Wales, Great Master of the Order, and The Queen, Sovereign of the Order, who has the only embroidered banner.

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