Westminster Abbey: Early history

Pages 394-400

Old and New London: Volume 3. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.

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"And they shall then behold the scene around
In wasted age, in antique beauty, faded;
Our great Cathedral fane in silence bound."
Whitehead's "Legends of London."

Etymology of Westminster—A Startling Proposition—The Legend of St. Peter's Dedication of the First Abbey—The Building burnt by the Danes and restored by King Edgar—Rebuilt by Edward the Confessor—Death of Edward the Confessor—Additions and Alterations to the Abbey by Henry III.—Translation of the Body of Edward the Confessor—The Abbey damaged by Fire in 1297—Violation of the Right of Sanctuary—Completion of the Building—Funeral of Henry VII.—Surrender of the Abbey to Henry VIII.—The Benedictine Rule restored by Queen Mary—The Abbey in the Days of its Glory under the Plantagenets.

It has been appositely remarked that whereas the City is the heart, Westminster is the head of our great metropolis; while the suburbs in general constitute its limbs and extremities. And this is true in so far as that, while the City is the centre of all commercial transactions, Westminster is the residence of the Court and the seat of the Legislature which directs and controls the affairs of the nation.

In the first chapter of this volume we have endeavoured to set before the reader a general outline of the history and boundaries of the City of Westminster, together with some particulars of the foundation of its Abbey. It is stated by historians—and the statement is generally accepted as true—that Melutus, who was ordained Bishop of the East Saxons by St. Augustine, erected two cathedral churches; the one in London, dedicated to St. Paul; and the other in the island of Thorney, which he dedicated to St. Peter. This latter, which, in fact, was an abbey or minster, was situated to the westward of the City of London, and, according to one old annalist, was for that reason called "Westminster," to distinguish it from the Abbey of Grace on Tower Hill, called "Eastminster;" Maitland, however, proves this to be a mistake, by showing that this city was called Westminster in an undated "charter of sanctuary" granted by Edward the Confessor, who died in 1066, whilst the Abbey of Grace was not founded till the fourteenth century; he therefore supposes that the appellation of Westminster was given to distinguish it from St. Paul's Church, in the City of London.

Apropos of the origin or foundation of this locality, we may here state that we have heard of a startling proposition—namely, that the site of the ancient British city, Lun Dîn, or "the city of mud or clay," was Westminster, and that London as now known was that of the first Roman castrum. We can only exclaim, with the poet—
"This is the age of new inventions."

Froude says that the cathedral is, or rather was in the Middle Ages, the city, and that other institutions grouped themselves around it, and gradually grew up under its shadow. This is certainly true of Westminster. In course of time, round the monastery were erected a few houses, which at length grew into a small town; called in ancient writings "the town of Westminster." Another cause of its growth was the royal palace which for centuries nestled under the shadow of the noble Abbey; and, consequently, most of the chief nobility, as we have seen in our "progress" through the Strand and Whitehall, erected in its vicinity inns, or town houses, the sites of many of which still retain the names of their former owners. It may be added here that it was probably on account of the contiguity of the royal palace of Westminster to the monastery that the king was allowed the privilege of a separate entrance to the church.

In course of time Westminster became a place of some consideration; but it received its most distinguished honours from Henry VIII., who, on the dissolution of the Monastery of St. Peter, converted it into a bishopric, with a dean and twelve prebendaries, and appointed the whole county of Middlesex, except Fulham, which was to remain with the bishopric of London, to be its diocese. On this occasion Westminster became a city; for the making of which, according to Lord Chief Justice Coke, nothing more is required than for it to be the seat of episcopal power. It did not, however, as we have shown, long continue to enjoy this distinction, for it never had but one bishop, Thomas Thirleby, upon whose translation to Norwich, in 1550, Edward VI. dissolved the new bishopric, and its right to the epithet of city was thereby lost. However, Westminster has ever since continued to be considered as a city, and is so styled in our statutes.

It is observed with justice by Mr. Wood, in his "Ecclesiastical Antiquities of London," that Sebert, who founded the Cathedral of St. Paul, within the walls of the City of London, was no less the founder of the Benedictine church and monastery—our Rheims and St. Denis in one—outside the same. He apparently rejects the story of St. Peter being the actual founder of the first consecrated fabric that arose upon the island of Thorney; but he gives the following legend:—

"The night before the dedication, it is related that St. Peter, in an unknown garb, showed himself to a fisher on the Surrey side, and bade him carry him over, with promise of reward. The fisher complied, and saw his fare enter the new-built Church of Sebert, that suddenly seemed on fire, with a glow that enkindled the firmament. Meantime the heavenly host scattered sound and fragrance, the fisher of souls wrote upon the pavement the alphabet in Greek and Hebrew, in twelve places anointed the walls with the holy oil, lighted the tapers, sprinkled the water, and did all else needful for the dedication of a church.

"These circumstances, and the signs following, were pondered on by St. Edward, last but one of our Saxon kings, who earnestly desired to repair that ruined monastery, and restore it to honour and splendour. The Pope approved the plan, and one of the most magnificent fabrics in Christendom was the result."

The building of the Abbey is, indeed, involved in mists too dense for the sun of antiquarian research to penetrate. The period of its erection, previous to Edward the Confessor's days, will not probably ever be discovered. "In this venerable building," writes Mr. Allen, in his "History of London and Westminster," "lived Sulgardus, a monk who devoted his leisure hours to writing a history of it. He has, indeed, according to custom, used but little ceremony with St. Peter, or the choir of heaven, for he pressed both into his service in order to make the consecration of this church hallowed and sublime."

Widmore, who, in writing his history, had access to every species of record belonging to the Abbey, fixed the foundation between the years 730 and 740, but is unable to say who is the founder. Allen, in his version of the legend of St. Peter and the fisherman who ferried him over the water, adds that some of the monkish writers improved upon the vision of Wulsinus by asserting that Peter rewarded the fisherman "with a miraculous draught of salmon," assuring him and his fellow-watermen that they should never want fish, "provided they would give one-tenth of what they caught to the newly-consecrated church." For several centuries, it is asserted, this tale was implicitly believed, and during that time the monks of Westminster doubtless fared sumptuously on the offerings of the Thames fishermen. "What was at first solicited as a benevolence in course of time was claimed as a right, so that in the year 1231 the monks brought an action at law against the priest of Rotherhithe, in which they compelled him to give up to them one-half of the tithe of all salmon caught in his parish."

Though nothing can with certainty be concluded from these fictions, it may nevertheless be presumed that both the ancient church dedicated to St. Paul in London, and this dedicated to St. Peter in Westminster, were among the earliest works of the first converts to Christianity in Britain. With their religion the Christians introduced a new manner of building, and "their great aim seems to have been, by affecting loftiness and ornament, to bring the plain simplicity of the Pagan architects into contempt." Sebert has been generally accredited with having conducted the building of the earliest church on this site, or, at all events, with having completed that part of it which now forms the eastern angle. From Sebert's death up to the time of Edward the Confessor, the Abbey, it appears, remained a monument of the sacrilegious fury of the times, and suffered greatly from the ravages of the Danes. King Edgar, through the influence of Dunstan, is said to have effected some restoration of the fabric, and to have appropriated it to the order of St. Benedict, establishing there twelve monks, with endowments sufficient for their maintenance.


About the middle of the eleventh century Edward the Confessor resolved thoroughly to restore the building, or, as some authors state, to recon struct it entirely, in the Saxon style. For this purpose large sums of money were given to the monks by the king; and his nobles, like true courtiers, copied his example. The plan of this building was that of a cross, which naturally was the pattern and type for church-building throughout the kingdom. On the completion of the church, Edward determined to have it consecrated in the most solemn and impressive manner, and with that intent summoned all the bishops and nobles in the kingdom to be witnesses of the ceremony, which took place on Holy Innocents' Day (December 28), 1065. Edward, in order to ingratiate himself with his clergy, not only confirmed to the monks all former endowments, but granted them a new charter, in which he recited the account of St. Peter's consecration, the ravages of the Danes, and the motives which prompted him to restore the sacred edifice to its former splendour, and endow it with more ample powers and privileges. This charter concluded with solemn imprecations against all who should, in time to come, dare to deface or to demolish any part of the building, or to infringe the rights of the priesthood. Within a few days after the consecration of the new Abbey Church, on the 4th or 5th of January, 1066, Edward the Confessor breathed his last, in the Palace hard by, and was buried before the high altar of the new structure.


During the time of Abbot Laurentius, about the year 1159, extensive repairs were made in the out-buildings of the monastery, which had been destroyed by fire. In 1220 Henry III. laid the first stone of a chapel, which was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, and was called "The Lady Chapel." Its site was that whereon now stands Henry VII.'s Chapel. Queen Eleanor, wife of Henry III., was crowned here with much splendour and liberality on the part of the citizens of London, in spite of the discredit and unpopularity of her husband, who not long afterwards granted a large sum towards rebuilding the Abbey Church. This, according to Matthew Paris, was in 1245. Speaking of this sovereign, under that date, the old chronicler says:—"The king in the same year commanded that the Church of St. Peter, at Westminster, should be enlarged, and the tower with the eastern part overthrown, to be built anew and more handsome, at his own charge, and fitted to the residue or western part." For this purpose, Henry appropriated a considerable sum to the church, and in 1246 "the sum of £2,591, due from the widow of one David of Oxford, a Jew, was assigned by him to that use."

In 1247, if we may trust the statement of a writer in Neale and Brayley's "History of Westminster Abbey," "on the day of the translation of Edward the Confessor, a vessel of blood, which, in the preceding year, had been sent to the King by the Knights Templars and Hospitallers in the Holy Land, and was attested by Robert, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, to have trickled from our Saviour's wounds at His crucifixion, was presented with great ceremony to this church."

On the 13th of October, 1269, the new church, of which the eastern part, with the choir and transepts, appears to have been at that time completed, was first opened for divine service; and on the same day, writes Dart, from "Wyke's Chronicles," the body of Edward the Confessor, "that before laye in the syde of the quere, where the monkes nowe singe," was removed with great solemnity "into ye chapell, at the backe of the hygh aulter, and there layde in a ryche shryne."

It is impossible to ascertain how far the building had progressed at the time of Henry's death, in 1272. According to Fabian, the choir was not actually finished till some thirteen years later. A short time previous to the rebuilding of the church, Abbot Richard de Crokesley had erected a chapel near the north door, and dedicated it to St. Edmund. This was taken down with the rest by Henry III. Not long afterwards the beautiful mosaic pavement before the high altar was laid; it was the gift of Abbot Ware, who died in 1283, and was buried under it.

In 1297 the Abbey was considerably damaged by a fire which broke out in the lesser hall in the king's palace adjoining. In the succeeding century great additions were made to the fabric by Abbots Langham and Litlington; the latter, says Widmore, quoting from the records, "built the present college hall, the kitchen, the Jerusalem Chamber, the abbot's house (now the Deanery), the bailiff's, the cellarer's, the infirmarer's, and the sacrist's houses, the malt-house (afterwards used as a dormitory for the King's Scholars), and the adjoining tower, the wall of the infirmary garden, and also finished the south and west sides of the cloisters." Abbot Litlington died in the reign of Richard II. It is hardly necessary to add that the Edwardian era was the culminating period of Gothic or pointed architecture.

In 1378 the right of sanctuary possessed by the Abbey was for the first time violated, and the church itself made the scene of a most atrocious murder. It appears that, during one of the campaigns of the Black Prince, two esquires, Frank de Haule and John Schakell, had taken prisoner a Spanish (or, according to Pennant, a French) count. He had, however, a powerful friend at court, in the person of John of Gaunt. The two English captors refused to part with so valuable a prize; and John of Gaunt at once imprisoned them in the Tower, whence they made their escape, and took refuge at Westminster. They were pursued by Sir Allan Boxhull, Constable of the Tower, and Sir Ralph de Ferrers, with fifty armed men. De Haule and Schakell, it is supposed, had fled not merely into the Abbey, but into the choir of the church, while the mass was being celebrated. The deacon had just uttered the words of the Gospel of the day—"If the good man of the house had known what time the thief would come"—when the clash of arms was heard, and the pursuers, regardless of the time or the place, suddenly burst in upon the service. Schakell succeeded in escaping, but Haule was intercepted. He fled round the choir twice, with his enemies hacking at him as he ran; and, pierced with twelve wounds, he sank dead at the prior's stall, close by the north side of the entrance of the choir. His servant and one of the monks fell with him. He was regarded as a martyr to the injured right of the Abbey, and obtained the honour (at that time unusual) of burial within its walls—the first who was laid, so far as we know, in the south transept; to be followed a few years later by Geoffrey Chaucer, who was interred at his feet. A brass effigy and a long epitaph, till within the last century, marked the stone where he lay, and another inscription was engraved on the stone where he fell. The Abbey was shut up for four months. Even the sitting of the King's Parliament was suspended, lest its assembly should be polluted by sitting within the desecrated precincts; and the aggressors were excommunicated by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

During the reign of Richard II. the rebuilding of the western part of the church was carried out; and Abbot Estency, who died in 1498, contributed largely towards finishing it, and made the great west window. Abbot Islip made many additions to the fabric, but the nave remained in an unfinished state till the beginning of the last century, when Sir Christopher Wren completed the two western towers.

The first stone of the magnificent Chapel of Henry VII., at the eastern end of the Abbey Church, was laid in 1502, during the government of Abbot Islip; it was erected on the site of two chapels, dedicated respectively to the Virgin Mary and to St. Erasmus, which had been pulled down to make room for the new fabric; and, like its predecessor, when completed, it was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. It was designed by Henry VII. as a burying-place for himself and his successors, and he expressly enjoined in his will that none but those of the blood royal should be inhumed therein.

Henry VII. by his will left his funeral to the discretion of his executors, only charging them to avoid "dampnable pompe and outrageous superfluities." As he requests that the chapel should be finished as soon as possible after his decease, if not then completed, and particularly mentions that the windows were to be glazed with stories, images, arms, badges, and cognisances, according to the designs given by him to the prior of St. Bartholomew's—and that the walls, doors, windows, vaults, and statues, within and without, should be adorned with arms and badges—it may be concluded that much remained to be done in the year 1509, as he died within a month after the date of the will. He ordered that his body should be interred before the high altar, with that of his wife, and that the tomb should be made of touchstone, with niches, and statues of his guardian saints in copper gilt, the inscription to be confined merely to name and dates.

That his soul might rest in peace, Henry requested 10,000 masses should be said in the monastery, London and its neighbourhood, for its repose—"1,500 in honour of the Trinity, 2,500 in honour of the five wounds of our Lord Jesus Christ, 2,500 for the five joys of our Lady, 450 in honour of the nine orders of Angels, 150 in honour of the patriarchs, 600 to that of the twelve apostles, and 2,300 to the honour of all saints," and all these to be sung in one short month after his decease! He likewise directed that a statue of himself, kneeling, three feet in height from the knees, should be carved in wood, representing him in armour, with a sword and spurs, and holding the crown of Richard III. won by him at Bosworth Field. The figure was to be plated with fine gold, and the arms of England and France enamelled on it. A tablet of silver gilt supporting it, enamelled with black letters, "Rex Henricus Septimus," was to be placed on the shrine of St. Edward, to whom, with St. Mary and Almighty God, he dedicated the statue. He also gave in trust to the abbot and convent £2,000 to be distributed in charity, and 500 marks to the finishing of the church.

How far Henry's directions regarding his funeral were carried out may be gleaned from Malcolm's account of the ceremony. He says: "On the 9th of May, 1509, the body of Henry VII. was placed in a chariot, covered with black cloth of gold, which was drawn by five spirited horses, whose trappings were of black velvet, adorned with quishions of gold. The effigies of his Majesty lay upon the corpse, dressed in his regal habiliments. The carriage had suspended on it banners of arms, titles, and pedigrees. A number of prelates preceded the body, who were followed by the deceased king's servants; after it were nine mourners. Six hundred men bearing torches surrounded the chariot.

"The chariot was met in St. George's Fields [he died at Windsor] by all the priests and clergy of London and its neighbourhood; and at London Bridge by the Lord Mayor, aldermen, and common council, in black. To render this awful scene sublimely grand, the way was lined with children, who held burning tapers: those, with the flashes of great torches, whose red rays, darting in every direction upon glittering objects, and embroidered copes, showing the solemn pace, uplifted eyes, and mournful countenances, must have formed a noble picture. The slow, monotonous notes of the chaunt, mixed with the sonorous tones of the great bells, were not less grateful to the ear. When the body had arrived at St. Paul's, which was superbly illuminated, it was taken from the chariot and carried to the choir, where it was placed beneath a hearse arrayed with all the accompaniments of death. A solemn mass and dirge were then sung, and a sermon preached by the Bishop of Rochester. It rested all night in the church. On the following day the procession recommenced in the same manner, except that Sir Edward Howard rode before, on a fine charger, clothed with drapery on which was the king's arms.

"We will now suppose him removed by six lords from his chariot to the hearse prepared for him, formed by nine pillars, set full of burning tapers, enclosed by a double railing; view him placed under it, and his effigies on a rich pall of gold; close to him the nine mourners; near them knights bearing banners of saints, and surrounded by officers of arms. The prelates, abbot, prior, and convent, and priests, in measured paces, silently taking their places; when, breaking through the awful pause, Garter King-at-Arms cried, with an audible voice, 'Pray for the soul of the noble prince, Henry the Seventh, late king of this realm.' A deep peal from the organ and choir answers in a chaunt of placebo and the dirge; the sounds die away, and with them the whole assembly retires."

On the 16th of January, 1539–40, this Abbey was surrendered to Henry VIII. by Abbot Boston and twenty-four of the monks, and immediately dissolved. Here the king was married to Anne of Cleves, whom he soon afterwards divorced. After its short-lived career as a bishopric, under Dr. Thirleby, during the reigns of Henry VIII. and Edward VI., on the accession of Queen Mary, the monastery was again restored to the order of St. Benedict, which was one of the most wealthy, powerful, and learned in England before the Reformation.

Westminster was the second mitred abbey in the kingdom, and its abbot, before the Reformation, had a seat among the peers of Parliament; but it would astonish most readers, even devout Roman Catholics, to learn that at this day there are in existence four "reverend" or "very reverend" gentlemen who style themselves the "Abbots" of Westminster, St. Albans, Bury St. Edmunds, and Glastonbury respectively! How amused Dean Stanley must be, while holding in his hands the keys of the Abbey of St. Peter's, Westminster, to know that he has a rival who would gladly relieve him of them!

Mr. Wood, in his "Ecclesiastical Antiquities of London," draws the following picture of the Abbey in the days of its glory and pride, in the age of the Plantagenets:—

"The abbot took his meals with the guests and strangers. When these were not numerous, the abbot might invite to his table any he pleased of the community. Some of the seniors were, however, left in the refectory to keep order. When a guest was announced, the abbot and brethren went to receive him. They first prayed with him, and then gave him the kiss of peace, and either inclined the head or made a protestation. The guests were then conducted into the church. After this the superior, or one to whom he gave authority, sat with the guests and read to them a portion of Scripture. The abbot sat at table with the guests, except on fast-days. He gave water to the guests for their hands, and, with the assistance of the community, washed their feet. Then was said, 'Suscepimus, Deus, misericordiam tuam in medio templi tui.' A kitchen was set apart for the abbot and the guests. Two of the community were appointed annually to serve in this kitchen. The apartment for the guests was furnished with a sufficient number of beds for their use, and was under the special charge of one of the community. None of the community, unless under a command to do so, spoke to or associated with the guests. If an encounter with them was unavoidable, they were passed with a salutation and a request for their prayers.

"The porter was the chief domestic of a Benedictine monastery. He had a cell near the gate, and, being himself chosen for years and discretion, had a younger man as his companion. The monks served weekly, by turns, in the kitchen and at table. On leaving this service, both those who relinquished and those who took up this task washed the feet of the community. On Saturdays all the plates were cleaned and given to the cellarer. After refection or dinner, which, from Easter till Holy Rood Day, was at twelve o'clock, the meridian or noon-sleep was permitted. From Holy Rood till Lent, there was reading from prime till eight o'clock, when tierce followed; and after that, labour till nones, when there was dinner. Even during the summer dinner was at nones (three o'clock) on Wednesdays and Fridays. There was silence during dinner, unbroken save by the reading of Scripture by one of the community appointed for a week for the purpose. There was a collation or spiritual lecture every evening before night-song, after which there was silence. The monks rose two hours after midnight to say office; and every week the Psalter was sung through. All left the church at a sign from the abbot. Lamps were kept burning in the dormitory. The community slept in their habits, with their girdles on."

The same writer also remarks: "The Abbey Church of Westminster was the house of prayer, and served no other purpose. Here, when the divine office was ended, the monks bowed to the altar and retired in profound silence, in order that the quiet of any of the community who desired to continue his devotions in private might be undisturbed. If any of them sought to devote his leisure to prayer he entered the church quietly, without pride or ostentation, not with a loud noise, but with tears and fervour of soul, as bidden by the rule of St. Benedict."

According to Tanner, Fosbrooke, and other writers on mediæval monasticism, the habit of the Benedictine monks was a black loose coat, or rather gown, of stuff reaching down to their heels, with a cowl or hood of the same, and a scapulary; and under that another habit of white flannel, equal in size. From the colour of their outer habits the Benedictines were generally known as the Black Monks.