|Westminster Abbey, |
Chapter house by Aiwok, 2012
Now Westminster Abbey is not first and foremost a burial site of the famous – it is a church, built in testimony of deep faith. Two English kings were to spend the equivalent of a major fortune on this their favourite church, but the origins are far older than that. In fact, we probably have the Romans to thank for the original settlement on what was then known as Thorn Ey (Island of the brambles), a small patch of solid land in the marsh that abutted the northern shore of the Thames. You see, the Romans had a logistical problem: somehow they wanted to join up Watling Street with Dover Street, and the self-evident intersection was round Thorn Ey, where the Thames was fordable at low tide.
Anyway, time came and went, the tidal waters of the Thames lapped at the shores of little Thorney Island. To the west, the Roman settlement of Londinium had evolved into Lundenvic, and Thorney Island was ideal as a further outpost of civilisation, having natural springs for drinking water and being bordered by two streams (one of which was the now subterranean Tyburn) on which to transport whatever materials might be needed to build a house, a palace, a church – well, whatever. Obviously, the then inhabitants of Lundenvic found Thorney Island too suburban, too remote, how else to account for the fact that at the time of the Norman Conquest, there were only 25 houses on the Island. Or maybe they didn’t like the marshy surroundings…
As to the abbey, its roots are lost in antiquity. As per one legend, the Romans built a temple to Apollo on the present day site of the abbey. Out went the Romans, in came the barbarous Saxons, and the temple was razed to the ground, a forgotten ruin, no more, until King Sebert of Essex (a gentleman who lived in the 7th century) saw the light and decided to build a church on top of the Roman ruins to celebrate his conversion to Christianity.
|St Peter visiting the church, from La Estoire de Seint Aedward le Roi|
|Edric and his fish, La Estoire de Seint Aedward le Roi|
Back to Westminster: It is believed there was a small religious community already by the 8th century, but Danish raids probably destroyed what there was. After years of unrest, the 10th century saw the re-emergence of a strong Saxon – and Christian – kingdom. Under King Edgar, religion flourished, and a certain Dunstan – bishop of Worcester and London, soon to be Archbishop and a saint – founded Westminster with monks from the Benedictine community he’d started in Glastonbury. (And in view of the previous paragraph, this would indicate Glastonbury was first, wouldn’t it? Except that the monks some centuries down the line were rather bickering about the FIRST religious settlements on their sites, the ones before dear Dunstan.)
The 11th century ushered in a Danish dynasty and so Knut (Canute), son of Sven Tveskägg (Svein Forkbeard) became king of all of England in 1016. He rather liked Westminster, despite having issues with the temperamental tides of the Thames, so he decided to build a royal palace next door to the monastery. In doing so, Knut indirectly forged the first of several links that would forever tie the future abbey to the English royals. By then, Westminster had grown into one of the more important monasteries in England. Several years of royal patronage had resulted in a wealthy monastery, and an impressive collection of relics – among which figured parts of the True Cross – ensured a steady stream of eager pilgrims.
The Danish dynasty was to be one of the more short-lived in England. Knut died in 1035, his son Harold Harefoot became king by default as Knut’s named heir – Harold’s half-brother – Hårdeknut (Harthacnut) was stuck in Denmark due to political reasons. Eventually, Harold died of a sudden illness – some people saw this as divine justice, punishment for usurping his brother’s throne. Hårdeknut obviously agreed, as one of his first acts once he arrived in England was to exhume his half-brother’s recently buried body, decapitate it, and throw it in the Thames. Two years later, Hårdeknut was dead, and in 1043 the throne passed to Edward, known to posteriority as Edward the Confessor.
|Edward as per the Litlyngton Missal|
Other sources, such as the Vita Aedwardi, site somewhat more prosaic reasons for rebuilding the existing church at Westminster: the king wanted a grand burial place. Whatever the case, Edward immediately initiated his building project. By 1045, the work could begin in earnest, and Edward had every intention of building a permanent landmark, something that would inspire awe long after he was dead and gone. I think it is safe to say he succeeded.
The church Edward built was huge by those days’ standards. It was also built to an innovative design, the first cruciform church in England, further adorned by a huge lantern tower and turrets. It was, by all accounts, magnificent, and people gawked and exclaimed as stone by stone, the building rose towards the heavens, testament to Edward’s faith and unswerving determination to build one of the finest churches in Christendom.
|Westminster Abbey - on the Bayeux tapestry|
It was decided that the new church was to be consecrated on St Stephen’s Day in 1065. Accordingly, Edward celebrated Christmas in the nearby Westminster Palace. On Christmas Eve, Edward became ill. He managed to keep his condition secret for some days, but by the 27th he took to his bed, incapable of attending the impressive hallowing of his precious church. Two archbishops, a number of bishops and abbots went through with the consecration, at which a new list of relics were drawn up. The king himself had contributed with the Virgin Mary’s milk (and let’s not start thinking about how he got hold of that), hairs from St Peter’s beard and a broken jaw with three teeth that supposedly belonged to St Anastasia.
Neither the consecration nor the relics helped. Edward sank closer and closer to death, nominated his brother-in-law Harold as his successor, ordered that he be buried in his new church “in a place that will be shown to you”, and died on January 4th, 1066. That most momentous year in English history had, one could say, opened inauspiciously.
The day after his death, Edward was buried in front of the high altar of his new church, right under the lantern tower. That same day, Harold was crowned.
|Death of Harold|
|William's coronation, Matthew Paris|
Since that long gone December day, Westminster Abbey has seen the coronation of thirty-nine English monarchs and the burial of sixteen – plus an assortment of wives and children. And to this day, the heart of this mighty church is the chapel to St Edward the Confessor, built two centuries after Edward’s death by Henry III, the second royal builder of Westminster Abbey.
|Westminster Abbey, West facade, by Bede 735|
The Graham Saga. Set in 17th century Scotland, Virginia and Maryland, eight books tell the story of Matthew Graham and his wife, Alex Lind - two people who should never have met, not when she was born three centuries after him.
In the Shadow of the Storm, was published on November 1, 2015.
For more information about Anna and her books, please visit her website. If not on her website, Anna can mostly be found on her blog.