Friday, November 20, 2015

Where history brushes my cheek

by Anna Belfrage

Westminster Abbey,
Chapter house by Aiwok, 2012
There are few places in the world I am so in love with as Westminster Abbey. I recall my first visit there – ages ago – when you were still allowed to ramble around as you pleased, instead of like now, following a preordained route. But as no London visit of mine is complete without a session in the abbey, I will obediently follow the signs, stopping at my own personal highlights - like the magnificent chapter house.

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
On the eve of its dedication, or so the story goes, an anonymous traveller asked a fisherman to carry him across to the finished church. The fisherman – Edric to his friends – agreed, but chose to remain in his boat when his passenger stepped ashore. When the stranger entered the church, heavenly light poured down from above, the sky rang with the sounds of angels singing, and poor Edric was terrified. Understandably, one would think. The stranger returned to the boat, asked Edric for something to eat, but our fisherman had been so stunned by the spectacle he’d just witnessed that he’d forgotten to cast his net. “Do so now,” the stranger urged, and Edric did, bringing aboard the largest catch in his life. The traveller smiled, told him to share the fish with the bishop and revealed himself as St Peter before, I presume, stepping back into invisibility as gracefully as he’d stepped out of it.

Edric and his fish, La Estoire de Seint Aedward le Roi
Sadly, historical proof to support the above is lacking. In fact, a lot of the documents pointing to an early church on Thorney Island are 11th century forgeries produced by skilled Westminster monks eager to prove their abbey was the earliest of all Christian abbeys in England. There was a major fight ongoing between Glastonbury and Westminster, both religious houses claiming to be the oldest and therefore most important site. Of course, once Glastonbury produced the story of Joseph of Arimathea, come to England with the Holy Grail and a staff that was to take root and become the Glastonbury thorn, they sort of won that particular dog-fight…

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
Edward was the son of Ethelred, the Saxon king deposed by Sven Tveskägg and his son. He’d grown up mostly in Normandy, and must often have despaired of ever becoming king. Tradition has it that Edward had promised to make a pilgrimage to St Peter’s grave in Rome should he regain his kingdom – and that when he was finally crowned, he found himself unable to fulfil that vow as his absence could result in him losing his crown. A compromise was found: instead of taking a very, very long walk to Rome, Edward was absolved from his vow if he instead were to build – or enlarge and restore – a monastery dedicated to St Peter. Somewhat coincidental, all this, seeing as just opposite the royal palace in Westminster was a monastery dedicated to…ta-daa…St Peter.

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
Twenty years after the building work started, the church was sufficiently finished to be consecrated. It was 1065, and while successful in his church-building endeavours, Edward had failed dismally at another royal obligation: that of producing an heir. Maybe his piety made it difficult for him to indulge in carnal relations with his wife. Or maybe the fact that Queen Edith was Godwin of Wessex’s daughter had Edward approaching her with caution – his and Godwin’s relationship was stormy at best. Whatever the case, there was no son, no daughter, and Edward was sixty – a considerable age for the times.

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
Harold was destined to be a brave, tragic and unlucky king. Portents in the sky, the rumours that he’d made a binding promise to support Duke William of Normandy’s claim to the English throne, plus the treachery of baby brother Tostig, made his a very shaky throne indeed. And while he managed to defeat Tostig and his Norse companions, he lost his life in the Battle of Hastings, supposedly shot through the eye by a Norman arrow. Saxon England had cause to weep and tear their clothes. Norman William, however, decided it was time for pageantry – and where better to drive home his victory than in the church built by Edward?

William's coronation, Matthew Paris
On Christmas Day 1066, William was crowned king of England in Westminster Abbey, the coronation chair strategically placed on Edward’s tomb. Inside the church, the Saxon nobles loudly acclaimed the new king – what else could they do, what with the circle of armed men that surrounded the church? Outside the church, those same armed men feared the shouts from within was a sign of treachery, and set about burning as much of the nearby surroundings as they could. A rather odd behaviour, one thinks, as William was inside the church with the potentially rebelling Saxons…

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
Whenever I set foot inside this ancient building. I see them all, from pious Edward through gallant Harold to the determined William. In my head, I see Henry II come striding, power and energy surging round him. There is Richard and John, the rather ineffectual if artistic Henry III, Edward Longshanks and his beloved Eleanor. There is Edward III, surrounded by his wife and many children, to the side stands handsome Richard II, and just beyond the choir I catch a glimpse of Henry Tudor, wretched and bereaved now that his wife is dead. I see them all, in this place that all of them at some point in time visited, prayed in or maybe even despaired in. I see them all, so lost in my own imagination I only notice I’m holding up the traffic when one of the wardens gently moves me aside. From the expression on his face, I am not the only one to be so overcome. In Westminster Abbey, history brushes my cheek. No wonder I always have to go back!


Anna Belfrage is the author of the acclaimed  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.

Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. The first instalment, 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.


  1. Thanks for "taking me there" fascinating how the church 'captured' Europe.

  2. Wonderful post Anna. A vivid description.

  3. Two things Anna: Harold II was crowned the day after Edward's burial and no, he wasn't killed by an arrow in the eye - he was hacked to death by four of William's cronies. Because of the Conquest it is usually forgotten that Harold was the first King to be crowned in the Abbey - and I think it is about time that this was put right. He was England's legitimate and legal King, William was a foreign invader who had no right to the throne, except through the power of greed. But OK, I admit, I'm biased! :-)
    I haven't been inside Westminster Abbey for a long time - I'm afraid I refuse to pay the disgracefully high entry fee!

  4. I think you missed the "supposedly" :) And I never said Harold wasn't crowned in the Abbey...


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