Even in the profane twenty-first century, it is difficult to overstate the importance of Westminster Abbey. As the coronation church for every English, and subsequently British, monarch since 1066 (bar the ill-fated Edward V and the conflicted Edward VIII), no other building has enjoyed such an integral and enduring relationship with a nation-state and its successive ruling dynasties. Britain’s de facto national church and mausoleum houses the remains of seventeen monarchs, eight prime ministers, and a wealth of national figures of military, cultural, and scientific repute, from Robert Adam to Isaac Newton. It has played host to countless events of historical importance, including the first performance of Handel’s Zadok the Priest for George II’s coronation in 1727; the interment of the Unknown Warrior in 1920; and perhaps most important of all (for the younger generation, at least) that television wedding to end all television weddings, the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011.
During these ceremonial set pieces, the abbey becomes a magnificent stage, on which English, British, and Commonwealth identity is performed, reflected upon, and subtly transmuted according to the demands of the day. But how many of the 1.3 million people who visited the abbey in 2018 paused to consider how all this came to be? How did a structure built by Benedictine monks and rebuilt by English kings manage to withstand both the Reformation and the Interregnum to become a kind of modern-day British Valhalla? Why has this ostensibly Anglican church found space within its walls for the mortal remains of both a medieval saint, Edward the Confessor, and an ex-Christian anti-hero, Charles Darwin? Beset by the throng of day-trippers elbowing around the irksome one-way route, the average visitor to the abbey often engages in a whistle-stop game of coronation-counting and tomb-spotting. While there is, of course, nothing wrong with this sort of sightseeing (which dates back to at least the sixteenth century in Westminster’s case and provides a vital source of income), the abbey’s popularity has made it increasingly difficult for the curious-minded punter to gain a deeper understanding of this building’s remarkable and paradoxical history from visiting alone.
Happily, however, the superb new Westminster Abbey: A Church in History, commissioned by the Dean and Chapter to commemorate the seven-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of the consecration of the third and present church on the site on October 13, 1269, offers solace for the beleaguered tourist, worshipper, scholar, and interested bystander alike. The principal strength of this lavishly illustrated book is its ability to do equal justice to each element of the abbey’s complex history, from the consecration of the first church in the Late Anglo-Saxon period on the remote and marshy Thorney Island two miles southwest of the City of London, through to its shifting relationship with an increasingly secular Britain in the present century. The book achieves this remarkable feat because it is more a collection of scholarly essays, authored by distinguished specialists on the periods and issues in question, than a guidebook or souvenir memento.
This holistic approach is laudable as it means that no prior knowledge of English and British history is required of the reader.
That said, for a collection of academic essays, this volume is perfectly coherent and readable, thanks to the skill of its contributors (Henry Newman, James G. Clark and Paul Binski, J. Mordaunt Crook, Diarmaid MacCulloch, Julia F. Merritt, Henry Summerson, and William Whyte) and editor, David Cannadine, who supplies an introduction and a chapter concerning the abbey in the twentieth century. The outgoing Dean of Westminster, The Very Reverend John Hall, also contributes a thoughtful prologue concerning the abbey’s continuing relevance to modern Britain. While the standard of the research (and commendable endnotes) is professional and scholarly, the book remains accessible to the non-specialist. The chapters are arranged chronologically, and the contributors eschew arcane jargon and theory in favor of a more traditional methodology focused, as the book’s title suggests, on situating the abbey’s history within a wider ecclesiastical, political, and cultural context. This holistic approach is laudable as it means that no prior knowledge of English and British history is required of the reader. And in line with other volumes in the Yale University Press stable, a glossary is provided at the rear for the ecclesiastical and architectural terminology, along with helpful lists of the kings and queens and abbots and deans from 959 to 2019.
The book is no dry institutional history. Its broad scope allows the contributors to probe the more intricate aspects of the abbey’s story. Binski and Clark’s two co-written chapters concerning the medieval period, for example, are particularly interesting on the abbey’s role in the development of parliamentary democracy. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Parliament met in the abbey’s Chapter House, before relocating to the Refectory in 1387 following complaints from the monks that the parliamentarians were damaging the tiled floor. Perhaps, as MacCulloch muses, the smell of monastic cooking was simply too much for MPs, as during Henry VIII’s reign Parliament moved to the Palace of Westminster and the House of Commons to the former St Stephen’s College. Although this building was destroyed during the fire of 1834, its layout, which derived from the chapel’s original sets of opposing choir stalls, informed the design of the current lower chamber. Winston Churchill later argued that the move to St Stephen’s was crucial to the development of a two-party system of parliamentary representation—of Government and Opposition—and, indeed, as Binski and Clark suggest, it is intriguing to speculate how Britain’s parliamentary system might have differed had the House of Commons continued to meet in the circular Chapter House.
MacCulloch’s entertaining chapter on the fateful sixteenth century explores how, following the Reformation under Henry VIII and Mary I’s short-lived Catholic recovery, the abbey finally gained its present intuitional identity as a Royal Peculiar (or church exempt from episcopal jurisdiction and subject only to the monarch). This immunity from Anglican hierarchy and dogma is the key to understanding the abbey’s idiosyncrasies and, in particular, its pronounced ecumenicism and curious stomach for atheism and secularism. The fact that the abbey is exempt from the Church of England’s formal ban on public acts of worship by people of different religions has made it the obvious venue for many multi-faith national commemorations, such as the recent services marking the anniversaries of Kristallnacht and the Srebrenica massacre as well as the annual Commonwealth Day Observance. That the abbey was willing to find space in 2018 for the ashes of the unshakable atheist Stephen Hawking further demonstrates its unique fitness for its role as a national mausoleum.
Above all, then, this book reveals Westminster Abbey’s uncanny knack for survival and regeneration.
The abbey remains dependent, however, on royal (and now Parliamentary) patronage. Coronations have often set the tone for a monarch’s reign and thereby the fortunes of the abbey. As Merritt shows in her chapter, William and Mary’s crowning in 1689, following the upheaval of the Glorious Revolution, was a solemn affair designed to emphasize dynastic continuity and legitimacy with “the reassuring balm of abbey ceremonial.” Much like the decidedly Low Church Queen Victoria, who took to the same Coronation Chair 148 years later, the Dutch prince disdained lavish ceremony and generally shunned the abbey for the remainder of his reign. In stark contrast, as Whyte notes, George IV’s coronation in 1821—a debauched affair featuring mock-Tudor costumes for all participants and a twenty-seven-foot-long train for the king’s robe—prefaced a much jollier approach to monarchy and enhanced prominence for the abbey.
This book also gives suitable attention to the role of the abbots and (following the Reformation) deans in adapting the abbey’s procedures and fabric so as to survive the vagaries of royal and political favor. The Victorian era, for example, saw the abbey lose its temporal estates (and chief source of income) to the Ecclesiastical Commission in return for a measly £20,000 annual stipend. Threatened by High and Low churchmen alike, and in dire need of major structural repair, it was, as Mordaunt Crook confirms, thanks in large part to the sturdy Broad Church leadership of Dean Stanley that the abbey survived at all during this difficult period. While the restoration work undertaken by George Gilbert Scott and J. L. Pearson during this era is not perhaps for medieval purists, it is entirely in keeping with the bold (unashamedly classical) spirit of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s earlier west towers (1745), not to mention the abbey’s latest architectural addition in the form of the outstanding Weston Tower (2018) by the abbey’s present Surveyor of the Fabric, Ptolemy Dean.
Above all, then, this book reveals Westminster Abbey’s uncanny knack for survival and regeneration. While debates over the role of both the monarchy and Church of England may loom in the abbey’s future, its status as Britain’s Valhalla is surely not in doubt. Indeed, this magnificent and comprehensive history of the abbey leaves one with fresh hope that this most extraordinary building will, in some form or another, remain at the heart of British politics and culture for at least another seven hundred and fifty years.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 5, on page 73
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