My Favourite Buildings…Westminster Abbey
“The general aspect of this structure is grand in the extreme—perhaps not to be surpassed by any Gothic edifice in the kingdom; whilst in its details it presents a rich field of beautiful variety, almost every period of Gothic architecture being illustrated in one part or other.”
Walter Thornbury, ‘Westminster Abbey: The Church Building’ (1878)
There are few buildings in England that are as intertwined with England’s history as Westminster Abbey…
Since 1066, all our monarchs, excepting Edward V and Edward VIII, have been crowned in Westminster Abbey and since 1308, they have sat in the Abbey’s King Edward’s Chair for the ceremony. Then there is the succession of 16 royal weddings it has hosted from Henry I’s in 1100 to Prince William’s in 2011. It is also holds the tombs of 17 monarchs and The Unknown Warrior, the latter being the only tomb in the abbey on which it is forbidden to walk. And this just scratches the surface. The result, though, of all this history and the sublime architecture wrapped around it (the pendant fan vault ceiling of the Henry VII Chapel is spectacular) is that the exterior of this iconic landmark can often be taken for granted.
Although this has been the site of religious institutions for over a millennium – since around 960 AD -, the building we know today dates from 1245 when Henry III pulled down the eastern part of the 11th century Abbey and the rebuilding introduced England to the Gothic architecture that had developed in France. Here are some of my don’t-miss highlights:
The West Front
The West Front took shape over nearly 300 years. While the original – and very Gothic – tower (pictured above) was constructed during the 15th C., it was not until 1745, and the less than harmonious involvement of both Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmore, that the two iconic Portland stone ‘extensions’ were added (below) to a height of 225’.
Henry VII’s chapel
This exquisite addition to the Abbey was commissioned by Henry VII in the closing years of his reign and is the last great masterpiece of English medieval architecture in the Perpendicular style. Costing c.£12,000,000 in today’s money, the three principle building materials are Caen stone, Portland stone and tuffeau limestone from the Loire Valley. No fewer than 15 kings and queens are buried beneath that spectacular fan-vaulted ceiling.
The North Transept
The combination of Gothic arches, the large rose window, soaring pinnacles and text-book flying buttresses make this one of the most beautiful and imposing entrances to be found just about anywhere.
My final highlight is the most striking reminder of the Abbey’s monastic past – the cloisters. Begun in the C. 13th by Henry III and finished in the late C.14th, they offer the most tranquil setting in which to contemplate this great building
The Abbey, though, is not just a record of our past, it is very much of our present and future. Since its inception, architects have argued over whether to conserve, restore or rebuild – arguments that have involved the likes of Sir George Gilbert Scott and Sir Edwin Lutyens every bit as much as Wren and Hawksmore. William Morris’ short essay on the elective and enforced work done to the Abbey remains one of the most interesting explorations of the restoration debate that lies at the heart of our heritage work. You can read it HERE. And building continues – a new Gothic access tower with a lift has been designed by the abbey architect and Surveyor of the Fabric, Ptolemy Dean. The new galleries it leads to will open in 2018.