The Founding of Westminster Abbey
This is an important week for Westminster Abbey with two special celebrations taking place in honour of the Abbey’s great history. Yesterday marked the Translation of St. Edward the Confessor which celebrated the day, in 1163, that St Edward the Confessor’s body was moved or ‘translated’ to a Shrine in the Church he had built on this site in Westminster. On Sunday the Abbey will celebrate the Feast of Dedication marking the dedication of the present church in 1269; this feast will celebrate the church buildings as a house of God and a place of prayer.
To mark Edwardtide, we take a look back at the Abbey’s very beginnings over a thousand years ago. It is thought that Westminster Abbey was founded in 960, as it is at this point that sources tell us that a monastery was situated here; however, there are legends suggesting that a church was on this site even earlier than that.
The site on which the Abbey is built was originally an island known as Thorney Island (coming from the Anglo Saxon Name Thorn-ey which means Bramble Island). It sat surrounded by marshland where the River Tyburn met the River Thames, but this can no longer be seen following the embankment of the Thames. The land has now risen and dried out, and the River Tyburn has been built over and does not flow in the open air. Due to its proximity to the rivers and the presence of natural springs it was a good place to form a settlement, and it is thought that the Romans created a temple here for the god Apollo. There are multiple stories which follow on from this that tell of churches being built here including the Saxon king of Essex founding a church following his conversion to Christianity.
We can confidently say that in 960 the Bishop of London, Dunstan, brought twelve Benedictine monks from Glastonbury to found a monastery at Westminster and this began the Benedictine tradition of the Abbey. For a hundred years the site remained like this until the reign of Edward the Confessor, who sought to build a noble church fit to be the burial place of kings. Sources suggest that he was driven to do this as recompense for not being able to fulfil a vow he made to make a pilgrimage to Rome to pay homage to St Peter. He was released from the vow by the Pope on the condition that he built a church honouring St Peter in his own lands. Edward never lived to see his Abbey fully finished as he became ill around Christmas 1065. He asked for the church to be consecrated on 28th December as it was near completion, just before his death on 5th January 1066. He was buried the next day in a shrine before the high altar.
Edward the Confessor’s church lasted for nearly two hundred years before Henry III decided to replace it with an even more resplendent building. The church we see here today is primarily that of Henry III, although further additions have been built in the 16th and 18th centuries; a magnificent building with an incredible history.
To find out more about the Abbey's history you can read any of our wonderful guides which are available by clicking here.