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Westminster Abbey (Collegiate Church of St Peter, Parliament Square) - part one
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Westminster Abbey (Collegiate Church of St Peter, Parliament Square) - part oneWestminster Abbey lies at the heart of English history. Monarchs of the nation for almost a millennium have come and gone through its doors and have been crowned and entombed within its walls. It owes its considerable importance to St Edward the Confessor, King of England from 1042 to 1066. He went to live at Westminster and decided to rebuild an existing Benedictine monastery of St Peter on a substantial scale, in accordance with the latest architectural ideas in Normandy, where he had been exiled for 25 years. He spent his later years in supervising the great project, and when he died, just days after the abbey's consecration, was buried in front of its high altar. For a king who was generally seen to have been weak, he came to have an extraordinary hold on his successors, as a symbol of legitimate royal authority, and in religious terms. He was acceptable both to the Normans, for William the Conqueror presented himself as Edward's legitimate successor, and to the English, for he was the last king of the ancient line of Wessex. Edward was canonized in 1161 and was enshrined two years later. In the 13th century, King Henry III rebuilt the whole church on Gothic lines - again in accordance with the latest architectural fashions in France - and erected a new and sumptuous shrine for St Edward, which was completed in 1269.

Westminster Abbey (Collegiate Church of St Peter, Parliament Square) - part one

Hawksmoor's familiar west towers, seen from Dean's Yard.

The most remarkable fact about the shrine is that it survives today with its relics intact. It is true that it was despoiled and dismantled at the Reformation, but St Edward's relics were not dishonored and the shrine was restored (albeit clumsily) under Mary Tudor. The abbey has been the coronation church of the monarchs of England since William the Conqueror, and from even earlier in the 11th century it was a royal burial church. Some of the most famous monarchs in English history are entombed here in monuments that are among the foremost works of sculpture and architecture of their times. No church in London can even begin to compete with Westminster Abbey in the number and quality of its monuments.

Although the Confessor transformed the status of Westminster Abbey, he was not its founder. A Benedictine abbey had existed in the 10th century, and it seems probable that it went back further, to the reign of King Offa. But this 'prehistory' palls before the role of the Confessor. From his time, Westminster was a principal Benedictine abbey in England, until all the monasteries were dissolved under King Henry VIII. In 1560, under Queen Elizabeth I, the church was permanently redesignated as the Collegiate Church of St Peter, ruled by a Dean and Chapter and under the direct authority of the monarch as Visitor

Westminster Abbey (Collegiate Church of St Peter, Parliament Square) - part one

The west front consists of Henry Yevele's west end of the nave, and Hawksmoor's 18th-century towers.

The abbey is built of Reigate stone, except for the east part - Henry Vll's chapel - which is of Huddleston stone. It needs to be remembered, however, that what the visitor sees today is an outer skin that is the result of countless restorations. Restoration has been almost continuous under a succession of eminent architects. The appearance of two prominent parts of the exterior has been greatly altered since the Middle Ages. The familiar west towers are largely the work of the 18th-century Baroque architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. The towers are notable for being so respectful of the design of the mediaeval nave. Secondly, the north transept front was substantially rebuilt by J. L. Pearson in the late 19th century, partly to his own designs. He was determined to be independent, an attitude shared by many eminent architects. (A 20th-century surveyor, Sir Walter Tapper, worked in alliance with an equally determined dean, William Foxley Norris, so that people spoke of decisions being taken by 'the Dean and Tapper').

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