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UK - London - Westminster: Westminster Abbey - West Front Towers

The Collegiate Church of St Peter, Westminster, which is almost always referred to as Westminster Abbey, is a mainly Gothic church, on the scale of a cathedral (and indeed often considered one). It is the traditional place of coronation and burial site for English monarchs.


Legend has it that a shrine was first founded in 616 on the present site, then known as Thorn Ey (Thorn Island) after a fisherman on the River Thames saw a vision of Saint Peter. In the 960s or early 970s Saint Dunstan, assisted by King Edgar planted a community of Benedictine monks here. The stone Abbey was built around 1045–1050 by King Edward the Confessor, who had selected the site for his burial, and was consecrated on December 28, 1065, immediately before the Confessor's funeral. It was the site of the last Saxon coronation of his successor King Harold. The Abbot and learned monks, with close proximity to the Palace of Westminster became a powerful force in the centuries after the Norman Conquest.


The Abbey became the coronation site of Norman kings, but none were buried there until Henry III rebuilt it in Anglo-French Gothic style as a shrine to honour Edward the Confessor and as setting for his own tomb, under the highest Gothic nave in England. The work continued between 1245-1517 and was largely finished by the architect Henry Yevele in the reign of King Richard II. Henry VII added a Perpendicular style chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary in 1503 (known as the Henry VII Chapel). Henry VIII had assumed direct royal control in 1539 and granted the Abbey cathedral status by charter in 1540, simultaneously issuing letters patent establishing the diocese of Westminster and sparing it from dissolution. Westminster was a cathedral only until 1550. The expression "robbing Peter to pay Paul" may arise from this period when money meant for the Abbey, which was dedicated to St Peter, was diverted to the treasury of St Paul's Cathedral.


The Abbey was restored to the Benedictines under the Catholic Queen Mary, but they were again ejected under Queen Elizabeth I in 1559. In 1579, Elizabeth re-established Westminster as a "Royal Peculiar" — a church responsible directly to the sovereign, rather than to a diocesan bishop — and made it the Collegiate Church of St Peter. It suffered damage during the turbulent 1640s, when it was attacked by Puritan iconoclasts, but was again protected by its close ties to the state during the Commonwealth period.


The abbey's two western towers (pictured here) were built between 1722 and 1745 by Nicholas Hawksmoor, constructed from Portland stone to an early example of a Gothic Revival design. Further rebuilding and restoration occurred in the 19th century under Sir George Gilbert Scott.


Until the 19th century, Westminster was the third seat of learning in England, after Oxford and Cambridge. It was here that the first third of the King James Bible Old Testament and the last half of the New Testament were translated. The New English Bible was also put together here in the 20th century.


Since the coronations in 1066 of both King Harold and William the Conqueror, all English and British monarchs (except Lady Jane Grey, although it is highly debatable whether she was, either in theory or practice, the Queen of England; and Edward V and Edward VIII, who did not have coronations) have been crowned in the Abbey. St Edward's Chair, the throne on which British sovereigns are seated at the moment of coronation, is housed within the Abbey; from 1296 to 1996 the chair also housed the Stone of Scone upon which the kings of Scotland are crowned, but pending another coronation the Stone is now kept in Scotland. According to H.V. Morton's "In Search of London," a ghostly monk is said to appear in the Abbey on the eve of a coronation. The book states that the monk was last seen prior to the coronation of George VI in 1937. (The book was published in 1951; it is unknown if the monk was seen prior to Queen Elizabeth II's coronation in 1953.)


Henry III rebuilt the Abbey in honour of the Royal Saint Edward the Confessor whose relics were placed in a shrine in the sanctuary. Henry III was interred nearby in a superb chest tomb with effigial monument, as were many of the Plantagenet kings of England. Subsequently, most Kings and Queens of England were buried here, although Henry VIII and Charles I, and all monarchs after George II are buried at St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle. In 2005 the original ancient burial tomb of Edward the Confessor was discovered, beneath the 1268 Cosmati mosaic pavement, in front of the High Altar. A series of royal tombs dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries was also discovered using ground-penetrating radar. Aristocrats were buried in side chapels and monks and people associated with the Abbey were buried in the Cloisters and other areas.


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Taken on November 9, 2006