|West view of Westminster Abbey|
The Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster, popularly known as Westminster Abbey, is a large, mainly Gothic church, in the City of Westminster, London, located just to the west of the Palace of Westminster. It is the traditional place of coronation and burial site for English, later British and later still (and currently) monarchs of the Commonwealth realms. The abbey is a Royal Peculiar and briefly held the status of a cathedral from 1540 to 1550.
Westminster Abbey is a collegiate church governed by the Dean and Chapter of Westminster, as established by Royal charter of Queen Elizabeth I in 1560, which created it as the Collegiate Church of St Peter Westminster and a Royal Peculiar under the personal jurisdiction of the Sovereign. The members of the Chapter are the Dean and four canons residentiary, assisted by the Receiver General and Chapter Clerk. One of the canons is also Rector of St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, and often holds also the post of Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons. In addition to the Dean and canons, there are at present two full-time minor canons, one is precentor, and the other is sacrist. The office of Priest Vicar was created in the 1970s for those who assist the minor canons.
Together with the clergy and Receiver General and Chapter Clerk, various lay officers constitute the college, including the Organist and Master of the Choristers, the Registrar, the Auditor, the Legal Secretary, the Surveyor of the Fabric, the Head Master of the Choir School, the Keeper of the Muniments and the Clerk of the Works, as well as 12 lay vicars, 10 choristers and the High Steward and High Bailiff. There are also 40 Queen’s Scholars who are pupils at Westminster School (the School has its own Governing Body). Those who are most directly concerned with liturgical and ceremonial matters are the two minor canons and the organist and Master of the Choristers.
According to a tradition first reported by Sulcard in about 1080, the Abbey was first founded in the time of Mellitus (d. 624), Bishop of London, on the present site, then known as Thorn Ey (Thorn Island); based on a late tradition that a fisherman called Aldrich on the River Thames saw a vision of Saint Peter near the site. This seems to be quoted to justify the gifts of salmon from Thames fishermen that the Abbey received in later years. In the present era, the Fishmonger’s Company still gives a salmon every year. The proven origins are that in the 960s or early 970s, Saint Dunstan, assisted by King Edgar, installed a community of Benedictine monks here.
Edward the Confessor starts rebuilding St. Peter’s Abbey
Between 1042 and 1052 King Edward the Confessor began rebuilding St Peter’s Abbey in order to provide himself with a royal burial church. It was the first church in England built in the Norman Romanesque style. It was not completed until around 1090 but was consecrated on 28 December 1065, only a week before the Confessor’s death on 5 January 1066. The next day he was buried in the church, and nine years later his wife Edith was buried alongside him. His successor, Harold II, was probably crowned in the Abbey, although the first documented coronation is that of William the Conqueror later the same year.
The only extant depiction of Edward’s abbey, together with the adjacent Palace of Westminster, is in the Bayeux Tapestry. Some of the lower parts of the monastic dormitory, an extension of the South Transept, survive in the Norman Undercroft of the Great School, including a door said to come from the previous Saxon abbey. Increased endowments supported a community increased from a dozen monks in Dunstan’s original foundation, up to a maximum about eighty monks, although there was also a large community of lay brothers who supported the Monastery’s extensive property and activities.