A British Treasure: Westminster Abbey

Larger Than Life: Art that inspires us through the ages
March 28, 2021 Updated: March 29, 2021

The hallowed ground of Westminster Abbey holds a unique place in British history. It’s where coronations occur and the fallen and the famous rest and are remembered: namely, the Grave of the Unknown Warrior honoring all those who died in military conflict, with memorials to William Shakespeare, Sir Winston Churchill, William Blake, the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, and Rudyard Kipling.

Charles Dickens, Sir Isaac Newton, and George Frideric Handel are all buried there, too, to name a few. It’s the site of every English sovereign’s coronation since William the Conqueror in 1066.

The abbey was founded as a Benedictine monastery in 960 and then rebuilt in 1065 by Edward the Confessor, the Anglo-Saxon king and saint. Most of the abbey’s architecture is in the Gothic style, built by King Henry III in 1245. As such, it is one of the most important Gothic buildings in England.

Daily services are held at the abbey, but interestingly, the abbey is outside the jurisdiction of the Church of England. It’s neither a cathedral nor a parish church; as it reports directly to the monarch, it is called a “Royal Peculiar” and was deemed so by Queen Elizabeth I in 1560.

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The main entrance to The Collegiate Church of St. Peter, more commonly known as Westminster Abbey, in London. (Kiev.Victor/Shutterstock.com)
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The north entrance to Westminster Abbey. (Kiev.Victor/Shutterstock.com)
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Intricate bas-reliefs adorn the north entrance to Westminster Abbey. (Hadrian/Shutterstock.com)
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Over the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey, 10 martyrs of the 20th century are commemorated. Each was oppressed or persecuted for their faith, including victims of Nazism, communism, and religious prejudice. (Top row, L–R) St. Maximilian Kolbe, Manche Masemola, Janani Luwum, Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., St. Óscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Esther John, Lucian Tapiedi, and Wang Zhiming. (ArTono/Shutterstock.com)
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Westminster Abbey’s spectacular vaulted ceiling. (Liudmila Kotvitckaia/Shutterstock.com)
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The nave of Westminster Abbey contains the graves and memorials of well-known men and women. (Uwe Aranas/Shutterstock.com)
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The quire, where the choir sings as part of Westminster Abbey’s daily choral services. (Gautier22/Shutterstock.com)
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The impressive 60-foot-high vaulted ceiling of the octagonal 13th-century Chapter House, where the abbot and up to 80 Benedictine monks used to sit, pray, and study together in Westminster Abbey. (Anton_Ivanov/Shutterstock.com)
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In the 14th century, the Apocalypse and the Last Judgement were painted on the Chapter House walls. (Enigma51/CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)
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Christ flanked by angels is among some of the intricate sculptural reliefs in the 13th-century Chapter House. Kings and queens are honored in stained glass. (Bill Perry/Shutterstock.com)
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The lavish Henry VII Lady Chapel, at the east end of Westminster Abbey, took around a decade to build and was completed in 1516, nearly six years after Henry VII’s death. (Andrei Nekrassov/Shutterstock.com)
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The glorious medieval fan-vaulted ceiling of the Henry VII Lady Chapel in Westminster Abbey. The chapel is the final resting place of 15 kings and queens. (Keete 37/CC BY-SA 2.0)