Westminster Abbey: A Church in History, ed. David Cannadine
Yale University Press, 2019
What exactly is a Royal Peculiar? An elaborate wrestling hold? A now almost obsolete tiddlywinks manoeuvre? The official title given to the Queen’s more eccentric ancestors? It turns out that a Royal Peculiar —in the Church of England anyway— is a church exempt from episcopal jurisdiction and subject only to the monarch. St George’s Chapel at Windsor is one of these rare ecclesiastical anomalies, but surely the best-known example is Westminster Abbey. In Westminster Abbey: A Church in History (a tome befittingly magisterial in both appearance and scope), a selection of historians under the editorship of David Cannadine take it in turns to tell the Abbey’s story over nigh on eleven centuries. As far as that story goes, being a Royal Peculiar has almost always imbued the place with a sacrosanct independence, saving it from the more devastating effects of whatever religio-social strife was taking place outside its hallowed precincts. As a result, Westminster Abbey is a relatively unblemished time capsule and a unique witness to the hurly-burly of English history.
Fittingly for such a mythologised mainstay of this country’s cultural and religious identity, Westminster Abbey’s origins are lost in the mists of time. Its foundation is intertwined with the mythical second-century King Lucius, or then again it could have been built under the aegis of King Aethelbert of Kent and Mellitus, the first Bishop of London, who, as the story goes, somehow managed to get St Peter himself to visit the place and give it his seal of approval. However, and leaving aside such folkloric fancy, the current thinking is that the Abbey was founded in the seventh century, when London was just beginning to emerge as a major centre of commerce. That it was a ‘minster,’ a word deriving from the same root as ‘monastery,’ denotes that in its earliest Anglo-Saxon incarnation it was home to a distinct community of monks and secular priests under the leadership of an Abbot, all of whom would have provided the local population with a religious, social, and economic focal point. Records are hard to come by for this early period, and those that purport to confirm the Abbey’s time-honoured religious and legal status are often forgeries produced in later centuries. But then suddenly out of all this Dark Age conjecture steps Edward the Confessor, and at once the familiar lineaments of English history start to coalesce.
The Confessor was the earliest recorded monarch to take a special interest in the Abbey, which also meant that he was generous when it came to endowing it with grants and land across the country. If not quite the wealthiest abbey in the kingdom at the time of Edward’s death, it was certainly a lucrative venture in terms of its gross yearly income. In around 1050 the King was also responsible for the Abbey’s first major architectural overhaul, which saw it redesigned in the Romanesque style in order to ensure that the building was a suitable statement to symbolise his dynastic ambitions. However, within a year of Edward’s death and after the killing of his disputed successor Harold Godwinson by Duke William of Normandy’s invading forces, the Conqueror’s subsequent coronation in the Abbey changed the whole Anglo-Saxon dynastic landscape forever, and also began the process of making the building synonymous with English monarchical enthronement. During the early mediaeval period the Conqueror’s descendants paid various degrees of attention to the Abbey’s fortunes, at a time when Edward the Confessor’s posthumous status was gradually turning into a saintly cult. Following the latter’s canonisation his remains, or holy relics, were housed in a new shrine above the Abbey’s high altar. However, it was Henry III’s devotion to the Confessor’s blessed memory, along with his determination to make Westminster Abbey one of the great churches of Western Europe, that transformed the building into the splendid Gothic construction that we see today. Henry’s determination to make the Abbey a magnificently fitting tribute to the Confessor’s sacred status saw this impatient, profligate monarch drive his craftsmen on to complete the reconstruction work within severely testing deadlines. Along the way, he commissioned the wondrous Cosmati pavement, a mesmerising and enigmatically symbolic mosaic which can be found in the Abbey’s sanctuary, albeit these days mostly covered over to protect it from time’s ravages.
During the rest of the Plantagenet period the Abbey’s hallowed status was further consolidated as successive monarchs stamped their own imprimatur on its structure and building fabric. These included Edward I, who, with characteristic remorselessness, went on a shopping rampage throughout Wales and Scotland, bringing back whatever prizes took his fancy. Most notoriously, he made off with the Stone of Scone, which Scottish kings had used as their coronation seat since time immemorial. To glorify this act of what amounts to bare-faced cultural appropriation, Edward had a gilt-bronze chair built around the stone —the same chair upon which the majority of English monarchs have since been crowned.
Further significant redevelopment of the Abbey’s interior and exterior architecture took place during the reign of Henry VII, not least because of that monarch’s pressing need to consolidate his claim to the throne and all its regal appurtenances after his victory over Richard III at Bosworth. Consequently, this early Tudor period saw the foundation of a magnificent new Lady Chapel, built in the late Perpendicular style, which housed within it the splendid tomb which the king would eventually share with his consort, Elizabeth of York. This formidable statement of Tudor dynastic legitimacy was brought to completion by Pietro Torrigiano at the invitation of Henry VIII after his father’s death, and it is still one of the Abbey’s most breath-taking features.
Speaking of Henry VIII, it seems fitting that the historian who has brought the Tudors most vividly and meticulously to life in recent times, namely Diarmaid MacCulloch, should take on the task of charting the Abbey’s fortunes during Henry’s reign and up until the death of his daughter Elizabeth I in 1603. This is the period during which several familiar names flit through the Abbey’s records, such as Thomas Cromwell, as a servant to the ill-fated Cardinal Wolsey and later to Henry VIII himself. As MacCulloch puts it, Cromwell’s “relationship with Westminster Abbey grew ever closer as his career in royal service spectacularly expanded,” particularly in terms of forging strong links between the Abbey and its close neighbour, Westminster Hall, where parliamentary sessions (in which Cromwell excelled) took place. Then there was Thomas Cranmer’s good friend Abbot William Benson, who presided over the Abbey as one of a host of lawyers and theologians drafted in to help facilitate the success of the King’s “great matter”: i.e., to ensure that the Boleyn marriage was acknowledged as a bone fide union. For all that Benson was a trusty servant of the King, he was also, come the dissolution of the monasteries, a staunch and wily defender of the Abbey’s monastic personnel and resources at a time when similar religious foundations were feeling the full force of Cromwell’s swingeing reformation programme. It was largely thanks to Benson’s fancy footwork that the Abbey was saved from institutionalised depredation through the award of collegiate body status, which left the majority of its privileges in place while changing “the monastic dress of the community [ …] to that of secular priests.” Following Edward VI’s early demise, Mary Tudor’s brief tenure as a fervent Catholic monarch determined to reverse the heretical transgressions of her father and brother saw a massive financial outlay ploughed into the Abbey for new vestments, books, religious paraphernalia, and statuary in order to return it to its former ultramontane glory. However, with the succession of Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth in 1559, it was time to do away with the smells and bells of Catholic spectacle in favour of the altogether more pragmatic approach to religious observance which came with the Elizabethan Settlement.
During the Stuart period James I, like Henry VII before him, realised how important the Abbey was to the affirmation of his dynastic legitimacy. To that end he had his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, dug up and reburied there alongside Elizabeth I’s tomb. James’s first-born son, Prince Henry, was also interred in the Abbey at his death aged just eighteen in 1612, whilst the King himself followed thirteen years later. It was also in the Stuart period that the Abbey started to become something of a tourist attraction for members of the fashionable gentry and aristocracy, rather than just a place of ceremonial worship —a trend which consternated Dean Robert Tounson, who, in 1620, tried unsuccessfully to have the wearing of such garish abominations as yellow ruffs banned within the building’s precincts. If the potential for undesirable behaviour of a more iconoclastic nature came with the onset of the Civil War, in which Parliamentary forces took control of London, reports of the Abbey’s violent desecration at the hands of the Roundheads are, it turns out, significantly exaggerated: much of the imagery and stained glass was carefully removed as part of a “cool and calculated dismantling of decoration” in order to turn the place into a state church and a centre of preaching. In addition, as the venue of choice for the funerals of notable members of the Republic, once again the Abbey was used to validate the regime currently in power. With the restoration of the monarchy, the remains of many notables who had been most closely associated with the Interregnum were removed from the Abbey and summarily desecrated, before the building hosted Charles II’s coronation. This period of national turbulence meant that by the end of the seventeenth century, London was a markedly different place to what it had been at the start of the Stuart reign: the role of the monarchy had been constitutionally redefined following the Glorious Revolution and the city itself had become a commercially powerful European centre. The fall-out from all this was that the Abbey had become “a somewhat isolated symbol of the symbiosis between church and state.”
However, despite its continuing —if somewhat reimagined—national prominence, by the eighteenth century the Abbey’s actual fabric was becoming noticeably dilapidated. This sense of decline had its human counterpart in what was termed “old corruption,” a description of how the Abbey’s officials indulged in various forms of palm-greasing to ensure that the carrying out of their various functions allowed them to skim off a certain amount of revenue for themselves. In addition, all the deans and canons were pluralists who held various other livings and appointments throughout the country, meaning that several of them spent very little time discharging their actual Abbey duties. Consequently, this meant that those functionaries who did base themselves at the Abbey had more than their fair share of work and could barely keep up with it, a problem sometimes exacerbated by age and/or infirmity. Take, for instance, the ‘superannuated’ Dean Bradford: such was his elderly unsteadiness that he was unable to walk unaided whilst presiding over the coronation of George II and Queen Caroline in 1727, so that “at the Sacrament [he] had like to have pour’d the Wine in the Cup into the King’s Bosom.” It was also during the Georgian period that Poet’s Corner was established as another area of the Abbey replete (or, some would say, chaotically overstuffed) with monuments to the great, good, or just plain wealthy. Chaucer and Spenser had already been interred in a place set aside for the nation’s wordsmiths when Shakespeare’s monument was installed nearby in 1740, by which time the mania for formidable memorials to a variety of patriotic heroes was fully underway. Not that this was a wholly selfless gesture of national pride on the part of the Abbey’s custodians – the commemoration of distinguished lives required significant fees for the funerary arrangements, a steady and lucrative funding stream. Occasionally this passion for holding obsequies inside the Abbey could excite the mourners in regrettable ways; a fight broke out at the Earl of Bath’s funeral in 1764 and “inflicted permanent damage” on the tomb of Edward I, while the spectators clambered over ancient monuments to get a better view of proceedings. Such were the goings-on during the Abbey’s endearingly disreputable eighteenth-century incarnation.
And so to the nineteenth century, with its old Abbey deans straight out of Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles: ‘Soapy Sam’ Wilberforce, famous opponent of Darwin’s theory of evolution, and William Buckland, collector of “eagles, serpents and monkeys,” whose eccentricity was said to have verged on madness. Then along came Canon John Thynne who, by 1852, had ambitions to turn the Abbey into a ‘National Mausoleum’ or ‘Valhalla’ with the assistance of that paragon of Victorian architectural zeal, George Gilbert Scott. The resulting structural modifications met with a somewhat mixed critical reaction. Undeterred, Thynne’s innovative energy led to the installation of mod cons to better cater to the Abbey’s visitors, not least gas lighting in 1856. Then, in 1864, came Dean Stanley, leading representative of Broad Church Anglicanism and perhaps the Abbey’s greatest nineteenth-century luminary. The Broad Church outlook attempted to bridge the contentious gap between science and faith in Victorian religious belief by proposing a rationalised form of Christianity. Stanley proposed “the free development of religious thought” within the framework of the established church, or as he put it: “no one creed or confession has exhausted the whole of Christian truth. Each form of theology is but an approximation to the truth.” The opprobrium stirred up by such irenic sentiments seems not to have ruffled this naturally urbane man who, when faced with a petition attacking his views, completely refused to get into the spirit of the thing and informed his adversaries that “you may sign your protest but there is one thing that you can never do, and that is to make me quarrel with any of you.” Stanley antagonised his critics even further when he allowed non-Anglicans, and even those who had dallied with agnosticism, to be buried in the Abbey, thus allowing the interment of such figures as Charles Dickens, Robert Browning, David Livingstone and Charles Darwin, all of whom had held various degrees of belief. However, this ecclesiastical flexibility did not extend to Mary Ann Evans (aka George Eliot), who was refused committal due to having had a relationship with a married man.
At the dawn of the twentieth century the Abbey increasingly took on a new role as the hub of imperial sanctity, or, as Canon James E. C. Weldon put it in 1902, “the Abbey Church of Westminster is the Holy of Holies of the British Race which belongs not to England only, but to the Empire.” Although Queen Victoria’s obsequies did not take place in the Abbey, her son Edward VII’s enthronement provided an international focal point for British imperial braggadocio, with Elgar’s Coronation Ode providing an apt musical context in which to boast about the “Land of Hope and Glory, fortress of the Free.” Following the First World War, Dean Herbert Ryle’s policy of commemorating the fallen by increasing the number of special services to honour them eventually culminated in the burial of the Unknown Warrior near the Abbey’s west door on Armistice Day in 1920, and a million people passed by to pay their respects. In subsequent years the Abbey continued to be the preferred setting for the coronations of the country’s kings and queens, as well as, after the Second World War, celebrations of the Commonwealth, events which departed from Edwardian-style imperialist pageantry and confirmed the principle of national self-determination. Other twentieth-century innovations included the current Queen’s coronation, televised live from the Abbey in 1953 and followed in 1960 by the first royal wedding broadcast when Princess Margaret married Anthony Armstrong-Jones. A succession of other weddings, burials, memorials and celebrations took place throughout the latter half of the twentieth century — apart, that is, from the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, for which St Paul’s Cathedral was chosen instead. Unsurprisingly, this decision by the Royal household to use the church up the road was said to have “shocked” the then resident dean, who “believed that the Abbey itself had been in some way slighted.” However, even if Charles and Di didn't decide to stage probably the most iconic Royal event of the past fifty years within its walls, as Westminster Abbey: A Church in History shows, the place hasn’t missed out on much else in the march-past of English history. As the final resting place of seventeen monarchs along with a myriad of famous (and not so famous) worthies, the Abbey is as much a monumental socio-cultural archive as it is a Gothic masterpiece or national shrine. It remains, as this expansive and engaging book shows, an enduringly potent artefact within our national historical landscape.--Mark Jones