Westminster Abbey is one of the most famous religious buildings in the world, and it has served an important role in British political, social and cultural affairs for more than 1,000 years. In spite of its name, the facility is no longer an abbey, and while it still hosts important religious activities, it no longer houses monks or nuns. Westminster Abbey has been the site of royal coronations since 1066, and has been a working facility for religious services since the 10th century.
‘West-Minster’ Versus ‘East-Minster’
Benedictine monks first built a house of worship in or around 960 A.D. on the banks of the River Thames, the river that bisects the city of London, in an area that was then known as Thorny Island.
In 1040, King Edward I, who later became known as St. Edward the Confessor, built his royal palace on a nearby tract of land. A religious monarch, Edward I decided to endow and expand the monastery.
He commissioned the construction of a large, Romanesque-style stone church in honor of St. Peter the Apostle. Twenty-five years later, in December, 1065, the new church was completed, although Edward I was too ill to attend the dedication ceremony and died a few days later.
The new church, St. Peter’s Cathedral, became known as the “West-minster” to distinguish it from St. Paul’s Cathedral, another notable London church that was called the “East-minster.”
The ‘New’ Westminster Abbey
The original Westminster Abbey survived for nearly two centuries—until the middle of the 1200s, when the monarch of the time, King Henry III, decided to rebuild it in the gothic style popular in that era. Still, pieces of Edward I’s design remain, including the round arches and the supporting columns of the undercroft, or the original monks’ quarters.
With new and notable churches being built across Europe—including Chartres Cathedral in France and, closer to home, Canterbury Cathedral in Kent, England—King Henry III wanted to construct a church fit for the coronation and burial of monarchs.
The “new” cathedral was dedicated on October 13, 1269, and this structure, albeit with some modifications, remains in place today.
Every monarch since William the Conqueror—except for Edward V and Edward VIII, who were never crowned—had a coronation ceremony in Westminster Abbey. In all, 39 monarchs have been crowned in the church.
Royal Interments and Memorials
Under the orders of King Henry III, Edward I’s remains were removed from a tomb in front of the high altar of the old church into a more impressive tomb behind the high altar in the new one.
In the centuries since, multiple royals have been laid to rest nearby, including Henry III, Edward III, Richard II and Henry V. In all, the church has more than 600 wall tablets and monuments, and more than 3,000 people have been buried there.
In addition to royals, Westminster Abbey has a famed Poets’ Corner, which includes burial crypts and memorials for legendary writers and artists including Geoffrey Chaucer, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, William Shakespeare, W. H. Auden, Jane Austen, Laurence Olivier, Lewis Carroll, T.S. Eliot, Oscar Wilde, Dylan Thomas, Charles Dickens and the Brontë sisters (Charlotte, Emily and Anne).
Notable additions to the original structure include the “Lady Chapel,” which was built in 1516 and has since been renamed in honor of King Henry VII, who was interred there. Architect Nicholas Harkmoor oversaw the completion of the western towers, which had been unfinished since the 1200s. The towers were dedicated in 1745.
A ‘Royal Peculiar’
Westminster Abbey stopped serving as a monastery in 1559, at roughly the same time it became an Anglican church (part of the Church of England) and formally left the Catholic hierarchy.
In 1560, the church was granted “Royal Peculiar” status. This designation essentially means that it belongs to the ruling monarch, and is not governed by any diocese of the Church of England.
Since it received the Royal Peculiar designation, Westminster Abbey’s official name has been the Collegiate Church of St. Peter, Westminster.
Westminster Abbey Today
In addition to serving as a site for royal coronations and burials, Westminster Abbey has famously been the location for 17 royal weddings—including the 2011 marriage of Prince William to Catherine Middleton.
That ceremony, as with the wedding of William’s parents, Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, was watched by millions of people around the world.
Tourists flock to marvel at Westminster Abbey’s gothic design, including its fan-vaulted ceilings and the magnificent pipe organ, installed for the coronation of King George VI in 1937. The organ contains some of the original piping of its predecessor instrument, which was built in 1848.
There is also the Grave to the Unknown Warrior. This tomb contains the body of an unidentified soldier who lost his life in World War I and was laid to rest in 1920. In Britain, the Grave remains a symbol honoring those who have lost their lives fighting for their country.
The last coronation performed at Westminster Abbey was that of Queen Elizabeth II, the present monarch, in 1953. The church is also known as the site of the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997.
Despite its role as tourist attraction and site of important ceremonies, Westminster Abbey is also still a working house of worship. The building hosts regular weekly church services every Sunday, as well as during religious holidays.
Abbey History. Westminster Abbey.
Royal Peculiars. Association of English Cathedrals.
11 Facts About Westminster Abbey. Guide London 2017.
Henry III rebuilt Westminster Abbey in honour of the Royal Saint Edward the Confessor whose relics were placed in a shrine in the sanctuary and now lie in a burial vault beneath the 1268 Cosmati mosaic pavement, in front of the High Altar. Henry III himself was interred nearby in a superb chest tomb with effigial monument. Many of the Plantagenet kings of England, their wives and other relatives, were also buried in the Abbey. From the time of Edward the Confessor until the death of George II in 1760, most Kings and Queens of England were buried here, although there are exceptions (most notably Edward IV, Henry VIII and Charles I who are buried in St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle). All monarchs who died after George II were buried in Windsor most were laid to rest in St George's Chapel, although Queen Victoria and Edward VIII are buried at Frogmore, where the Royal Family also has a private cemetery.
Since the Middle Ages, aristocrats were buried inside chapels, while monks and other people associated with the Abbey were buried in the Cloisters and other areas. One of these was Geoffrey Chaucer, who was buried here as he had apartments in the Abbey where he was employed as master of the King's Works. Other poets, writers and musicians were buried or memorialised around Chaucer in what became known as Poets' Corner. These include: W. H. Auden, William Blake, Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, John Dryden, George Eliot, T. S. Eliot, Thomas Gray, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Samuel Johnson, John Keats, Rudyard Kipling, Jenny Lind, John Masefield, John Milton, Laurence Olivier, Alexander Pope, Nicholas Rowe, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Thomas Shadwell, Alfred, Lord Tennyson and William Wordsworth. Abbey musicians such as Henry Purcell were also buried in their place of work.
Subsequently, it became one of Britain's most significant honours to be buried or commemorated here.  The practice of burying national figures in the Abbey began under Oliver Cromwell with the burial of Admiral Robert Blake in 1657.  The practice spread to include generals, admirals, politicians, doctors and scientists such as Isaac Newton, buried on 4 April 1727 and Charles Darwin, buried 19 April 1882.
During the early 20th century, for reasons of space, it became increasingly common to bury cremated remains rather than coffins. In 1905 the actor Sir Henry Irving was cremated and his ashes buried in the Abbey, thereby becoming the first person ever to be cremated prior to interment.  This marked a milestone as after the death of Sir Joseph Hooker in December 1911, the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey chose to offer Hooker a grave near Charles Darwin's in the nave but also insisted that he be cremated before. His widow however declined and so Hooker's body was buried in the churchyard of St Anne's Church, Kew. The majority of interments at the Abbey are of cremated remains, but some burials still take place – Frances Challen, wife of the Rev Sebastian Charles, Canon of Westminster, was buried alongside her husband in the south choir aisle in 2014.  Members of the Percy family have a family vault, "The Northumberland Vault", in St Nicholas's chapel, within the Abbey.  The ashes of physicist Stephen Hawking were interred in the Abbey on 15 June 2018, near the grave of Sir Isaac Newton.   The memorial stone, bearing the inscription 'Here lies what was mortal of Stephen Hawking 1942–2018', includes a form of the Bekenstein–Hawking entropy equation relating to black holes. 
In the floor just inside the great west door, in the centre of the nave, is the tomb of The Unknown Warrior, an unidentified British soldier killed on a European battlefield during the First World War. He was buried in the Abbey on 11 November 1920. There are many graves in the floors of the Abbey, but this is the only grave on which it is forbidden to walk. 
Monasticism was an important part of medieval life in England and many monasteries and convents were founded in and around London. The modern-day Westminster Abbey building was largely the inspiration of King Henry III in the mid-13 th century but its origins go far back into Saxon times when Westminster was quite distant from London.
As the River Tyburn flowed towards the Thames to the west of London it divided into several parts. One branch flowed south into the Thames near where Vauxhall Bridge now stands. Another branched off eastwards at what is now Buckingham Palace, then sub-divided to form an island as it met the Thames at modern-day Westminster. During the Roman period there was perhaps a ford across the Thames at that point, and it is said a shrine to Apollo may have been built on the island. A Roman sarcophagus was discovered in 1869, and some Roman roof tiles have been found under Westminster Abbey’s Norman undercroft. In the centuries following the Romans the area was probably deserted and liable to flooding. During Saxon times the island was known as Thorn Ea, meaning ‘island of brambles’.
There are various accounts of the founding of a church at Thorn Ea. Some of these are certainly fictitious and originated in the 11 th or 12 th centuries at a time when the abbey’s resident monks were attempting to link its foundation to illustrious early Christians and saints. The Venerable Bede, writing in the 730s, wrote of St. Paul’s church in London but made no mention of a church at Thorn Ea. A charter to the monastery of St. Peter at Thorn Ea dated 785 during the reign of King Offa is now thought to be a forgery, but a small church may have been established at around that time. Even so, as an unprotected building, it is most likely to have suffered badly from Viking raids along the Thames during the 9 th century. It seems the church, if it existed, did not survive.
More certainly, Dunstan, either during his time as Bishop of London in around 960, or later as Archbishop of Canterbury, established a monastery on the site of ‘ruined chapels’ in the marshland of Thorn Ea, at what was then known as Bulinga Fen. To do so he brought twelve monks from Glastonbury. A charter drawn up by King Edgar in the mid-10 th century transferred a large area of land into the ownership of the monastery. Edgar’s gift of land stretched from the modern-day Farringdon Road on the western edge of the old city of London and included the present Covent Garden, Trafalgar Square, Soho, parts of Mayfair, St. James’s Park, and down to the Thames. Broadly, this area of about 2,500 acres is what we now know as the City of Westminster. The abbey was to keep these holdings for almost 600 years.
The monastery observed the rules of the Order of St. Benedict, written by Benedict in about 530 for his own monastery at Monte Cassino. Over time, around 150 Benedictine monasteries were founded in England and it was typical for Benedictine monasteries to be sited in remote fenland such as Thorn Ea. The Benedictine ‘black monks’ were to live in an enclosed community, dependent on alms or income from their lands. The earliest abbots are recorded as Wulfsige, Aelfwig and Wulfnoth, the latter dying in 1049.
From its earliest time, the monastery enjoyed royal patronage. Edgar, Ethelred and Cnut all gave gifts of religious relics. Cnut was the first king to establish a royal palace beside the monastery there on Thorn Ea. Throughout the Middle Ages it developed as a royal and religious complex surrounded by water. To the east was the Thames while the River Tyburn formed a moat around the other three sides, with the precinct reached across one of several bridges and under gatehouses.
When Cnut died two of his sons, the half-brothers Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut both claimed to be his successor. Harold was in England at the time of his father’s death, but Harthacnut in Denmark, so Harold took the English throne. When he died, possibly murdered, in 1040 Harold I became the first monarch to be buried at the monastery. But Harthacnut swiftly travelled to England, had Harold’s body exhumed, beheaded, and the body thrown into the surrounding marsh.
Harthacnut reigned for only two years before he died while celebrating at a wedding. In 1042 he was succeeded by Edward, a surviving son of Cnut’s predecessor, King Aethelred Unraed, and Edward was crowned at Winchester. King Edward grew up in Normandy while his father was exiled there during Cnut’s reign. According to Vita Ædwardi, written two years after his death, he had a special devotion to St. Peter. About a decade or so after Edward’s death Sulcard, a monk at Westminster, wrote that Edward had vowed during his time in Normandy that if he could have the English throne he would make a pilgrimage to St. Peter’s tomb in Rome. However, when the deaths of Harold and Hardicnut finally delivered him the Crown his advisors prevented him from making the dangerous journey. The delegation he sent in his place was told he would be released from his vow on the condition he founded a monastery dedicated to St. Peter. Whatever the truth, Edward chose Dunstan’s old monastery beside his palace as the location for a great new abbey and he appointed his friend Eadwine as Abbot, and Robert, Abbot of Jumièges in Normandy to be Bishop of London. Edward and Eadwine would transform a small and struggling religious community into a great royal abbey.
Westminster Abbey - HISTORY
The earliest confirmed occupation of the site of Westminster was a Benedictine Abbey set up by St. Dunstan in the 960s. The beginnings of the Abbey as we know now are from the reign of King Edward the Confessor (r. 1042-1066). On the site he built a church dedicated to St. Peter and a monastery in the Romanesque style. The church was consecrated shortly before King Edward's death.
Henry III (r. 1216-1272) decided that he wanted to replace Edward's abbey with a grander structure. The original building was demolished and rebuilt progressively from east to west. None of Edward the Confessor's old church survives, but parts of the Norman monastic buildings around the cloister remain today.
The new Gothic church was created by Henry de Reyns and was taller, lighter and more spacious then the old Norman building. The new building also used better stone -- sandstone from Reigate, limestone from Caen (in Normandy) and polished Purbeck stone from Dorset for pillars.
The style of the church had origins in French cathedral building: the basic layout of the apse with radiating chapels, large windows and wall arcades. Also from the French style are the rose windows and flying buttresses. This style created a high roof which reaches 103 feet. The cathedral also has English elements, such as the long nave and broad transepts. The decoration with sculpture and elaborate arches, as well as the polished Purbeck stone are English qualities as well.
The reconstruction of Westminster Abbey that had begun in the reign of Henry III in the 13th century was finally completed when the nave was finished in 1517 during the reign of Henry VIII. The monastery that had been on the site since the reign of Edward the Confessor was surrendered in 1540 during the dissolution of the monasteries in the Reformation.
From 1540 to 1550, the building became the cathedral for the new diocese of Westminster. However, when Mary I became Queen and brought the Catholic faith back to England, once again a community of monks took up residence at Westminster, but it was a brief tenure. When Mary died and Elizabeth I became Queen, Westminster became a collegiate church with a dean and a chapter of 12 canons.
All of the crowned Tudor monarchs except Henry VIII are buried in the Abbey (Henry is buried in St. George's at Windsor Castle). Henry VII shares a tomb with his wife Elizabeth of York. His mother Margaret Beaufort is also buried nearby. Only one of Henry VIII's wives is buried in the Abbey - Anne of Cleves. Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I are also interred there, with Mary and Elizabeth sharing a fine monument constructed by James VI/I. After James became king, he had his mother Mary Queen of Scots re-interred in a splendid tomb at the Abbey next to his paternal grandmother Margaret, Countess of Lennox.
The west entrance to the abbey didn't get its iconic tall white towers until the18th century.
History of Westminster Abbey, a Royal Church in London
The most important church in all of England for the British monarch, Westminster Abbey has been around for a very, very long time – one thousand years to be more precise. It’s also one of the most important historic buildings as well and walking inside the building and on its grounds feels like history has come to life. Not only that, but thousands of people have been buried on its grounds, and all of the coronations have taken place at Westminster Abbey ever since the coronation of William the Conqueror, including that of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Another essential part of the history of Westminster Abbey are the weddings – these royal ceremonies have taken place in Westminster Abbey since Henry I’s marriage in 1100 AD, but even besides these events, Westminster Abbey is an increasingly popular tourist attraction that’s open to the public almost every single day. Due to its fantastic gothic design and detailed history, many people from all around the world continually flock to see this marvelous historical building in the heart of London.
Westminster Abbey: North Facade, built in Gothic style. Photo Credit: © MathKnight and Zachi Evenor via Wikimedia Commons.
History of Westminster Abbey
Legend has it that a very long time ago there was a tiny church on a small island in the River Thames that used to be known as the West Minster, and was also consecrated by St. Peter the Apostle. In the second half of the first millennium there was a community of monks living on that same island, and on those same grounds, St. Edward the Confessor ordered a new church to be built, and later consecrated. But that’s not where the history of Westminster Abbey ends, because a couple of centuries later the church was torn down to be replaced with today’s version of the Abbey.
Over the course of centuries, different parts were rebuilt, like the Normal-style nave, or the chapel of King Henry VII. In the meanwhile, Westminster Abbey continued functioning all the time and hosted many significant events including royal coronations, weddings, and burials. Parts of Westminster Abbey was damaged during World War II by the same bombs that devastated large parts of London but was restored soon after the war ended. Westminster Abbey is a place with long-standing traditions and is an important symbol of the British Royal Family, so its importance cannot be overstated.
Coronations at Westminster Abbey
England is a country with history that stretches with millennia, so it’s no surprise that tradition and old rites are still a big part of its culture. Except for two monarchs, every king and queen has been crowned in Westminster Abbey, and that’s a tradition that has been going on for a thousand years. The two exceptions were kings Edward V and Edward VII, but that has nothing to do with Westminster Abbey, but rather with them not being crowned at all. These beautiful events have been taking place in the world-famous Chair of Coronations – one of the world’s most-known pieces of furniture. It’s a chair explicitly made at the request of King Edward I to enclose the royal artifact known as the Stone of Scone – a block of old red sandstone on which every coronation was to take place, and has, ever since the Chair of Coronations was built. The only exception is the joint-monarchs Mary II and William II who requested their own personal chairs.
Westminster Abbey: The interior of the building. Photo Credit: © Herry Lawford via Wikimedia Commons.
Royal Weddings at Westminster Abbey
The history of Westminster Abbey is filled with fascinating events, and on the forefront are the royal weddings that have taken place since Henry I married Matilda of Scotland in 1100. While there is only one other monarch that was wed in the halls of the Abbey – Richard II, who married Anne of Bohemia in the 14th century – there were 15 other weddings in the history of the Abbey, out of the total of 17. The last royal wedding to happen in Westminster Abbey was the Duke of Cambridge Prince William’s wedding to Kate Middleton, and while Westminster Abbey was full, with the 3,000 people limit easily reached, the wedding itself was watched by millions more across the globe.
Famous People Buried at Westminster Abbey
Over the course of the history of Westminster Abbey, thousands of people have been buried on its grounds. It’s not only the resting place for members of the royal family and their retinue but also where plenty of famous people have been buried as well. People who’ve distinguished themselves in the eyes of the Crown for different reasons have been granted burial space at Westminster Abbey – people like the world-renowned biologist Charles Darwin, Sir Isaac Newton, David Livingstone, Charles Dickens, the poet Geoffrey Chaucer and many, many more. Nowadays the burial space is increasingly limited, so the only burials that are allowed are cremations – including Professor Stephen Hawking’s, whose ashes were interred in the Abbey on March 31st.
Westminster Abbey: Western façade. Photo Credit: © Σπάρτακος via Wikimedia Commons.
Other Interesting Facts about Westminster Abbey
While Westminster Abbey itself is very well known, its official name is not. The full name of Westminster Abbey is the Collegiate Church of St. Peter at Westminster. It came to be known as Westminster Abbey in order for it be distinguished from the Eastern Minster Abbey in the past. That’s not the only interesting fact in the history of Westminster Abbey, however, for example, tens of thousands of sandbags were used to protect the ancient tombs during World War II. Also, even though weddings and similar ceremonial events are practically impossible to be held for regular people outside the royal family, the Order of the Bath, and for people living in the Abbey’s precincts, regular worship does happen every Sunday.
Visiting Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey is one of the top attractions in London and so is often requested as part of our London Highlights Tour. Millions of people visit Westminster Abbey to marvel at the magnificent Gothic building that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site with over a thousand years of history.
5. The sanctuary floor predicts the future
A Cosmati pavement decorates the sanctuary of the abbey. Made from thousands of cut pieces of mosaic and porphyry, its brass lettering tells us the date it was created (1268), the king who ruled (Henry III), and that it came from Rome. It also calculates the world will end in 19,683 years.
A conservation team work on the Cosmati pavement. Image source: Christine Smith / CC BY-SA 4.0.
A brief history of Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey has been in existence for more than a thousand years. A church of outstanding architectural merit and an unrivalled national mausoleum, its close relations with parliament and government are unequalled by any other church in any other nation. Its history, however, is not a simple story – as David Cannadine reveals
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Published: December 23, 2019 at 4:47 pm
The history of Westminster Abbey is full of contradictions and unexpected turns. It is among many monasteries that were founded in Catholic Christendom, although it was later repurposed as a powerful symbol of Protestant national identity. Although much of its architecture is French in origin, the abbey is widely regarded as quintessentially English.
One of its greatest claims to fame is its ties to the monarchy. There is no church in Europe that maintains such a strong connection with its country’s royal family with only two exceptions, every monarch since 1066 has been crowned in Westminster Abbey.
Uniquely the abbey has never had a bishop, except a brief spell during the 1540s (before then, it was presided over by an abbot). On its re-founding by Elizabeth I in 1560, it was established as a royal peculiar, and ever since, it has been outside the hierarchy and jurisdiction of the Church of England.
Although its royal tombs and monuments are unsurpassed, it is the grave of an ordinary man – the Unknown Warrior, which has come to represent the millions who lose their lives in wars and conflicts – that in modern times has become its most resonant burial place and tourist attraction. And, while the abbey has been a Catholic monastery and a bastion of Anglicanism, it has also been in the forefront of multi-faith dialogue and ecumenicalism since the Second World War – for instance, the annual Commonwealth Service, a multi-faith gathering which began in 1965.
Early history and construction
There are meagre sources for Westminster Abbey’s early history, though it may have been founded by a group of monks in AD 604. Its story begins properly with its re-founding by Bishop Dunstan of London and King Edgar, probably in 959. It was, however, the subsequent interventions of two very different kings that significantly transformed the abbey’s status and fortunes.
The first was Edward the Confessor, who rebuilt the abbey in the 1050s on a lavish scale. He was buried in the abbey, canonised in 1161, and later magnificently entombed and enshrined there. The second king was William the Conqueror, who famously defeated Harold at the battle of Hastings in 1066 and who followed him in being crowned at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day of the same year. Thus, the tradition of crowning our monarchs in the abbey was established, enduring to the modern day.
The Confessor and Conqueror were the first sovereigns to associate themselves so closely with the abbey they made Westminster their place of residence and the seat of government, thereby connecting church and state in a bond that has lasted and evolved. The Confessor’s splendid Romanesque church was later replaced by an even more magnificent Gothic building, constructed by Henry III – the abbey’s greatest architectural patron. Although the west front would long remain uncompleted, Henry’s church was dedicated on 13 October 1269.
King Richard II [r1377–99] oversaw the construction of the northern entrance and several bays of the nave, while Henry VII [r1485–1509] created the extraordinary Lady Chapel at the east end. These energetic and expensive royal interventions transformed the original monastic foundation into one of the most significant churches in Catholic Christendom. This was partly due to its new size and scale – and its innovatively cosmopolitan architecture and decoration – and partly because of the uniquely close connection established between the English monarchy and the abbey. Indeed, from the time of Henry III, it had become the established burial place for monarchs, their consorts and often their children as well.
The 14th and 15th centuries witnessed royal indifference and neglect, especially during the Wars of the Roses. Yet even during these troubled and uncertain times, the monastic life of the abbey endured. It was as a monastery (presided over by an abbot) rather than as a royal church (where the sovereign was crowned) that the abbey obtained its freedom from the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London in 1222. It was, thereafter, answerable only to the pope himself.
This independence was successively redefined, rescinded and eventually reasserted during the turbulent and traumatic 16th century: Henry VIII converted the abbey into a cathedral – meaning that it was no longer under papal jurisdiction – and replaced the abbot and monks with a Dean and Chapter (and, briefly, a bishop). Edward VI, meanwhile, re-founded Westminster as a subordinate cathedral to neighbouring St Paul’s – although Queen Mary later reversed these changes and temporarily restored the Benedictine monastic community. Queen Elizabeth I re-established the abbey as a Protestant church, and as a royal peculiar directly under the monarch’s control (governed once more by a Dean and Chapter).
The 16th century was the hinge era for the abbey. The burial of Queen Elizabeth (1603) the reburial of Mary, Queen of Scots (1612) the coronation and burial of James I and VI (1603 and 1625) and the coronation of Charles I (1626) linked together the abbey, the old Tudor and the new Stuart dynasties and the recent Protestant settlement.
There was another change of direction during the 1640s and 1650s, as a number of events ushered in a new era for the abbey. These included the execution of Charles I the abolition of the monarchy the disestablishment of the Church of England and the replacement of the abbey’s Dean and Chapter by a parliamentary committee (who became the governing body). The ‘house of kings’ [a venue for royal occasions representing the close relationship between church and state] was superseded by the ‘house of regicides’, as the abbey was (again) repurposed by those who signed Charles I’s death warrant. The abbey became a republican temple of fame, in which were interred such parliamentary paragons and military heroes as John Pym and Oliver Cromwell.
The abbey resumed its role as the pre-eminent royal and state church following the restoration of the monarchy and the Church of England in 1660 the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 and the Hanoverian succession in 1714. It was as if the 11-year period of parliamentary rule, the Interregnum, had never happened. Purcell and Handel composed notable coronation anthems, and the west front was belatedly completed, with the construction of two towers designed by architect Nicholas Hawksmoor.
George II was the last monarch to be buried in the abbey, in 1760. The ensuing decades were a time of religious and institutional torpor. There were worldly deans holding plural livings, uninspired services and preaching, and more tourists and monuments – but less true religious devotion.
During this time the abbey enjoyed a substantial income from its extensive estates – some of which it had held since early medieval times. It also still played a predominant role in the government of the City of Westminster and of Westminster School, re-founded by Henry VIII and again by Elizabeth I.
The abbey seemed not so much a house of God, but a world of patronage, pensions, sinecures, family connection and self-perpetuating oligarchy, where the great institutions of church and state were agencies of private benefit rather than vehicles for promoting the public good. This negative impression was confirmed as the Dean and Chapter made money by allowing the proliferation of increasingly ornate monuments, some of which were undoubtedly merited by the stature and contribution of their subjects – but many were not.
These defects were eventually remedied during the Victorian age of reform: pluralism and absenteeism declined Westminster School and the City of Westminster were freed from the abbey’s jurisdiction (although some links still remain) and it ceased to be a major landlord.
Between 1864 and 1881, the transformative Dean Arthur Penrhyn Stanley made the abbey a place of broad, liberal and welcoming churchmanship, with services that were reportedly better-sung services and included memorable preaching, and with more grand public funerals and yet more (though better-deserved) monuments. As a result, the abbey again became increasingly central to the nation, especially the imperial nation that Great Britain had progressively become during Queen Victoria’s reign.
However, during the 19th century, the monarchy itself played little part in the day to-day life of the abbey: the great age of royal building and patronage was long since over. George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria rarely visited the place except for their coronations (and Victoria also for her Golden Jubilee service).
The First World War and beyond
The reign of Victoria’s son Edward VII may have witnessed the apogee of imperial consciousness and the first authentically imperial coronation, but the king–emperor felt no close affinity with the abbey. Nor, initially, did George V – even as his coronation in 1911 was grander and more imperial than his father’s.
But the First World War was as much a turning point for the abbey and the monarchy as for the British nation and empire. There were new annual services, such as that marking Anzac Day on 25 April each year, which the monarch and the royal family habitually attended. The Unknown Warrior was buried in the presence of the sovereign in 1920, and his grave became a place of popular pilgrimage. Royal weddings returned to the abbey, where they had not been held since medieval times.
This close association between the monarchy and the abbey has been consolidated since the second half of the 20th century. Like all her predecessors since the Reformation, Queen Elizabeth II has been the abbey’s Visitor, in that she exercises supreme authority over it but she has also attended its services more frequently and assiduously than any previous monarch.
So, the abbey today is very royal, but also very popular it is very sacred, yet also very secular it is very old, but with a constant capacity for renewal. It is the setting for great ceremonials – focused on the monarchy and royal family – yet it is also a place for private devotion and prayer.
Such, indeed, is Westminster Abbey today, 750 years since the consecration of Henry III’s new church. But it cannot be too often stressed that none of this could have been foreseen when a group of monks founded their small monastic community, to the west of the city of London, in what may or may not have been the year AD 604.
David Cannadine is president of the British Academy, Dodge Professor of History at Princeton University and editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Westminster Abbey: A Church in History, edited by David Cannadine, is out now (Paul Mellon Centre, £35 hardback).
Westminster Abbey bears a rich history with its title. Built by a variety of patrons over a span of centuries, it is impossible to put a single date on its construction. A brief look at the history of this famous abbey is essential in order to appreciate this treasured British landmark.
Westminster Abbey was founded by King Edward the Confessor on the site of a Benedictine monastery on the river Thames. There was an original monastery of uncertain origin before the 11th century Benedictine monastery. Two of the claims about the ancient history of the site of Westminster Abbey are that it was founded by a Saxon king named Sebert in the seventh century, and that it was founded by a British king named Lucius in the second century.
King Edward the Confessor.
King Edward&rsquos church was founded in honor of St. Peter. It was called &ldquowest minster&rdquo to set it apart from St. Paul&rsquos cathedral, which was called "east minster." Due to an illness that would soon cost him his life, King Edward could not attend the consecration of his beloved church. The only remnants of the original monastery existing today are the round arches and large columns in the undercroft and Pyx Chamber.
Henry III is to credit for most of the present-day church, for he rebuilt the Abbey in the Gothic style. It is often questioned, however, whether Henry III himself was personally invested in the plan, or whether his enthusiasm in support of Westminster Abbey was only a façade constructed by his advisors. Westminster Abbey bears strong French influences, which may be due to Henry&rsquos personal competition with his brother-in-law, Louis IX of France. He desired to construct a building that combined Reims Cathedral and St. Denis in one edifice. The rebuilding was not something that occurred spontaneously rather, it was most likely developed over a span of 25 years, from 1220 to 1245.
Between the reigns of Edward and Henry III, the monarchs did not dedicate a great deal of attention to Westminster Abbey. Though it was used as the coronation church, beginning with William the Conqueror after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, it was otherwise ignored. The coronation of William the Conqueror was meant to resemble Charlemagne&rsquos coronation at St. Peter&rsquos in Rome in 800. Since then, every monarch has been crowned there except for Edward V and Edward VIII because neither was ever crowned.
Henry III employed several architects in his revamping of Westminster Abbey: Henry of Reynes, John of Gloucester, and Robert of Beverley in succession. Henry began building the Lady Chapel in 1220, though Abbot William de Humez had already been raising funds for it. So much money was raised in donations that it appears that the project generated great support among the populace. No more work beyond the laying of the foundation stone of the chapel was carried out by Henry III, however, and this chapel was replaced by the chapel of Henry VII, the first of the Tudor monarchs, in 1516.
In 1540, the monastery at Westminster Abbey was dissolved upon England&rsquos break with the Catholic Church, and Henry VIII made Westminster a cathedral church. It again became a Benedictine monastery in 1556 under &ldquoBloody&rdquo Mary I. Under the rule of Elizabeth I, however, Parliament gave the Abbey back to the crown, along with the rest of Mary&rsquos religious houses, in July of 1559. Elizabeth made Westminster Abbey a Collegiate Church, establishing an extensive staff, and ordering that worship occur there daily. Forty scholars were selected to begin an education program known as the Westminster School. In fact, the Dean and Chapter at the Abbey were responsible for a large portion of the government of Westminster until the 20th century.
The Abbey was fairly neglected after the Reformation, until Christopher Wren became its first surveyor and began restoring it. The western towers were built in the 1740s, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and built by John James. Most Victorian work focused on restoring the Abbey, except for the work of Gilbert Scott and J. L. Pearson, who drastically renovated the north transept. The most recent great restoration occurred in 1995.
A late tradition claims that Aldrich, a young fisherman on the River Thames, had a vision of Saint Peter near the site. This seems to have been quoted as the origin of the salmon that Thames fishermen offered to the abbey in later years – a custom still observed annually by the Fishmongers' Company. The recorded origins of the Abbey date to the 960s or early 970s, when Saint Dunstan and King Edgar installed a community of Benedictine monks on the site. 
1042: Edward the Confessor starts rebuilding St Peter's Abbey Edit
Between 1042 and 1052, King Edward the Confessor began rebuilding St Peter's Abbey to provide himself with a royal burial church. It was the first church in England built in the Romanesque style. The building was completed around 1060 and was consecrated on 28 December 1065, only a week before Edward's death on 5 January 1066.  A week later, 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 that increased from a dozen monks in Dunstan's original foundation, up to a maximum of about eighty monks. 
Construction of the present church Edit
The abbot and monks, in proximity to the royal Palace of Westminster, the seat of government from the later 13th century, became a powerful force in the centuries after the Norman Conquest. The Abbot of Westminster often was employed on royal service and in due course took his place in the House of Lords as of right. Released from the burdens of spiritual leadership, which passed to the reformed Cluniac movement after the mid-10th century, and occupied with the administration of great landed properties, some of which lay far from Westminster, "the Benedictines achieved a remarkable degree of identification with the secular life of their times, and particularly with upper-class life", Barbara Harvey concludes, to the extent that her depiction of daily life provides a wider view of the concerns of the English gentry in the High and Late Middle Ages. 
The proximity of the Palace of Westminster did not extend to providing monks or abbots with high royal connections in social origin the Benedictines of Westminster were as modest as most of the order. The abbot remained Lord of the Manor of Westminster as a town of two to three thousand persons grew around it: as a consumer and employer on a grand scale the monastery helped fuel the town economy, and relations with the town remained unusually cordial, but no enfranchising charter was issued during the Middle Ages. 
The abbey became the coronation site of Norman kings. None were buried there until Henry III, intensely devoted to the cult of the Confessor, rebuilt the abbey in Anglo-French Gothic style as a shrine to venerate King Edward the Confessor and as a suitably regal setting for Henry's own tomb, under the highest Gothic nave in England. The Confessor's shrine subsequently played a great part in his canonization. 
Construction of the present church began in 1245 by Henry III  who selected the site for his burial.  The first building stage included the entire eastern end, the transepts, and the easternmost bay of the nave. The Lady chapel built from around 1220 at the extreme eastern end was incorporated into the chevet of the new building, but was later replaced. This work must have been largely completed by 1258–60, when the second stage was begun. This carried the nave on an additional five bays, bringing it to one bay beyond the ritual choir. Here construction stopped in about 1269, a consecration ceremony being held on 13 October of that year,  and because of Henry's death did not resume. The old Romanesque nave remained attached to the new building for over a century, until it was pulled down in the late 14th century and rebuilt from 1376, closely following the original (and by now outdated) design.  Construction was largely finished by the architect Henry Yevele in the reign of Richard II. 
Henry III also commissioned the unique Cosmati pavement in front of the High Altar (the pavement has recently undergone a major cleaning and conservation programme and was re-dedicated by the Dean at a service on 21 May 2010). 
Henry VII added a Perpendicular style chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1503 (known as the Henry VII Chapel or the "Lady Chapel"). Much of the stone came from Caen, in France (Caen stone), the Isle of Portland (Portland stone) and the Loire Valley region of France (tuffeau limestone).  The chapel was finished circa 1519. 
16th and 17th centuries: dissolution and restoration Edit
In 1535 during the assessment attendant on the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the abbey's annual income was £3,000 (equivalent to £1,850,000 as of 2019).  
1540–1550: 10 years as a cathedral Edit
Henry VIII assumed direct royal control in 1539 and granted the abbey the status of a cathedral by charter in 1540, simultaneously issuing letters patent establishing the Diocese of Westminster. By granting the abbey cathedral status, Henry VIII gained an excuse to spare it from the destruction or dissolution which he inflicted on most English abbeys during this period. 
After 1550: turbulent times Edit
Westminster diocese was dissolved in 1550, but the abbey was recognised (in 1552, retroactively to 1550) as a second cathedral of the Diocese of London until 1556.    The already-old expression "robbing Peter to pay Paul" may have been given a new lease of life when money meant for the abbey, which is dedicated to Saint Peter, was diverted to the treasury of St Paul's Cathedral. 
The abbey was restored to the Benedictines under the Catholic Mary I of England, but they were again ejected under Elizabeth I in 1559. In 1560, Elizabeth re-established Westminster as a "Royal Peculiar" – a church of the Church of England responsible directly to the Sovereign, rather than to a diocesan bishop – and made it the Collegiate Church of St Peter (that is, a non-cathedral church with an attached chapter of canons, headed by a dean). 
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. Oliver Cromwell was given an elaborate funeral there in 1658, only to be disinterred in January 1661 and posthumously hanged from a gibbet at Tyburn. 
1722–1745: Western towers constructed Edit
The abbey's two western towers were built between 1722 and 1745 by Nicholas Hawksmoor, constructed from Portland stone to an early example of a Gothic Revival design. Purbeck marble was used for the walls and the floors of Westminster Abbey, although the various tombstones are made of different types of marble. Further rebuilding and restoration occurred in the 19th century under Sir George Gilbert Scott. 
A narthex (a portico or entrance hall) for the west front was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in the mid-20th century but was not built. Images of the abbey prior to the construction of the towers are scarce, though the abbey's official website states that the building had "towers which had been left unfinished in the medieval period". 
In 1750 the top of one of the piers on the north side of the Abbey fell down, by earthquake, with the iron and lead that had fastened it. Several houses fell in, and many chimneys were damaged. Another shock had been felt during the preceding month. 
Second World War Edit
Westminster suffered minor damage during the Blitz on 15 November 1940. Then on 10/11 May 1941, the Westminster Abbey precincts and roof were hit by incendiary bombs. All the bombs were extinguished by ARP wardens, except for one bomb which ignited out of reach among the wooden beams and plaster vault of the lantern roof (of 1802) over the North Transept. Flames rapidly spread and burning beams and molten lead began to fall on the wooden stalls, pews and other ecclesiastical fixtures 130 feet below. Despite the falling debris, the staff dragged away as much furniture as possible before withdrawing. Finally the Lantern roof crashed down into the crossing, preventing the fires from spreading further. 
It was at Westminster Abbey that six companies of eminent churchmen led by Lancelot Andrewes, Dean of Westminster, newly translated the Bible into English, so creating the King James Version in the early 17th century.  The Joint Committee responsible for assembling the New English Bible also met twice a year at Westminster Abbey in the 1950s and 1960s. 
In the 1990s, two icons by the Russian icon painter Sergei Fyodorov were hung in the abbey.  In 1997, the abbey, which was then receiving approximately 1.75 million visitors each year, began charging admission fees to visitors. 
On 6 September 1997, the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, was held at the abbey.  On 17 September 2010, Pope Benedict XVI became the first pope to set foot in the abbey. 
In June 2009 the first major building work at the abbey for 250 years was proposed. A corona – a crown-like architectural feature – was suggested to be built around the lantern over the central crossing, replacing an existing pyramidal structure dating from the 1950s. This was part of a wider £23m development of the abbey completed in 2013.  
On 4 August 2010 the Dean and Chapter announced that, "[a]fter a considerable amount of preliminary and exploratory work", efforts toward the construction of a corona would not be continued.  In 2012, architects Panter Hudspith completed refurbishment of the 14th-century food-store originally used by the abbey's monks, converting it into a restaurant with English oak furniture by Covent Garden-based furniture makers Luke Hughes and Company. This is now the Cellarium Café and Terrace. 
The Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries have been created in the medieval triforium of the abbey. This is a display area for the abbey's treasures in the galleries high up around the abbey's nave. A new Gothic access tower with lift was designed by the abbey architect and Surveyor of the Fabric, Ptolemy Dean. The new galleries opened in June 2018.  
On 10 March 2021, a vaccination centre opened in Poets' Corner to administer doses of COVID-19 vaccines. 
Flag of Westminster Abbey, featuring the Tudor arms between Tudor Roses above the attributed arms of Edward the Confessor
A floorplan of the church
The illuminated facade of the church at night
The 19th-century choir screen divides the nave from the chancel
Since the coronation in 1066 of William the Conqueror, every English and British monarch (except Edward V and Edward VIII, who were never crowned) has been crowned in Westminster Abbey.   In 1216, Henry III could not be crowned in London when he came to the throne, because the French prince Louis had taken control of the city, and so the king was crowned in the Church of St. Peter in Gloucester (which is now Gloucester Cathedral). This coronation was deemed by Pope Honorius III to be improper, and a further coronation was held in Westminster Abbey on 17 May 1220. 
King Edward's Chair (or St Edward's Chair), the throne on which English and British sovereigns have been seated at the moment of crowning, is now housed within the Abbey in St George's Chapel near the West Door, and has been used at every coronation since 1308. From 1301 to 1996 (except for a short time in 1950 when the stone was temporarily stolen by Scottish nationalists), the chair also housed the Stone of Scone upon which the kings of Scots are crowned. Although the Stone is now kept in Scotland, in Edinburgh Castle, it is intended that the Stone will be returned to St Edward's Chair for use during future coronation ceremonies. 
Royal weddings have included: 
|11 November 1100||King Henry I of England||Matilda of Scotland|
|4 January 1243||Richard, Earl of Cornwall (later King of Germany), |
brother of King Henry III of England
|Sanchia of Provence (the groom's second wife |
sister of Eleanor of Provence, Henry III's queen.)
|8 or 9 April 1269||Edmund, Earl of Leicester and Lancaster, son of King Henry III||Lady Aveline de Forz|
|30 April 1290||7th Earl of Gloucester||Joan of Acre, daughter of King Edward I|
|8 July 1290||John II, son of Duke of Brabant||Margaret of England, daughter of King Edward I|
|20 January 1382||King Richard II of England||Anne of Bohemia|
|18 January 1486||King Henry VII of England||Elizabeth of York|
|27 February 1919||Captain the Hon. Alexander Ramsay||Princess Patricia of Connaught (later Lady Patricia Ramsay upon the solemnization of the marriage)|
|28 February 1922||Viscount Lascelles||The Princess Mary, daughter of King George V|
|26 April 1923||Prince Albert, Duke of York (later King George VI), second son of King George V||Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (later Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother)|
|29 November 1934||Prince George, Duke of Kent, son of King George V||Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark|
|20 November 1947||The Duke of Edinburgh (who was Lt Philip Mountbatten until that morning)||The Princess Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth II), elder daughter of King George VI|
|6 May 1960||Antony Armstrong-Jones (later Earl of Snowdon)||The Princess Margaret, second daughter of King George VI|
|24 April 1963||Hon. Angus Ogilvy||Princess Alexandra of Kent|
|14 November 1973||Captain Mark Phillips||The Princess Anne, only daughter of Queen Elizabeth II|
|23 July 1986||Prince Andrew, Duke of York, second son of Queen Elizabeth II||Miss Sarah Ferguson|
|29 April 2011 ||Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, grandson of Queen Elizabeth II||Miss Catherine Middleton|
Westminster Abbey is a collegiate church governed by the Dean and Chapter of Westminster, as established by Royal charter of Queen Elizabeth I dated 21 May 1560,  which created it as the Collegiate Church of St Peter Westminster, a Royal Peculiar under the personal jurisdiction of the Sovereign.  The members of the Chapter are the Dean and four canons residentiary  they are assisted by the Receiver General and Chapter Clerk.  One of the canons is also Rector of St Margaret's Church, Westminster, and often also holds the post of Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons.  In addition to the Dean and canons, there are at present three full-time minor canons: the precentor, the sacrist and the chaplain.  A series of Priests Vicar assist the minor canons. 
Henry III rebuilt the abbey in honour of a royal saint, Edward the Confessor, whose relics were placed in a shrine in the sanctuary. Henry III himself was interred nearby, as were many of the Plantagenet kings of England, their wives and other relatives. Until the death of George II in 1760, most kings and queens were buried in the abbey, some notable exceptions being Henry VI, Edward IV, Henry VIII and Charles I who are buried in St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle. Other exceptions include Edward II buried at Gloucester Cathedral, John buried at Worcester Cathedral, Henry IV buried at Canterbury Cathedral and Richard III, now buried at Leicester Cathedral, and the de facto queen Lady Jane Grey, buried in the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London. More recently monarchs have been buried either in St George's Chapel or at Frogmore to the east of Windsor Castle. 
From the Middle Ages, aristocrats were buried inside chapels, while monks and other people associated with the abbey were buried in the cloisters and other areas. One of these was Geoffrey Chaucer, who was buried here as he had apartments in the abbey where he was employed as master of the King's Works. Other poets, writers and musicians were buried or memorialised around Chaucer in what became known as Poets' Corner. Abbey musicians such as Henry Purcell were also buried in their place of work. 
Subsequently, it became one of Britain's most significant honours to be buried or commemorated in the abbey.  The practice of burying national figures in the abbey began under Oliver Cromwell with the burial of Admiral Robert Blake in 1657  (although he was subsequently reburied outside). The practice spread to include generals, admirals, politicians, doctors and scientists such as Isaac Newton, buried on 4 April 1727, Charles Darwin, buried on 26 April 1882, and Stephen Hawking, ashes interred on 15 June 2018. Another was William Wilberforce who led the movement to abolish slavery in the United Kingdom and the Plantations, buried on 3 August 1833. Wilberforce was buried in the north transept, close to his friend, the former Prime Minister, William Pitt. 
During the early 20th century it became increasingly common to bury cremated remains rather than coffins in the abbey. In 1905 the actor Sir Henry Irving was cremated and his ashes buried in Westminster Abbey, thereby becoming the first person ever to be cremated prior to interment at the abbey.  The majority of interments at the Abbey are of cremated remains, but some burials still take place – Frances Challen, wife of Sebastian Charles, Canon of Westminster, was buried alongside her husband in the south choir aisle in 2014.  Members of the Percy family have a family vault, The Northumberland Vault, in St Nicholas's chapel within the abbey. 
In the floor, just inside the Great West Door, in the centre of the nave, is the tomb of The Unknown Warrior, an unidentified British soldier killed on a European battlefield during the First World War. He was buried in the abbey on 11 November 1920. This grave is the only one in the abbey on which it is forbidden to walk. 
At the east end of the Lady Chapel is a memorial chapel to the airmen of the Royal Air Force who were killed in the Second World War. It incorporates a memorial window to the Battle of Britain, which replaces an earlier Tudor stained glass window destroyed in the war. 
On 6 September 1997 the formal, though not "state" funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, was held. It was a royal ceremonial funeral including royal pageantry and Anglican funeral liturgy. A second public service was held on Sunday at the demand of the people. The burial occurred privately later the same day. Diana's former husband, sons, mother, siblings, a close friend, and a clergyman were present. Diana's body was clothed in a black long-sleeved dress designed by Catherine Walker, which she had chosen some weeks before. A set of rosary beads was placed in her hands, a gift she had received from Mother Teresa, who died a day before Diana's funeral. Her grave is on the grounds of her family estate, Althorp, on a private island. 
On 9 April 2002 the ceremonial funeral of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother was held in the abbey. She was interred later the same day in the King George VI Memorial Chapel at St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle next to her husband, King George VI, who had died 50 years previously. At the same time, the ashes of the Queen Mother's daughter, Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, who had died on 9 February 2002, were also interred in a private family service. 
Westminster School and Westminster Abbey Choir School are also in the precincts of the abbey. The Choir School educates and trains the choirboys who sing for services in the Abbey. 
The exhibits included a unique collection of royal and other funeral effigies (funeral saddle, helm and shield of Henry V), together with other treasures, including some panels of medieval glass, 12th-century sculpture fragments, Mary II's coronation chair and replicas of the coronation regalia. There also were effigies of Edward III, Henry VII and his queen, Elizabeth of York, Charles II, William III, Mary II and Queen Anne.
A later addition to the display was the late 13th-century Westminster Retable, England's oldest altarpiece, which was most probably designed for the High Altar of the Abbey. Although damaged in past centuries, the panel was expertly cleaned and conserved.
This Museum has now closed, and has been replaced by the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries, high up in the triforium of the main Abbey building.