Brief History of Westminster Abbey

May 5, 2023
Westminster Abbey, England

… the Abbey really is the heart of the country and its history.

The Dean’s Verger at Westminster Abbey, Martin Castledine. On Saturday, King Charles III’s coronation will be held at the church steeped in history, located in central London, England.

A Brief History: Westminster Abbey's roots span back about 1,000 years. Initially a monastery founded by a British king and bishop around 960 A.D., it became the "west minster" when King Edward chose to enlarge and re-endow the monastery in honor of St Peter the Apostle (it was called "west minster" [minster = a large, important church] to distinguish it from London's east minster, St Paul's Cathedral). Two centuries later, King Henry III chose to rebuild Edward's Abbey in the Gothic architecture style – a project which took many years ("only traces" of Edward's original monastery remain at Westminster Abbey). The Westminster Abbey's official website shares the church "was [then] designed to be not only a great monastery and place of worship, but also a place for the coronation and burial of monarchs."

Today: The Abbey continues to be a location of daily worship and a burial place of not only kings, but poets, statesmen, scientists, musicians and warriors. The church contains around 3,300 burials, as well as more than 600 wall tablets and monuments. Well-known figures who have been buried in Westminster Abbey include writer and novelist Jane Austen and scientist Sir Isaac Newton; another notable burial includes the Unknown Warrior, "whose grave … has become a place of pilgrimage" as "Heads of State who are visiting the country invariably come to lay a wreath at this grave," the Westminster Abbey explains. Among other royal occasions, 16 royal weddings have also been held at the Abbey.

Coronations at Westminster Abbey: Since 1066, every British monarch who has had a coronation (a formal ceremony where the monarch is officially crowned) has been crowned at Westminster Abbey. This tradition began with the coronation of William the Conqueror, which occurred on Christmas day nearly 1,000 years ago. On Saturday, King Charles III will be the 40th monarch to be crowned at Westminster Abbey.

Fun Facts:

  • The exterior of Westminster Abbey has been restored many times, however, the most recent restoration spanned from 1973-1995. In 1989, a time capsule "in the form of a lead covered box was embedded in the stonework on the south side of the Abbey" to mark the completion of that side of the church's restoration, the Westminster Abbey's official website recounts, sharing that the time capsule "contained details of the work, photos of the workmen, and coins etc."
  • On the morning of Queen Elizabeth II's (King Charles III mother) coronation at Westminster Abbey in 1953, a black cat named Matins who belonged to one of the Abbey's clergy sat upon her coronation chair, sleeping! According to the Westminster Abbey, Matins was "a regular visitor in the Abbey during coronation preparations."

History of Westminster Abbey (Westminster Abbey)

Architecture (Westminster Abbey)

A history of coronations (Westminster Abbey)

10 things you didn't know about Coronations | Coronation 2023 (Westminster Abbey, YouTube)

King Charles III: Coronation timetable: Your complete guide to the day (BBC)

by Jenna Lee,