Former Benedictine abbey; present-day Collegiate Church of St. Peter's; on Thorney Island by the Thames, Middlesex, England, London Diocese (patron, St. Peter). Though traditionally founded in 616, it is not mentioned by Bede, and its early charters are dubious. It was founded or refounded by St. dunstan of canterbury with 12 Benedictines (958–970) and lavishly endowed, rebuilt, and put under papal protection by edward the confessor (1042–65). Its exemption from episcopal jurisdiction was disputed from 1135 to 1175 and confirmed in 1222. The Confessor's church, with 12th-century Norman extensions, was totally replaced: the eastern part in contemporary French Gothic (1245–69) by King Henry III, the western part in consistent style (1375–c. 1505). The Lady Chapel was completed in 1519. The western towers, originally designed by Christopher wren, were completed between 1740 and 1750.
The first great abbot, gilbert crispin (1085–1117), left the abbey with 80 monks and three dependent priories.
He established a high standard of learning, exemplified by Osbert of Clare (prior after 1136), advocate of the Immaculate Conception and of Edward the Confessor's canonization. In later centuries Westminster was not distinguished for learning, though monks were sent to Gloucester College, Oxford. Little is known of the library. The later 12th-and 13th-century scriptorium produced important manuscripts. Westminster was a meeting place of parliaments, and the coronation church and burial place of English kings. It was enriched with relics, works of art and war trophies by Henry III and Edward I. Though its abbots (1246–1307) had successful public careers, morale was not high after the later 13th century: there were internal disputes, a destructive fire (1298), and an unsolved burglary (1303). About half the community of 50 to 60 died of the Black Death (1349). simon langham (abbot 1349–62), later archbishop of Canterbury, restored concord, discipline, and solvency, and left a fortune for building the new nave. Numbers after this time were between 40 and 50. From the 13th to mid-15th century provision was regularly made for one monk to live as a recluse.
Both Abbot John Islip (1500–32) and his successor, William Boston, supported King henry viii. In 1539 the monastery was suppressed (with income valued in 1535 at £3,470) and a collegiate church was founded with Boston as first dean. In 1556 the Queen, mary tudor, refounded the Benedictine monastery under the resolutely orthodox john of feckenham; in 1559 Queen elizabeth i dissolved it. One long-lived monk provided a link with the English Benedictines established in France (1606–15), through whom the Abbey of ampleforth traces its roots to Westminster. Westminster remains the place for the coronation of the English sovereign, in which the dean has a special part.
Bibliography: Sources. w. dugdale, Monasticon Anglicanum, 1:265–330 (London 1817–30). j. flete, The History of Westminster Abbey, ed. j. a. robinson (Cambridge, Eng. 1909). g.r. c. davis, Medieval Cartularies … (London 1958). Literature. h. f. westlake, Westminster Abbey, 2 v. (London 1921). Inventory of the Historical Monuments in London (London 1924) v.1. j. mccann and c. caryelwes, Ampleforth and Its Origins (London 1952). p. brieger, English Art 1216–1307 (Oxford 1957) 106–134, 183–226. f. l. cross, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 1449–50 (London 1957). d. knowles, The Monastic Order in England, 943–1216 (2nd ed. Cambridge, Eng. 1962); d. knowles, The Religious Orders in England, 3 v. (Cambridge, Eng. 1948–60); and their bibliographies.
The abbey's close connection with the monarchy saved it from the fate of most other abbeys at the Reformation, which were turned into parish churches or plundered for their stone. The abbot's house was taken over by Lord Wentworth and the bishopric established in 1540 suppressed (leaving Westminster's claim to be a city). Mary began the restoration of the monastery but at the end of her brief reign it was closed again and the buildings made over to Westminster School. Though the abbey suffered from the iconoclasts of the 1640s, its prestige helped it during the Commonwealth: Cromwell had the stone of Scone taken to Westminster hall for his inauguration as lord protector and was given an elaborate funeral in the abbey, only to be disinterred in January 1661. Wren began the work of restoring the fabric of the abbey after years of neglect but not until 1745 were the western towers completed, to the design of Nicholas Hawksmoor. By that time the tradition of affording the great and mighty burial in the abbey was well established, as a British pantheon. Spenser was buried in what became known as Poets' Corner in 1599, Newton in 1727, Pitt in 1778, Samuel Johnson in 1784. At length the abbey became too crowded to permit of further burials. But among the host of memorials, the most moving is that which commemorates the dead of the Great War, a brass to a ‘British warrior, unknown by name or rank’.
J. A. Cannon