WESTMINSTER ABBEY: The History of England’s Most Famous Church by Dr. Jesse Harasta

westminster abbeyThis delightful slim volume (I assume it is slim – I read it on my Kindle and it was quite short),  is a most readable history of the world famous church.

Obviously, I am not going to give you the history  that is what the book is for,  but maybe you might like a few highlights.

This building dates back to William the Conqueror, which would be ummmm….. let me see….  1028 to 1087.  Wow.  That makes it like a thousand years old!

Traditional legend holds that it was founded by Sebert, the King of the East Saxons in 616 AD.  It is said he also founded the original St. Paul’s in London.  Saxons were worshippers of the old Norse/Germanic gods, and Sebert was the first Christian king.

‘Minster’ is an old English term for monastary, and also according to legend, St  Peter miraculously appeared to consecrate the newly completed church.

Yeah, but there isn’t any evidence to support this legend.  There is evidence of charters for monastaries in the 700s and in the 900s.  But the most compelling account is from a medieval historian, William of Malmesbury who wrote that in the 900s St. Dunstan brought 12 Benedictine monks to the monastery from Glastonbury to expand the existing monastery.  But even then,  we can’t rely on St. Dunstan.  We are today not even sure exactly where the original site was.  A lot of history of the times were written to satisfy purposes other than to record true events.  Ha.  Sounds like today, doesn’t it.

But moving right along, shoving aside all the things we don’t know about the church, we come to King Edward “the Confessor”, he of the house of Wessex, who ruled as king of a united England from 1033 to 1065.  He had tough times as a young king, and was in exile in Normandy.  He vowed a pilgrimage to Rome if he were reinstated to his throne.  But then when the time came for the pilgrimage, he wanted to weasel out of the deal.  The Pope was just as happy, because what would he get out of it, but instead forgave Edward his vow if Edward would build a magnificent church dedicated to St. Peter.  Edward saw this as a smooth move because he wanted to create a grand royal compound as part of a new capital for himself.

Kings in the Dark Ages were somewhat itinerant figures without fixed capitals due to the need to move from stronghold to stronghold as the needs of politics, war, or the king’s whims dictated.

So he chose the nearby monastery of Westminster.  The Palace of Westminster became the seat of government housing the royal court, as well as the House of Lords and the House of Commons.

From that point on, Westminster Abbey has been fundamentally tied to the Crown and the English (and then British) government.

Construction began in 1065 and finished up a decade later, and Edward was able to attend its consecration a few days before his death, probably from a series of strokes.

A little side note:  Edward was the son of Æthelred the Unready and Emma of Normandy, and I gotta say we don’t have cool names like Æthelred the Unready anymore.  Pity, that. He is called Confessor, the name for someone believed to have lived a saintly life but who was not a martyr, (in Latin S. Eduardus Confessor rex Anglorum, as opposed to S. Eduardus Martyr rex Anglorum.)  He was canonized in 1161 by Pope Alexander III, and is commemorated on 13 October by both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales. Saint Edward was one of the national saints of England until King Edward III adopted Saint George as patron saint in about 1350.  Isn’t that a shame that he lost his position to an upstart like Saint George.

There is so much more to the story of Westminster Abbey, like how it become THE place to hold a coronation, and and to be buried, and how the place is absolutely filled to the brim with the tombs of the royal and the famous.  What a place!

I urge you to read it.  Just a great book.  Long enough to have some meat, short enough not to be too overly self-indulgent in a plethora of tiny factoids. And it has a lot of beautiful pictures.




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