History

Architecture

The present building dates mainly from the reign of King Henry III. In 1245 he pulled down the eastern part of the 11th century Abbey, which had been founded by King Edward the Confessor and dedicated in 1065. Earlier in Henry's reign, on 16 May 1220, he had laid the foundation stone for a new Lady Chapel at the east end of the Confessor's church, but as the Abbey's own financial resources were not sufficient to continue the rebuilding of the whole church at this time no other work was carried out.

It is said that Henry's devotion to St Edward later prompted him to build a more magnificent church in the newest Gothic style, and also to provide a new shrine for the Saint, near to whom Henry himself could be buried. The three master masons supervising the work were Henry of Reyns, John of Gloucester and Robert of Beverley. It is not known if Henry was English or French but the architect was greatly influenced by the new cathedrals at Reims, Amiens and Chartres, borrowing the ideas of an apse with radiating chapels and using the characteristic Gothic features of pointed arches, ribbed vaulting, rose windows and flying buttresses. The design is based on the continental system of geometrical proportion, but its English features include single rather than double aisles and a long nave with wide projecting transepts. The Abbey has the highest Gothic vault in England (nearly 102 feet) and it was made to seem higher by making the aisles narrow. The Englishness is also apparent in the elaborate mouldings of the main arches, the lavish use of polished Purbeck marble for the columns and the overall sculptural decoration. The east-west axis was determined by the existing position of the Lady Chapel.

A spacious area between the high altar and the beginning of the quire was necessary to provide a ‘theatre’ where coronations could take place. The stonework (which came from Caen in France and Reigate in Surrey), the sculptured roof bosses and the other carvings would have been brightly coloured and the wall arcades may have been decorated in vermilion and gold. The walls were adorned with fine paintings, and two, depicting St Thomas and St Christopher, were rediscovered in the 1930s. Some of the original colour on the censing angels in the south transept was discovered at about the same time. Brilliant ruby and sapphire glass, with heraldic shields set in a grisaille (or grey monochrome) pattern, filled the windows. The chapel screens and tombs added to the display of colour. By 1269 the apse, radiating chapels, transepts and choir were complete and the new shrine received the bones of St Edward on 13 October.

When Henry III died in 1272 only one bay of the nave beyond the choir screen had been completed. The old Norman nave remained attached to the far higher Gothic building for over a century until more money became available at the end of the fourteenth century. The western section of the nave was then carried on by Abbot Nicholas Litlyngton using money bequeathed by Cardinal Simon Langham (Litlyngton’s predecessor as abbot) and work slowly progressed for nearly a hundred and fifty years. It was probably Litlyngton who insisted that the general design of Henry III's masons should be followed thus giving the Abbey great architectural unity. Master mason Henry Yevele made only minor alterations in the architectural design but it can be seen on closer inspection that the diaper (or rosette) decoration on the spandrels of the arches was discontinued in the nave, and other details are not as elaborate as the older work. In the bay of the nave just to the west of the quire screen can be seen the junction of the old and new work.

In 1422 Henry V was buried at the eastern end of St Edward’s Chapel. In accordance with his will a lavishly sculptured chantry chapel was built over the tomb, with two turret staircases leading to an altar above. The designer was John Thirske, who was probably also responsible for the carved altar screen in the Confessor's chapel added at this period, showing representations of events in the life of St Edward. Abbot John Islip, died 1532, added his own Jesus chapel off the north ambulatory and finally completed the nave vaulting and glazed the west window, but the top parts of the west towers remained unfinished.

The next great addition to the Abbey was the construction of a magnificent new Lady Chapel by Henry VII between 1503 and 1519 to replace the 13th century chapel. The Perpendicular architecture here is in total contrast to the rest of the Abbey. No accounts for this building have been found but it is thought that the architects were Robert Janyns and William Vertue. It has been called "one of the most perfect buildings ever erected in England" and "the wonder of the world". Henry spent lavish sums on its decoration. The glory of the chapel is its delicately carved fan vaulted roof, with hanging pendants. These are constructed on half-concealed transverse arches. All around the chapel are Tudor emblems such as the rose and portcullis, and nearly one hundred statues of saints still remain in niches around the walls. The original jewel-like stained glass by Bernard Flower has, however, disappeared.

The last phase of building was the completion in 1745 of the West Towers in Portland stone, to a design by Nicholas Hawksmoor, the Abbey's Surveyor.

Further reading

W.R. Lethaby, Westminster Abbey and the Kings' Craftsmen: a study of medieval building (1906)

F. Bond, Westminster Abbey (1909)

W.R. Lethaby, Westminster Abbey Re-Examined (1925)

H.M. Colvin (ed.), The History of the King's Works, vols. i and iii (1963, 1975)

P. Binski, Westminster Abbey and the Plantagenets…1200-1400 (1995)

T. Cocke, 900 Years: the Restorations of Westminster Abbey (1995)

L. Grant & R. Mortimer, Westminster Abbey: the Cosmati pavements (2002)

Westminster Abbey Chapter House – the history, art and architecture...edited by Warwick Rodwell and Richard Mortimer, 2010.

T. Tatton-Brown & R. Mortimer (eds), Westminster Abbey: The Lady Chapel of Henry VII (2003)

Warwick Rodwell “The lantern tower of Westminster Abbey 1060-2010” (2010)

Geoffrey Webb “Architecture in Britain in the Middle Ages” (1956)

Walter Leedy “Fan vaulting, a study of form, technique and meaning” (1980) 

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