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. In the cloisters the Pyx chamber and the Undercroft still remain from Edward's church. On each side of the door into the Pyx masons marks can be seen on the walls.
Earlier in Henry's reign, on 16th 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 the Confessor 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 quire 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. This was consecrated on 19th February 1516. 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. Wooden carved misericords can be seen on the stall seats. The original jewel-like stained glass by Bernard Flower has, however, disappeared.
The last phase of building of the Abbey was the completion in 1745 of the West Towers in Portland stone, to a design by Nicholas Hawksmoor, the Abbey's Surveyor. John James, his successor as Surveyor, finished the work.
Both Wren, William Dickinson and Hawksmoor had put forward various designs for a central tower, dome or spire on top of the lantern roof but this was never done. There had been one on the Norman church (as shown in the Bayeux Tapestry) and a small one on the medieval church as shown in Abbot Islip's mortuary roll. There are two oil paintings in the Abbey collection depicting the proposed central tower. Wren's wooden model for a tower and spire is on display in the new Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries.
The newest addition to the fabric is an exterior turret with lift (designed by Ptolemy Dean and known as the Weston tower after a generous donor) near the Chapter House, allowing access to the new Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries.
The exterior fabric of the Abbey has been restored and re-faced several times in different types of stone. Wren and his assistant William Dickinson, did a great deal of work, especially at the north front, followed by Hawksmoor. Decay was caused by weathering of the Reigate sandstone and pollution from coal smoke. The most recent restoration was from 1973-1995. A time capsule in the form of a lead covered box was embedded in the stonework on the south side of the Abbey on 19th April 1989 to mark the completion of restoration of this side of the church. This contained details of the work, photos of the workmen, and coins etc.
For new statues at the west front see Hawksmoor's entry on the website and individual entries for the ten modern martyr statues: Kolbe, Masemola, Luwum, Elizabeth of Russia, Martin Luther King jnr, Romero, Esther John, Tapiedi and Zhiming.
From 1808-1822 the exterior of the Lady Chapel was extensively restored under James Wyatt and mason Thomas Gayfere. Name labels for statues in the niches still remain but the figures had disappeared or been removed by this time. The four Ketton stone statues in the western niches of buttresses on the north side of the nave are older than the other five, dating from Dean Williams' restoration in the early 1600s. The later ones were erected in the early 19th century. These figures represent kings (James I and Henry III among them), knights and a lady (probably Eleanor of Castile as it resembles her tomb effigy).
Sir George Gilbert Scott in the mid-19th century restored the Chapter House and the south transept gable (now with a modern carving of Christ in Majesty on it) and designed the triple north porch (completed after his death by his son John).
The figures over the main north entrance were carved by Messrs Farmer and Brindley (some have been restored) and show Christ in Majesty blessing the Church and the World surrounded by angels. Below them are seated figures of the Apostles and under them are figures in procession which represent such professions as music, painting, sculpture, law, history, engineering etc. together with royal builders of the Abbey. On the central pillar is the Blessed Virgin May holding the Crowned Christ in her arms. Scott's design for statues in the main lower niches here were not carried out so these are empty. Corbels of animals such as dragons can be seen here. Also gargoyles with drainage pipes coming from their mouths.
John L. Pearson restored and altered the upper parts of the north front and the stonework of the rose window (which before his work was the same design as the south transept rose window) in the late 19th century. The thirty two large figures in the niches were originally carved by Nathaniel Hitch but the front was once again fully restored in the 1980's and most were re-carved, as was the figure of St Peter trampling on the devil in the apex of the porch gable. At the very top are the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel. The upper tier of figures represent Learning, the early Church and Christianity, Monastic founders, Martyrs and Science. The lower tier are those connected with Abbey history, royal benefactors, Abbots and Deans. Above the side doors are Abbots Laurence, Langham, Esteney and Islip.
Dimensions of Westminster Abbey (PDF, 47.8 KB)
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The biggest challenge we face is maintaining such a large physical collection of material within a historic building – believe it or not, there’s just not enough space for it all.