Westminster Abbey

Cathedral in/near Westminster, existing until now

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Cathedral · Westminster · SW1P ·
MAY
8
2019
Westminster Abbey, formally titled the Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster, is one of the world’s greatest churches.

Westminster Abbey with a procession of Knights of the Bath (1749)
Credit: Canaletto
According to a tradition first reported by Sulcard in about 1080, a church was founded at the site, then known as Thorn Ey (Thorn Island), in the 7th century, at the time of Mellitus (d. 624), a Bishop of London. The island was a marshy retreat from the City of London, flanked by two channels of the Tyburn River, which flowed where Downing Street and Great College Street now run. Construction of the present church was begun in 1245, on the orders of Henry III.

It is a designated World Heritage Site and ‘Royal Peculiar’, which means the Dean is directly answerable to the monarch. The coronation of Kings and Queens has taken place here since 1066, and many of the nation’s Kings and Queens are buried in the Abbey. Principal among them is St Edward the Confessor, King of England from 1042 to 1066, whose shrine is at the heart of the Abbey. The Abbey has hosted many royal weddings.

Apart from the royal graves, there are many famous commoners interred here, especially in Poets’ Corner, where you’ll find the resting places of Chaucer, Dickens, Hardy, Tennyson, Dr Johnson and Kipling as well as memorials to the other greats (Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Brontë etc). Nearby are the graves of Handel and Sir Isaac Newton.

The octagonal Chapter House dates from the 1250s and was where the monks would meet for daily prayer before Henry VIII’s suppression of the monasteries some three centuries later. Used as a treasury and ’Royal Wardrobe’, the cryptlike Pyx Chamber dates from about 1070. The neighbouring Abbey Museum has as its centrepiece the death masks of generations of royalty.

In the Abbey precincts lies St Margaret’s Church (the Church of the House of Commons), the Great and Little Cloisters, the Chapter House and Museum, and College Garden, the oldest garden in England. The Abbey Library and Muniments Room offer research facilities by appointment. Also here are Westminster School, strongly associated with the Abbey, and Westminster Abbey Choir School, which educates the Abbey’s choristers.

VIEW THE WESTMINSTER AREA IN THE 1750s
The 1750 Rocque map is bounded by Sudbury (NW), Snaresbrook (NE), Eltham (SE) and Hampton Court (SW).
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VIEW THE WESTMINSTER AREA IN THE 1800s
The 1800 mapping is bounded by Stanmore (NW), Woodford (NE), Bromley (SE) and Hampton Court (SW).
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VIEW THE WESTMINSTER AREA IN THE 1830s
The 1830 mapping is bounded by West Hampstead (NW), Hackney (NE), Greenwich (SE) and Chelsea (SW).
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VIEW THE WESTMINSTER AREA IN THE 1860s
The 1860 mapping is bounded by Brent Cross (NW), Stratford (NE), Greenwich (SE) and Hammermith (SW).
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VIEW THE WESTMINSTER AREA IN THE 1900s
The 1900 mapping covers all of the London area.

 

Westminster

Westminster - heart of government.

While the underground station dates from 1868, Westminster itself is almost as old as London itself. It has a large concentration of London’s historic and prestigious landmarks and visitor attractions, including the Palace of Westminster, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral.

Historically part of the parish of St Margaret in the City and Liberty of Westminster and the county of Middlesex, the name Westminster was the ancient description for the area around Westminster Abbey – the West Minster, or monastery church, that gave the area its name – which has been the seat of the government of England (and later the British government) for almost a thousand years.

Westminster is the location of the Palace of Westminster, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which houses the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

The area has been the seat of the government of England for almost a thousand years. Westminster is thus often used as a metonym for Parliament and the political community of the United Kingdom generally. The civil service is similarly referred to by the area it inhabits, Whitehall, and Westminster is consequently also used in reference to the ’Westminster System’, the parliamentary model of democratic government that has evolved in the United Kingdom.

The historic core of Westminster is the former Thorney Island on which Westminster Abbey was built. The Abbey became the traditional venue of the coronation of the kings and queens of England. The nearby Palace of Westminster came to be the principal royal residence after the Norman conquest of England in 1066, and later housed the developing Parliament and law courts of England. It can be said that London thus has developed two distinct focal points: an economic one in the City of London; and a political and cultural one in Westminster, where the Royal Court had its home. This division is still very apparent today.

The monarchy later moved to the Palace of Whitehall a little towards the north-east. The law courts have since moved to the Royal Courts of Justice, close to the border of the City of London.

The Westminster area formed part of the City and Liberty of Westminster and the county of Middlesex. The ancient parish was St Margaret; after 1727 split into the parishes of St Margaret and St John. The area around Westminster Abbey formed the extra-parochial Close of the Collegiate Church of St Peter surrounded by—but not part of—either parish. Until 1900 the local authority was the combined vestry of St Margaret and St John (also known as the Westminster District Board of Works from 1855 to 1887), which was based at Westminster City Hall on Caxton Street from 1883. The Liberty of Westminster, governed by the Westminster Court of Burgesses, also included St Martin in the Fields and several other parishes and places. Westminster had its own quarter sessions, but the Middlesex sessions also had jurisdiction. The area was transferred from Middlesex to the County of London in 1889 and the local government of Westminster was reformed in 1900 when the court of burgesses and parish vestries were abolished, to be replaced with a metropolitan borough council. The council was given city status, allowing it to be known as Westminster City Council.

The underground station was opened as Westminster Bridge on 24 December 1868 by the steam-operated Metropolitan District Railway (MDR) (now the District line) when the railway opened the first section of its line from South Kensington. It was originally the eastern terminus of the MDR and the station cutting ended at a concrete wall buffered by timber sleepers. The approach to the station from the west runs in cut and cover tunnel under the roadway of Broad Sanctuary and diagonally under Parliament Square. In Broad Sanctuary the tunnel is close to Westminster Abbey and St Margaret’s church and care was required to avoid undermining their foundations when excavating in the poor ground found there.

The station was completely rebuilt to incorporate new deep-level platforms for the Jubilee line when it was extended to the London Docklands in the 1990s. During the works, the level of the sub-surface platforms was lowered to enable ground level access to Portcullis House. This was achieved in small increments carried out when the line was closed at night.
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