Westminster Abbey
Collegiate Church of Saint Peter at Westminster
Westminster Abbey St Peter.jpg
Western façade
Westminster Abbey is located in Central London
Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey
LocationDean's Yard,
London, SW1
DenominationChurch of England
Previous denominationRoman Catholicism
ChurchmanshipHigh Church
Websitewww.westminster-abbey.org Edit this at Wikidata
StatusCollegiate church
Founded960; 1063 years ago (960)
DedicationSaint Peter
Consecrated28 December 1065,
13 October 1269
Functional statusActive
Architect(s)Surveyor of the Fabric of Westminster Abbey
Architectural typeChurch
Years built
  • 960
  • 1065
  • 13th century (rebuilt in Gothic style)
  • 1517 Henry VII's Chapel
  • 1722 (towers)
Nave width85 feet (26 m)[1]
Height101 feet (31 m)[1]
Floor area32,000 square feet (3,000 m2)[1]
Number of towers2
Tower height225 feet (69 m)[1]
DioceseExtra-diocesan (royal peculiar)
DeanDavid Hoyle
Canon(s)see Dean and Chapter
Director of musicJames O'Donnell
(Organist and Master of the Choristers)
Organist(s)Peter Holder[2]
Matthew Jorysz[2]
Organ scholarDewi Rees[2]
Westminster Abbey is located in Central London
Westminster Abbey
Location within Central London
Coordinates51°29′58″N 00°07′39″W / 51.49944°N 0.12750°W / 51.49944; -0.12750Coordinates: 51°29′58″N 00°07′39″W / 51.49944°N 0.12750°W / 51.49944; -0.12750
Founded10th century[3]
Official namePalace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey and Saint Margaret's Church
Criteriai, ii, iv
Designated1987 (11th session)
Reference no.426
CountryUnited Kingdom
RegionEurope and North America
Listed Building – Grade I
Official nameWestminster Abbey (The Collegiate Church of St Peter)
Designated24 February 1958
Reference no.1291494[4]

Westminster Abbey, formally titled the Collegiate Church of Saint Peter at Westminster, is a historic, mainly Gothic church in the City of Westminster, London, England, just to the west of the Palace of Westminster. It is one of the United Kingdom's most notable religious buildings and, since Edward the Confessor, a burial site for English and, later, British monarchs. Since the coronation of William the Conqueror in 1066, all coronations of English and British monarchs have occurred in Westminster Abbey.[5][6] Sixteen royal weddings have occurred at the abbey since 1100.[7]

According to a tradition first reported by Sulcard in about 1080, a church was founded at the site (then known as Thorney Island) in the seventh century, at the time of Mellitus, Bishop of London. Construction of the present church began in 1245 on the orders of Henry III.[5]

The church was originally part of a Catholic Benedictine abbey, which was dissolved in 1539. It then served as the cathedral of the Diocese of Westminster until 1550, then as a second cathedral of the Diocese of London until 1556. The abbey was restored to the Benedictines by Mary I in 1556, then in 1559 made a royal peculiar—a Church of England church responsible directly to the sovereign—by Elizabeth I.

The abbey is the burial site of more than 3,300 people, many of prominence in British history: at least 16 monarchs, eight prime ministers, poets laureate, actors, scientists, military leaders, and the Unknown Warrior.[8]


Although historians agree that there was a monastery dedicated to St. Peter on the site prior to the 11th century, its exact origin is somewhat obscure. One legend claims that it was founded by the Saxon king Sebert, and another that its founder was the fictional 2nd century British king, Lucius.[9] One tradition claims that Aldrich, a young fisherman on the River Thames, had a vision of Saint Peter near the site. This seems to have been quoted as the origin of the salmon that Thames fishermen offered to the abbey in later years, a custom still observed annually by the Fishmongers' Company. The recorded origins of the abbey date to the 960s or early 970s, when Saint Dunstan and King Edgar installed a community of Benedictine monks on the site.[10] At that time, the location was an island in the middle of the River Thames called Thorn Ey.[9]

11th century: Edward the Confessor's abbey

St Peter's Abbey at the time of Edward's funeral, as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry
St Peter's Abbey at the time of Edward's funeral, as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry

Between 1042 and 1052, Edward the Confessor began rebuilding St Peter's Abbey to provide himself with a royal burial church. It was the first church in England built in the Romanesque style. The building was completed around 1060 and was consecrated on 28 December 1065, only a week before Edward's death on 5 January 1066.[11] A week later, he was buried in the church; nine years later, his wife Edith was buried alongside him.[12] His successor, Harold Godwinson, was probably crowned here, although the first documented coronation is that of William the Conqueror on 25 December that year.[13]

The only extant depiction of Edward's abbey, together with the adjacent Palace of Westminster, is in the Bayeux Tapestry. Some of the lower parts of the monastic dormitory, an extension of the South Transept, survive in the Norman Undercroft of the Great School, including a door said to come from the previous Saxon abbey. Increased endowments supported a community that increased from a dozen monks during Dunstan's time, up to as many as eighty monks.[14]

In 1103, thirty-seven years after his death, Edward's tomb was re-opened by Abbot Gilbert Crispin and Henry I, who discovered that his body was still in perfect condition. This was considered proof of his saintliness, and he was canonised in 1161. Two years later he was moved to a new shrine, during which time his ring was removed and placed in the Abbey's collection.[15]

13th-14th centuries: Construction of the present church

Layout plan dated 1894
Layout plan dated 1894

The abbot and monks, being adjacent to the Palace of Westminster (the seat of government from the late 13th century), became a powerful force in the centuries after the Norman Conquest, with the Abbot of Westminster taking his place in the House of Lords in due course. The proximity to the palace did not however extend to providing them with high royal connections; in social origin, the Benedictines of Westminster were as modest as most of the order. The abbot remained Lord of the manor of Westminster as a town of two to three thousand people grew around it: as a consumer and employer on a grand scale, the monastery helped fuel the town's economy, and relations with the town remained unusually cordial, but no enfranchising charter was issued during the Middle Ages.[16]

Westminster Abbey became the coronation site of Norman kings, but none were buried there until Henry III rebuilt it in the Gothic style as a shrine to venerate King Edward the Confessor, as a competitor to match the great French churches such as Rheims Cathedral and Sainte-Chapelle,[9] and as a burial place for himself and his family.[17] Edward's shrine subsequently played a great part in his canonization.[10]

Construction began in 1245 under Henry's master mason, Henry of Reynes. The first building stage included the entire eastern end, the transepts, and the easternmost bay of the nave. The Lady chapel, built from around 1220 at the extreme eastern end, was incorporated into the chevet of the new building, but was later replaced. Around 1253, Henry of Reynes was replaced by John of Gloucester, who was replaced by Robert of Beverley around 1260.[9] This work must have been largely completed by 1258–60, when the second stage began. During the summer, there were up to 400 workers on the site at a time.[18]

From 1257, Henry III held assemblies of local representatives in Westminster Abbey's chapter house, which were a precursor to the House of Commons. Henry III also commissioned the unique Cosmati pavement in front of the High Altar.[19] This stage of building work carried the nave on an additional five bays, bringing it to one bay beyond the ritual choir. Here, construction stopped in about 1269. A consecration ceremony was held on 13 October of that year during which the remains of Edward the Confessor were moved to their present location at the shrine behind the main altar,[20] but after Henry's death and burial in the abbey in 1272, construction did not resume and Edward the Confessor's old Romanesque nave remained attached to the new building for over a century.[9]

In 1296, Edward I captured the Stone of Scone from Scotland and had the Coronation Chair made to hold it, which he entrusted to the Abbot at Westminster Abbey.[21]

From 1376, Richard II donated large sums to finish the project, and the remainder of the old nave was pulled down and rebuilding recommenced, with his mason, Henry Yevele, closely following the original (and by now outdated) design.[22] During the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, Richard prayed at Edward the Confessor's shrine for "divine aid when human counsel was altogether wanting" before meeting the rebels at Smithfield. To this day, the abbey holds his full-length portrait, the earliest of an English king, on display near the west door.[23]

However, building work was not to be fully completed for many years. Henry V, disappointed with the abbey's unfinished state, gave extra funds towards the rebuilding, and in his will left instructions for a chantry chapel to be built over his tomb, which can still be viewed from ground level today.[24]

Under Henry VII, the 13th century Lady Chapel was demolished and rebuilt in a Perpendicular style, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1503 (known as the "Henry VII Chapel" or the "Lady Chapel"). The chapel was finished circa 1519.[22]

In the early 16th century, a project began under Abbot Islip to add two towers to the western end of the church. These were partially built up to the roof level of the church when building work stopped due to the uncertainty caused by the Reformation.[9]

16th and 17th centuries: Dissolution and Reformation

See also: Dissolution of the Monasteries; English Reformation

In 1535, during the assessment attendant on the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the abbey's annual income was £3,000.[25] Henry VIII assumed direct control of the abbey in 1539 and granted it the status of a cathedral by charter in 1540, simultaneously issuing letters patent establishing the Diocese of Westminster. By granting the abbey cathedral status, Henry VIII gained an excuse to spare it from the destruction or dissolution which he inflicted on most English abbeys during this period.[26] The abbot, William Benson, became dean of the cathedral, while the prior and five of the monks were among the twelve canons.[27]

The Westminster diocese was dissolved in 1550, but the abbey was recognised (in 1552, retroactively to 1550) as a second cathedral of the Diocese of London until 1556.[28][29][30] The already-old expression "robbing Peter to pay Paul" may have been given a new lease of life when money meant for the abbey, which is dedicated to Saint Peter, was diverted to the treasury of St Paul's Cathedral.[31]

Westminster Abbey c. 1711 prior to the western towers being built by Nicholas Hawksmoor
Westminster Abbey c. 1711 prior to the western towers being built by Nicholas Hawksmoor

The abbey saw the return of Benedictine monks under the Catholic Mary I, but they were again ejected under Elizabeth I in 1559. In 1560, Elizabeth re-established Westminster as a "royal peculiar" – a church of the Church of England responsible directly to the sovereign, rather than to a diocesan bishop – and made it the Collegiate Church of St Peter (that is, a non-cathedral church with an attached chapter of canons, headed by a dean).[32] She also re-founded what is now known as Westminster School, providing for 40 students known as the King's (or Queen's) Scholars and their schoolmasters. The King's Scholars have the duty of shouting Vivat Rex or Vivat Regina ("Long live the King/ Queen") during the coronation of a new monarch.To this day, the Dean of Westminster Abbey remains the chair of the school governors.[20]

In the early 17th century, the abbey hosted two of the six companies of churchmen, led by Lancelot Andrewes, Dean of Westminster, who translated the King James Version of the Bible.[33]

It suffered damage during the turbulent 1640s, when it was attacked by Puritan iconoclasts, but was again protected by its close ties to the state during the Commonwealth period. Oliver Cromwell was given an elaborate funeral there in 1658, only to be disinterred in January 1661 and posthumously hanged from a gibbet at Tyburn.[34]

18th and 19th centuries: Western towers constructed

At the end of the 17th century, English architect Sir Christopher Wren was appointed the abbey's first Surveyor of the Fabric, and began a project to restore the exterior of the church.[9] After over two hundred years, the abbey's two western towers were finally built between 1722 and 1745 by Nicholas Hawksmoor and John James, constructed from Portland stone to an early example of a Gothic Revival design. Purbeck marble was used for the walls and the floors, although the various tombstones are made of different types of marble.[35]

After an earthquake in 1750, the top of one of the piers on the north side fell down, with the iron and lead that had fastened it. Several houses fell in, and many chimneys were damaged. Another shock had been felt during the preceding month.[36]

On 11 November 1760, the funeral of George II was held at the abbey and the king was interred next to his late wife, Caroline of Ansbach. He left instructions for the sides of his and his wife's coffins to be removed so that their remains could mingle.[37]

Further rebuilding and restoration occurred in the 19th century under Sir George Gilbert Scott, who rebuilt the facade of the north transept, changing the rose window and porches on that side.[38] A narthex (a portico or entrance hall) for the west front was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in the mid-20th century but was not built.[39]

1914 suffragette bombing

See also: Suffragette bombing and arson campaign

Replica of the Stone of Scone at Scone Palace. In 1914, the historic Stone was broken in half by a suffragette bombing.
Replica of the Stone of Scone at Scone Palace. In 1914, the historic Stone was broken in half by a suffragette bombing.

On 11 June 1914, a bomb planted by suffragettes of the Women's Social and Political Union exploded inside the abbey.[40][41] The abbey was busy with visitors, with around 80–100 people in the building at the time of the explosion.[42][43] Some were as close as 20 yards (18 m) from the bomb and the explosion caused a panic for the exits, but no serious injuries were reported.[43] The bomb had been packed with nuts and bolts to act as shrapnel.[43]

The event was part of a campaign of bombing and arson attacks carried out by suffragettes nationwide between 1912 and 1914.[40] Churches were a particular target, as it was believed that the Church of England was complicit in reinforcing opposition to women's suffrage – 32 churches were attacked nationwide between 1913 and 1914.[44][45]

Coincidentally, at the time of the explosion, the House of Commons only 100 yards (90 m) away was debating how to deal with the violent tactics of the suffragettes.[43] Many in the Commons heard the explosion and rushed to the scene.[43] Two days after the Westminster Abbey bombing, a second suffragette bomb was discovered before it could explode in St Paul's Cathedral.[40]

The bomb blew off a corner of the Coronation Chair.[40][41] It also caused the Stone of Scone to break in half, although this was not discovered until 1950, when four Scottish nationalists broke into the church to steal the stone and return it to Scotland.[41]

Second World War

Westminster suffered minor damage during the Blitz on 15 November 1940. Then on 10/11 May 1941, the Westminster Abbey precincts and roof were hit by incendiary bombs. All the bombs were extinguished by ARP wardens, except for one bomb which ignited out of reach among the wooden beams and plaster vault of the lantern roof (of 1802) over the North Transept. Flames rapidly spread and burning beams and molten lead began to fall on the wooden stalls, pews and other ecclesiastical fixtures 130 feet (40 m) below. Despite the falling debris, the staff dragged away as much furniture as possible before withdrawing. Finally the Lantern roof crashed down into the crossing, preventing the fires from spreading further.[46]


The exterior of the church in 2010
The exterior of the church in 2010

The Joint Committee responsible for assembling the New English Bible met twice a year at Westminster Abbey in the 1950s and 1960s.[47]

In the 1990s, two icons by the Russian icon painter Sergei Fyodorov were added.[48]

In 1996, the Stone of Scone was returned to Scotland, with the agreement that it would return to the abbey for use in coronations. [49]

In 1997, the abbey, which was then receiving approximately 1.75 million visitors each year, began charging admission fees to visitors.[50]

On 6 September 1997, the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, was held at the abbey.[51]

In June 2009 the first major building work in 250 years was proposed. A corona – a crown-like architectural feature – was suggested to be built around the lantern over the central crossing, replacing an existing pyramidal structure dating from the 1950s. This was part of a wider £23m development of the abbey completed in 2013.[52][53] On 4 August 2010, the Dean and Chapter announced that, "[a]fter a considerable amount of preliminary and exploratory work", efforts toward the construction of a corona would not be continued.[54]

The Cosmati pavement was re-dedicated by the Dean at a service on 21 May 2010 after undergoing a major cleaning and conservation programme.[55] In 2012, architects Panter Hudspith completed refurbishment of the 14th-century food-store originally used by the abbey's monks, converting it into a restaurant with English oak furniture by Covent Garden-based furniture makers Luke Hughes and Company. This is now the Cellarium Café and Terrace.[56]

On 17 September 2010, Pope Benedict XVI became the first pope to set foot in the abbey,[57] and on 29 April 2011, the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton took place at the abbey.[58]

The Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries were created in the medieval triforium. This is a display area for the abbey's treasures in the galleries high up around the nave. A new Gothic access tower with lift was designed by the abbey architect and Surveyor of the Fabric, Ptolemy Dean. The new galleries opened in June 2018.[59][60]

On 10 March 2021, a vaccination centre opened in Poets' Corner to administer doses of COVID-19 vaccines.[61]


The present Westminster Abbey is largely based on French Gothic styles, especially those found at Rheims Cathedral, rather than the contemporaneous English Gothic styles. For example, the English Gothic style favours large and elaborate towers, while Westminster Abbey did not have any towers at all until the 18th century. It is also more similar to French churches than English ones in terms of its ratio of height to width: Westminster Abbey has the highest nave of any medieval church in England, and the nave is much narrower than any medieval English church of a similar height. Instead of a short, square, eastern end, as was the English fashion, Westminster Abbey has a long, rounded apse, and it also has chapels radiating from the ambulatory, which is typical of a French Gothic style. However, there are also distinctively English elements, such as the use of materials of contrasting colours, like Purbeck marble and white stone in the crossing.[9]

At the crossing, underneath Edward the Confessor's shrine and the main altar, is the Cosmati pavement, a 700-year-old tiled floor made of almost 80,000 pieces of coloured glass and stone set in Purbeck marble. It is named after the Cosmati family in Rome who were known for such work.[19]

Chapter house

The interior of the chapter house
The interior of the chapter house
The ceiling of the chapter house
The ceiling of the chapter house

The chapter house was built concurrently with the east parts of the abbey under Henry III, between about 1245 and 1253.[62] It was restored by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1872. The entrance is approached from the east cloister walk and includes a double doorway with a large tympanum above.[62]

Inner and outer vestibules lead to the octagonal chapter house. It is built in a Geometrical Gothic style with an octagonal crypt below and a pier of eight shafts carries the vaulted ceiling. To the sides are blind arcading, remains of 14th-century paintings and numerous stone benches above which are innovatory large 4-light quatre-foiled windows.[62] These are virtually contemporary with the Sainte-Chapelle, Paris.[62]

The chapter house has an original mid-13th-century tiled pavement. A door made with wood from a single tree grown in Hainault Forest, within the vestibule, dates from around 1050 and is one of the oldest in Britain.[63][64] The exterior includes flying buttresses added in the 14th century and a leaded tent-lantern roof on an iron frame designed by Scott. The chapter house was originally used in the 13th century by Benedictine monks for daily meetings. It later became a meeting place of the King's Great Council and the Commons, predecessors of Parliament.[65]

The Pyx Chamber formed the undercroft of the monks' dormitory. It dates to the late 11th century and was used as a monastic and royal treasury. The outer walls and circular piers are of 11th-century date, several of the capitals were enriched in the 12th century and the stone altar added in the 13th century. The term pyx refers to the boxwood chest in which coins were held and presented to a jury during the Trial of the Pyx, in which newly minted coins were presented to ensure they conformed to the required standards.[66]

The chapter house and Pyx Chamber at Westminster Abbey are in the guardianship of English Heritage, but under the care and management of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster.[65]

Henry VII Chapel

Main article: Henry VII Chapel

The Henry VII Lady Chapel, now more often known just as the Henry VII Chapel, is a large Lady chapel at the far eastern end of Westminster Abbey, paid for by the will of King Henry VII.[67]

The structure of the chapel is a three-aisled nave composed of four bays. The apse of the chapel contains the altar, and behind that, the tombs of Henry VII and his wife as well as of James I. There are five apsidal chapels. The chapel is noted for its pendant fan vault ceiling.[68]

The chapel is built in a very late Perpendicular Gothic style, the magnificence of which caused John Leland to call it the orbis miraculum (the wonder of the world).[69] The tombs of several monarchs including Henry VII, Edward VI, Mary I, Elizabeth I, James I, Charles II and Mary, Queen of Scots are found in the chapel.[70]

The chapel has also been the mother church of the Order of the Bath since 1725, and the banners of members hang above the stalls.[71]

Royal occasions

The abbey has strong connections with the royal family, being patronised by various monarchs; as the location for coronations, royal weddings and funerals; and where several monarchs have attended services. In addition, one monarch was born and one died at Westminster Abbey: in 1413, Henry IV collapsed while praying at the shrine of Edward the Confessor. He was moved into the Jerusalem Chamber and died shortly afterwards.[72] Between 1470 and 1471, due to fallout from the Wars of the Roses, Elizabeth Woodville, the wife of Edward IV, took sanctuary at Westminster Abbey while her husband was deposed, and gave birth to the future Edward V in the Abbot's house.[73]


Main articles: Coronation of the British monarch and List of British coronations

Since the coronation in 1066 of William the Conqueror, every English and British monarch (except Edward V and Edward VIII, who were never crowned) has been crowned in Westminster Abbey.[20] In 1216, Henry III could not be crowned in London when he came to the throne, because the French prince Louis had taken control of the city, and so the king was crowned in the Church of St Peter in Gloucester (which is now Gloucester Cathedral). This coronation was deemed by Pope Honorius III to be improper, and a further coronation was held in Westminster Abbey on 17 May 1220.[74]

King Edward's Chair (or St Edward's Chair), the throne on which English and British sovereigns have been seated at the moment of crowning, is now housed within the abbey in St George's Chapel near the West Door, and has been used at every coronation since 1308. From 1301 to 1996 (except for a short time in 1950 when the stone was temporarily stolen by Scottish nationalists), the chair also housed the Stone of Scone upon which the kings of Scots were crowned. Although it is now kept in Scotland, at Edinburgh Castle, it is intended that the stone will be returned temporarily to St Edward's Chair for use during future coronation ceremonies.[75]

Royal weddings

The 1382 wedding of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia
The 1382 wedding of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia

Royal weddings have included:[76]

Date Groom Bride
11 November 1100 Henry I of England Matilda of Scotland
4 January 1243 Richard, Earl of Cornwall Sanchia of Provence
8 or 9 April 1269 Edmund, Earl of Leicester and Lancaster Aveline de Forz
30 April 1290 Gilbert de Clare, 7th Earl of Gloucester Joan of Acre
8 July 1290 John II, Duke of Brabant Margaret of England
20 January 1382[72] Richard II of England Anne of Bohemia
18 January 1486 Henry VII of England Elizabeth of York
27 February 1919 Captain The Hon. Alexander Ramsay Princess Patricia of Connaught
28 February 1922 Henry Lascelles, Viscount Lascelles The Princess Mary
26 April 1923 Prince Albert, Duke of York Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon
29 November 1934 Prince George, Duke of Kent Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark
20 November 1947 Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten The Princess Elizabeth
6 May 1960 Antony Armstrong-Jones The Princess Margaret
24 April 1963 The Hon. Angus Ogilvy Princess Alexandra of Kent
14 November 1973 Captain Mark Phillips The Princess Anne
23 July 1986 The Prince Andrew Sarah Ferguson
29 April 2011[77] Prince William of Wales Catherine Middleton

Royal funerals

Many royal funerals have taken place at the abbey, dating back to that of Edward the Confessor in 1066. Until the 18th century, many English and British monarchs were buried here, although in more recent years the custom has been to have the funeral at Westminster Abbey and then have the burial elsewhere.[20]

In 1290, Eleanor of Castile, queen of Edward I, died in Nottinghamshire. Over the course of several days, the body was brought to Westminster Abbey, and at each of the places the cortege rested, an Eleanor Cross was erected in memory. The most famous of these is Charing Cross, the last stop before the funeral. Eleanor of Castile is buried in the abbey alongside her husband.[21]

In 1483, the child king Edward V and his brother, Richard (known as the Princes in the Tower), disappeared while preparing for Edward's coronation at the Tower of London. Although it isn't known for sure what happened to the boys, historians have suspected their uncle, who became Richard III, of having them murdered. In 1674, the remains of two children were discovered at the Tower, and were buried in Westminster Abbey with royal honours. In 1933, the bones were studied by an anatomist who suggested that they might indeed be the remains of the two princes.[78]

On 6 September 1997 the formal, though not state funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, was held at the abbey. It was a royal ceremonial funeral including royal pageantry and Anglican funeral liturgy. A second public service was held on the following Sunday. The burial occurred privately on 6 September on the grounds of her family estate, Althorp, on a private island.[79]

On 19 September 2022, the state funeral of Elizabeth II took place at the abbey before her burial at St. George's Chapel, Windsor.[80]

Dean and Chapter

Main article: Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Westminster Abbey is a collegiate church governed by the Dean and Chapter of Westminster, as established by Royal charter of Elizabeth I dated 21 May 1560,[81] which created it as the Collegiate Church of St Peter Westminster, a royal peculiar under the personal jurisdiction of the sovereign.[32] The members of the Chapter are the Dean and four canons residentiary;[82] they are assisted by the Receiver General and Chapter Clerk.[83] One of the canons is also Rector of St Margaret's Church, Westminster, and often also holds the post of Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons.[84] In addition to the dean and canons, there are at present three full-time minor canons: the precentor, the sacrist and the chaplain.[85] A series of Priests Vicar assist the minor canons.[85]

King's Almsmen

An establishment of six King's (or Queen's) Almsmen and women is supported by the abbey; they are appointed by royal warrant on the recommendation of the dean and the Home Secretary, attend Matins and Evensong on Sundays and do such duties as may be requested (in return for which they receive a small stipend); when on duty they wear a distinctive red gown with a crowned rose badge on the left shoulder.[86] From the late 18th until the late 20th century the almsmen were usually ex-servicemen, but today they are mostly retired employees of the abbey. Historically, the King's Almsmen and women were retired Crown servants residing in the Royal Almshouse at Westminster, which had been established by Henry VII in connection with his building of the new Lady Chapel, to support the priests of his chantry by offering daily prayer. The Royal Almshouse survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries, but was demolished for road-widening in 1779.[86]

Burials and memorials

Main article: Burials and memorials in Westminster Abbey

Audio description of the shrine of Edward the Confessor by John Hall
The cloister
The cloister

Henry III rebuilt the abbey in honour of a royal saint, Edward the Confessor, whose relics were placed in a shrine in the sanctuary, and rebuilt the Abbey partly to serve as a burial place for himself and his family.[87] He was interred near to the shrine, as were many of the Plantagenet kings of England, their wives and other relatives. Until the death of George II in 1760, most kings and queens were buried in the abbey. Monarchs buried at the abbey include Edward the Confessor, Henry III, Edward I, Edward III, Richard II, Henry V, Edward V, Henry VII, Edward VI, Mary I, Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I, and George II.[87] More recently, monarchs have been buried either in St George's Chapel or at the Frogmore Royal Burial Ground to the east of Windsor Castle.[88]

From the Middle Ages, aristocrats were buried inside chapels, while monks and other people associated with the abbey were buried in the cloisters and other areas. One of them was Geoffrey Chaucer, who was employed as master of the King's Works and had apartments in the abbey. Other poets, writers and musicians such as Robert Browning and Alfred, Lord Tennyson were buried or memorialised around Chaucer in what became known as Poets' Corner. Abbey musicians such as Henry Purcell were also buried in their place of work.[89]

Subsequently, it became one of Britain's most significant honours to be buried or commemorated in the abbey.[90] The practice of burying national figures in the abbey began under Oliver Cromwell with the burial of Admiral Robert Blake in 1657 (although he was subsequently reburied outside).[91] The practice spread to include generals, admirals, politicians, doctors and scientists such as Sir Isaac Newton (buried on 4 April 1727), Charles Darwin (buried on 26 April 1882), and Stephen Hawking (ashes interred on 15 June 2018). Another was William Wilberforce, who led the movement to abolish slavery in the United Kingdom and the Plantations, buried on 3 August 1833. Wilberforce was buried in the north transept, close to his friend, the former prime minister, William Pitt the Younger.[92]

During the early 20th century it became increasingly common to bury cremated remains rather than coffins in the abbey. In 1905, the actor Sir Henry Irving was cremated and his ashes buried in Westminster Abbey, thereby becoming the first person to be cremated before interment at the abbey.[93] The majority of interments are of cremated remains, but some burials still take place – Frances Challen, wife of Sebastian Charles, Canon of Westminster, was buried alongside her husband in the south choir aisle in 2014.[94] Members of the Percy family have a family vault, The Northumberland Vault, in St Nicholas's chapel within the abbey.[95]

On the floor, just inside the Great West Door, in the centre of the nave, is the tomb of The Unknown Warrior, an unidentified British soldier killed on a European battlefield during the First World War. He was buried in the abbey on 11 November 1920. This grave is the only one in the abbey on which it is forbidden to walk.[96]

At the east end of the Lady Chapel is a memorial chapel to the airmen of the Royal Air Force who were killed in the Second World War. It incorporates a memorial window to the Battle of Britain, which replaces an earlier Tudor stained glass window destroyed in the war.[97]

Funeral procession of Diana, Princess of Wales
Funeral procession of Diana, Princess of Wales

In 1998, ten vacant statue niches on the façade above the Great West Door were filled with representatives 20th-century Christian martyrs of various denominations. Those commemorated are Maximilian Kolbe, Manche Masemola, Janani Luwum, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, Martin Luther King Jr., Óscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Esther John, Lucian Tapiedi, and Wang Zhiming.[98][99]


Westminster School is located in the precincts of the abbey where it was founded by the Benedictine monks. Separately, Westminster Abbey Choir School is also located within the abbey grounds and exclusively educates the choirboys who sing for abbey services.[100]


The Westminster Abbey choristers outside 10 Downing Street in 2012
The Westminster Abbey choristers outside 10 Downing Street in 2012

Westminster Abbey is renowned for its choral tradition, and the repertoire of Anglican church music is heard in daily worship, particularly at the service of Choral Evensong.[101][102] The abbey choir consists of 12 professional adults and up to thirty boy choristers who all attend Westminster Abbey Choir School.[103]


See also: List of Westminster Abbey organists

The organ was built by Harrison & Harrison in 1937, then with four manuals and 84 speaking stops, and was used for the first time at the coronation of George VI. Some pipework from the previous Hill organ of 1848 was revoiced and incorporated in the new scheme. The two organ cases, designed and built in the late 19th century by John Loughborough Pearson, were re-instated and coloured in 1959.[104]

In 1982 and 1987, Harrison & Harrison enlarged the organ under the direction of the then abbey organist Simon Preston to include an additional Lower Choir Organ and a Bombarde Organ: the current instrument now has five manuals and 109 speaking stops. In 2006, the console of the organ was refurbished by Harrison & Harrison, and space was prepared for two additional 16 ft stops on the Lower Choir Organ and the Bombarde Organ.[104]

The current Organist and Master of the choristers, James O'Donnell, has been in post since 2000.[105]


The bells at the abbey were overhauled in 1971. The ring is now made up of ten bells, hung for change ringing, cast in 1971 by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, tuned to the notes: F#, E, D, C#, B, A, G, F#, E and D. The Tenor bell in D (588.5 Hz) has a weight of 30 cwt, 1 qtr, 15 lb (3403 lb or 1544 kg).[106]

In addition there are two service bells, cast by Robert Mot, in 1585 and 1598 respectively, a Sanctus bell cast in 1738 by Richard Phelps and Thomas Lester and two unused bells—one cast about 1320, and a second cast in 1742, by Thomas Lester.[106] The two service bells and the 1320 bell, along with a fourth small silver "dish bell", kept in the refectory, have been noted as being of historical importance by the Church Buildings Council of the Church of England.[107]


The Westminster Abbey Museum was located in the 11th-century vaulted undercroft beneath the former monks' dormitory. This was one of the oldest areas of the abbey, dating back almost to the foundation of the church by Edward the Confessor in 1065. This space had been used as a museum since 1908[108] but was closed to the public in June 2018, when it was replaced as a museum by the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries, high up in the abbey's triforium.[59]

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  • Bradley, S. and N. Pevsner (2003) The Buildings of England – London 6: Westminster, New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 105–207. ISBN 0-300-09595-3
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Further reading