Westminster Abbey – a short journey
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In my Historical Fiction novels “The King’s Jew,” the opening scene is set in Westminster Abbey, London. Lots of readers have asked questions about book one –
“The King’s Jew – At the tomb of King Edward the First. Westminster, 1307”
So – as I obviously did a lot of research for this project I have decided to share some of it with you, dear reader. Accordingly I will deal with a chapter at a time to give you some background to the scenes depicted in the relevant chapter – without giving anything away that would spoil the plot!
Chapter one is set within the confines of Westminster Abbey on Friday, October 27th, 1307 – so how about we take a look at Westminster Abbey? Though it didn’t look like this at the start.
The first reports of the abbey are based on the tradition that a young fisherman called Aldrich on the River Thames saw a vision of Saint Peter near the site and thus St Peter’s was built. This seems to be quoted to justify the gifts of salmon from Thames fishermen that the abbey received in later years. In the present era, the Fishmonger’s Company still gives a salmon every year. The proven origins are that in the 960s or early 970s, Saint Dunstan, assisted by King Edgar, installed a community of Benedictines on the site.
Between 1042 and 1052
Almost one hundred years later King 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 not completed until around 1090 but was consecrated on 28 December 1065, only a week before Edward’s death on 5 January 1066. A week later he was buried in the church.
His successor, Harold Godwinson was probably crowned in the abbey, although the first documented coronation is that of William the Conqueror later the same year.
To the victors the spoils eh? For when King Harold decided to claim the throne he upset Duke William who assembled an army and after creating havoc wherever he wanted the two opposing forces met at what we now call ‘The Battle of Hastings’. Harold died and William was crowned King of England.
The abbey became the coronation site of Norman kings. None was buried there until Henry III; intensely devoted to the cult of the Confessor he rebuilt the abbey in Anglo-French Gothic style as a shrine to venerate King Edward the Confessor and as a suitably regal setting for his own tomb, under the highest Gothic nave in England.
From 1066 onwards the building underwent many minor changes but the main architect (I don’t mean literally) of the edifice you now see was King Henry the Third (he turns up throughout book one for he is father to Edward – the King mentioned in the title)
Thus, the construction of the present church was begun in 1245 by Henry III who selected the site for his burial. An interesting point here is that though Henry III was a Norman / Plantagenet King and imbued with the dominance of his dynasty he actually gave his firstborn an Anglo-Saxon name; Edward.
The reason for this? Because he adored the dead king Edward the Confessor. It was Henry III who built the Confessor’s Tomb that we see nowadays. It was Edward and his son who carried the remains of Edward the Confessor to its final resting place. In short, Henry revered this medieval Saint who was canonized in 1161. Henry built his church to reflect the piety of Edward the confessor.
In those days, Westminster Abbey was just a stone’s throw away from Westminster Palace which was the main residence of Henry III. Thus, you have an abbey and a palace in close proximity a few miles west of London. And so it came to pass that the area of Westminster prospered for pilgrims constantly visited the shrine of The Confessor to pray and ask for favors.
The proximity of the Palace of Westminster did not extend to providing monks or abbots 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 persons 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. The abbey built shops and dwellings and the district of Westminster prospered.
The first Norman King to be buried at the abbey
Was Henry III in 1272 and it was his son Edward (later King Edward the First) who helped with the design of his tomb. Henry’s tomb effigy below
Not many people know this, but
Henry III was unable to be crowned in London when he first came to the throne because the French prince Louis had taken control of the city (yes the French had arrived!) and so the king was crowned in Gloucester Cathedral. This coronation was deemed invalid by the Pope and a further coronation was held in the Westminster Abbey on 17 May 1220.
Over the past 700+ years, many changes have taken place in the shape of the Abbey as different people have sought to leave their mark on it. Yet certain things remain – the secret stairway is still there (you’ll have to read the book) – the listening post of the two rebels can still be accessed (read the book!) – the Cosmati pavement on which my characters walked is still there and – last but not least –King Edward’s coronation chair is still there – and his great black Purbeck stone tomb where Lord Cristian is making his way to in chapter one (the tomb was open at this time).
The image below is a drawing of the tomb when it was opened in the seventeenth century – spooky eh?
The Abbey is steeped in history and actually outlasted the King’s Palace on which site you will now see the British House of Parliament.
Thus ends our look behind the scenes of chapter one. Next week we’ll have a sneaky peek at some more background from “The King’s Jew. Book One. At the tomb of King Edward the First…”
And it is available at the following outlets:
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