Close of the Collegiate Church of St Peter, Middlesex Genealogy

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England  Gotoarrow.png  Middlesex Gotoarrow.png Middlesex Parishes Gotoarrow.png  Close of the Collegiate Church of St Peter

Parish History

Westminster Abbey, or, the Collegiate Church of St Peter, Westminster is situated on the western side of Westminster Hall. The origin and dedication of this ancient Abbey is involved in much obscurity and fabulous legend. The most credible account is, that it was founded by Sebert, King of the East Saxons, who died in 616. This church and its monastery were afterwards repaired and enlarged by Offa, King of Mercia, but being destroyed by the Danes, they were rebuilt by King Edgar, who endowed them with lands and manors, and in 969 granted them with many privileges. Being again ravaged by the Danes, they were rebuilt by Edward the Confessor, in a magnificent manner, and in the form of a cross. The works being finished in 1065, they were consecrated with the greatest pomp and solemnity, and all their ancient rights and privileges, with many additional, were confirmed to them by charter.

William the Norman ["Conqueror"], further embellish and the church, and made it many handsome presents; and at the Christmas following his assumption of the Crown of England, he was solemnly [sic] crowned therein, this being the first coronation performed within its walls. The next prince who improved this national building was Henry III, who added to, and much repaired it. These repairs were completed by his succcessor in 1285, which is the date of the building as it now stands. About 1502, King Henry VII began the splendid chapel that is called by his name. This chapel, like that of Henry III, which he pulled down to make room for it, he dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and designed it for a burial place for himself and his posterity. At the time of the suppression of the religious houses, the Abbey was surrendered to Henry VIII, who dissolved it, and erected it into a college of secular canons, under the government of a dean. [Queen] Mary restored it to its original conventical state, and Queen Elizabeth finally ejected the monks, and in 1560 erected the Abbey into a college as at present. The western towers were built by Sir Christopher Wren, and many subsequent repairs and embellishments have been executed by our various monarchs. The Abbey is particularly to be admired for the venerable beauty of its architecture, for the many ancient and modern monuments to the moemory of our greatest characters, and for many other curiosities, too numerous to be deatiled in a limited work like the present.

Westminster Abbey, or, more properly the collegiate church of St. Peter at Westminster, is ascribed to Sebert, King of the East Saxons. Edward the Confessor rebuilt the church in 1065; and by Pope Nicholas II. it was appointed the place of inauguration for the kings of England. On the general suppression of religious houses, Henry VIII. converted the Benedictine abbey attached to this church into a college of Secular canons, under the government of a dean; and afterwards appointed a bishop, making Westminster the head of a diocese, comprising the entire county of Middlesex, except Fulham, which was retained by the Bishop of London; but this establishment was dissolved by Edward VI., who restored the college, which was again changed by Queen Mary into an abbey. Elizabeth put an end to that institution in 1560, and founded the present establishment, which is a college consisting of a dean and nine (to be reduced to six) Secular canons, or prebendaries, who have the patronage of the six minor canonries. A school was attached by Elizabeth, for 40 scholars, called the Queen's, to be educated in the liberal scieuces, preparatory to their removal to the university; as is more particularly noticed hereafter. To the establishment also belong choristers, singing men, an organist, and twelve almsmen. It is supposed that a school was annexed to the abbey so long ago as the time of Edward the Confessor.

The present church was built by Henry III. and his successors, and completed by the last abbot, with the exception of the two towers at the western entrance, which are the work of Sir Christopher Wren, and the northern doorway, called the "beautiful gate," which was erected at the expense of the unfortunate Bishop Atterbury. Its length is 360 feet, the breadth of the nave 72 feet, and the length of the transept 195 feet. On entering the western door, the whole body of the church, highly impressive from its loftiness, lightness, and symmetry, presents itself at one view, terminated by the fine painted window over the portico of Henry the Seventh's chapel. The nave is separated from the choir by a screen; the choir, in the form of a semioctagon, is surrounded by several chapels. The roofs of the nave and transept are supported by two rows of arches, one above the other, resting on beautiful and lofty clustered columns of Purbeck marble. Corresponding with the central range of pillars are demi-pillars in the side walls, which, as they rise, spring into semi-arches, and meet others opposite in acute angles; by which means the roof is thrown into a variety of segments of arches decorated with ornamental carvings. The aisles receive light from a middle range of windows, which, with the four large ones at the ends of the nave and the transept, give light to the whole of the main building.

The great western window is splendidly painted, representing figures of the patriarchs Moses and Aaron, the arms of Edward the Confessor, those of Westminster, and other devices. The choir, one of the most beautiful in Europe, is terminated towards the east by the ancient high altar, beyond which, at a small distance, is seen the magnificent shrine of Edward the Confessor, rising from the centre of the chapel which bears his name. The pavement before the altar-table is a splendid specimen of ancient Mosaic work, and one side of the inclosure is formed by the venerable tombs and effigies of Aymer de Valence and Edward Crouchback, the monuments of King Sebert, Anne of Cleves, &c. The choir is inclosed in the northern and southern sides by handsome stalls, the floor being paved with black and white marble, and the roof ornamented with white tiles, divided into compartments, which are bordered with gilt carved work. The ceremony of the coronation of the kings and queens of England is performed in this part of the abbey.

The best executed monuments are the productions of Roubilliac, Rysbrach, Flaxman, Westmacott, and Bacon. In the southern extremity of the transept are monuments to the memory of many of the most eminent British poets, whence this spot has received its name of Poets' Corner: here are amongst others, the names and memorials of Chancer, Spenser, Shakspeare, Ben Jonson, Milton, Dryden, Butler, Thomson, Gay, Goldsmith, Addison, Johnson, &c.; with the tombs of Handel and Garrick. In the southern aisle the most remarkable monuments are those of Dr. Watts, W. Hargrave, Esq., and Captain James Cornwall, At the western end of the abbey are those of Sir Godfrey Kneller, Dr. Mead, Sir Charles Wager, the Earl of Chatham, &c. On the northern side of the entrance into the choir is a monument to Sir Isaac Newton, and near it one of Earl Stanhope. Near the great gates, and opposite the tomb of the Earl of Chatham, lie the remains, about twelve feet from each other, of the two great political rivals, Charles James Fox and William Pitt, the monument of the latter of whom is over the western entrance. A monument to Lord Mansfield is erected under one of the lofty arches at the northern end of the transept.

Around the choir are eight chapels, dedicated respectively to St. Benedict, St. Nicholas, St. Paul, St. Erasmus, St. John the Baptist, St. John the Evangelist, St. Michael, and St. Andrew; and in them is a variety of tombs, erected to the memory of distinguished persons: the three last-named chapels have been converted into a single one. Besides these, are two others deserving particular description, viz., the chapel of Edward the Confessor, and Henry the Seventh's Chapel. Edward the Confessor's Chapel stands immediately behind the altar of the church, upon an elevated floor, to which there is a flight of steps. It is remarkable for containing the shrine of its patron saint, King Edward the Confessor, and the tombs of several of the ancient English monarchs, from which circumstance it has been denominated "the Chapel of the Kings." The saint's shrine, erected pursuant to the orders of Henry III., by Peter Cavalini, stands in the centre, and was curiously ornamented with mosaic work of coloured stones, with gilding, and other embellishments, but only some fragments now remain. Of the regal monuments around, that of Henry III. is distinguished by large panels of polished porphyry, inclosed with mosaic work of scarlet and gold, and that monarch's effigy of brass gilt, the size of life. The remains of Edward I. are contained in a plain coffin of grey marble. The tomb of Edward III. has his statue of brass gilt, and is surrounded by statues of his children and others.

There is a tomb erected to the memory of Richard II. and his queen, Anne of Bohemia, with their effigies. Editha, consort of the Confessor; Eleanor, the affectionate wife of Edward I.; and the heroic Philippa, consort of Edward III., have tombs with their effigies; the tombs of brass gilt, and the effigies of alabaster. The tomb of Henry V. is inclosed in a beautiful chantry chapel. The coronation chairs, and the stone brought from Scone by Edward I.; the sword and shield of King Edward III., the saddle and helmet used by Henry V. at the battle of Agincourt; and various models of churches by Sir Christopher Wren, are shown among the curiosties here. Along the frieze of the screen of the chapel are fourteen legendary sculptures, relating to the history of Edward the Confessor, which were executed in the reign of Henry III., and are well worthy the attention of the antiquary. Henry the Seventh's Chapel, universally admitted to be one of the richest specimens of later English architecture in the kingdom, adjoins the eastern extremity of the abbey. It was erected as a mausoleum for himself and his family by the king whose name it bears, on the site of a smaller chapel, dedicated, like the present, to the Virgin Mary; and cost £14,000, a sum estimated to have been equal to a quarter of a million of our present currency.

The exterior of the edifice is remarkable for richness and variety, which are greatly increased by fourteen buttresses, with crocketed turrets, projecting from the several angles of the building, and are beautifully ornamented with canopies, niches, and other decorations: these buttresses add strength as well as beauty to the edifice, being connected with the upper part of the walls of the nave by pointed arches. The interior, lighted by a double range of windows of magnificent dimensions and elegant workmanship, consists of a nave and two small aisles, and is entered by a flight of black marble steps, under a noble arch, that leads to a pair of large wrought brazen gates, thickly plated with gold. The nave is 99 feet long, 66 broad, and 54 high, and terminates at the eastern end in a curve, having five deep recesses, entered by open arches. The lofty stone ceiling, with its innumerable ornaments, excites the highest admiration. Numerous oratories, canopies, and other embellishments, adorn the sides and ends of the chapel. In the centre stands the altar-tomb of Henry VII., executed by Torregiano, in basaltic stone, ornamented with the royal effigy, and surrounded by a magnificent screen of the same material; the whole said to have cost £1000. Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, Mary, Queen of Scots, Margaret of Richmond, several of the Brunswick family, and numerous other royal and distinguished persons, have been interred within this celebrated chapel.

1. James Elmes, M.R. I. A., Architect. In “A Topographical Dictionary of London and its Envirions,” (London: Whittaker, Treacher and Arnot, 1831). Adapted.

2. Samuel Lewis, ed. "London," In A Topographical Dictionary of England 129-170. (London: S. Lewis and Co., 1848), Online here.


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