Today (December 28) in London History – Westminster Abbey

This is the December 28th entry in the On This Day in London History series. This day, December 28th – December 28th, 1065 – was the day Westminster Abbey was dedicated. That’s the subject of this podcast.


London Calling. 

It’s December 28th, 1065. We’re in London. Well, strictly speaking, we’re in Westminster.

We’re at the dedication of Westminster Abbey. 

Somebody who’s not at the dedication but who should be – more so than anybody else  – is King Edward, Edward the Confessor as he’ll come to be known – the only King of England to be canonised. His canonisation is a century in the future. 

What’s to the point on this day of days us King Edward’s the man who rebuilt the Abbey on a scale almost without parallel north of the Alps.

Why is he not there?  His Majesty has recently suffered a series of strokes. He will be dead in a week. King Edward’s breath will turn to air at his royal palace at Westminster on January 4th or possibly January 5th – we’re not absolutely certain of the exact date. We do know that he’ll be buried before the high altar in Westminster Abbey on January 6th. 

Which flag to run up the pole of December 28th? This one was easy. This one was no contest.

Westminster Abbey is the most sacred space in England. Westminster Abbey is England’s greatest building. Westminster Abbey is a microcosm of the nation’s history. Westminster Abbey is a House of kings and queens. Westminster Abbey is a place of coronations, cloisters and college gardens. A place of royal weddings and royal tombs.

Now for just a touch of Why? history – Why is the Abbey here? What is it about the Abbey?

Edward was crowned in Winchester Cathedral in 1043, where his ancestors were buried. His decision to build a new palace and abbey at Westminster was a break with tradition for this son of Wessex. A break with tradition that was understandable. London had overtaken Winchester. It, London, was now the most important and populous city in England. London had the largest mint. London was the biggest port. London contributed more in tax than anywhere else. Edward read the room, so speak. He saw that London was now the key to the kingdom. 

He picked his spot carefully. There’s the legend of course that St. Peter had once come to Thorney Island – the ground the Abbey stands on was once a palace. Edward had vowed to go to Rome, to go to St. Peter’s. That was a pilgrimage he wasn’t able to make. He did the next best thing – he built a great Abbey on the spot where St. Peter had appeared. Built a great Abbey and dedicated it to St. Peter. 

That was the feel-good factor. The practical factor was that his new palace and Abbey – a royal enclave – was outside the city. And the more secure for being so.

The scale of the undertaking beggars belief. There was an old minster there. It was entirely demolished. Craftsmen were assembled from all over England. Work began sometime before 1050. It wasn’t completed until about 1080. Crucially, though, enough of it was completed by 1065 for the dedication to take place. And all important this, that included the East End, the high altar end – it was ready to receive Edward’s body come the hour. 

And the stats? The Abbey church was enormous. 322 feet long. That was larger than anything built in England since the Romans. It was larger than any church in northern Europe. 

It was a building that sent English architecture in an entirely new direction. As architectural historian Simon Thurley puts it, ‘the essential change was from interiors that relied for their effect on large areas of painted wall surface to spaces that were modelled in three dimensions, with arches, horizontal mouldings (string courses), semicircular shafts, stone vaults and ornamental mouldings. So the interior of Westminster Abbey was conceived as a spatial whole rather than an agglomeration of small compartments as in Saxon churches.

But enough said. Today – December 28th – is the day. The dedication of Westminster Abbey 956 years ago was the event. You’ve clocked it. It’s now in your head. Next stop, you setting foot in there to see for yourself. Perhaps on Mary’s or Tom’s or Brian’s Westminster Abbey Tour.

From London. Good night. Stay classy, San Diego. Or wherever. 

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