Ecclesiastical crowning glory in height of fashion

Westminster Abbey
February 25, 2005

By the start of the 13th century, Westminster was in essence the political capital of England, with a complex of administrative, residential and ecclesiastical buildings second to none in importance and magnificence. The ecclesiastical centrepiece of this was Westminster Abbey, from its conception a remarkable building. It was commissioned by King Henry III, paid for out of the royal purse and built in a high Gothic French style very different from anything that had hitherto been seen in England.

Henry was aiming to construct, at the heart of his kingdom, a building that put him among his continental peers, especially his brother-in-law Louis IX of France. Its French architectural language and form set Westminster Abbey apart. It had the highest nave vaults of any English church; the proportion of its height to width is 3:1, in line with French fashion. Most English cathedrals are distinguished by their low elongation, being far longer and lower than continental examples. Yet the height of Westminster Abbey is still modest by French standards; even the lowest of French cathedrals, Nôtre Dame in Paris, is higher.

The degree of integration between this French-born abbey and its architectural and institutional surroundings was remarkable. Henry III made the abbey his private monastery, physically and institutionally linked to the hub of government and the residence of the monarch at the Palace of Westminster next door. This association did not mean that relations between the Crown and the abbey were always harmonious. The prior of Westminster celebrated when the keeper of the privy purse, William Ussheborne, choked to death on a pike caught in the moat of the Jewel Tower, part of the King's palace built on abbey land without compensation.

Much has changed since Henry III's time, not least in the relationship between the church and the state, but Westminster Abbey remains a royal peculiar to this day. That is to say the dean answers to the Queen and suffers no interference from the hierarchy of the Church of England. For this reason alone, Westminster is interesting. But the abbey is worthy of attention for two other important reasons.

First, unlike any other great national religious building in Europe, it combines under one roof the place of coronation, the royal mausoleum and the domestic church of the monarchy. In France, for instance, Saint-Denis is the normal burial place of monarchs, the cathedral at Rheims the place of coronation and the Sainte-Chapelle the private chapel of the monarchy.

Westminster is the ultimate royal multipurpose church - the receptacle of all English monarchical ceremony.

Second, Westminster Abbey is still in use for at least two of these purposes. Britain alone in Europe preserves a full medieval coronation ceremony, and Westminster has been its location for nearly 1,000 years.

Here exists an unparalleled fusion of medieval etiquette and architecture.

Richard Jenkyns' slim book is part of a Wonders of the World series. An earlier volume on the Alhambra, by Robert Irwin, was my companion when I visited Granada. In comparison, I found this volume disappointing. I know it is necessary to sell the subject of one's book, but the puff that Jenkyns gives to Westminster Abbey took my breath away. He believes that it is "perhaps the most complex building of any kind". I cannot agree. There must be at least half a dozen older, more significant and more complex churches in Rome alone, let alone other building types (the Palatine palace?). Perhaps it was this anxiety about its complexity that leaves much of the book to anecdote. I was particularly sad to see the coronation section reduced to stories such as the hackneyed tale of Queen Victoria and the coronation ring (the archbishop tried to squeeze it on the wrong finger). The story of the coronation deserved more.

This is neither a guidebook nor a history; it is a collection of episodes, both chronological and thematic. One hopes that the next books in the series will be more original and less frightened by their subject.

Simon Thurley is chief executive, English Heritage, and was formerly director, Museum of London.

Westminster Abbey

Author - Richard Jenkyns
Publisher - Profile
Pages - 215
Price - £15.99
ISBN - 1 86197 648 8

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