Formally titled The Collegiate Church of St Peter, Westminster, this mainly Gothic church, on the scale of a cathedral, in London is the traditional place of coronation and burial site for English monarchs.
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According to legend the Abbey was founded in the time of King Saberht of Essex when a fisherman saw a vision of St Peter. It was built on a island in the river Thames called Thorney Island. It was rebuilt by Edward the Confessor between 1045 - 1065 in the Norman style. Edward had vowed to go on pilgrimage but had failed to keep his promise. The Pope suggested he redeem himself by building the Abbey.
It was built as an abbey for the Benedictine monks and was consecrated on December 28, 1065. It was rebuilt in the Gothic style between 1245 - 1517. The first phase of the rebuilding was organised by Henry III and the work largely finished by the architect Henry Yevele in the reign of King Richard II. Henry VII adding a perpendicular style chapel in 1503.
Westminster Abbey was seized by Henry VIII in the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1534, and closed in 1540. The expression "robbing Peter to pay Paul" may arise from this period when money meant for the abbey, which was dedicated to St. Peter, was diverted to the treasury of St. Paul's Cathedral.
In 1579, Elizabeth I re-established Westminster as a "royal peculiar" -- a church responsible directly to the sovereign, rather than the Archbishop of Canterbury -- and made it a school, the Collegiate Church of St. Peter. Since then, the head has been not a bishop (although the Abbey is the seat of the Bishop of London) but a dean, appointed by the monarch. Until the 19th century, Westminster was the third seat of learning in England, after Oxford and Cambridge. It was here that the first third of the King James Bible Old Testament and the last half of the New Testament were translated.
King Harold II Godwinson was the first monarch crowned in the Abbey in 1066. On Christmas Day of the same year William the Conqueror was crowned here and all subsequent English monarchs (except Lady Jane Grey, Edward V and Edward VIII, who did not have coronations) have been crowned there. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the traditional cleric in the coronation ceremony. Harold and William, however, were crowned by the Archbishop of York possibly because Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury was excomunicated at the time.
Henry III rebuilt the Abbey in honour of the Royal Saint Edward the Confessor whose memorial and relics were placed in the Sanctuary. Henry III was buried nearby as were the Plantagenet kings of England, their wives and relatives. Subsequently, most Kings and Queens of England were buried here. Although Henry VIII and most of the monarchs after Charles I are buried at Windsor.
Aristocrats were buried in side chapels and monks and people associated with the Abbey were buried in the Cloisters and other areas. One of these was Geoffrey Chaucer who was buried here as he had apartments in the Abbey as he was employed as master of the Kings Works. Other poets were buried around Chaucer in what became known as Poet's Corner. Abbey musicians such as Henry Purcell and Orlando Gibbons were also buried in their place of work. Subsequently it became an honour to be buried or memorialised here. The practice spread from aristocrats and poets to Generals, Admirals, politicians, scientists, doctors etc. etc. These include: