Westminster Abbey in 1731
The following information is taken from London in 1731 by Don Manoel Gonzales. The complete text of this work is available at Project Gutenburg.
The Abbey maintains its own website.
Don Manoel's Account
The Abbey-Church of St. Peter at Westminster appears to be very ancient, though far from being so ancient as is vulgarly reported.
Some relate, without any authority to support the conjecture, that it was founded in the days of the Apostles by St. Peter himself; others that it was erected by King Lucius about the year 170. And by some it is said to have been built by King Sebert, the first Christian king of the East-Saxons (Essex and Middlesex), anno 611.
But I take it for granted the church was not built before the convent or abbey it belonged to. People did not use to build churches at a distance from town, unless for the service of convents or religious houses. But neither in the times of the Apostles, nor in the supposed reign of King Lucius, in the second century, was there any such thing as a convent in England, or perhaps in any part of Christendom.
During the dominion of the Saxons in this island, monasteries indeed were erected here, and in many other kingdoms, in great abundance; and as the monks generally chose thick woods or other solitary places for their residence, where could they meet with a spot of ground fitter for their purpose than this woody island called Thorney, then destitute of inhabitants? But I am inclined to think that neither this or any other monastery was erected in South Britain till the seventh century, after Austin the monk came into England.
As to the tradition of its having been built upon the ruins of the temple of Apollo, destroyed by an earthquake, I do not doubt but the monks were very ready to propagate a fable of this kind, who formed so many others to show the triumphs of Christianity over paganism, and to induce their proselytes to believe that heaven miraculously interposed in their favour by earthquakes, storms, and other prodigies.
But to proceed. When the convent was erected, I make no doubt that there was a church or chapel built as usual for the service of the monks; but it is evident from history that the dimensions of the first or second church that stood here were not comparable to those of the present church.
We may rely upon it that about the year 850 there was a church and convent in the island of Thorney, because about that time, London being in the possession of the Danes, the convent was destroyed by them (not in the year 659, as some writers have affirmed, because the Danes did not invade England till nearly 200 years afterwards). The abbey lay in ruins about a hundred years, when King Edgar, at the instance of Dunstan, Abbot of Glastonbury (and afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury), rebuilt this and several other monasteries, about the year 960. Edward the Confessor, a devout prince, enlarged this church and monastery, in which he placed the Benedictine monks, ordered the regalia to be kept by the fathers of the convent, and succeeding kings to be crowned here, as William the Conqueror and several other English monarchs afterwards were, most of them enriching this abbey with large revenues; but King Henry III. ordered the church built by Edward the Confessor to be pulled down, and erected the present magnificent fabric in the room of it, of which he laid the first stone about the year 1245.
That admired piece of architecture at the east end, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, was built by Henry VII., anno 1502, and from the founder is usually called Henry the VII.'s Chapel. Here most of the English monarchs since that time have been interred.
The dimensions of the abbey-church, according to the new survey, are as follows, viz.:-
- The length of the church, from the west end of it to the east end of St. Edward's Chapel, is 354 feet
- the breadth of the west end, 66 feet
- the breadth of the cross aisle, from north to south, 189 feet
- the height of the middle roof, 92 feet
- the distance from the west end of the church to the choir, 162 feet
- and from the west end to the cross aisle, 220 feet
- the distance from the east end of St. Edward's Chapel to the west end of Henry VII.'s Chapel, 36 feet
- and the length of Henry VII.'s Chapel, 99 feet
- so that the length of the whole building is 489 feet
- the breadth of Henry VII.'s Chapel, 66 feet; and the height, 54 feet
The nave and cross aisles of the abbey-church are supported by fifty slender pillars, of Sussex marble, besides forty-five demi-pillars or pilasters. There are an upper and lower range of windows, being ninety-four in number, those at the four ends of the cross very spacious. All which, with the arches, roofs, doors, &c., are of the ancient Gothic order. Above the chapiters the pillars spread into several semi-cylindrical branches, forming and adorning the arches of the pillars, and those of the roofs of the aisles, which are three in number, running from east to west, and a cross aisle running from north to south. The choir is paved with black and white marble, in which are twenty-eight stalls on the north side, as many on the fourth, and eight at the west end; from the choir we ascend by several steps to a most magnificent marble altarpiece, which would be esteemed a beauty in an Italian church.
Beyond the altar is King Edward the Confessor's Chapel, surrounded with eleven or twelve other chapels replenished with monuments of the British nobility, for a particular whereof I refer the reader to the Antiquities of St. Peter, or the Abbey-Church of Westminster, by J. Crull, M.D. Lond. 1711, 8vo, and the several supplements printed since; and shall only take notice of those of the kings and queens in the chapel of St. Edward the Confessor, which are as follows, viz.,
- Edward I., King of England
- Henry III.
- Matilda, wife of Henry I.
- Queen Eleanor, wife of Edward I.
- St. Edward the Confessor, and Queen Editha, his wife
- Henry V., and Queen Catherine of Valois, his wife
- Edward III., and Queen Philippa, his wife
- Richard II., and Queen Anne, his wife
- And on the south side of the choir, King Sebert, and Queen Anne of Cheve, wife to Henry VIII
East of St. Edward's Chapel is that of Henry VII., dedicated to the blessed Virgin Mary, to which we ascend by twelve stone steps.
- At the west end whereof are three brazen doors finely wrought, which give an entrance into it.
- The stalls on the north and south sides are exquisitely carved.
- The roof is supported by twelve pillars and arches of the Gothic order, abounding with enrichments of carved figures, fruit, &c.
- At the east end is a spacious window with stained glass, besides which there are thirteen other windows above, and as many below on the north and south sides.
- Under each of the thirteen uppermost windows are five figures placed in niches, representing kings, queens, bishops, &c., and under them the figures of as many angels supporting imperial crowns.
- The roof, which is all stone, is divided into sixteen circles, curiously wrought, and is the admiration of all that see it.
The outside of this chapel was adorned with fourteen towers, three figures being placed in niches on each of them, which were formerly much admired; but the stone decaying and mouldering away, they make but an odd appearance at present.
In this chapel have been interred most of the English kings since Richard III., whose tombs are no small ornament to it, particularly that of Henry VII., the founder, which stands in the middle of the area towards the east end.
The tomb is composed of a curious pedestal whose sides are adorned with various figures, as the north with those of six men, the east with those of two cupids supporting the king's arms and an imperial crown; on the south side, also, six figures, circumscribed--as those on the north side--with circles of curious workmanship, the most easterly of which contains the figure of an angel treading on a dragon. Here is also a woman and a child, seeming to allude to Rev. xii.; and on the west end the figure of a rose and an imperial crown, supported with those of a dragon and a greyhound: on the tomb are the figures of the king and queen, lying at full length, with four angels, one at each angle of the tomb, all very finely done in brass.
The screen or fence is also of solid brass, very strong and spacious, being in length 19 feet, in breadth 11, and the altitude 11, adorned with forty-two pillars and their arches; also, twenty smaller hollow columns and their arches in the front of the former, and joined at the cornice, on which cornice is a kind of acroteria, enriched with roses and portcullises interchanged in the upper part, and with the small figures of dragons and greyhounds (the supporters aforesaid) in the lower part; and at each of the four angles is a strong pillar made open, or hollow, composed in imitation of diaper and Gothic archwork; the four sides have been adorned with thirty-two figures of men, about a cubit high, placed in niches, of which there are only seven left, the rest being stolen away (one Raymond, about the 11th of Queen Elizabeth, having been twice indicted for the same); and about the middle of the upper part of each of the four sides is a spacious branch adorned with the figure of a rose, where might on occasion be placed lamps. This admirable piece of art is open at top, and has two portals, one on the north, the other on the south side, all of fine brass.
This Royal founder's epitaph:
Septimus Henricus tumulo requiescit in isto,
Qui regum splendor, lumen et orbis erat.
Rex vigil et sapiens, comes virtutis, amatur,
Egregius forma, strenuus atque potens.
Qui peperit pacem regno, qui bella peregit
Plurima, qui victor semper ab hoste redit,
Qui natas binis conjunxit regibus ambas,
Regibus et cunctis faedere junctus erat.
Qui sacrum hoc struxit templum, statuitque; sepulchrum
Pro se, proque sua conjuge, proque domo.
Lustra decem atque; annos tres plus compleverit annos,
Nam tribus octenis regia sceptra tulit;
Quindecies Domini centenus fluxerat annus,
Currebat nonus, cum venit atra dies;
Septima ter mensis lux tunc fulgebat Aprilis,
Cum clausit summum tanta corona diem.
Nulla dedere prius tantum sibi saecula regem
Anglia, vix similem posteriora dabunt.
Septimus hic situs est Henricus gloria regum
Cunctorum, ipsius qui tempestate fuerunt;
Ingenio atque; opibus gestarum et nomine rerum,
Accessere quibus naturae dona benignae:
Frontis honos facies augusta heroica forma,
Junctaque ei suavis conjux per pulchra pudica,
Et faecunda fuit; felices prole parentes,
Henricum quibus octavum terra Anglia debet.
Under the figure of the king.
Hic jacet Henricus ejus nominis septimus, Anglicae quondam rex, Edmundi Richmondiae comitis filius, qui die 22 Aug. Rex creatus, statim post apud Westmonasterium die 30 Octob. coronatur 1485. Moritur deinde 21 die Aprilis anno aetat. 53, regnavit annos 23, menses 8, minus uno die.
Under the queen's figure.
Hic jacet regina Elizabetha, Edvardi quarti quondam regis filia, Edvardi quinti regis quondam nominatur soror: Henrici septimi olim regis conjux, atque; Henrici octavi regis mater inclyta; obiit autem suum diem in turri Londoniarum die secund. Feb. anno Domini 1502, 37 annorum aetate functa.
The modern tombs in the abbey, best worth the viewing, are those of the duke of Newcastle, on the left hand as we enter the north door, of Sir Isaac Newton, at the west end of the choir, of Sir Godfrey Kneller, and Mr. Secretary Craggs at the west end of the abbey, of Mr. Prior among the poets at the door which faces the Old Palace Yard, of the Duke of Buckingham in Henry VII.th's chapel, and that of Doctor Chamberlain on the North side of the choir: most of these are admirable pieces of sculpture, and show that the statuary's art is not entirely lost in this country; though it must be confessed the English fall short of the Italians in this science.