The history of Westminster Abbey, London

On May 12, 1560, Elizabeth I re-established Westminster Abbey as a collegiate church presided over by a Dean and 12 prebendaries, much in the same way as her father had constituted it in 1540. For 20 tumultuous years, the abbey had responded to the successive tides of change brought by the Reformation, changing from Benedictine abbey to a collegiate church attached to a bishopric, back to an abbey again and, finally, back again to a collegiate church, but this time not attached to a diocese.

Although England went Protestant again in 1558 in the so-called Elizabethan settlement, there was, in fact, nothing much settled about it. The queen had been pushed in the reformist direction much farther than she would have wished, and her subsequent injunctions see her back-pedalling as far as she could to a more Catholic religious stance. Cathedrals can be said to be part of that, as they were an anomaly within the reformed context, being great churches with an ordered liturgy, music and singing.

In that sense, Westminster Abbey, within walking distance of the Palace of Whitehall, suited the queen well. Her father could have swept it away and sold off the buildings, as he had most of the other monasteries, but he didn’t. It was the Valhalla of England’s kings and the Coronation church. The jewels, silver and gold had been carted off from St Edward’s shrine, but the shrine itself, uniquely, remained. He was, after all, the lineal ancestor of the kings of England.

The Lady Chapel built by Henry VII meanwhile, which had been conceived as a place of pilgrimage for the miracle-working body of Henry VI (in fact, he remained buried at Windsor and was never canonised), contained the tombs of the founders of the Tudor dynasty, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, together with the king’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort. Later, James I added a monument to Elizabeth I. The chapel’s wealth of sculpted images, which anywhere else would have been the object of iconoclasm, was left untouched.

The first dean of Elizabeth’s foundation, William Bill, lasted barely a year. He was succeeded by a Welshman, Gabriel Goodman who died in post in 1601, so that his incumbency of 40 years in effect covered the reign. During that period, there was much consolidation, the school prospered and the celebrated antiquary William Camden became librarian. But what was Westminster’s role to be in the new scheme of things? It was certainly not the setting for national ceremonials, as, on the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the queen had gone in procession to St Paul’s.

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The Tudor dynasty’s attitude to the abbey was ambivalent. Henry VIII had decreed that he was to be buried beside his third queen, Jane Seymour, in St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Italian craftsmen laboured on his gigantic tomb in workshops attached to the abbey until their work was stopped on the accession of Catholic Mary I. Elizabeth made no effort to complete it, merely shipping the pieces to Windsor, where they remained until they were sold off in the interregnum.

Both Edward VI and Mary I were buried in the abbey and so too, eventually, was Elizabeth I, but we have no evidence that they had expressed any wish for this. There is a design for a tomb for Edward VI dated 1573 to be erected at Windsor, but it was never essayed. Mary didn’t specify her place of burial in her will, but asked that her mother’s body be brought from Peterborough Cathedral and buried by her and that her executors saw to the erection of ‘honourable tombs or monuments for a decent memory of us’. That was ignored.

All over Europe, the ruling families were creating dynastic burial ensembles-except in Tudor England. Throughout the Middle Ages, Westminster had been an extremely exclusive place of burial reserved for the sole use of the royal family and the abbots of the community. Such few interlopers as existed were extremely powerful figures. And then, in the mid 16th century, for a short period, burial here effectively stops. Indeed, Henry VIII’s burial at Windsor symbolises the abbey’s loss of status and direction.

Then, after a gap of almost half a century, there was a sudden explosion of tomb-making, running from about 1585 until the close of Elizabeth’s reign. The list of monuments is impressive: John Russell, Lord Russell (died 1584); Winifred Paulet, Marchioness of Winchester (died 1586); Sir Thomas Bromley (died 1587); Anne, Duchess of Somerset (died 1587); Mildred Coke, Lady Burghley (died 1589) and her daughter, Anne Ceil, Countess of Oxford (died 1588); Frances Sidney, Countess of Sussex (died 1589); Elizabeth Cecil, Baroness Ros (died 1591); Henry Carey, Baron Hunsdon (died 1596); Elizabeth Brooke, Lady Cecil (died 1597); Sir John Puckering (died 1596); Thomas Owen (died 1598); Sir Richard Bingham (died 1599); and Elizabeth Russell (died 1601).

This takes us almost to the close of the old queen’s reign, but it is impossible not to be struck by this flood of tombs dramatically changing the interior of the abbey. It was a change that heralded the abbey’s modern reputation as the burial place of the great. After all, these were no ordinary tombs. Almost without exception, they are sited either in the north transept or one of the ambulatory chapels, and nearly all are of an extraordinary size and magnificence, making use of marbles and lavish gilding. In effect, they brought back the richness and colour of the pre-Reformation interior, yet no longer celebrated the inhabitants of Heaven, but the recently departed from Earth. Of course, the dean must have been glad of any burial fees, but something else must have triggered this development. What was it?

It is noticeable in the first place how many of those who were buried were connected through Henry VIII’s numerous queens to Elizabeth I. One such constellation is of members of the family of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, who had married Henry’s sister Mary, the widowed consort of Louis XI of France. Their daughter, also Mary, had married Henry Grey, who, in 1551, was created Duke of Suffolk. She was the mother of the ill-fated Jane, Katherine and Mary Grey and, later, to everyone’s derision, married her master of the horse Adrian Stokes. Mary had died in 1559, and it was at the queen’s command that she was buried in the abbey, albeit in a tomb paid for by Stokes. In effect, she was a member of the royal family and the granddaughter of a queen of France.

That, I think, provides us with the clue. The year after comes a plaque in memory of Jane Seymour, who died unmarried at 19, not Henry VIII’s third queen, but one of the six daughters of her brother, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, Edward VI’s Lord Protector. She was first cousin to Edward VI. Somerset’s second wife, Anne, is also buried here. So, too, is the wife of the Protector’  third son, Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford. She was known to the queen as ‘Good Francke’, the address used in a letter written to assure her of the ‘continuance of our grace’ in spite of her husband’s ‘act of lewd and proud contempt against our own direct prohibition’. That referred to the earl’s first marriage to Katherine Grey, an alliance of two families with a dynastic potential that could not be countenanced (and was, therefore, declared null and void).

What this suggests is that those connected with the Tudor family through the numerous wives of Henry VIII gained admittance here. There is a similar group relating to the family of Elizabeth’s mother, the Boleyns. The earliest is a wall plaque in memory of Katherine Carey, wife of Sir Francis Knollys, whose parents were William Carey and the queen’s aunt, Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne.

Lady Knollys was Lady of the Bedchamber and referred to by her mistress as ‘our beloved kinswoman’. She was, indeed, her first cousin and Katherine’s brother was Henry Carey, 1st Lord Hunsdon, whose over-the-top tomb explodes 36ft high with genealogical megolomania. The queen had showered her cousin with offices, culminating in that of Lord Chamberlain in 1585, but she denied him the title he most coveted, the earldom of Wiltshire. She did, however, see that an earl’s robes were laid on his deathbed, but he dismissed them saying ‘Madam, seeing you counted me not worthy of this honour while living, I count myself unworthy of it now I am dying’.

At this time, others with less rarified connections were beginning to get a foot in the abbey, too, particularly members of families who lived within the purlieus of Westminster, the site of the great houses of the aristocracy that lined the Thames leading to the City. Of these, there is a second discernible group, those of the Cecil family. Goodman, the dean, had been chaplain to Mildred Coke, Lady Burghley. Her husband, Elizabeth’s first minister, had been the Abbey’s High Steward, a post in which he was succeeded by his second son, Robert, later Earl of Salisbury, at the close of the reign.

It was Lord Burghley who must have been responsible for the group of Cecil family tombs, opening with his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Manners, Baroness Rosin in her own right, wife of his brother, William, later Earl of Exeter. She, poor thing, had died in childbirth. Cecil himself was directly responsible for the monument to his mother and his sister, Anne, Countess of Oxford, an extraordinary double tomb that includes his father, Lord Burghley, aloft and figures of himself and his siblings kneeling below.

There, too, we find his wife, Elizabeth Brooke, of whom he wrote ‘the dearest bond, that ever I was tied in’. She had died in 1597, never living to see his apogee and never becoming Lady Salisbury. To these, we can add Robert’s brother, Thomas, 1st Earl of Exeter and his first wife and their son, William, the 2nd Earl. As the numbers of tombs increased, so, too, from the 1580s, did Westminster Abbey become a regular part of the late Elizabethan tourist circuit for visiting foreigners.

In 1592, the Duke of Wurtemberg writes of ‘the beautiful and large royal church’ and eight years later, another German  visitor, Baron Waldstein, eulogises the building as ‘most magnificent and also very beautiful’. Henry VII’s Lady Chapel left them breathless, for it was ‘staggering’. They all had to see the wax funeral effigies, the sword of Edward III and the royal tombs. So familiar did this become that William Camden produced the first guide book and John Donne was to satirise:

The man that keeps the Abbey tombs
And for his price with whoever comes
Of all our Harrys and our Edwards talk

It is difficult for us today to grasp the enormous visual impact of the arrival of the Elizabethan polychrome tombs in the abbey, a church greatly reduced from its pre-Reformation magnificence and prestige.

Francis Trigge, a Lincolnshire rector, records, as late as 1589, ‘the weeping and bewailing of the simple sort… Who, going into the churches and seeing the bare walls, and lacking their golden images… lament in themselves and fetch many deep sighs’.

By 1589, ‘golden images’ had returned to Westminster Abbey with a vengeance, but they were of a very different kind from their predecessors.