Westminster Abbey

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The Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster, popularly known as Westminster Abbey, is a large, mainly Gothic church, in the City of Westminster, London, United Kingdom, located just to the west of the Palace of Westminster. It is the traditional place of coronation and burial site for English, later British and later still (and currently) monarchs of the Commonwealth realms. The abbey is a Royal Peculiar and briefly held the status of a cathedral from 1540 to 1550.

Westminster Abbey is a collegiate church governed by the Dean and Chapter of Westminster, as established by Royal charter of Queen Elizabeth I in 1560, which created it as the Collegiate Church of St Peter Westminster and a Royal Peculiar under the personal jurisdiction of the Sovereign. The members of the Chapter are the Dean and four residentiary canons, assisted by the Receiver General and Chapter Clerk. One of the canons is also Rector of St Margaret's Church, Westminster, and often holds also the post of Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons. In addition to the Dean and canons, there are at present two full-time minor canons, one is precentor, and the other is sacrist. The office of Priest Vicar was created in the 1970s for those who assist the minor canons. Together with the clergy and Receiver General and Chapter Clerk, various lay officers constitute the college, including the Organist and Master of the Choristers, the Registrar, the Auditor, the Legal Secretary, the Surveyor of the Fabric, the Head Master of the Choir School, the Keeper of the Muniments and the Clerk of the Works, as well as 12 lay vicars, 10 choristers and the High Steward and High Bailiff. There are also 40 Queen's Scholars who are pupils at Westminster School (the School has its own Governing Body). Those who are most directly concerned with liturgical and ceremonial matters are the two minor canons and the organist and Master of the Choristers.

Since the coronations in 1066 of both King Harold and William the Conqueror, coronations of English and British monarchs were held in the Abbey. Henry III was unable to be crowned in London when he first came to the throne because the French prince Louis had taken control of the city, and so the king was crowned in Gloucester Cathedral. However, this coronation was deemed by the Pope to be improper, and a further coronation was held in the Abbey on 17 May 1220. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the traditional cleric in the coronation ceremony.
King Edward's Chair (or St Edward's Chair), the throne on which English and British sovereigns have been seated at the moment of coronation, is housed within the Abbey and has been used at every coronation since 1308. From 1301 to 1996 (except for a short time in 1950 when it was temporarily stolen by Scottish nationalists), the chair also housed the Stone of Scone upon which the kings of Scots are crowned. Although the Stone is now kept in Scotland, in Edinburgh Castle, at future coronations it is intended that the Stone will be returned to St Edward's Chair for use during the coronation ceremony.

Henry III rebuilt the Abbey in honour of the Royal Saint Edward the Confessor whose relics were placed in a shrine in the sanctuary. Henry III himself was interred nearby, as were many of the Plantagenet kings of England, their wives and other relatives. Until the death of George II in 1760, most Kings and Queens were buried in the Abbey, some notable exceptions being Edward IV, Henry VIII and Charles I who are buried in St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle. Most monarchs and royals who died after 1760 are buried either in St George's Chapel or at Frogmore to the east of Windsor Castle.
From the Middle Ages, aristocrats were buried inside chapels, while monks and other 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 where he was employed as master of the King's Works. Other poets, writers and musicians were buried or memorialised around Chaucer in what became known as Poets' Corner. Abbey musicians such as Henry Purcell were also buried in their place of work.
Subsequently, it became one of Britain's most significant honours to be buried or commemorated here. The practice of burying national figures in the Abbey began under Oliver Cromwell with the burial of Admiral Robert Blake in 1657. The practice spread to include generals, admirals, politicians, doctors and scientists such as Isaac Newton, buried on 4 April 1727, and Charles Darwin, buried 26 April 1882. Another was William Wilberforce, the man who abolished slavery in the United Kingdom and the Plantations, he was buried on 3 August 1833, Wilberforce was buried in the north transept, close to his friend the former Prime Minister William Pitt.
During the early 20th century it became increasingly common to bury cremated remains rather than coffins in the Abbey. In 1905 the actor Sir Henry Irving was cremated and his ashes buried in Westminster Abbey, thereby becoming the first person ever to be cremated prior to interment at the Abbey. Since 1936, no individual has been buried in a coffin in Westminster Abbey or its cloisters; the only exceptions to this rule are the Dukes of Northumberland, who own a private vault in the Abbey.
In the floor, just inside the great west door, in the centre of the nave, is the tomb of The Unknown Warrior, an unidentified British soldier killed on a European battlefield during the First World War. He was buried in the Abbey on 11 November 1920. There are many graves on the floors of the Abbey, but this is the only grave upon which it is forbidden to step.
In 1998 10 vacant statue niches at the West Gate were filled with representative 20th century martyrs.

The Chapter house was built concurrently with the east parts of the abbey under Henry III, between about 1245 and 1253. It was restored by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1872. The entrance is approached from the east cloister walk and includes a double doorway with a large tympanum above. Inner and outer vestibules lead to the octagonal chapter house, which is of exceptional architectural purity. It is built in a Geometrical Gothic style with an octagonal crypt below. A pier of eight shafts carries the vaulted ceiling. To the sides are blind arcading, remains of 14th-century paintings and numerous stone benches above which are innovatory large 4-light quatre-foiled windows. These are virtually contemporary with the Sainte-Chapelle, Paris. The chapter house has an original mid-13th century tiled pavement. A door within the vestibule dates from around 1050 and is believed to be the oldest in England. The exterior includes flying buttresses added in the 14th century and a leaded tent-lantern roof on an iron frame designed by Scott. The Chapter house was originally used in the 13th century by Benedictine monks for daily meetings. It later became a meeting place of the King's Great Council and the Commons, predecessors of Parliament.

The Pyx Chamber formed the undercroft of the monks' dormitory. It dates to the late 11th century and was used as a monastic and royal treasury. The outer walls and circular piers are of 11th-century date, several of the capitals were enriched in the 12th century and the stone altar added in the 13th century. The term 'pyx' refers to the boxwood chest in which coins were held and presented to a jury during the Trial of the Pyx, in which newly-minted coins were presented to ensure they conformed to the required standards.

The Chapter house and Pyx Chamber at Westminster Abbey are in the guardianship of English Heritage, but under the care and management of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster. During the last year, English Heritage have funded a major programme of work on the Chapter, comprising repairs to the roof, gutters, stonework on the elevations and flying buttresses, and repairs to the lead light.

The Westminster Abbey Museum is located in the 11th-century vaulted undercroft beneath the former monks' dormitory in Westminster Abbey. This is one of the oldest areas of the Abbey, dating back almost to the foundation of the Norman church by Edward the Confessor in 1065. This space has been used as a museum since 1908.

The exhibits include a collection of royal and other funeral effigies (funeral saddle, helm and shield of Henry V), together with other treasures, including some panels of mediaeval glass, 12th century sculpture fragments, Mary II's coronation chair and replicas of the coronation regalia, and historic effigies of Edward III, Henry VII and his queen, Elizabeth of York, Charles II, William III, Mary II and Queen Anne.

Later wax effigies include a likeness of Horatio, Viscount Nelson, wearing some of his own clothes and another of Prime Minister William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, modelled by the American-born sculptor Patience Wright.[citation needed] During recent conservation of Elizabeth I's effigy, a unique corset dating from 1603 was found on the figure and is now displayed separately.

A recent addition to the exhibition is the late 13th century Westminster Retable, England's oldest altarpiece, which was most probably designed for the high altar of the abbey. Although it has been damaged in past centuries, the panel has been expertly cleaned and conserved.
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