In Good Estate

Eamon Duffy

  • Westminster Abbey and the Plantagenets: Kingship and the Representation of Power 1200-1400 by Paul Binski
    Yale, 241 pp, £45.00, May 1995, ISBN 0 300 05980 9

Every year, two and a half million people visit Westminster Abbey. Two-thirds of them, deterred no doubt by the combination of a tight tour schedule and the charge which is levied at this point, leave without ever penetrating beyond the choir, to the shrine of St Edward behind the High Altar and the royal tombs which surround it. Yet this was the heart of medieval Westminster, and the reason for the existence of the present building. Those who skip it miss more than holy bones. Within the shrine space, near the tomb of St Edward, stands the Coronation Chair, and in that combination of relics and royalty, sacred and secular power, lies the whole meaning of the Abbey. It is also the subject matter of Paul Binski’s subtle, learned and absorbing book.

The origins of the Abbey – to be precise, the Collegiate Church of St Peter in Westminster – are shrouded in uncertainty. A Saxon foundation on Thorney Island, the one dry spot in the fenland that once stretched from Chelsea to Battersea, the Abbey formed the West minster to St Paul’s East minster. The settlement which, under Edward the Confessor and his Norman successors, would become the nation’s capital, was thus sandwiched between two great churches, dedicated to the patron saints of the most symbolic of all ancient cities, Rome. This connection with Rome and Peter was fundamental to Westminster. Legend had it that the Prince of the Apostles himself had pre-empted the bishop of London, appearing by night on the eve of the scheduled ceremony to consecrate his church in person, thereby establishing the extra-diocesan character of the Abbey and the independence of its clergy. The legend achieved canonical reality in the early 13th century, in the exempt status of the monastery at Westminster and its abbots. From the 1220s, the confirmation in office of the abbots belonged to the Pope alone. The bond thus forged with Rome enabled successive abbots to play a significant diplomatic and administrative part in European political affairs, and it was to have momentous consequences for the symbolism of the ritual centre of the building, at the High Altar and shrine.

The monks of Westminster attracted a string of Saxon royal grants, but it was the last undisputed Saxon king of England, Edward the Confessor, who firmly established the Abbey’s national status. Edward had spent most of his first forty years in political exile in Normandy. On becoming king he chose Westminster as the site of an immense Romanesque church, over a hundred yards long. It was destined to become a coronation sanctuary and royal mausoleum which would eclipse everything he had seen abroad. Edward died within a year of his great church’s consecration, and before it was complete: but it immediately became his own shrine. For Edward was quickly hailed as a saint. His peaceable rule, spineless and unkingly to some, struck others as heavenly. His affable availability to his subjects, his reputation as a visionary and healer, his generosity to the poor, above all his childless and, it came to be believed, piously unconsummated marriage, combined to establish his sanctity. His grave in the Abbey became a focus of pilgrimage. Anglo-Saxons venerated their last Saxon king, while the successors of William the Conqueror saw in the promotion of Edward’s cult within the coronation church a valuable mark of Norman legitimacy. On the Bayeux Tapestry the funeral procession of the holy king from the palace of Westminster to his resting-place in the Abbey features prominently, at the beginning of the story of William’s heavensent victory. The image anticipated the steadily increasing importance of Abbey and Palace under the Norman kings.

And to the prestige of charismatic holiness was added the seal of Papal approval. Edward had deliberately cultivated the Papacy, receiving Papal legates and sending English bishops to Papal councils. The Abbey was a monument to these links with Rome. According to the early hagiographies, Edward, like many other Saxon kings, had pledged himself to make a pilgrimage to the Holy See. When his barons protested at the political dangers his absence would pose, the Pope agreed to commute the vow to the rebuilding of the Abbey. In due course, Edward himself was to become the first Saxon saint to be formally canonised at Rome.

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