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.
Little remains of Edward’s building, however, for in the 1240s the Plantagenet king Henry III set himself to reconstruct the Abbey in honour of the royal saint. Henry was a sincere devotee of Edward, and the reality of his piety cannot be doubted, manifesting itself not least in the naming of his son and heir, Edward I. Binski devotes one of his best chapters to exploring the extraordinary revival of the cult of Edward in Henry’s court circle, focusing on the magnificent illuminated verse life, the Estoire de Seint Aedward le Rei, almost certainly assembled at Westminster for the benefit of the ladies of the Royal Household, and now in the Cambridge University Library. Binski does full justice to the political dimensions of this revived cult, in which Edward is transformed into an icon of kingship for the post Magna Carta era, a king whose wise passivity and conciliatoriness make him a Solomonic figure, a peaceable lawgiver and focus of unity:
Then is the land in good estate,
Court, baron and prelate
There is none whom the king fails to please,
All are rich, all at ease.
But Binski shows himself equally sensitive to the religious reality of the cult, consistently avoiding a merely reductive political account of it. He refuses, for example, the easy and tempting notion that Henry might have promoted the cult of the royal saint at Westminster largely as a way of counteracting the cult of Becket, the archepiscopal opponent of royal pretensions at Canterbury, showing that he was in fact an enthusiast for both saints.
Yet there is no doubting the dynastic dimensions of his rebuilding at the Abbey. It was a stupendously lavish act of patronage, the greatest single piece of lay church-building of the Middle Ages, absorbing the equivalent of two years of royal revenue, and far outstripping any European project of a similar kind. The indebtedness of Westminster to French Gothic is well known, a debt encoded in the name of its chief architect, the Englishman Henry of ‘Reyns’, almost certainly a version of Rheims.
For Henry, patronage of the Abbey was undoubtedly part of the construction of a particular vision of monarchy. He hijacked for his own dynastic purposes the aura that surrounded the memory and continuing cult of Edward in England. From France, he took a series of visual models and paradigms. In 1247, in a ritual designed to evoke the ceremonial of a coronation, Henry paraded a relic of the Holy Blood through the streets to Westminster, just as a few years earlier Louis IX had paraded the relic of the True Cross in Paris. But the main debt to France was architectural – for example, the multiple borrowings from Amiens – and especially the architectural elements of a symbolic language designed to glorify aspects of kingly rule. Westminster therefore contains echoes of the coronation church at Rheims, the royal mausoleum at St Denis, the jewelled glory of Louis’s coveted Sainte Chapelle. (It was said that Henry was so envious of the newly built Ste Chapelle that he wanted to carry it off in a cart, and he definitely sent Henry of Rheims to Paris specifically to study it.) But whereas in France all these separate functions – coronation, burial and legitimation of the monarchy by association with sacred relics – were dispersed in a number of cities and churches, in Henry III’s scheme they were to be concentrated within a single sacred site. Westminster was to provide an overwhelming focus of sacred power on his own person and those of his heirs.
Henry certainly needed all the heavenly help he could get. Succeeding his father King John while still a child of nine, and hastily crowned at Gloucester with improvised regalia, he had himself recrowned several years later at Westminster. He was to remain preoccupied with the symbols and reality of royal legitimacy for the rest of his life. Matthew Paris tells us that Henry could rattle off by heart the names of all the saintly kings of England, and he slept in rooms decorated with images of masterful rule. More than that, he dreamed of imperial greatness, reaching after the Hohenstaufen inheritance in Italy by paying the Pope to have his son Edmund made King of Sicily, and in Northern Europe by having his brother Richard of Cornwall crowned King of the Romans and thus, nominally at least, heir to the Imperial throne.
The Abbey, therefore, was designed to underpin and promote Henry III’s regality. Binski, however, emphatically rejects the widely-held view that Westminster represents the straightforward borrowing of a French-based international ‘court’ style, deploying for an English audience a conventional symbolic language of kingly and sacred power. This, he argues, is to accept too passive and too universalising an understanding of cultural symbols. He sees the symbolic language of the Abbey, for all its borrowings, not as derivative, but as ‘creative, eclectic and diverse’. Court patronage in the Middle Ages, Binski argues, was not a matter of borrowing fixed symbols from an established and unified courtly culture: it was ‘devoted less to the representation of a prior body of ideals than to their own construction in the hands of artists and architects’. Medieval visual culture was far less centralised, far more opportunist, inventive and contested than older art-historical notions have recognised. And Binski asserts the artistic importance of 13th-century Westminster in his account of the ruined but still haunting Westminster Retable, which once stood above the High Altar, which he sees as pre-empting some of the central developments of subsequent Northern panel-painting.
In any case, as Binski shows, the borrowings from France were no more central to the meaning of the building than the borrowings from elsewhere, above all from Rome. The Abbey, whose reconstruction began in the 1240s, but went on for the rest of Henry’s reign, shifted and grew in symbolic meaning and resonance. The nave was an elaborate representation of an essentially Edwardine vision of monarchy, its heraldic decoration emphasising the consensual character of rule, the king supported by his barons. But the most sacred part of the abbey, the area round the High Altar and shrine, was decorated with a different conception in mind. The mystique of Imperial Rome had haunted the imagination of early medieval Europe. Charlemagne had legitimated and interpreted his empire with an attempted recovery of Romanitas – the adoption of Roman liturgical books and ceremonial in the celebration of Mass, the use of imperial emblems in regalia and coinage, the imitation of Latin styles in book production and architecture. Relocating the shrine of Edward in a new setting behind the High Altar, Henry commissioned the Abbot of Westminster to find Roman craftsmen to decorate it in a way which would signal his Imperial conception of monarchy. In the late 1260s, Abbot Richard of Ware brought back with him masons from the Cosmatti workshop in Rome, led by Peter Odoricus, who covered the shrine of the saint, the King’s own tomb, and the pavement in front of the High Altar, in mosaic decoration designed to evoke the grandeur of Imperial Rome.
The great pavement, permanently covered now in protective carpeting, carries an inscription instructing the onlooker that the decoration was in fact a model of the universe, ‘the archetypal macrocosm’. It was designed as a setting for the coronation, eclipsing in scale and grandeur the coronation space at Rheims, and extravagant to the point of megalomania in the claims it made for the English monarchy. Henry had a mystical, quasi-priestly understanding of the nature of anointed kingship. He tried this out on the theologians, and had to be treated to a firm doctrinal lesson by Bishop Robert Grosseteste on the spiritual inferiority of coronation to the anointing involved in priestly ordination. But priest or not, at Westminster, the king at his coronation would stand, as the emperors stood, on a disc of Roman porphyry, and at the centre of a series of interlocking circles and inscriptions which marked the king off as the centre and pivot of the created world. The same Roman decoration was applied to the shrine of Edward and signed by ‘Peter the Roman Citizen’. Stylistically related to major Roman projects such at the altar of the Crib in Santa Maria Maggiore, or the tomb of Pope Hadrian Victoria in Viterbo, the work provided Henry with a symbolic share in Imperial greatness, and the Christian mystique of the Papal Holy City.
Henry’s re-creation of the shrine, High Altar and sanctuary at Westminster began a process of royal involvement with and manipulation of the Abbey’s symbolism which persisted to the Reformation. It included above all the spectacular collection of royal tombs that cluster around St Edward. Among them are Henry’s own noble effigy, the magnificently archaic grandeur of the tomb of Edward III, in which the figure of the King resembles nothing so much as an apostle or an Old Testament prophet, and the exquisite and pathetic tomb of Richard II and his beloved wife Anne of Bohemia, on which the childless couple lie side by side in death, tentatively holding hands in an echo of their marriage vows. Richard’s devotion to the Abbey rivalled that of Henry: he fled to the protection of St Edward at his shrine during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, and St John the Baptist and St Edmund, the saints who stand around him with St Edward in the most-magical of all English medieval artworks, the Wilton Diptych, are the dedicatees of chapels clustered round the shrine of Edward at the East end of the Abbey Church. The Diptych itself may well have been produced for devotional use by the King within the Abbey.
The royal tombs are the most striking feature of the area round the shrine, but the Plantagenets sought more in the way of dynastic endorsement at the Abbey than the seemly disposition of their corpses. To his father’s Roman stones at the shrine, Edward I added another from nearer at hand, but symbolically just as resonant. The Coronation Chair kept within the shrine space was commissioned by Edward I to house the ancient Scottish coronation stone which he had looted from Scone Abbey during his Scottish campaign of 1296. Like his father, Edward was intensely alive to the value of symbolic precedent in the construction of monarchy. He invoked both the Old Testament and Arthurian, Trojan and Welsh myth to justify his subjugation of Wales and Scotland. He had Caernarvon Castle deliberately modelled on the Theodosian fortifications of Constantinople, complete with a crowning series of Imperial eagles. The presentation of the Stone of Scone to St Edward’s shrine, along with the supposed Crown of Arthur and the Welsh Cross Neith, was merely the boldest of these acts of symbolic piracy at the service of brute political force. However, the chair in which the stone was housed was not initially used for coronations; the first certain reference to its use for this purpose is the coronation of the usurper Henry Bolingbroke as Henry IV in 1399. It is characteristic of Binski’s exploration of the ambivalent and polysemic character of medieval symbolism that he should underline this irony. What was to become a symbol of the immemorial certainties of monarchic succcession took on that role ‘in the context of deposition, regicide and political usurpation’.
The Abbey remains a monument to the uneasy linking of holy power and secular rule. Only two monarchs since the time of William the Conqueror have not been crowned there – both, ironically, named Edward, one murdered and one, Edward VIII, who abdicated. Yet as the mystique of monarchy has leaked away, the subtle and resonant symbolic constructions of the Plantagenets have been replaced by simpler, coarser gestures. John Major made one of them, when he attempted to conciliate nationalist opinion in Scotland by ordering that the seventh centenary of Edward I’s conquest should be celebrated by the return of his hottest piece of loot. The Stone of Scone’s original placing in the shrine reflected the brute fact of power, a symbol which made present the reality it represented, the subjugation of Scotland to Edward’s Imperium. The Prime Minister’s initiative was just the opposite, an attempt to fend off real political change by a gesture without content.
But the 1990s have no monopoly on ambivalent gestures. When the Victorian restoration of the East End was carried out, Dean Stanley had placed over the High Altar the inscription ‘The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ,’ and British monarchs ever since have been crowned in front of that inscription. Its precise meaning is by no means obvious. God the Father in Christian discourse is almost never referred to as ‘Our Lord’, a title reserved for Jesus Christ. Who, then, is the ‘Christ’ in question? ‘Christ’ means ‘the anointed one’. Does the inscription celebrate simply, if a trifle obscurely, the extension of the rule of Christ over the world, or does it in fact identify that rule with the rule of the one seated anointed before the altar in the Abbey, the Queen Empress? If so, the claim is as extravagant as anything dreamed up by Henry III or his successors. The difference is that Henry’s claims were enshrined, quite literally, in great art. As Binski’s brilliant dissection of the dense iconographic web of medieval Westminster demonstrates, the Plantagenets managed these things rather better than we do.