Westminster Abbey consecrated
Though the magnificent Westminster Abbey as we know it has its origins in the time of Edward the Confessor , there were several religious buildings on the site by the Thames much earlier than that.
Legend has it that a temple to Apollo existed on Thorn Island, a couple of miles above the old City of London. This temple was supposedly turned into a Christian church by Lucius, the first Christian king in England, in the 2nd century.
In 616 another church was said to have been built on the same ground by Sebert, the first East Saxon Christian monarch, and it is known that there was a church there in the reign of Offa, as it is mentioned in a charter dated 785. A Benedictine monastery was established on the site by King Edgar and St Dunstan at the end of the 10th century.
Westminster Abbey is more formally known as The Collegiate Church of St Peter, Westminster. The dedication to St Peter is linked to a legend that says Sebert’s church was miraculously consecrated by St Peter himself, witnessed by one Edric, a poor Thames fisherman. Westminster denoted that it lay to the west of London, setting it apart also from the Minster of St Paul’s in the City.
Edward the Confessor, eventually canonised, funded the building of the great Romanesque church to atone for not having gone on the pilgrimage to Rome he had promised were he to regain the throne he had lost. This seems to have been a bargain between Edward and the Pope engineered by Edwin, Abbot of Westminster.
The great project was begun in 1050, and it took 15 years to complete the choir and transepts. Edward himself had a great say in the design, helped by Robert of Jumièges.
The only image we have of Edward’s original Abbey is in the Bayeux Tapestry, in a scene showing a workman placing a weather cock atop the roof, with a delicate hand of god descending from the heavens in a gesture of blessing. The building was demolished by Henry III , who venerated the Confessor and wished to provide a greater shrine yet for his remains, but there are elements from the Romanesque building incorporated in the Gothic version still to be seen to this day.
There was perhaps a political purpose behind the project in addition to the pious Edward’s atonement. Westminster Abbey was larger than any Norman church then standing, and provided a symbol of English power. The complement of 10 monks established by St Dunstan was raised to more than 50 by Edward.
The king was nearing the end of his life as the consecration approached, and he was too ill to attend the ceremony, which took place on December 28 1065. Just eight days later Edward was dead.
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