The magnificent presence of Westminster Abbey in London has played a large part in British history for more than one thousand years. British kings and queens have been crowned there since 1066 and several have also been buried there. The Abbey is also an active place of worship for many Christians. Religious services, music concerts, prayer meetings and other special events are regularly held there. In addition, it attracts thousands of tourists every year, keen to drink in its splendour and history.
On 6 May 2023, Westminster Abbey will take centre stage for the crowning of King Charles III as it hosts the first British Coronation ceremony for seven decades. The last time the church was used in this way was on 2 June 1953 for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey. As the date for King Charles III’s special day draws closer, we take a closer look at some key Westminster Abbey facts.
A brief history of Westminster Abbey
The age of Westminster Abbey as a church dates back to the 1040s, when King Edward the Confessor rebuilt the Benedictine monastery that stood on the site and called the new church ‘West Minster’. He died a few days after the building was completed and was the first British monarch to be laid to rest inside it.
The building was added to and rebuilt many times over the centuries that followed to suite the tastes of the time. For example, in the 1200s it was torn down, all apart from the nave, and rebuilt in a Gothic style. A grand chantry chapel was added in the 1500s, housing hundreds of statues of saints, two turreted staircases and an altar. In 1745 the famous western towers were constructed, which were the final significant addition to the building. Other architectural features include flying buttresses, dramatic arches, vaulted ceilings and several spectacular rose windows. Plus, of course, the beautiful interior that offers generous space for Coronation seating in Westminster Abbey.
Of course, many more renovations and improvements have been made in more recent times, notably after the Second World War when a lot of repair work was required. In 1966, Westminster Abbey celebrated its 900th anniversary. Along with the Palace of Westminster, the Abbey was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Who has been crowned at the Abbey?
Westminster Abbey has been the British Royal Coronation venue for many centuries. King Charles III will be the 40th monarch to sit on the Coronation chair in Westminster Abbey when he is crowned alongside his wife, Queen Camilla, on 6 May 2023.
The first documented Coronation at Westminster Abbey was that of William the Conqueror in 1066. Monarchs that came after him followed suit , creating a reputation for Westminster Abbey as the Coronation church. The first monarch to be crowned in the Abbey after it was substantially rebuilt in the 1200s was Edward I in 1274.
Very few monarchs were not crowned in Westminster Abbey. Two of these were Edward V, who was presumed to be murdered in the Tower of London as a boy in 1483 before he could be crowned. In 1936, Edward VIII abdicated in favour of his brother, George VI before he could formally be crowned King. William III and Mary II were the only monarchs to have a joint Coronation in 1689. A special British Coronation throne was made for Queen Mary for the occasion. The chair is currently on display in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries, located in the Abbey’s triforium.
Other notable Coronations include King George IV’s crowning in 1821, which was a flamboyant, theatrical event. Queen Victoria’s crowning in 1838, by comparison, was a more religious, solemn affair. Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation in 1953 was the first one to be watched by millions of people around the world on television. King Charles III’s monarchy follows his mother’s extraordinary reign, which spanned seven decades and made her the longest serving monarch in British history – and the second longest in the world.
Westminster Abbey has hosted many other notable ceremonies, including royal weddings, funerals, memorial services and celebratory events. At least 16 royal weddings have taken place there. King Charles III’s mother and father, the late Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip, married at the Abbey in November 1947. His brother, Prince Andrew married Sarah Ferguson there in July 1986, while his sister, Princess Anne also tied the knot inside the Abbey with her first husband, Captain Mark Phillips in November 1973. More recently, the Prince and Princess of Wales married at Westminster Abbey in April 2011.
Preparations for King Charles III
Westminster Abbey Coronations are always lavish events with much symbolism and pageantry attached to them. Preparations for King Charles III’s Coronation have been underway for years, with plans gathering traction after the sad passing of Queen Elizabeth II in September 2022. The event takes lots of planning, tact and logistical expertise to ensure that everything runs like clockwork on the day. From guest lists and seating plans to parade routes, crowd management and catering, much has to be done behind the scenes to ensure a successful event.
Among the many elements being brought together in readiness of 6 May are the preparation of the British Coronation robes and British Coronation throne, along with the ceremonial Coronation spoon, which has been used to anoint the new monarch with oil since the 12th Century. The new King will wear the St Edward Crown, made in 1661 for King Charles II’s Coronation. It is normally on display at the Tower of London as part of the Crown Jewels, and is embellished by more than 400 precious stones and jewels. British Coronation music is also important, with special anthems chosen, composed and rehearsed in readiness for the big day.