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Westminster Abbey: A church in history, edited by David Cannadine

27 March 2020

Richard Chartres finds not a dull page in a Westminster chronicle

WILTON, Waltham Holy Cross, and Westminster were the three great royal religious foundations of the Anglo-Saxon period. Only Westminster survives, and this book is the story of how this happened, and how the Abbey has been continually re-invented to reflect social and political change.

It could have been very different. Some rapacious Tudor courtier in the religious and political turbulence of the 16th century might well have coveted the site and redeveloped the buildings for his own profit. The neighbouring College of St Stephen, next to Westminster Hall, could have been adopted as a cheaper but adequate theatre for national and Parliamentary ceremonial.

The Abbey was briefly revived as a Benedictine monastery during the reign of the Roman Catholic Queen Mary, but it was dissolved again with the accession of Elizabeth I. It was a moment of danger, but, by a royal charter of 1560, the Queen re-founded Westminster as a collegiate church under a Dean and Chapter who retained their endowments and their jurisdiction over the growing population of Westminster. The Abbey was established as a Royal Peculiar, independent of episcopal control; and this allowed it to develop a style of ceremonious choral worship very unlike the sermon-centred models favoured by bishops who had spent their years of exile under Queen Mary in Reformed Churches in Continental Europe, especially Switzerland.

The story is very well told in Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch’s chapter “The Great Transition 1530-1603”. He also draws attention to the part played by William Cecil, High Steward of Westminster from 1561, in providing the necessary protection that allowed the Abbey to pioneer such an idiosyncratic form of stately Protestantism. It was one of his chaplains, and formerly a schoolmaster in his household, Gabriel Goodman, who was appointed Dean in 1561. His tenure of 40 years together with the Queen’s longevity permitted the Westminster style to survive and to exercise a profound influence on some of the most significant leaders of the Church in the early 17th century, notably Lancelot Andrewes and Richard Neile.

© dean and chapter of westminsterIn 1556, the installation of this new canopied marble altar tomb for the remains of Geoffrey Chaucer, 150 years after his death, began the tradition of “Poets’ Corner” in Westminster Abbey; from the book reviewed above

Westminster Abbey: A church in history was published to mark the 750th anniversary of the consecration in 1269 of the third great church on the Thorney Island site. The editor has largely succeeded in his aim of situating the Abbey both in the life of the Church and the history of the nation while acknowledging the way in which it has adapted to the expanding horizons of the modern world.

The Abbey remains as it has done from the reign of Edward the Confessor the Coronation Church, but successive Deans have played a part in its transition from being an exclusive theatre for magnificent state ceremonial to its present role as a focus for popular feeling around the tomb of the Unknown Warrior, and a wider ecumenical importance, exemplified by the Commonwealth services.

The freedom that the Abbey continues to enjoy under royal patronage has enabled it to be hospitable to representatives of many faiths, and to accommodate controversy in a myriad of special services. I was particularly moved by the decision to welcome leaders of the Armenian Church and nation for a service of remembrance during the centenary of the 1915 massacres. The Government, in contrast, was very reluctant to acknowledge the event.

As we have come to expect from Yale, the book is beautifully produced. The illustrations are an essential part of its excellence, and the picture researcher, Cecilia Mackay, deserves special praise.

It is instructive to compare the present volume with House of Kings, the publication edited by Edward Carpenter which commemorated the 900th anniversary of the foundation of the Abbey by Edward the Confessor. It is still valuable, with copious quotations from the records in the Abbey’s own muniment room, and in general it has a much more in-house character. Perhaps the most startling difference, however, is that it received a highly favourable review in The Sun. “Blessedly readable,” the reviewer proclaims. “There may be a dull page in the near 500 pages but I haven’t found it yet.”

David Cannadine’s team deserves a similar accolade, but, alas! such is the cultural change since 1966, it is likely to be only in the pages of the Church Times.

The Rt Revd Lord Chartres is a former Bishop of London.


Westminster Abbey: A church in history
David Cannadine, editor
Yale £35
Church Times Bookshop £31.50

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