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Westminster Abbey and the Coronation: what the stones have witnessed

28 April 2023

William Whyte explores the significance of Westminster Abbey as the setting for the Coronation

The Coronation of George IV at Westminster Abbey in 1821 showing the ranked seating for the congregation, by an anonymous artist

The Coronation of George IV at Westminster Abbey in 1821 showing the ranked seating for the congregation, by an anonymous artist

WESTMINSTER ABBEY’s first coronation was an ill-omened affair. Conducted in the freshly consecrated new building on 6 January 1066, it followed the death of Edward the Confessor, who had rebuilt the great church. Indeed, Edward’s burial at the high altar took place in the morning, and the coronation of Harold II happened in the afternoon.

Nine months later, an invading army arrived from Norway under the great warrior Harald Hardrada. A few weeks after that, Duke William of Normandy defeated the English at Hastings. Harold II had managed only 282 days from coronation to defeat and death.

And yet, on Christmas Day 1066, William the Conqueror was crowned king in Westminster Abbey, the second such consecration in the year, and one that would be imitated by almost every English monarch. As the historian William of Malmesbury wrote in the 1120s, what attracted the Conqueror to Westminster was not Harold’s coronation, but Edward’s funeral. The saintly Confessor’s church and bodily remains conferred legitimacy on monarchs, and so “the custom has been established among his successors that, in memory of Edward’s burial, kings should receive their crowns there.”

Three exceptions rather prove this rule; for they were rulers who didn’t last long enough to make it to Westminster. First was poor Edward V, whose brief reign was over in a matter of months. Then, there was Lady Jane Grey, queen for only nine days. Last was Edward VIII. Preparations were so far advanced for his coronation that George VI was able to be crowned on the day scheduled for the abdicated Edward.

Troubled times or disputed successions made Westminster all the more important. William the Conqueror was just the first to use the place to buttress his claim to the throne; for his coronation, the Abbey was ringed by guards, so anxious about the event that on hearing cries of acclamation they panicked and burned down neighbouring houses.

AlamyThe Coronation of King Edward III at Westminster Abbey on 1 February 1327 at the age of 14, from an early 14th-century manuscript

In 1689, the coronation of William III and Mary II was a similarly fraught occasion, with Dutch soldiers armed and ready against any signs of support for James II (whom they had just deposed). Tellingly, when Henry IV took the throne in 1399, he challenged any claim that he was a usurper by being crowned on Edward the Confessor’s feast day.

Over the centuries, this link with a dead monarch encouraged other kings and queens to choose the Abbey as a resting place. Henry VII insisted on a Westminster coronation in 1485, and then left money his will to build a monumental chapel for his tomb. James I and VI signalled dynastic continuity by transferring his mother’s body to the Abbey. Placing the tomb of Mary, Queen of Scots, on the opposite side of the Lady chapel from Elizabeth I — who had ordered her execution — was a pointed move.

So, too, when the Hanoverians acceded to the throne, they began to be buried in the Abbey, asserting their place in a long line of sovereigns with whom they otherwise had remarkably little connection.

That monarchs were crowned in the presence of their dead predecessors marked England out from France. There, kings were anointed in the Cathedral of Reims and buried in the Basilica of Saint-Denis. This unique combination of functions made Westminster Abbey uniquely important — an importance emphasised when it was rebuilt in the 13th century by Henry III.

Driven from London by French invasion, Henry had two coronations: the first at Gloucester Cathedral, in 1216; the second at Westminster, in 1220. Perhaps because of this irregularity, he invested unparalleled amounts of money in the Abbey’s reconstruction. Strongly identifying himself with Edward the Confessor, he reinterred the saint in an elaborate new shrine. Three years later, in November 1272, Henry died, and was buried in the saint’s former grave.


CORONATIONS are, of course, not just about the person being crowned. They need to be seen and acknowledged and endorsed by an audience. Henry III’s new Abbey was equipped with ample galleries for just such a purpose. Even so, each ceremony continued to require new construction, with the throne raised on a stage, originally called a pulpitum, and then — tellingly — described as the “theatre”.

Still more people’s desire to see the coronation necessitated more massive additions, which enabled the Abbey to be filled with spectators. More than 8000 were packed into the ranks of seating installed for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953. Earlier events were even more elaborately furnished. In the 18th century, preparations involved not only the installation of expensive scaffolding for seats and viewing platforms, but the organ was dismantled, the altar was removed, the choir stalls were altered, and even the trees in neighbouring St Margaret’s Churchyard were cut down.

AlamyShrine of Edward the Confessor behind the high altar of Westminster Abbey

Most of these alterations were temporary. It was for that reason that Arthur Stanley, the great reforming dean of the Victorian era, described the coronations as “the outward wave of English history”, breaking on Westminster and on the wider nation “without leaving any permanent mark”. Yet they did leave behind some more important changes, too.

Not all of these were intentional. The weight of the scaffolding at George IV’s coronation in 1821 was so great that it caused potentially serious problems with subsidence. More dramatically, at Edward II’s coronation in 1308, the trumpet blast caused a wall to collapse, killing a knight.

Nor were all the additions necessarily improvements. By the 18th century, the Abbey attracted visitors and made money through its waxwork collection. A precursor to Madame Tussauds, it was in truth still more popular, even if Georgian connoisseurs were inclined to write off this “ragged regiment” as nothing more than “rubbish”.

Like the coronations themselves, these mannequins mixed death and celebration. Some were the decaying remains of funeral effigies; others were specially commissioned. The latter included models of William and Mary, and a figure of Elizabeth I, “whose face”, one delighted guide recorded, was “pinched into most expressive and venerable old-maidism”. Their presence in the Abbey was a constant reminder of the great events that had occurred there — and of the coronations, above all.


THERE were also permanent changes that reshaped Westminster in significant ways. Again, the 18th century provides a good example — not least because historians have tended to see it as a period of relative decline for both the Abbey and coronation rituals alike. True, the era brought pluralism and peculation. It is also true that several coronations were poorly organised and slackly performed. At George II’s coronation, in 1727, the Dean was so infirm that “At the Sacrament [he] had like to have pour’d the Wine in the Cup into the King’s Bosom.”

AlamyThe Coronation of Queen Victoria in Westminster Abbey on 28 June 1838, painting by Sir George Hayter, 1839

None the less, the aftermath of these events was unignorable, whether that was the new organ of 1730, installed to replace the one removed for George II’s coronation, or the new choir stalls of 1773, “contrived to make room for more splendid arrangements, as for the coronation of the British sovereigns”.

Indeed, Westminster Abbey is in many ways best understood as both a sort of archaeological site and a kind of theatre, as well as one of the greatest churches in the world. It is the backdrop for sacred drama, with costumes, props, and scenery, seating, lighting, and a stage. But dig a little more deeply, and you can find the deposits of each generation, layer upon layer, taking you further back in time.

It is this that gives the place its power. Past and present, death and renewal are fused together here. That will be true as King Charles III is crowned on a chair made for Edward I, in a building constructed by Henry III, near the tomb of Edward the Confessor, whose body brought both Harold II and William I for their coronations, nearly 1000 years ago.


The Revd Dr William Whyte is Fellow and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.

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