It is the coronation place of kings. As the eyes of the world are turned towards the televised spectacle, aside from the King, the Queen, assembled bishops and nobles – all in traditional coronation robes – it’s possible to argue that the real protagonist is Westminster Abbey itself.
Just as St Edward’s Crown, the apex of the ceremony, is named after the Confessor, the Abbey owes its foundation to the saint-king, but materially is the work of later ages. Substantially, most of the Abbey that we see today owes its form to the patronage of Henry III, who modelled himself on Edward’s image and in 1245, took the decision to have the Abbey rebuilt by his master mason Henry of Reynes in the hyper-sophisticated Gothic style then emerging in France.
In terms of style, this most English of buildings is French through and through. All the same, in spite of the undeniable influence of cathedrals such as Chartres, Reims and Amiens, Henry III’s Abbey has a character entirely of its own. Part of this comes from its diminutive size. Although it remains one of the tallest naves in the United Kingdom to this day, Henry’s Abbey could not – or did not seek to – compete with its French antecedents.
What it lacked in size was more than made up for in the scale of Henry’s ambitions. The first monarch since Edward the Confessor to be buried in the Abbey (a tradition then continued almost unbroken to George II), Henry sought to establish it as both a place of royal coronation and burial. With Saint Edward’s shrine placed at the holiest part of the building, its east end, Henry sought to concentrate the sacred aura of English kingship into one building in the heart of the most highly-centralised administrative centre in the whole of Europe, thus binding Church, State and Crown into one godly edifice, a combination we will be reminded of on Saturday.
Like almost all medieval buildings, the construction took far longer than the reign of one king. With work slowing after Henry’s death, the nave of Saint Edward’s church still stood for over a century. But unlike most other medieval buildings, the designs of which changed in line with architectural fashion, when the next substantial building campaign on the church began under Richard II’s master mason Henry Yevele – perhaps the greatest of all English medieval architects – a concerted effort was made for the work to be in keeping with what had gone before. As a result, what was finally brought to a state of completion under the reign of Henry V came pretty close to what had been envisaged by Henry III’s architect almost two centuries previously.
I say completion; but to use this word in relation to the Abbey is something of a misnomer, because the Abbey never really has been completed. When work finally ceased under Henry V, major features remained unfinished. The towers at the west end were nothing but stumps, and the crossing was topped off by a simple cap – a far cry from the magnificent spire or fleche initially envisaged. The next king to make a major contribution to the Abbey – the first of the Tudors, Henry VII – was more interested in making a statement than in more humdrum requirements, which led to the creation of the ornate Lady Chapel in which he was buried.
It was not until Sir Christopher Wren became Surveyor to the Abbey in 1698 that things began to change. With his enthusiasm for a challenge, Wren set his mind to the difficult task of building a spire that could be supported by the existing piers. An experimental model was made of his proposals, which survives, but nothing was built. What was built was the work of his pupil and successor as Surveyor, Nicholas Hawksmoor, who finally designed tops for the western towers. Hawksmoor did not live to see these towers completed, but these forceful essays, which do so much to give the western facade presence, are a testament to his understanding of the gothic. Built as the monuments within the Abbey began to accumulate, Hawksmoor’s work was also a reflection of the Abbey’s renewed importance in the national consciousness.
Hawksmoor’s sensitivity to the gothic was surprising for a classicist. More surprising still is the lack of sensitivity of the Gothic Revival architect, John Loughborough Pearson, whose restoration of the north facade of the Abbey from 1879 – previously realised with great care in the Wren period – stripped out much of the genuinely medieval material and has continued to be regretted ever since.
Thankfully, when work on the Abbey has been carried out in more recent times, it has been done so with far greater sensitivity. The Diamond Jubilee Galleries, built to designs by the Abbey’s current surveyor Ptolemy Dean, which were opened in 2018, are masterfully integrated into the older fabric, and their entrance – the first major addition to the Abbey since Hawksmoor – is both stylish, modern and respectful of what was there before.
It is to be hoped then that as Dean embarks on yet another addition, the same balance will be found. Plans are afoot for a new suite of ticketing offices and storage facilities, taking the currently intrusive ticketing booths out of the Abbey and bringing them into its precincts. It will be no easy task. Built on the footprint of the original Sacristy, it will stand on one of its most prominent approaches – its north front, so badly mauled by Pearson – and so the task of striking the balance between modern design and deference to the past will be difficult to achieve. The answer, from what we know so far, will be to focus on materials – English stone, oak and lead – to find the perfect harmony.
The results, of course, remain to be seen. Nevertheless, it is a reminder that even a building of the age and significance of Westminster Abbey can never be said to have reached a point of completion. If Dean’s work is successful, we might wonder where these additions will end. Will he, or his successor, have had time to turn their thoughts to the spire in time for the next coronation? But then, perhaps, some things are best left unfinished.