For 957 years, Westminster Abbey has been one of the most important buildings in England and is the main setting for the coronation of King Charles III, which will be broadcast live for everyone on May 6th. Before him, no less than 39 British monarchs were anointed in a place where, unsurprisingly, History mixes drama, violence, and a lot of curiosity.
Of the various legends about the origin of the Church, one says that it was built there after a miracle was performed in the name of Saint Peter. A young fisherman had a vision of the saint and doing good fishing, the tradition of offering salmon by fishermen from the River Thames to the abbey arose, an annual custom still respected today. In any case, experts believe that it was probably erected in the early 6th century, and the first church of real importance was documented even when England was divided into seven kingdoms, before the battle of Hastings and the invasion of William the Conqueror, under the reign of Edward I the Confessor. By the way, if we follow the official documents, the first British king anointed in Westminster was none other than William himself, on December 25, 1066.
Before William, there was no fixed location for the coronation ceremony, and King Edward is one of the sons of Queen Emma of Normandy, whose story is partially told in Vikings: Valhalla. Edward, who ordered the expansion of the Church that had been in place since 960, never saw his work completed (he died in December 1065), but he was buried in Westminster and his tomb was never touched by any other king, not even Henry 8th, when had all the Catholic churches destroyed when he fought the Pope to marry Anne Boleyn. Still in the scenario shown in the Netflix series, as there is no evidence that Edward’s immediate successor, Harold Godwinson was crowned there, it is believed that the choice to be anointed in the Abbey was William’s policy: when he was crowned in the Church built by Edward, reinforced his legitimacy as sovereign. Be that as it may, it established the tradition. Since then there have been only two exceptions: with Edward 5th, who was killed, supposedly by his uncle, Richard 3rd, before he was crowned, and with Edward 8th, uncle of Elizabeth 2nd, who abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson before he was anointed King.
The luxury and pomp of coronations were resumed with the accession of Queen Victoria, in 1838, but the big milestone came in 1953, with the coronation of Elizabeth II. The ceremony was televised for the first time and seen by millions of people around the world. Seventy years later, her son, Charles III, will also allow the presence of cameras to record the historic moment. As well as coronations and burials, there have been major weddings at Westminster Abbey, including that of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011.
Over the course of almost a thousand years, there were natural changes to the façade demanded by various monarchs, and it is estimated that Edward’s “original” building survived for two centuries, unchanged, until the mid-13th century, when King Henry 3rd decided to renovate it. in Gothic style. And in the passage of time, it’s only natural that Westminster Abbey has been the scene of grief and attacks as well. It was hit during the bombings of the 2nd World War, and before that, it was the target of a bomb attack, placed inside by suffragettes, in 1914, and even damaging part of the coronation throne. But overall, the construction has stood the test of time well.
The abbey is also something of a cemetery, with more than 3,000 people buried there, including kings and prominent citizens. We can see the tombs of King Henry 5th and Queen Elizabeth 1st, as well as those of the writers Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, and the scientists Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. And it works like this, the kings and queens are spread out in the chapels, but in general, there are “corners” that gather the dead with a curious concept. Writers and poets are gathered on one side, like-minded architects on the other, and scientists, as well as engineers and musicians, stand together. “It’s the English taste for clubs,” joked actor Alan Bennett in his 2012 documentary about the place, affectionately known as The Abbey. “It’s like when the dead start to come out of their graves, there won’t be any discomfort like you have at the start of a party, everyone will have someone to talk to. The British idea of heaven,” he quipped.
With so much history concentrated within its walls, Westminster Abbey is considered more than an architectural masterpiece of the 13th to 16th centuries. In 1987, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its outstanding universal value. As he enters Westminster Abbey to be officially crowned, Charles III will trace in the footsteps of so many Kings and Queens that we know so well. Huge pressure, as you can imagine.