The London venue for the Royal Wedding - Westminster Abbey - is steeped in over 1,000 years of history. Benedictine monks first came to the site in the middle of the 10th century.
The Abbey was built on a marshy area called Thorney Island, surrounded by tributaries of the Tyburn river – also no longer visible, it is now channelled underground.
King Edgar (959–75) gave the original monastic community at Westminster substantial lands covering most of what is now the West End of London. Almost a hundred years later King Edward the Confessor re-built the Abbey during his long reign (1043-1066).
It was an important element of that time, and so I incorporated the Abbey's construction into several scenes in my novel about King Harold II, both its building and its hasty consecration on 28th December 1065 when the elderly King Edward was dying.
The Abbey is clearly depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. The scene starts with showing a man climbing up to the roof to erect a weather vane (indicating that the building work has only just finished) and the hand of God coming down from the sky to bless its consecration. The next scene is King Edward's burial.
One-tenth of the revenues of the kingdom was spent on building it, while the defences of London, the coast, and the Welsh marches rapidly fell into decay. The village of Charing was where the English and foreign workmen employed on building the abbey lived. Edward’s royal palace of Westminster was built at more or less the same time – that stood where the present Houses of Parliament are located, right beside the River Thames.
This Tapestry image is not the present building where Prince William and Kate Middleton will be married – but you can see some similarities. There were two towers in King Edward’s design at the western end – probably, in Saxon times, as impressive as the ones that stand there today.
All that remains of Edward the Confessor's actual building, though, are one large arch in the southern transept, the substructure of the dormitory, a few traces about the choir, and the Chapel of the Pyx, a narrow room with a vaulted roof on the south of the abbey, divided down the centre by a row of seven plain pillars with single capitals, once used as the Treasury of England where the regalia of the Scottish kings, including the Holy Cross of Holyrood, were kept.
Henry III rebuilt the Confessor’s church, providing the Gothic building we have today. Henry’s own burial there in 1272 established Westminster Abbey as the principal royal burial place for the next 500 years.
The monks at Westminster Abbey wore the black habit of the Order of St Benedict, they led a simple and self-denying life, were celibate and owned no personal property. The celebration of the daily services in praise of God was their first duty, and work, often farm work, and reading took up the rest of their time.
Very few people, even kings, could not read or write so monasteries were the main source of education. As they became richer and more monks were ordained as priests manual work ceased and they became more concerned with the administration of their Church lands and possessions. The numbers of monks varied through the centuries from 30 to 60, although only 24 were left when Henry VIII dissolved the monastery in 1540.
In celebration of the Royal Wedding
and my exciting new start with my new UK publisher
I would like to share a couple of the scenes set within Westminster Abbey that I wrote for
Harold the King (UK title) I Am The Chosen King (US title)
Excerpt from -
Part 1 Chapter 20
Harold, Earl of Essex, is talking to his wife, Edyth Swanneck, about King Edward’s building plans for Westminster Abbey.
“Edward is building Westminster with the prime intention of making it his mausoleum. He plans a grand and ostentatious tomb near the high altar. I was wondering whether I ought to incorporate plans for my own resting place.”
Edyth put her hand up to his mouth, her fingers pressing against his lips. “Please, do not talk of your death! I cannot bear to think of not having you with me!”
Harold laughed. “I’m not intending to make use of a tomb just yet, my lass! Although it occurred to me yesterday, as Edward insisted on taking us on a tour of his building work, that he had better pray for a long life. He is one and forty years old already and it could take anything up to thirty years to complete his abbey.”
The construction of the abbey at Westminster was barely further advanced than Harold’s smaller building project at Waltham, for prolonged and incessant rain had put it behind schedule. The Westminster foundations were thick with mud and flooding had always been a problem along that marshy stretch of the Thames. The periodic rise and fall of the river helped somewhat, though, for the gravel and alluvial soil brought down with the current were steadily silting up the tiny tributaries that separated the scatter of small islands. The spread-finger estuary of the Tyburn was no longer as wide, and Thorney Island itself had more than doubled its length of riverbank since the time when Cnut had first enlarged the crude little chapel of Saint Peter into a monastery for twelve monks.
Edward had in mind nearer sixty monks and a building superior to anything yet known. His abbey was to be the finest, tallest, grandest complex of buildings in all England. Looking at the ooze squelching around their feet yesterday afternoon, Harold and his father had harboured strong doubts of the practicality of the dream.
Excerpt from -
Part 2 Chapter 19
Westminster – June 1064
Although a chill breeze was blowing off the river Thames – the wind often became more inclement with the flood tide – Edward insisted on personally inspecting the rising grandeur that was his abbey and expected those at court to accompany him.
Leofwine, Harold’s younger brother, arriving at Westminster, had been invited to visit the building site almost before he had risen from his knee on greeting the King.
“But you must see my abbey!” Edward declared. In his enthusiasm he leapt to his feet. “It is now more splendid than ever I had imagined it would be. Come, let me have my cloak fetched, I shall show you straightway!”
“We shall all go!” Edith, the Queen, trilled as she ensured Edward’s cloak was tucked around his body and his cap fitted snug over his silvered hair, and, “Do you want your gloves, my dear? You know how your hands chap from the cold.” Treating her husband more as an ageing father, Edith had found her niche as the dutiful wife who looked to his every daily need, tending his apparel, cutting his meat, warming hands and feet, rubbing salves into his aching knees.
Edward contentedly basked in her various attentions; it was all he had ever wanted, someone to mother him. He patted her arm, smiled an aimless, distant acknowledgement, talking all the while to Leofwine. “You will be most surprised at how far the work has progressed – why, it actually begins to look like an abbey at last! You younger ones, you must come also,” Edward added, waving his arm at the children. “The fresh air will put colour in your faces.” He threaded his arm companionably through Leofwine’s. “We have been having problems with the labourers: every so often they decide to stop work for one trivial reason or another – the ramps are too steep and slippery, the conditions too wet. Yet I am paying them good wages, they get hot food once a day and I provide a Christian burial for those unfortunates who, through their own carelessness, meet with accidents. Only the other day a man stupidly stood right under a hoist – the rope had frayed and the stone that was being lifted…well, he was crushed instantly. Dear Leofwine, you should have heard the wailing from his widow! We told her it was his own fault for standing where he did; I gave her a penny from my own purse, that seemed to satisfy her.” Edward, talking rapidly, stepped through the doorway and out into the sunlight.
The King took great pleasure in having the younger folk around his court, their laughter a contrast to the sombre faces of his councillors and lords. There would be over-much sobriety, he often declared, were it not for their gaiety. Edith would agree with him, though never did she forget that were it not for his own refusal of intimacy, her children would be among those who romped together like inexhaustible hound pups.
The ground ascended gently from the palace, slowing Edward’s initial exuberant pace and bringing the breath puffing into his lungs. Perhaps it was his increasing age that made the slope seem the steeper? Next birthing day he would be sixty years of age and they told him often that he ought to take more rest. Piffling nonsense! He might be missing a few teeth and his sight be more blurred than once it had been, his hearing not so sharp, but he could still sit a horse and gallop with the rest of those young whelps when a stag was running. And his mind was alert, his bladder and bowels controlled; he was not yet the dotard they claimed him to be.
Ahead of the party, the east end of his abbey stood in all its splendour, a vast, soaring structure of Reigate stone, the sun’s rays striking down through the wind-hustled clouds, highlighting the lantern tower as if God Himself were pointing out its wonder.
The square, lead-roofed tower stood six storeys high, rearing into the sky above the crossed section of north and south transepts, the army of surrounding roof turrets standing like a cluster of guardian sentries. The tiled roofing, above apse, transepts and upper part of the nave, had been set in place as soon as the walls had risen to keep the stone and timber structures below dry. Once the rain was kept out, work had progressed rapidly.
From this eastern approach the holy place looked almost complete, for as was traditional with cathedral and abbey constructions, building ranged from east to west. The height of the northern transept, immediately ahead of the royal party, successfully hid the slower progress to the western end – which consisted of the half-built northern wall of the nave, one tower flanking the western entrance completed but for its roof and its potential twin standing as a single storey of stonework. There was still much to be done.
They stood a moment, the group of onlookers, heads tipped back, gaping up at the great height of the tower, marvelling at the diminutive figures of men clambering over and along the higgle-piggle of scaffolding, not one of them seemingly concerned about the distance down to the ground. For many of those watching – save for those fortunate few who had made pilgrimage to Rome, or visited the grand new cathedrals that were springing up all over France and Italy – this was the tallest building they had ever seen. It was certainly impressive.
Edward entered through the cavern in the north transept that would, one day, be the northern entrance door and proudly led his audience into another world.
The square tower was borne over the crossing by an elaborate array of unobtrusive stone arches, like the branches of a gigantic oak supporting the canopy above. Spiralling stairs reached up inside, set in artistic symmetry against plain walls that rose to the carved beams of the roof. Windows, set at especial angles, allowed in wide shafts of sunlight that harboured a myriad of floating, dancing particles of dust.
It was a beautiful church. Uncluttered by unnecessary ornamentation, its clean lines gave an overpowering sense of length and height, a continuity of unbroken space stretching from one end to the other that, when finished, would cover more than 330 feet in length. The nave would support six double bays per side – two longer than the cathedral of Jumièges. Arches, each resting on plain cylindrical columns below a triforium stage with a gallery surrounding the vaulted aisles, and above that, the clerestory shadowed below the eaves. Further windows pierced the solidity of the lower walls, bringing light cascading down into the enclosed space. The abbey of Westminster was to be long and high, but there would be no gloom within. God’s house, lit by God’s hand.
Allowing sufficient pause for gasps and a crackle of admiring applause, Edward passed the raised steps that would lead to the main altar and thrust out his arm to indicate an open space. “Here,” he said extravagantly, “is where I shall be laid to rest. Close to the bosom of God, where I shall sleep in peace within the sanctity of this glorious place.”
His audience nodded; no one dared comment that the abbey of Westminster was, at this moment, anything but a place of peace.
So much movement and noise! All bustle and business. Men swarming like worker ants; carriers of wood, stone, water and lime, men recruited locally and paid by the day. Skilled craftsmen were as numerous as the labourers. Carpenters, masons, stonecutters; those who mixed the mortar, their essential task demanding huge concentration. A building was, after all, only as strong as the mortar that bound it together. Mixed poor, and a wall would crumble as the rain washed and seeped and the wind buffeted. Somewhere within the network of ladders, pulleys, ramps, cranes, hoisting gear and treadmills, the architects were overseeing the transferral of the design on paper into reality.
Hammering, sawing, the squeal of rope on wood as hoists took the enormous blocks of stone from ground level up to the heights of the roof; the indignant bellowing of oxen, the roar of the blacksmiths’ bellows. Grunts and shouts, the overall swell of talk and laughter, grumbling and half-muttered swearing. The tramp of feet echoing on hollow ramp, the chink of chisel on stone, rumble of heavy-burdened wheels and the screech of metal against metal. The squeak of wheels as a man lumbered past with a laden handcart, sweat standing out on his face, biceps bulging.
And through it all, the swirl of grit, wood-chips and shavings. White stone dust on the floor, hanging in the air; layers deep along grooved edges of pillars and columns, of steps and crevices, on the sills of the windows. Dust that settled across the shoulders and in the hair of the working men….
Excerpt from -
Part 3 Chapter 11
Before the last of the light faded from the wet December day, the twenty-seventh of that month, a tiler had managed to climb up the height of the scaffolding to place a golden weathercock in position upon the roof of Edward’s proud Westminster Abbey. Only from the west, from below the choir and from the outside, did the place resemble a building site. On the morrow they would enter through the north door, see only the splendour; the newness of the eastern end.
Harold stood alone facing the cloth-draped, bare altar. No candlestick, no salver or crucifix, nothing would adorn this holiest of places until the consecration and blessing. There was no sanctity within this wondrous building, nothing save the emptiness of space, of height, of soaring walls, pillars and arches. With night beyond the tiers of narrow windows, the darkness crowded close, only the lantern in his hand and the few candles that burnt in wall sconces creating dim islanded pools of cheerful yellow brightness.
Yet there was a presence here. What, who, Harold could not decide. Nothing sinister, not a feeling of being spied upon, no, just a comfortable awareness of not being alone. Something, some faint-echoed shadow of expectancy of waiting. God perhaps? Harold wondered. Was He already here, waiting to be formally welcomed into His house?
The Earl of Wessex walked slowly towards the first in a row of wooden benches placed across the nave in readiness for the morrow. Tomorrow, there would be people here, many people. Tomorrow, too, the articles of Holy Church would be blessed and placed upon the altar, the choir filled with song, prayers offered and accepted by God - and God himself would no longer be a distant tingle of breath, a whispered promise, a sigh upon the wind. Harold’s footsteps echoed on the stone floor. Left. Right. Tap. Tap. The sound reverberated through the chancel arches, down into the nave, through the enclosure of the choir. Bouncing off the walls, flying up to those rafters that soared high, as high as heaven.
Wine and water would be sprinkled over the altar while blessings were intoned and the chanting of the Benedictine monks echoed clear and sweet beneath the high vaulted roof. The perfume of incense would permeate through the odour of new-cut stone, timber, mortar and sawdust. As the Christian is baptised and confirmed by water and oil, so the altar of Saint Peter would, on the morrow, be dedicated to the Lord by anointing.
The hand of God would touch Edward’s abbey, but the King himself would not be there to witness the final glory. Edward was too ill to leave his bed, was nearing death. Outside in the darkness, the drizzle of rain beat its tedious rhythm on roof and rutted mud alike, Harold sat, wearily leant his forearms across his knees. The quiet, he had thought, might help to sort out his wild-running thoughts. He chewed his lip, tapped the pads of his thumbs together. His idea was not working.
A side door opened and a novice monk, unaware of Harold’s presence, entered and began dowsing the candles. The hour was late and until God dwelt here in His house, economy ordained the saving of tallow. The lad started as he noticed the Earl sitting there, and stammered an apology.
Harold smiled and rose to his feet. “Nay, ’tis I who must beg forgiveness, I ought not to be tarrying here, I came but to see for myself that all was ready. The morrow will be a day long remembered.”
The boy nodded that aye, it would.
Walking back to the north door, Harold paused, staring out at the rain. He would have to cross to the palace soon, seek his chamber, the warmth of his bed. Edyth was awaiting him, but he was unwilling to go to her, to ask for her quiet love, her gentle comfort. This one night, out of all those they had shared together, he did not know how he could face her. She would probably be already sleeping, for the hour was late. Most in the palace would have sought their beds, save those few of importance - the two Earls Eadwine and Morkere and Archbishops Stigand and Ealdred, who would perhaps have remained discussing matters of state between themselves, finishing the jugs of wine and tankards of ale that half an hour or so ago Harold had been sampling with them.
He looked across the winter darkness to the palace complex. A crack of light showed through one of the closed shutters of the King’s upper-floor chamber then flickered as a shadow moved beyond. His doctor? Priest?
It would not be the Queen, for she had gone to bed to nurse her angry tears almost as evening had fallen. She had spoken few words to Harold this Christmas - all of them harsh and uncompromising accusation. He snorted disdain. Did she care about Edward? Had she ever cared? Edyth had said this morning that his sister was hiding behind her fear, that were she to think about the King, then the reality of her coming loss would be too much to bear. Instead, she was wallowing in grief for their brother Tostig. Harold had not disillusioned Edyth by telling her that he knew his sister better. She grieved for the impending loss of her sovereign status, for the fact that Tostig had let her down - and she blamed everyone for their joint downfall save herself and Tostig. He sympathised with her, but Edith could not remain Queen. Her calculated greed, placed so implacably above the good of England and its peoples, had made that an impossibility.
Edward did not attend the consecration of his Abbey, fpr he was too oll. He died on January 5th 1066 and was buried where he had asked, close to the high alter. Harold Godwinesson, Earl of Wessex was elected King in his place by the entire Council of England, as was the custom of the Anglo Saxons. He was crowned Harold II the next day, January 6th
The first English King to be crowned in Westminster Abbey.
The first English King to be crowned in Westminster Abbey.