Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

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INTRODUCTION

"Kings are thy nursing fathers and their queens thy nursing mothers." From the reign of Edward the Confessor, the last sovereign of the royal Saxon race, till the death of Elizabeth, the last Tudor queen, these words of the old Hebrew prophet were literally applicable to the great West Minster. When Edward knelt within the Benedictine chapel on Thorneye, which had so miraculously withstood the ravages of the Danes, and vowed to dedicate a new church on the same spot to the glory of God and in the name of St. Peter, even his prophetic soul cannot have foretold the high destiny of his beloved foundation. As the building slowly grew during the last years of his reign, he conceived the idea of its use as a sepulchre for himself and his successors. In his visions he may even have foreseen the coronations of the English sovereigns within its walls, his own canonisation, and the long connection between the throne and the monastery. All that the words above imply would have appealed to the pious founder, but what of his feelings could he have looked on through the centuries? He would have seen much to vex, yet we venture to think he would have found consolation, even in these latter days when the monks are no longer here and the Roman Church has ceased to be the Church of his country. Three hundred years after Edward's death came the destruction of his church in the name of piety, but for this there was ample compensation in the beautiful and stately buildings which were raised upon the ruins of the old, and in the devotion to the first founder's memory shown by Henry III. and his descendants. During the ages of faith, when the Pope held sway over England, king after king gave liberally to the fabric, while their queens may also be counted amongst the benefactors to the West Minster. St. Peter, the patron saint to whom the church was dedicated, was practically lost sight of in the halo which surrounded the memory of the Saxon king, and it was to the English royal saint rather than to the Hebrew apostle that the Abbey owed its peculiar sanctity. From the first it was a royal foundation, a building consecrated to the memory of a king, yet none of these considerations were weighed in the balance when the West Minster shared in the general downfall of the English monasteries. The sovereign himself laid violent hands upon the treasures presented by his pious forefathers in honour of St. Edward, and the saint's body must surely have turned in its coffin when, to save it from indignity, the monks were obliged to lift it from the feretory and hide it beneath the ground. The shrine which had been the pride of each king since the days of Henry III., and honoured no less by the first Tudor sovereign, was stripped of its glories: the shining golden top, which used to be seen from end to end of the church, was melted down; the jewels, which had been offered by royal worshipper and humble pilgrim alike, even the precious images of sainted king and saintly evangelist, were ruthlessly transferred to the palace treasury....