Since 1066AD, Westminster Abbey has been the traditional coronation and burial site for British monarchs, but there are no members of the Royal family among the ghosts that reputedly haunt here.
The history of Westminster Abbey or the Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster of course dates further back than 1066. The first church here dedicated to St Peter was founded by Sæberht (Saberht or Sæbert) (died 616AD) King of Essex (r. c. 604 – c. 616) and his wife. Sæberht is thought to have been the first king of the Eastern Saxons to be converted to Christianity. According to ‘Westminster Abbey Charters, 1066 – c.1214: London Record Society 25’ (1988), ‘Saeberht, king of the East Saxons, and his wife founded a church dedicated to St Peter, on Thorney Island, in the Thames, to the west of London. This couple were allegedly buried there*, early in the seventh century but no further royal burials occurred on the site over the next 400 years or more.’
In 957AD Edgar was chosen as King after a revolt against his brother Eadwig. Dunstan (Born 909 – Died 19 May 988), who had fueded with Eadwig was recalled by Edgar’s advisors and appointed Bishop of Worcester. The following year he also became Bishop of London and around 959AD, the site of Westminster church to Dunstan who then founded a Benedictine monastery.
King Harold I (Harefoot) of England died on 17 March 1040) and buried at Westminster Abbey. King Harthacnut of Denmark (Died 1042), his younger half brother assumed the throne in June 1040, and Harold’s body was exhumed, beheaded and dumped by the River Thames, only to be rescued by fishermen and reburied at the Church of St Clement Danes. Harthacnut’s successor, King Edward the Confessor was also buried at Westminster Abbey.
‘During his last years, the church of St Peter at Westminster was rebuilt on a grand scale, as his mausoleum. Earlier in the eleventh century, several large churches had been built throughout the western empire, designed intentionally to reflect the weight of the emperor’s rule. Edward’s grandiose plans for the rebuilding of Westminster may in part have consciously imitated these imperial projects. Architectural influences probably drew heavily, too, on recent Norman buildings, especially Jumièges, no doubt due to the influence of its former abbot, Robert Champart, bishop of London from 1044, and archbishop of Canterbury 1051–2. The rebuilt St Peter’s was consecrated on 28 December 1065 and Edward died on the night of 4–5 January 1066. [Westminster Abbey Charters, 1066 – c.1214: London Record Society 25’ (1988)].
The following legend concerning a fisherman referred to as Aldrich and St Peter visiting the early church was recounted in ‘Ecclesiastical Antiquities of London’ by Wood and repeated in ‘Westminster Abbey: Early history’, Old and New London: Volume 3 (1878). “The night before the dedication, it is related that St. Peter, in an unknown garb, showed himself to a fisher on the Surrey side, and bade him carry him over, with promise of reward. The fisher complied, and saw his fare enter the new-built Church of Sebert, that suddenly seemed on fire, with a glow that enkindled the firmament. Meantime the heavenly host scattered sound and fragrance, the fisher of souls wrote upon the pavement the alphabet in Greek and Hebrew, in twelve places anointed the walls with the holy oil, lighted the tapers, sprinkled the water, and did all else needful for the dedication of a church. These circumstances, and the signs following, were pondered on by St. Edward, last but one of our Saxon kings, who earnestly desired to repair that ruined monastery, and restore it to honour and splendour. The Pope approved the plan, and one of the most magnificent fabrics in Christendom was the result.”
1066 was England’s year of three kings and both King Harold II Godwinson (Born 1022 – Died 14 October 1066 – Battle of Hastings) and the invading King William I the Conqueror (Born 1028 – Died 9 September 1087) were coronated at Westminster Abbey.
King Henry III (Born 1 October 1207 – Died 16 November 1272) chose Westminster Abbey as his final resting place and in 1245 started to enlarge to church, which may be seen as the start of the present building’s construction. According to ‘Westminster Abbey: Early history’, Old and New London: Volume 3 (1878) ‘During the time of Abbot Laurentius, about the year 1159, extensive repairs were made in the out-buildings of the monastery, which had been destroyed by fire. In 1220 Henry III. laid the first stone of a chapel, which was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, and was called “The Lady Chapel.” Its site was that whereon now stands Henry VII.’s Chapel. Queen Eleanor, wife of Henry III., was crowned here with much splendour and liberality on the part of the citizens of London, in spite of the discredit and unpopularity of her husband, who not long afterwards granted a large sum towards rebuilding the Abbey Church. This, according to Matthew Paris, was in 1245. Speaking of this sovereign, under that date, the old chronicler says:—”The king in the same year commanded that the Church of St. Peter, at Westminster, should be enlarged, and the tower with the eastern part overthrown, to be built anew and more handsome, at his own charge, and fitted to the residue or western part.” For this purpose, Henry appropriated a considerable sum to the church, and in 1246 “the sum of £2,591, due from the widow of one David of Oxford, a Jew, was assigned by him to that use.”
In 1247, if we may trust the statement of a writer in Neale and Brayley’s “History of Westminster Abbey,” “on the day of the translation of Edward the Confessor, a vessel of blood, which, in the preceding year, had been sent to the King by the Knights Templars and Hospitallers in the Holy Land, and was attested by Robert, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, to have trickled from our Saviour’s wounds at His crucifixion, was presented with great ceremony to this church.”
On the 13th of October, 1269, the new church, of which the eastern part, with the choir and transepts, appears to have been at that time completed, was first opened for divine service; and on the same day, writes Dart, from “Wyke’s Chronicles,” the body of Edward the Confessor, “that before laye in the syde of the quere, where the monkes nowe singe,” was removed with great solemnity “into ye chapell, at the backe of the hygh aulter, and there layde in a ryche shryne.”
It is impossible to ascertain how far the building had progressed at the time of Henry’s death, in 1272. According to Fabian, the choir was not actually finished till some thirteen years later. A short time previous to the rebuilding of the church, Abbot Richard de Crokesley had erected a chapel near the north door, and dedicated it to St. Edmund. This was taken down with the rest by Henry III. Not long afterwards the beautiful mosaic pavement before the high altar was laid; it was the gift of Abbot Ware, who died in 1283, and was buried under it.
In 1297 the Abbey was considerably damaged by a fire which broke out in the lesser hall in the king’s palace adjoining. In the succeeding century great additions were made to the fabric by Abbots Langham and Litlington; the latter, says Widmore, quoting from the records, “built the present college hall, the kitchen, the Jerusalem Chamber, the abbot’s house (now the Deanery), the bailiff’s, the cellarer’s, the infirmarer’s, and the sacrist’s houses, the malt-house (afterwards used as a dormitory for the King’s Scholars), and the adjoining tower, the wall of the infirmary garden, and also finished the south and west sides of the cloisters.” Abbot Litlington died in the reign of Richard II. It is hardly necessary to add that the Edwardian era was the culminating period of Gothic or pointed architecture.
In 1378 the right of sanctuary possessed by the Abbey was for the first time violated, and the church itself made the scene of a most atrocious murder. It appears that, during one of the campaigns of the Black Prince, two esquires, Frank de Haule and John Schakell, had taken prisoner a Spanish (or, according to Pennant, a French) count. He had, however, a powerful friend at court, in the person of John of Gaunt. The two English captors refused to part with so valuable a prize; and John of Gaunt at once imprisoned them in the Tower, whence they made their escape, and took refuge at Westminster. They were pursued by Sir Allan Boxhull, Constable of the Tower, and Sir Ralph de Ferrers, with fifty armed men. De Haule and Schakell, it is supposed, had fled not merely into the Abbey, but into the choir of the church, while the mass was being celebrated. The deacon had just uttered the words of the Gospel of the day—”If the good man of the house had known what time the thief would come”—when the clash of arms was heard, and the pursuers, regardless of the time or the place, suddenly burst in upon the service. Schakell succeeded in escaping, but Haule was intercepted. He fled round the choir twice, with his enemies hacking at him as he ran; and, pierced with twelve wounds, he sank dead at the prior’s stall, close by the north side of the entrance of the choir. His servant and one of the monks fell with him. He was regarded as a martyr to the injured right of the Abbey, and obtained the honour (at that time unusual) of burial within its walls—the first who was laid, so far as we know, in the south transept; to be followed a few years later by Geoffrey Chaucer, who was interred at his feet. A brass effigy and a long epitaph, till within the last century, marked the stone where he lay, and another inscription was engraved on the stone where he fell. The Abbey was shut up for four months. Even the sitting of the King’s Parliament was suspended, lest its assembly should be polluted by sitting within the desecrated precincts; and the aggressors were excommunicated by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
During the reign of Richard II. the rebuilding of the western part of the church was carried out; and Abbot Estency, who died in 1498, contributed largely towards finishing it, and made the great west window. Abbot Islip made many additions to the fabric, but the nave remained in an unfinished state till the beginning of the last century, when Sir Christopher Wren completed the two western towers.
The first stone of the magnificent Chapel of Henry VII., at the eastern end of the Abbey Church, was laid in 1502, during the government of Abbot Islip; it was erected on the site of two chapels, dedicated respectively to the Virgin Mary and to St. Erasmus, which had been pulled down to make room for the new fabric; and, like its predecessor, when completed, it was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. It was designed by Henry VII. as a burying-place for himself and his successors, and he expressly enjoined in his will that none but those of the blood royal should be inhumed therein.
Henry VII. by his will left his funeral to the discretion of his executors, only charging them to avoid “dampnable pompe and outrageous superfluities.” As he requests that the chapel should be finished as soon as possible after his decease, if not then completed, and particularly mentions that the windows were to be glazed with stories, images, arms, badges, and cognisances, according to the designs given by him to the prior of St. Bartholomew’s—and that the walls, doors, windows, vaults, and statues, within and without, should be adorned with arms and badges—it may be concluded that much remained to be done in the year 1509, as he died within a month after the date of the will. He ordered that his body should be interred before the high altar, with that of his wife, and that the tomb should be made of touchstone, with niches, and statues of his guardian saints in copper gilt, the inscription to be confined merely to name and dates.
That his soul might rest in peace, Henry requested 10,000 masses should be said in the monastery, London and its neighbourhood, for its repose—”1,500 in honour of the Trinity, 2,500 in honour of the five wounds of our Lord Jesus Christ, 2,500 for the five joys of our Lady, 450 in honour of the nine orders of Angels, 150 in honour of the patriarchs, 600 to that of the twelve apostles, and 2,300 to the honour of all saints,” and all these to be sung in one short month after his decease! He likewise directed that a statue of himself, kneeling, three feet in height from the knees, should be carved in wood, representing him in armour, with a sword and spurs, and holding the crown of Richard III. won by him at Bosworth Field. The figure was to be plated with fine gold, and the arms of England and France enamelled on it. A tablet of silver gilt supporting it, enamelled with black letters, “Rex Henricus Septimus,” was to be placed on the shrine of St. Edward, to whom, with St. Mary and Almighty God, he dedicated the statue. He also gave in trust to the abbot and convent £2,000 to be distributed in charity, and 500 marks to the finishing of the church.
How far Henry’s directions regarding his funeral were carried out may be gleaned from Malcolm’s account of the ceremony. He says: “On the 9th of May, 1509, the body of Henry VII. was placed in a chariot, covered with black cloth of gold, which was drawn by five spirited horses, whose trappings were of black velvet, adorned with quishions of gold. The effigies of his Majesty lay upon the corpse, dressed in his regal habiliments. The carriage had suspended on it banners of arms, titles, and pedigrees. A number of prelates preceded the body, who were followed by the deceased king’s servants; after it were nine mourners. Six hundred men bearing torches surrounded the chariot.
“The chariot was met in St. George’s Fields [he died at Windsor] by all the priests and clergy of London and its neighbourhood; and at London Bridge by the Lord Mayor, aldermen, and common council, in black. To render this awful scene sublimely grand, the way was lined with children, who held burning tapers: those, with the flashes of great torches, whose red rays, darting in every direction upon glittering objects, and embroidered copes, showing the solemn pace, uplifted eyes, and mournful countenances, must have formed a noble picture. The slow, monotonous notes of the chaunt, mixed with the sonorous tones of the great bells, were not less grateful to the ear. When the body had arrived at St. Paul’s, which was superbly illuminated, it was taken from the chariot and carried to the choir, where it was placed beneath a hearse arrayed with all the accompaniments of death. A solemn mass and dirge were then sung, and a sermon preached by the Bishop of Rochester. It rested all night in the church. On the following day the procession recommenced in the same manner, except that Sir Edward Howard rode before, on a fine charger, clothed with drapery on which was the king’s arms.
“We will now suppose him removed by six lords from his chariot to the hearse prepared for him, formed by nine pillars, set full of burning tapers, enclosed by a double railing; view him placed under it, and his effigies on a rich pall of gold; close to him the nine mourners; near them knights bearing banners of saints, and surrounded by officers of arms. The prelates, abbot, prior, and convent, and priests, in measured paces, silently taking their places; when, breaking through the awful pause, Garter King-at-Arms cried, with an audible voice, ‘Pray for the soul of the noble prince, Henry the Seventh, late king of this realm.’ A deep peal from the organ and choir answers in a chaunt of placebo and the dirge; the sounds die away, and with them the whole assembly retires.”
On the 16th of January, 1539–40, this Abbey was surrendered to Henry VIII. by Abbot Boston and twenty-four of the monks, and immediately dissolved. Here the king was married to Anne of Cleves, whom he soon afterwards divorced. After its short-lived career as a bishopric, under Dr. Thirleby, during the reigns of Henry VIII. and Edward VI., on the accession of Queen Mary, the monastery was again restored to the order of St. Benedict, which was one of the most wealthy, powerful, and learned in England before the Reformation.
Westminster was the second mitred abbey in the kingdom, and its abbot, before the Reformation, had a seat among the peers of Parliament; but it would astonish most readers, even devout Roman Catholics, to learn that at this day there are in existence four “reverend” or “very reverend” gentlemen who style themselves the “Abbots” of Westminster, St. Albans, Bury St. Edmunds, and Glastonbury respectively! How amused Dean Stanley must be, while holding in his hands the keys of the Abbey of St. Peter’s, Westminster, to know that he has a rival who would gladly relieve him of them!
There are a few ghosts reputedly associated with Westminster Abbey. The first is a Benedictine monk, sometimes referred to as Father Benedictus. The ghost hunter and author Andrew Green gave the following description of this ghost, ‘Constant modifications and renovations to the abbey have resulted in the floor level gradually being lowered by some two feet in depth. It is this significant fact that accounts for occasional reports of the ghostly monk being seen with the hem of his robe some distance from the ground. In 1932 he was seen as a ‘Benedictine monk with his hands hidden in the sleeves of his habit and his cowl half back from his head’, before disappearing through a wall opposite the south transept. To account for this apparition, for there is another that frequents the deanery, one should recall that two monks are known to have been killed in the abbey. Once, during a robbery in 1303, the other in King Richard II’s time when, whilst holding a high mass, a lunatic attacked and murdered one of the attendant brothers.’
Another ghost thought to haunt Westminster Abbey is that of Judge John Bradshaw (Born 15 July 1602 – Died 31 October 1659) President of the High Court of Justice at the trial of King Charles I (Born 19 November 1600 – Died 30 January 1649). On 30 January 1661, following the restoration of the monarchy, King Charles II had Bradshaw’s body exhumed from his burial site in Westminster Abbey and along with the corpse of Oliver Cromwell, was displayed in chains at the Tyburn gallows before being beheaded. His body was not returned to Westminster Abbey, but it has been suggested that his phantom footsteps have been heard there
The third phantom is said to be that of the Unknown Warrior. The grave of the Unknown Warrior is situated at the west end of the Nave. He was buried here in a grave that was filled with 100 sandbags of French soil. On 11 November 1920 the soldier was chosen by Brigadier General L.J.Wyatt from a selection of unidentified servicemen exhumed from the battlefields of Aisne, Ypres, Arras and the Somme. The inscription reads:
UNKNOWN BY NAME OR RANK
BROUGHT FROM FRANCE TO LIE AMONG
THE MOST ILLUSTRIOUS OF THE LAND
AND BURIED HERE ON ARMISTICE DAY
11 NOV: 1920, IN THE PRESENCE OF
HIS MAJESTY KING GEORGE V
HIS MINISTERS OF STATE
THE CHIEFS OF HIS FORCES
AND A VAST CONCOURSE OF THE NATION
THUS ARE COMMEMORATED THE MANY
MULTITUDES WHO DURING THE GREAT
WAR OF 1914-1918 GAVE THE MOST THAT
MAN CAN GIVE LIFE ITSELF
FOR KING AND COUNTRY
FOR LOVED ONES HOME AND EMPIRE
FOR THE SACRED CAUSE OF JUSTICE AND
THE FREEDOM OF THE WORLD
THEY BURIED HIM AMONG THE KINGS BECAUSE HE
HAD DONE GOOD TOWARD GOD AND TOWARD
The apparition of the Unknown Warrior is said to have been seen at the foot of the grave dressed in his WWI British uniform stained with mud.
*At Prittlewell a chamber tomb was discovered, the burial site of a powerful Anglo-Saxon Christian. It has been suggested that perhaps this was the grave of Saeberht as he was one of two Christian kings there dating from that period.