Westminster Abbey was originally a Benedictine monastery, refounded as the Collegiate Church of St. Peter in Westminster (today one of the boroughs constituting Greater London) by Queen Elizabeth I in 1560. Legend relates that Sebert, the first Christian king of the East Saxons, founded a church on a small Thames island, then known as Thorney but later called the west minster, or monastery, and that this church was miraculously consecrated by St. Peter. It is certain that in about AD 785 there was a small community of monks on the island and that the monastery was enlarged and remodelled by St. Dunstan in about AD 960.
St. Edward the Confessor (reigned 1042-66) built a new church on the site, which was consecrated in 1065. It was of considerable size, cruciform in plan, and with a central and two western towers. In 1245 Henry III pulled down the whole of Edward's church (except the nave) and replaced it with the present abbey church in the pointed Gothic style of the period. The design and plan were strongly influenced by contemporary French cathedral architecture, which is perhaps explained by the fact that the first architect was Henry of Reims. Other famed architects who worked on Westminster Abbey were Henry of Gloucester and Robert of Beverley.
The rebuilding of the Norman-style nave was begun by 1376 under the architect Henry Yevele and continued intermittently until Tudor times. The Early English Gothic design of Henry III's time predominates, however, giving the whole church the appearance of having been built at one time. The chapel of Henry VII (begun c. 1503), in Perpendicular Gothic style, replaced an earlier Lady chapel and is famed for its exquisite fan vaulting. Above the original carved stalls hang the banners of the Knights of the Bath.
The western towers were the last addition to the building. They are usually said to have been designed by Sir Christopher Wren, but they were actually built by Nicholas Hawksmoor and John James and completed in 1745. The choir stalls in the body of the church date from 1848, and the high altar and reredos were remodelled by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1867. Scott and J.L. Pearson also restored the north transept front (1880-90).
Since William the Conqueror, every British sovereign has been crowned in the abbey except Edward V and Edward VIII, neither of whom was crowned. Many kings and queens are buried near the shrine of Edward the Confessor or in Henry VII's chapel. The last sovereign to be buried in the abbey was George II (died 1760); since then they have been buried at Windsor.
The abbey is also crowded with the tombs and memorials of famous British subjects. Part of the south transept is well-known as Poets' Corner, while the north transept has many memorials to British statesmen. The grave of the "Unknown Warrior," whose remains were brought from Flanders in 1920, is in the centre of the nave near the west door.
You can find more information on the Westminster Abbey at its home page.
Recommended viewing from the collection:
The Web Gallery of Art contains 16 images of artworks from the Westminster Abbey.