Henry III’s Westminster Abbey as a Coronation Church

Henry III rebuilt Westminster Abbey during his reign. He designed it from the start as a Coronation church. This extract from Henry III, Volume 2: Reform, Rebellion, Civil War, Settlement, 1258-1272, by renowned historian David Carpenter looks at the history behind Henry’s design of the church.

‘Westminster Abbey North Transept’, by Amandajm, CC BY-SA 3.0

Henry’s aim, first and foremost, in all his works at the Abbey was to win Edward the Confessor’s favour and thus secure, through his intercession, success in this life and a safe passage to the next. He also hoped to harvest the prayers of all the pilgrims who came to the Abbey. Surely they would intercede for the temporal and spiritual welfare of the great king who had created all around them. To that end, Henry’s name appeared on the chapter house floor, the high altar pavement and, as its ‘cause’, on the shrine itself. Henry was doing the reverse of keeping the Confessor for himself. He was trying to ensure Edward became England’s patron saint.

The radiating chapels, the flying buttresses, the galleried triforium, the great north portal with its gabled doorways and rose window made the Abbey a church without parallel in England. Indeed, the galleried triforium and the length of the transepts equally made it without parallel in France. If those entering the church through the north portal were awed by the scenes of the Last Judgement (almost certainly the theme of the central doorway), then once within they were comforted, uplifted and inspired by one of the most beautiful vistas of any church in Christendom. For the eyes swept up at once to the great height of the patterned and painted vault laid out across the eight bays of the two transepts either side of the central crossing. And at the end of the south transept, the eyes rested on the great rose window above two tiers of trefoiled lancets, a shimmering cascade of stained glass framed in Purbeck marble, stone and sculpture. Set beneath the rose window, in the most prominent possible position, and perfumed with incense by smiling angels swinging their censers with easy grace, were the large painted statues of the Confessor holding up the ring and the pilgrim stretching out his appealing arm to receive it, the episode which prefigured Saint John conducting the Confessor up to heaven.

‘Westminster Abbey at the time of Edward the Confessor’s funeral, as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry‘, public domain

Thus assured that the Confessor was indeed a saint of mighty power, the pilgrims could press on to the saint himself, and here the relationship between the sanctuary pavement, the high altar and the shrine was carefully arranged. In the first place the whole area was raised up above the rest of the church, thus elevating the Abbey’s spiritual heart. There were four steps up to the high altar pavement, another four up to the Confessor’s chapel, and then four more supporting the shrine itself. Since the height of the high altar’s retable was kept deliberately low, the golden reliquary with the Confessor’s body, raised on its Cosmati base, was visible to all standing on the high altar pavement and indeed to those standing in the crossing below. Henry had thus, as Thomas Wykes said, elevated the Confessor’s body ‘so that a light so radiant, now raised high above the candles, might shine its spiritual light the more copiously on those coming and going’. (1)

Approaching the shrine across the high altar pavement there was a warning, much as there was entering the Abbey through the north door. In the centre of the pavement, as we have seen, was the great alabaster globe depicting the world, the red veins in the stone suggesting all its angry strife. The pavement itself, as the inscription indicated, was meant to prompt thoughts of the Last Judgement. But again there was hope, for painted in the centre of the high altar’s retable, a few feet away, was the earth again but this time a verdant earth with plants, birds and animals, held in Christ’s caring hand (2). This was Christ neither of the Last Judgement nor the cross, but Christ the saviour of the world. The panels either side, framed by coloured glass, gems, cameos and enamels, continued in the same spirit. They depicted a smiling Virgin Mary and the miracles of Christ, including, of special moment for Henry, reminding him of his daughter Katherine, Christ raising up the centurion Jairus’s daughter from the dead. Thus inspired, the pilgrims could finally advance into the Confessor’s chapel and, with the whole scene lit by Henry’s numerous candles, walk across the Cosmati floor, mount the steps to the shrine and make their offerings at the altar, before kneeling in the niches within the glittering base and praying for the state of the king, the peace of the kingdom and the health and salvation of themselves.

High altar & Cosmati Pavement‘ by 14GTR, CC BY-SA 4.0.

As those attending the great services left the Abbey by the north door, there was a final reminder of the royal dynasty. For if they looked up they would see above the door the head of a prince, clearly Edward himself. He had not in the end been knighted in the Abbey, as Henry had once hoped, but here, gazing out over the transepts, towards the scene of his future coronation, he was linked umbilically to the Abbey and the Confessor, the Confessor after whom he himself had been named. Henry had designed the Abbey from the start as a Coronation church. The spacious triforium galleries enabled thousands to gaze down on the great ceremony, while thousands more could be accommodated in the uniquely long transepts which framed the central crossing (3). The high altar pavement, echoing quite probably the pavement in St Peter’s where emperors were anointed, provided the perfect setting for the ceremony itself (4). This was all the more the case because from the pavement the king, prelates and nobles would see rising up above them, behind the high altar, the shrine of the Confessor, the king saint watching over the whole ceremony, shielding and supporting the monarchy with his protective power.

‘The north transept’ by amandabhslater, CC BY-SA 2.0

While Henry thus linked the beginning of each reign to the Abbey and the Confessor, he also linked the end. For Henry, of course, wanted the Abbey to be the dynasty’s mausoleum, and for that the Confessor’s chapel, with spaces for tombs between the surrounding columns, was perfect. Yet if all this makes the Abbey a very kingly church its decoration also showed it was indeed a church for all the kingdom. Hence, the comital and baronial shields, including Montfort’s own, sculpted in the wall arcades of the choir, and continuing in paint down the Confessor’s nave. They reflected the Confessor’s vision, Henry’s vision (not always achieved) of a king ruling in concert with his nobles for the good of the community of the realm (5). There was also a broader setting. The Abbey testified eloquently to the community of Europe. Much of its stone came from Caen in Normandy, the painters of the retable came from Paris. The whole design was heavily indebted to the great French cathedrals, notably Reims and Amiens. The shields in the choir included those of France and the Empire. And then, more important than anything else, was the connection with Rome and the papacy (6).

The Abbey, so it was believed, had been miraculously founded by Saint Peter. In 1222 it had been freed from the bishop of London’s jurisdiction and been made subject to Rome alone. The pope had been with Henry throughout his Abbey journey. He had issued indulgences for those helping the work and attending the eventual translation. Doubtless at Henry’s prompting, he described the new church as being of ‘wonderful beauty, mire pulchritudinis’. In March 1267 he gave permission for the translation to take place (7). The papacy had saved Henry at the start of his reign, freed him from baronial control in 1261, and then, through the legate Ottobuono, restored peace to England after the civil war. The Sicilian debacle could be forgotten. The Cosmati work at the heart of the Abbey celebrated and proclaimed a relationship with the pope itself ‘of wonderful beauty’. In characteristic fashion, Henry used the inscriptions to make the point. Those on the shrine base thus linked him with Peter the Roman citizen, that on the high altar pavement with ‘the city’, the city of Rome. Henry hoped that the Abbey would have a profound impact on his subjects.   

1 Wykes, 226. I have translated ‘candelabrum’ as candles.

2 Binski and Massing, The Westminster Retable, 63. This volume, with its remarkable illustrations, provides a comprehensive history and analysis of the retable. Between 1606 and 1827 it formed part of a succession of cupboards in which the Abbey stored the funeral effigies of kings and queens, hence its survival but also its battered state.

3 At the 1953 Coronation, I sat high up in the north transept.

4 For the coronation, see volume 1, 45–6.

5 It seems likely that baronial shields also appeared in the stained glass, although only the arms of the king, Richard of Cornwall and Provence now survive. The keepers of the Westminster works were ordered to supply forty stained-glass shields for the queen’s chamber at Havering: CLR 1267–72, no. 109.

6  The Abbey’s ‘Romanitas’ is a major theme in Binski’s Westminster Abbey and the Plantagenets, see, for example, 93–107.

7 WAM Book II (Westminster Domesday), fos. 386, 406v (CPReg, 262).

About the author:

David Carpenter is professor of medieval history at King’s College London. He is the author of numerous books, including the widely acclaimed Henry III: The Rise to Power and Personal Rule, 1207–1258 and a new study of the Magna Carta.

About the book:
Henry III Coronation Church

Henry III, Volume 2: Reform, Rebellion, Civil War, Settlement, 1258-1272 is the second volume in the definitive history of Henry III’s rule, covering the revolutionary events between 1258 and the king’s death in 1272.

After coming to the throne aged just nine, Henry III spent much of his reign peaceably. Conciliatory and deeply religious, he created a magnificent court, rebuilt Westminster Abbey, and invested in soft power. Then, in 1258, the king faced a great revolution. Renowned historian David Carpenter brings to life the dramatic events in the last phase of Henry III’s momentous reign. A groundbreaking biography, Henry III illuminates as never before the political twists and turns of the day, showing how politics and religion were intimately connected.

Further reading:

Henry III: The Rise to Power and Personal Rule, 1207–1258  is the first in a ground-breaking two-volume history of Henry III’s rule

Eminent historian David Carpenter brings to life Henry’s character and reign as never before. Using source material of unparalleled richness – material that makes it possible to get closer to Henry than any other medieval monarch – Carpenter stresses the king’s achievements as well as his failures while offering an entirely new perspective on the intimate connections between medieval politics and religion.

‘Professor Carpenter is one of Britain’s foremost medievalists…No one knows more about Henry, and a lifetime of scholarship is here poured out, elegantly and often humorously.’
Dan Jones, The Sunday Times

‘[A] monumental, awesome yet highly readable book…Carpenter is the foremost scholar of England’s 13th century, and his spectacular erudition shines on every page…’
Simon Heffer, Daily Telegraph

‘[A] major new biography’
BBC History Magazine

Share this

You must be logged in to post a comment