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How Westminster Abbey suffered from no longer being Catholic

The amazing geometries of Westminster Abbey's Lantern roof (Getty)

The shrine church of St Edward became a mausoleum for secular saints and was filled with incongruous artworks

Treasures of Westminster Abbey
By Tony Trowles
Scala Art, 176pp, £16.99/$25

Walking into once Catholic churches appropriated by other religious bodies tends to produce the sense that “we were robbed”, but there are not many that I would be more interested in seeing restored to Catholic ownership than Westminster Abbey.

This is a point on which I do not pretend to objectivity. My inability (as an American) to be influenced by patriotic prejudices is more than compensated for by the combination of my affection for the Benedictine order, which once inhabited the abbey, and the fact that the Gothic in which it was built is one of my favourite architectural styles. But I do think, or at least I hope, that this new book can show those unable to visit the former monastery that it ought to be numbered among the greater architectural losses from which the Catholic Church has suffered.

Despite Westminster Abbey’s famous association with King Edward the Confessor, the abbey church as it now exists is not that built by the last of England’s Saxon monarchs. Nor did Edward introduce the Order of St Benedict to the site. Benedictines had been sent there in the middle of the 10th century, in obedience to London’s Bishop Dunstan, and under the patronage of King Edgar the Peaceful.

Medieval stories of a founding hundreds of years earlier indicate the possibility of a previous history of monastic life in the vicinity, despite their frequent tendency to hagiographic extravagance. The current abbey church was initiated by Henry III, who decided to replace that built by Edward the Confessor with one designed around a shrine to his holy predecessor.

Because of long delays and some revisions, the project would not be completed in accordance with its original conception until the lifetime of Henry VIII; and it would exist as the earlier Henrys desired for only a few decades before the latter’s schism from Rome, the dissolution of the monasteries and the rise of English Protestantism. Fortunately, however, the royal use to which the abbey church was put resulted in considerable mitigation of the plundering and iconoclasm which occurred during that period.

Separation of the abbey from the Catholic Church initiated not just a change in its religious uses but also an evolution in its decoration, which during its Catholic days had focused on saints, benefactors and those interred within its walls. In the later Tudor and early Stuart periods, the abbey church developed into a sort of shrine to those royal houses and to heroes of the Protestant state.

The resulting pantheon included more than a few harsh enemies of the religion which had created the abbey and persons less than renowned for their piety; but the change remained very much a Protestant-isation rather than a secularisation – a monument to High Anglican belief in a Church of England and an English state co-extensive with each other under a form of caesaro-papism. Westminster had always been used as a royal mausoleum and the monarch did have a specifically religious significance in the new order. Those who advanced the Protestant cause in politics and in war had the tangential connection to religion implied in advancing the cause of the ecclesial body that was by that time using the abbey as a place of worship. It was not until the 18th century that the former monastery church became, first, a celebration of secular English nationalism, and later a shrine to “secular saints” of “progressive” ideology.

It was also the 18th century that introduced a major aesthetic shift in the statues, effigies and monuments added to the abbey. Anglican works of the 16th and 17th centuries are aesthetically at home in it, demonstrating a strong continuity with the artistic heritage of English Gothic despite the inevitable incorporation of other influences and innovations.

Increasingly, secularisation of those honoured there coincided with an abandonment of that tradition in favour of strict Neoclassicism, resulting in works which are utterly incongruous in their setting, however excellent they often are in themselves. The visual impact and the connotations of secular rationalism make more explicable insistence upon Gothic styles and dismissal of classical ones by “Romantic Christians” of the 19th century. One can only hope, even if one cannot expect, that the new works of art will one day be moved to more appropriate settings and the abbey restored to its original purpose.