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Westminster Abbey

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



It is said that the line in Heber's " Palestine " which describes the rise of Solomon's temple originally ran -

" Like the green grass, the noiseless fabric grew; "

and that, at Sir Walter Scott's suggestion, it was altered to its present form

" Like some tall palm, the noiseless fabric sprung."

Whether we adopt the humbler or the grander image, the comparison of the growth of a fine building to that of a natural product is full of instruction. But the growth of an historical edifice like Westminster Abbey needs a more complex figure to do justice to its formation: a venerable oak, with gnarled and hollow trunk, and spreading roots, and decaying bark, and twisted branches, and green shoots; or a coral reef extending itself with constantly new accre tions, creek after creek, and islet after islet. One after another, a fresh nucleus of life is formed, a new combination produced, a larger ramification thrown out. In this respect Westminster Abbey stands alone amongst the edifices of the world. There are, it may be, some which surpass it in beauty or grandeur; there are others, certainly, which surpass it in depth and sublimity of association; but there is none which has been entwined by so many continuous threads with the history of a whole nation...

If the original foundation of the Abbey can be traced back to Sebert, the name, probably, must have been given in recollection of the great Roman sanctuary, whence Augustine, the first missionary, had come. And Sebert was believed to have dedicated his church to St. Peter in the Isle of Thorns, in order to balance the compliment he had paid to St. Paul on Ludgate Hill: a reappearance, in another form, of the counterbalancing claims of the rights of Diana and Apollo-the earliest stage of that rivalry which afterwards expressed itself in the proverb of "robbing Peter to pay Paul."

This thin thread of tradition, which connected the ruinous pile in the river-island with the Roman reminiscences of Augustine, was twisted firm and fast round the resolve of Edward; and by the concentration of his mind on this one subject was raised the first distinct idea of an Abbey, which the Kings of England should regard as their peculiar treasure...

The Abbey had been fifteen years in building. The King had spent upon it one-tenth of the property of the kingdom. It was to be a marvel of its kind. As in its origin it bore the traces of the fantastic childish character of the King and of the age, in its architecture it bore the stamp of the peculiar position which Edward occu pied in English history between Saxon and Norman. By birth he was a Saxon, but in all else he was a foreigner. Accordingly, the Church at Westminster was a wide sweeping innovation on all that had been seen before. " Destroying the old building," he says in his Charter, "I have built up a new one from the very foundation." its fame as " a new style of composition" lingered in the minds of men for generations. It was the first cruciform church in England, from which all the rest of like shape were copied - an expression of the increasing hold which the idea of the Crucifixion in the Tenth Century had laid on the imagination of Europe. Its massive roof and pillars formed a contrast with the rude rafters and beams of the common Saxon churches. Its very size - occupying, as it did, almost the whole area of the present building - was in itself portentous. The deep foundations, of large square blocks of grey stone, were duly laid. The east end was rounded into an apse. A tower rose in the centre crowned by a cupola of wood. At the western end were erected two smaller towers, with five large bells. The hard strong stones were richly sculptured. The windows were filled with stained glass. The roof was covered with lead. The cloisters, chapter-house, refectory, dormitory, the infirmary, with its spacious chapel, if not completed by Edward, were all begun, and finished in the next generation on the same plan. This structure, venerable as it would be if it had lasted to our time, has almost entirely vanished. Possibly one vast dark arch in the southern transept - certainly the substructures of the dormitory, with their huge pillars, " grand and regal at the bases and capitals " - the massive low-browed passage leading from the great cloister to Little Dean's Yard -and some portions of the refectory and of the infirmary chapel, remain as specimens of the work which astonished the last age of the Anglo-Saxon and the first age of the Norman monarchy...

In the earliest and nearly the only representation which exists of the Confessor's building - that in the Bayeux Tapestry - there is the figure of a man on the roof, with one hand resting on the tower of the Palace of Westminster, and with the other grasping the weathercock of the Abbey. The probable intention of this figure is to indicate the close contiguity of the two buildings. If so, it is the natural architectural expression of a truth valuable everywhere, but especially dear to Englishmen. The close incorporation of the Palace and the Abbey from its earliest days is a likeness of the whole English Constitution -a combination of things sacred and things common - a union of the regal, legal, lay element of the nation with its religious, clerical, ecclesiastical tendencies, such as can be found hardly elsewhere in Christendom. The Abbey is secular because it is sacred, and sacred because it is secular. It is secular in the common English sense, because it is " saecular " in the far higher French and Latin sense: a " saecular " edifice, a 'c saecular " institution - an edifice and an institution which has grown with the growth of ages, which has been furrowed with the scars and cares of each succeeding century.

A million wrinkles carve its skin;

A thousand winters snow'd upon its breast,

From cheek, and throat, and chin.

The vast political pageants of which it has been the theatre, the dust of the most worldly laid side by side with the dust of the most saintly, the wrangles of divines or statesmen which have disturbed its sacred peace, the clash, of arms which has pursued fugitive warriors and princes into the shades of its sanctuary -even the traces of Westminster boys who have played in its cloisters and inscribed their names on its walls -belong to the story of the Abbey no less than its venerable beauty, its solemn services, and its lofty aspirations...

The Chapel of Henry VII, is indeed well called by his name, for it breathes of himself through every part. It is the most signal example of the contrast between his closeness in life, and his "magnificence in the structures he had left to posterity " - King's College Chapel, the Savoy, Westminster. Its very style was believed to have been a reminiscence of his exile, being " learned in France," by himself and his companion Fox. His pride in its grandeur was commemorated by the ship, vast for;hose times, which he built, " of equal cost with his Chapel," "which afterwards, in the reign of Queen Mary, sank in the sea and vanished in a moment."

It was to be his chantry as well as his tomb, for he was determined not to be behind the Lancastrian princes in devotion; and this unusual anxiety for the sake of a soul not too heavenward in its affections expended itself in the immense apparatus of services which he provided. Almost a second Abbey was needed to contain the new establishment of monks, who were to sing in their stalls " as long as the world shall endure."Almost a second Shrine, surrounded by its blazing tapers, and shining like goid with its glittering bronze, was to contain his remains.

To the Virgin Mary, to whom the chapel was dedicated he had a special devotion. Her " in all his necessities he had made his continual refuge; "and her figure, accordingly, looks down upon his grave from the east end, between the apostolic patrons of the Abbey, Peter and Paul, with " the holy company of heaven - that is to say, angels, archangels, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, evangelists, martyrs, confessors and virgins," to " whose singular mediation and prayers he also trusted," including the royal saints of Britain, St. Edward, St. Edmund, St. Oswald, St. Margaret of Scotland, who stand, as he directed, sculptured, tier above tier, on every side of the Chapel; some retained from the ancient Lady Chapel; the greater part the work of his own age. Around his tomb stand his " accustomed Avours or guardian saints" to whom " he calls and cries "-"St. Michael, St. John the Baptist, St. John the Evangelist, St. George, St. Anthony, St. Edward, St. Vincent, St. Anne, St. Mary Magdalene, and St. Barbara," each with their peculiar emblems, -" so to aid, succour, and defend him, that the ancient and ghostly enemy, nor none other evil or damnable spirit, have no power to invade him, nor with their wickedness to annoy him, but with holy prayers to be intercessors to his Maker and Redeemer." These were the adjurations of the last mediaeval King, as the Chapel was the climax of the latest mediaeval architecture. In the very urgency of the King's anxiety for the perpetuity of these funeral ceremonies, we seem to discern an unconscious presentiment lest their days were numbered.

But, although in this sense the Chapel hangs on tenaciously to the skirts of the ancient Abbey and the ancient Church, yet that solemn architectural pause between the two- which arrests the most careless observer, and renders it a separate structure, a foundation " adjoining the Abbey " rather than forming part of it - corresponds with mar, vellous fidelity to the pause and break in English history of which Henry VII's reign is the expression. It is the close of the Middle Ages: the apple of Granada in its ornaments shows that the last Crusade was over; its flowing draperies and classical attitudes indicate that the Renaissance had already begun. It is the end of the Wars of the Roses, combining Henry's right of conquest with his fragile claim of hereditary descent. On the one hand, it is the glorification of the victory of Bosworth. The angels, at the four corners of the tomb, held or hold the likeness of the crown which he won on that famous day. In the stained-glass we see the same crown hanging on the green bush in the fields of Leicestershire. On the other hand, like the Chapel of King's College at Cambridge, it asserts everywhere the memory of the " holy Henry's shade"; the Red Rose of Lancaster appears in every pane of glass: and in every corner is the Portcullis - the " Alters securitas," as he termed it, with an allusion to its own meaning, and the double safeguard of his succession - which he derived through John of Gaunt from the Beaufort Castle in Anjou, inherited from Blanche of Navarre by Edmund Crouchback; whilst Edward IV. and Elizabeth of York are commemorated by intertwining these Lancastrian symbols with the Greyhound of Cecilia Neville, wife of Richard, Duke of York, with the Rose in the Sun, which scattered the mists at Barnet, and the Falcon on the Fetterlock, by which the first Duke of York expressed to his descendants that " he was locked up from the hope of the kingdom, but advising them to be quiet and silent, as God knoweth what may come to pass."

It is also the revival of the ancient, Celtic, British element in the English monarchy, after centuries of eclipse. It is a strange and striking thought, as we mount the steps of Henry VII's Chapel, that we enter there a mausoleum of princes, whose boast it was to be descended, not from the Confessor or the Conqueror, but from Arthur and Llewellyn; and that round about the tomb, side by side with the emblems of the great English Houses, is to be seen the Red Dragon of the last British king, Cadwallader- "the dragon of the great Pendragonship "of Wales, thrust forward by the Tudor king in every direction, to supplant the hated White Boar of his departed enemy-the fulfilment, in another sense than the old Welsh bards had dreamt, of their prediction that the progeny of Cadwallader should reign again...

We have seen how, by a gradual but certain instinct, the main groups have formed themselves round particular centres of death: how the Kings ranged themselves round the Confessor; how the Prince and Courtiers clung to the skirts of Kings; how out of the graves of the Courtiers were developed the graves of the Heroes; how Chatham became the centre of the Statesmen, Chaucer of the Poets, Purcell of the Musicians, Casaubon of the Scholars, Newton of the Men of Science: how, even in the exceptional details, natural affinities may be traced; how Addison was buried apart from his brethren in letters, in the royal shades of Henry VII's Chapel, because he clung to the vault of his own loved Montague; how Ussher lay beside his earliest instructor, Sir James Fullerton, and Garrick at the foot of Shakespeare, and Spelman opposite his revered Camden, and South close to his master Busby, and Stephenson to his fellow-craftsman Telford, and Grattan to his hero Fox, and Macaulay beneath the statue of his favourite Addison.

These special attractions towards particular graves and monuments may interfere with the general uniformity of the Abbey, but they make us feel that it is not a mere dead museum, that its cold stones are warmed with the life-blood of human affections and personal partiality. It is said that the celebrated French sculptor of the monument of Peter the Great at St. Petersburg, after showing its superiority in detail to the famous equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius at Rome, ended by the candid avowal, "Et cependant cette mauvaise bete est vivante, et la mienne est morte." Perhaps we may be allowed to reverse the saying, and when we contrast the irregularities of Westminster Abbey with the uniform congruity of Salisbury or the Valhalla, may reflect, " Cette belle be"te est morte, mais la mienne est vi vante." >



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