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Westminster Abbey and the Deep Foundation of Liberty

Westminster Abbey
Image: Westminster Abbey

An architectural masterpiece of the 13th to 16th centuries, Westminster Abbey also presents a unique pageant of British history – the shrine of St Edward the Confessor, the tombs of kings and queens, and countless memorials to the famous and the great. It has been the setting for every Coronation since 1066 and for numerous other royal occasions. Today it is still a church dedicated to regular worship and to the celebration of great events in the life of the nation. Neither a cathedral nor a parish church, Westminster Abbey is a “Royal Peculiar” under the jurisdiction of a Dean and Chapter, subject only to the Sovereign. Westminster Abbey

Around AD 1040, King Edward (later St Edward the Confessor), last of the Anglo-Saxon kings, established his royal palace by the banks of the river Thames. He built on an eyot, a riverine island in the Thames, known as Thorney Island.

The eyot had been known as a "terrible place" until, in AD 960, St Dunstan founded a monastery there, under the patronage of King Edgar, and his monks cleared the brambles, ploughed fields, and planted gardens. This was the place where Edward the Confessor decided to build.

He enlarged the monastery by erecting a large stone church in honour of St Peter the Apostle. The church that would become known as the “west minster” was consecrated on this day in 1065 while Edward lay dying in his palace. (Via BeautifulBritain)

As unique as Westminster Abbey has become, the Coronation Oath written by St. Dunstan is perhaps equally profound, for it establishes a standard for the king, and binds him to a covenant of justice with his people. When William the Conqueror was crowned here in 1066, he swore the Coronation Oath.

It was St Dunstan who wrote the oath sworn by William and first sworn by Edgar in 973, and Dunstan who created the Coronation Service used for the next thousand years. The wording of that first oath was:

“First, that the church of God and the whole Christian people shall have true peace at all time by our judgment; second, that I will forbid extortion and all kinds of wrong-doing to all orders of men; third, that I will enjoin equity and mercy in all judgments.”

In the 13th century Henry III decided to rebuild Westminster Abbey in the Gothic style. Henry had been carried as a child to his coronation, and he also swore the Coronation Oath. His unwillingness to truly fulfill it will create the conflict that gives rise to the reforms of Oxford and Westminster, to the first parliament, and to the valiant defence of those reforms and parliament by Simon de Montfort and the bachelor knights.

The “unique pageant” of Westminster Abbey includes the Coronation Oath. In the minds of Brits for long centuries the Oath of their King or Queen was a guarantee of justice and hence of freedom. It would not always be honoured, but it would be an inspiration as they fought to hold King and Queen to their troth. It is remembered today. More about this soon.