The name Westminster Abbey is cut down from the fuller phrase, “Westminster Abbey Church” the Church, that is, of the Abbey of Westminster. Up to the year 1540, in the reign of Henry VIII, the Abbey, as we call it today, was the Church of a great Benedictine monastery. These monasteries, once thickly strewn throughout England and much of Europe, were called abbeys from being ruled by abbots. A great society of monks lived in buildings, of which the present Deanery, the Jerusalem Chamber, the Cloisters, the Chapter House formed parts. The Abbey was the Church in which these monks worshipped. Its legal title was Ecclesza Abbatiae Westmonasteriensis.
The Church that we see today is the growth of centuries, but its central portion is the work of King Henry III. To do honour to the sainted King, Edward the Confessor, demolished all the eastern portion of the Norman church which that monarch had built. Leaving the more significant part of the Nave standing, he placed the body of the Saint in the most sacred quarter of his beautiful construction in the shrine where it now lies. His work was carried on by his successors, especially by Edward I, Richard II, and Henry V, and by various Abbots. The western end was not entirely completed until the reign of Henry VII, and the western towers were not finished until about 1740. The present Church is, therefore, the work not of one generation but of five centuries.
The Church, which it replaced, was the work of Edward the Confessor, who died a few days after its dedication (December 28, 1065). He also endowed the monastery on its south side, which from its position west of London gave its name (Westminster) to the King’s Palace, which lay close to its eastern end, and to the neighbouring district. Up to the time of the Reformation, the “Church of the Abbey” was not only the scene of coronations, Royal marriages, and funerals but until the reign of Henry VIII, it was closely identified in other ways with the history and feelings both of Kings and people. The last-named King, driven by a destructive fire from Westminster Palace, established himself in White Hall or York Place, which he took from Cardinal Wolsey, and in St. James’s Palace, which he raised on the site of an ancient Hospital for leprous maids. He connected the two by appropriating the meadows that lay between them, now St. James’s Park.
Westminster Abbey is, in truth, only a part of the original Abbey of Westminster. When the Church was built, more than seven hundred years ago, it formed part of a Benedictine monastery. The monastery itself was much older and can be traced back nine hundred if not eleven hundred years, and when it was first established it stood on an island called Thorney or Thorn Island, between the river Thames and the marshes which now form the water of St. James’s Park. The number of monks at first was very small, only a dozen or so, but Edward the Confessor, who had his palace close by, where the Houses of Parliament now stand, before his death in 1065, greatly enlarged it, making provision for seventy monks, and erecting buildings for them, part of which still remains. As he intended to be buried there himself and having Continental leanings, he, naturally enough, made use of the new style of architecture then growing up on the Continent and thus it is that the old Abbey Church of Westminster was the first example in England of the Norman style of building. England at that time was full of such monasteries. Hence the numerous abbeys, priories, and minsters still existing. Many of them survive as cathedral churches, but Westminster is unique in this respect, that although not a cathedral, it is equal in area to the United Kingdom´s most magnificent cathedrals and is built in style peculiar to the great age of cathedral building of the thirteenth century.