Westminster Abbey has witnessed nearly a millennium of British history – but many rituals, like those at royal funerals, aren’t so old

The royal funeral for Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey on Sept. 19, 2022, was a public ceremony on a truly global scale. In the days before, long snaking queues of mourners waited to file past her coffin as it lay in state in Westminster Hall. Hundreds of the world’s leaders descended upon London for the event while international media covered the pageantry with seemingly endless interest.

After the funeral at Westminster, the late queen’s body was taken to Windsor Castle for burial. Yet Elizabeth’s death added a remarkable new chapter to the long relationship between English sovereigns and the complex of buildings at Westminster that form the seat of the modern British state.

The sight of scores of sailors pulling the queen’s coffin on a gun carriage and the distinctly Tudor-style red uniforms of the Yeomen of the Guard were among the many details of the royal funeral that evoked powerful ties to Britain’s imperial past. However, many aspects – including the sailors – are by no means ancient. Despite their emphasis upon tradition, royal ceremonies have always been somewhat fluid and reflective of the politics of their day.

As a historian early modern England, I am conscious that the public rituals of monarchy in the 16th and 17th centuries sought to project reassuring elements of continuity amid dramatic changes. Modern royal weddings and funerals at Westminster Abbey have been similarly adapted to contemporary needs, and are largely products of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Westminster Palace, dominating the skyline with Big Ben and the Victoria Tower, is of a similar vintage. Built to replace the ramshackle old medieval and Tudor Westminster Palace which burned down in 1834, the current Westminster Palace complex was designed to provide a suitably historic-looking new home for the Houses of Parliament.

However, nearby Westminster Abbey and Westminster Hall, the major surviving section of the old structure, hark back to England’s medieval past. They offer genuinely ancient settings for the modern rituals of monarchy, often televised for a global audience.

Projecting power

Westminster Abbey became a church of royal importance in the 1040s, when Edward the Confessor, one of the last Anglo-Saxon kings of England, replaced an older monastery dedicated with a new construction of suitably royal proportions. The project was so important that Edward and his new royal abbey were featured in the famous, 70 meter-long Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts the Norman conquest of England in 1066 after Edward’s death.

Edward himself was buried within the Abbey, and canonized as a saint a century later, turning his tomb into a royal shrine. Westminster also served as the venue for the coronation of Edward’s eventual successor on the throne, William the Conqueror. William’s crowning began a tradition of coronations in the abbey that will presumably continue with Charles III some time in 2023.