1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Westminster

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WESTMINSTER, a part of London, England; strictly a city in the administrative county of London, bounded E. by “the City,” S. by the river Thames, W. by the boroughs of Chelsea and Kensington, and N. by Paddington, St Marylebone and Holborn. Westminster was formed into a borough by the London Government Act of 1899, and by a royal charter of the 29th of October 1900 it was created a city. The council consists of a mayor, 10 aldermen and 60 councillors. The city comprises the parliamentary boroughs of the Strand, Westminster and St George’s, Hanover Square, each returning one member. Area, 2502·7 acres. The City of Westminster, as thus depicted, extends from the western end of Fleet Street to Kensington Gardens, and from Oxford Street to the Thames, which it borders over a distance of 3 m., between Victoria (Chelsea) Bridge and a point below Waterloo Bridge. It thus includes a large number of the finest buildings in London, from the Law Courts in the east to the Imperial Institute in the west, Buckingham and St James’s palaces, the National Gallery, and most of the greatest residences of the wealthy classes. But the name of Westminster is more generally associated with a more confined area, namely, the quarter which includes the Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, the government and other buildings in Whitehall, the Roman Catholic Cathedral, and the parts immediately adjacent to these.

Westminster Abbey.—The Abbey of St Peter is the most widely celebrated church in the British empire. The Thames, bordered in early times by a great expanse of fen on either hand from Chelsea and Battersea downward, washed, at the point where the Abbey stands, one shore of a low island perhaps three-quarters of a mile in Tradition
circumference, known as Thorney or Bramble islet. Tributary streams from the north formed channels through the marsh, flanking the island north and south, and were once connected by a dyke on the west. These channels belonged to the Tyburn, which flowed from the high ground of Hampstead. Relics of the Roman occupation have been excavated in the former island, and it is supposed that traffic on the Watling Street, from Dover to Chester, crossed the Thames and the marshes by way of Thorney before the construction of London Bridge; the road continuing north-west in the line of the modern Park Lane (partly) and Edgware Road. Tradition places on the island a temple of Apollo, which was destroyed by an earthquake in the reign of the emperor Antoninus Pius. On the site King Lucius is said to have founded a church (c. A.D. 170). The irruption of the Saxons left Thorney desolate. Traditional still, but supported by greater probability, a story states that Sebert, king of the East Saxons, having taken part in the foundation of St Paul’s Cathedral, restored or refounded the church at Thorney “to the honour of God and St Peter, on the west side of the City of London” (Stow). A splendid legend relates the coming of St Peter in person to hallow his new church. The sons of Sebert relapsed into idolatry and left the church to the mercy of the Danes. A charter of Offa, king of Mercia (785), deals with the conveyance of certain land to the monastery of St Peter; and King Edgar restored the church, clearly defining by a charter dated 951 (not certainly genuine) the boundary of Westminster, which may be indicated in modern terms as extending from the Marble Arch south to the Thames and east to the City boundary, the former river Fleet. Westminster was a Benedictine foundation. In 1050 Edward the Confessor took up the erection of a magnificent new church, cruciform, with a central and two western towers. Its building continued after his death, but it was consecrated on Childermas Day, 28th December 1065; and on the following “twelfth mass eve” the king died, being buried next day in the church. In 1245 Henry III. set about the rebuilding of the church east of the nave, and at this point it becomes necessary to describe the building as it now appears.

Westminster Abbey is a cruciform structure consisting of nave with aisles, transepts with aisles (but in the south transept the place of the western aisle is occupied by the eastern cloister walk), and choir of polygonal apsidal form, with six chapels (four polygonal) opening north and south of it, and an eastern Lady Chapel, known as Henry The church. VII.’s chapel. There are two western towers, but in the centre a low square tower hardly rises above the pitch of the roof. The main entrance in common use is that in the north transept. The chapter-house, cloisters and other conventual buildings and remains lie to the south. The total length of the church (exterior) is 531 ft. and of the transepts 203 ft. in all. The breadth of the nave without the aisles is 38 ft. 7 in. and its height close upon 102 ft. These dimensions are very slightly lessened in the choir. Without, viewed from the open Parliament Square to the north, the beautiful proportions of the building arc readily realized, but it is somewhat dwarfed by the absence of a central tower and by the vast adjacent pile of the Houses of Parliament. From this point (considered as a building merely) it appears only as a secondary unit in a magnificent group. Seen from the west, however, it is the dominant unit, but here it is impossible to overlook the imperfect conception of the “Gothic humour” (as he himself termed it) manifested by Wren, from whose designs the western towers were completed in 1740. The north front, called Solomon’s Porch from a former porch over the main entrance, is from the designs of Sir G. G. Scott, considerably altered by J. L. Pearson.

Within, the Abbey is a superb example of the pointed style. The body of the church has a remarkable appearance of uniformity, because, although the building of the new nave was continued with intermissions from the 14th century until Tudor times, the broad design of the Early English work in the eastern part of the church was carried on throughout. The choir, with its unusual form and radiating chapels, plainly follows French models, but the name of the architect is lost. Exquisite ornament is seen in the triforium arcade, and between some of the arches in the transept are figures, especially finely carved, though much mutilated, known as the censing angels. Henry VII.’s Chapel replaces an earlier Lady Chapel, and is the most remarkable building of its period. It coniprises a nave with aisles, and an apsidal eastward end formed of five small radiating chapels. Both within and without it is ornamented with an extraordinary wealth and minuteness of detail. A splendid series of carved oak stalls lines each side of the nave and above them hang the banners of the Knights of the Bath, of whom this was the place of installation when the Order was reconstituted in 1725. The fan-traceried roof, with its carved stone pendants, is the most exquisite architectural feature of the chapel.

The choir stalls in the body of the church are modern, as is the organ, a fine instrument with an “echo” attachment, electrically connected, in the triforium of the south transept. The reredos is by Sir G. G. Scott, with mosaic by Salviati. In Abbot Islip’s chapel there is a series of effigies in wax, representing monarchs and others. The earliest, which is well preserved, is of Charles II., but remnants of older figures survive. Some of the effigies were carried in funeral processions according to custom, but this was not done later than 1735. There are, however, figures of Lord Chatham and Nelson, set up by the officials who received the fees formerly paid by visitors to the exhibition.

But the peculiar fame of the Abbey lies not in its architecture nor in its connexion with the metropolis alone, but in the fact that it has long been the place of the coronation of sovereigns and the burial-place of many of them and of their greatest subjects. The original reason for this was the reverence attaching to the memory of the Confessor, whose shrine stands in the central chapel behind the high altar. The Norman kings were ready to do honour to his name. From William the Conqueror onward every sovereign has been crowned here excepting Edward V. The coronation chairs stand in the Confessor’s chapel. Ihat used by the sovereign dates from the time of Edward I., and contains beneath its seat the stone of Scone, or stone of destiny, on which the Celtic kings were crowned. It is of Scottish origin, but tradition identifies it with Jacob’s pillow at Bethel. Here also are kept the sword and shield of Edward  III., still used in the coronation ceremony. The second chair was made for Mary consort of William III. Subsequent to the Conquest many kings and queens were buried here, from Henry III. to George II. Not all the graves are marked, but of those which are the tomb of Henry VII. and his queen, Elizabeth of York, the central object in his own chapel, is the finest. The splendid recumbent effigies in bronze of Italian workmanship, rest upon a tomb of black marble, and the whole is enclosed in a magnificent shrine of wrought brass. Monuments, tombs, busts and memorials crowd the choir, its chapels and the transepts, nor is the nave wholly free of them. All but the minority of the Gothic period (among which the canopied tombs of Edmund Crouchback and Aymer de Valence, in the sanctuary, are notable) appear incongruous in a Gothic setting. Many of the memorials are not worthy of their position as works of art, nor are the subjects they commemorate always worthy to lie here, for the high honour of burial in the Abbey was not always so conscientiously guarded as now. Eliminating these considerations, however, a wonderful range of sculptural art is found. A part of the south transept is famed under the name of the Poet’s Corner. The north transept contains many monuments to statesmen.

The monastery was dissolved in 1539, and Westminster was then erected into a bishopric, but only one prelate, Thomas Thurleby, held the office of bishop. In 1553 Mary again appointed an abbot, but Elizabeth reinstated the dean, with twelve prebendaries. Of the conventual buildings, the cloisters are of the 13th and 14th centuries. On the south side of the Conventual
and other
southern walk remains of a wall of the refectory are seen from without. From the eastern walk a porch gives entry to the chanter house and the chapel of the Pyx. The first is of the time of Henry III., a fine octagonal building, its vaulted roof supported by a slender clustered column of marble. It was largely restored by Sir Gilbert Scott. There are mural paintings of the 14th and 15th centuries. The chapel or chamber of the Pyx is part of the undercroft of the original dormitory, and is early Norman work of the Confessor’s time. It was used as a treasury for the regalia and other articles of value in early times, and here were kept the standard coins of the realm used in the trial of the pyx now carried out at the Mint. The undercroft is divided into compartments by walls and part of it appears in the gymnasium of Westminster School. Above It is now the chapter library. To the south-east lies the picturesque Little Cloister, with its court and fountain, surrounded by residences of canons and officials. Near it are slight ruins of tha monastic infirmary chapel of St Catherine. West of the main cloisters are the Deanery, Jerusalem chamber and College Hall, the building surrounding a small court and dating in fabric mainly from the 14th century. This was the Abbot’s house. Its most famous portion is the Jerusalem chamber, believed to be named from the former tapestries on its walls, representing the holy city. Here died Henry IV. in 1413, as set forth in Shakespeare’s Henry IV. (Pt. ii., Act iv. Sc. 4). It is a beautiful room, with open timber roof, windows partly of stained glass, and walls tapestried and panelled. The College Hall, adjoining it, is of similar construction, but plainly fitted in the common manner of a refectory, with a dais for the high table at the north and a gallery at the south. It is now the dining-hall of Westminster School.

Westminster School.—St Peter’s College, commonly called Westminster School, is one of the most ancient and eminent public schools in England, and the only school of such standing still occupying its original site in London. A school was maintained by the monks from very early times. Henry VIII. took steps to raise it in importance, but the school owes its present eminence to Queen Elizabeth, who is commemorated as the foundress at a Latin commemoration service held periodically in the Abbey, where, moreover, the daily school service is held. The school buildings lie east of the conventual buildings, surrounding Little Dean’s Yard, which, like the cloisters, communicates with Dean’s Yard, in which are the picturesque houses of the headmaster, canons of the Abbey, and others. The buildings are modern or large modernized. The Great Schoolroom is a line panelled hall, bearing on its walls the arms and names of many eminent alumni, it is entered by a gateway attributed to Inigo jones, also covered with names. Ashburnham House, now containing one of the school houses, the library and class-rooms, is named from the family for whom it was built, traditionally but not certainly, by Inigo Jones. The finest part remaining is the grand staircase. The number of scholars, called King’s Scholars, on the foundation is 60, of which 40, who are boarders, represent the original number. The great proportion of the boys are home boarders (Town Boys). In the College dormitory a Latin play is annually presented, in accordance with ancient custom. It is preceded by a prologue, and followed by a humorous epilogue, in Latin adapted to subjects of the moment. Other customs for which the school is noted are the acclamation of the sovereign at coronation in the Abbey, in accordance with a privilege jealously held by the boys, and the “Pancake Greaze,” a struggle in the Great Schoolroom on Shrove Tuesday to obtain possession of a pancake carrying with it a reward from the Dean. The number of boys is about 250. Valuable close scholarships and exhibitions at Christ Church, Oxford, and Trinity College, Cambridge, are awarded annually.

St Margaret’s.—On the north side of the Abbey, close beside it, is the parish church of St Margaret. It was founded in or soon after the time of the Confessor, but the present building is Perpendicular, of greater beauty within than without. St Margaret’s is officially the church of the House of Commons. It is frequently the scene of fashionable weddings, which are rarely held in the Abbey. On the south side of Dean’s Yard is the Church House, a memorial of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee (1887), consisting of a spacious hall of brick and stone, with offices for numerous Church societies.

Westminster Palace: Houses of Parliament.—A royal palace existed at Westminster at least as early as the reign of Canute, but the building spoken of by Fitzstephen as an “incomparable structure furnished with a breastwork and a bastion” is supposed to have been founded by Edward the Confessor and enlarged by William the Conqueror. The Hall, called Westminster Hall, was built by William Rufus and altered by Richard II. In 1512 the palace suffered greatly from fire, and thereafter ceased to be used as a royal residence. St Stephen’s chapel, originally built by King Stephen, was used from 1547 for the meetings of the House of Commons, which had been held previously in the chapter house of the Abbey. The Lords used another apartment of the palace, but on the 16th of October 1834 the whole of the buildings except the hall, was burnt down. In 1840 the building of the New Palace, or Houses of Parliament, began, and it was completed in 1867, at a cost of about three millions sterling. (For plan, &c., see Architecture: Modern). It covers an area of about 8 acres, and has a frontage of about 300 yds. to the Thames. The architect was Sir Charles Barry, and the style is late Perpendicular.

Towards the river it presents a rich façade with a terrace rising directly from the water. At the south-west corner rises the vast Victoria tower, above the royal entrance, 340 ft. high, and 75 ft. square. At the north is the clock tower, 320 ft. high, bearing the great clock which chimes the quarters on four bells and strikes the hours on a bell weighing over 13 tons, named Big Ben after Sir Benjamin Hall, First Commissioner of Works at the time when the clock was erected. The building incorporates Westminster Hall, which measures 290 ft. in length, 68 in width, and 90 in height. It has a magnificent open roof of carved oak, and is used as the vestibule of the Houses of Parliament. Of the modern rooms, the House of Peers is a splendidly ornate chamber, 97 ft. in length; that of the Commons is 70 ft. long, and less lavishly adorned The sitting of parliament is signified by a flag on Victoria Tower in daytime and by a light at the summit of the clock tower at night.

Whitehall.—Northward from Parliament Square a broad, slightly curving thoroughfare leads to Trafalgar Square. This is Whitehall, which replaced the narrow King Street. Here, between the Thames and St James’s Park formerly stood York House, a residence of the archbishops of York from 1248. Wolsey beautified the mansion and kept high state there, but on his disgrace Henry VIII. acquired and reconstructed it, employed Holbein in its decoration, and made it his principal residence. Inigo Jones designed a magnificent new palace for James I., but only the banqueting hall was completed (1622), and this survived several fires, by one of which (1607) nearly the whole of the rest of the palace was destroyed. The hall, converted into a royal chapel by George I., and now housing the museum of the Royal United Service Institution, the buildings of which adjoin it, is a fine specimen of Palladian architecture, and its ceiling is adorned with allegorical paintings by Rubens, restored and rehung in 1907. The museum contains military and naval relics, models and other exhibits. Through this hall Charles I. passed on his way to execution beneath its windows, and the palace was the scene of the death of Henry VIII., Cromwell and Charles II.

The principal government offices are situated in Whitehall. On the left following the northerly direction, are buildings completed in 1908 from the designs of J. M. Brydon, for the Boards of Education, Trade, Local Government, &c. The Home, Foreign, Colonial and India Offices occupy the next block, a heavy building, adorned with allegorical figures, by Sir G. G. Scott (1873). Downing Street, separating these from the Treasury, contains the official residences of the First Lord of the Treasury and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Treasury itself dates from 1737, but the façade is by Sir Charles Barry. The Horse Guards, containing the offices of various military departments is a low but not unpicturesque building surrounding a court-yard built in 1753 on the site of a guard-house fol the security of Whitehall palace dating from 1631. On the parade ground between it and St James’s Park the ceremony of trooping the colour is held at the celebration of the sovereign’s birthday. The portion of the Admiralty facing Whitehall dates from 1726 and is plain and sombre; but there are handsome new buildings on the Park side. On the right of Whitehall, besides the banquet hall are the fine War Office completed in 1906, from the designs of W. Young, and Montagu House, the residence of the duke of Buccleuch. In front of the War Office an equestrian statue of the duke of Cambridge (d. 1904) was unveiled in 1907.

Trafalgar Square is an open space sloping sharply to the north. On the south side, facing the entry of Whitehall, is the Nelson column (1843) by W. Railton, 145 ft. in height, a copy in granite from the temple of Mars Ultor in Rome, crowned with a statue of Nelson by E. H. Baily, and having at its base four colossal lions in bronze modelled by Sir Edwin Landseer. The centre of the square is levelled and paved with asphalte, and contains two fountains. There are statues of George IV., Napier, Havelock and Gordon. Behind the terrace on the north rises the National Gallery (1838), a Grecian building by William Wilkins, subsequently much enlarged, with its splendid collection of paintings. The National Portrait Gallery is contained in a building (1895) on the north-east side of the National Gallery.

Westminster Cathedral.—A short distance from Victoria Street, towards its western end, stands Westminster Cathedral (Roman Catholic). Its foundation was laid in 1896, and its consecration took place at the close of 1903. Its site is somewhat circumscribed, and this and its great bulk renders impossible any general appreciation of its complex outline, but its stately domed campanile, 283 ft. in height, forms a landmark from far over London. The style was described by the architect, J. F. Bentley as early Christian Byzantine, and the material is mainly red brick. The extreme length is 360 ft., the breadth 156 ft., the breadth of the nave 60 ft., and its height (domes within) 112 ft.