Monday, 11 May 2009

The Foundations of Westminster

Centuries ago the area we know as Westminster was a low lying island by the (much wider) River Thames. The Rive Tyburn flowed from the hills of Hampstead; along to Marble Arch [which was once the site of the Tyburn gallows - the main place of execution for London criminals]; then onto the site of Buckingham Palace where it split, creating "Thorney Island" - the island of blackberries.

It is claimed that a Roman Temple dedicated to Apollo was established there; but it was destroyed in an earthquake. King Sebert, perhaps converted to Christianity by this event, built a chapel in its place, dedicated to St. Peter. An ancient myth concerns the building of this chapel

Late on the Sunday night before the day appointed by Sebert for the consecration of his church by Mellitus, Bishop of London, a poor Thames-side fisherman, called Edric, was hailed on the Lambeth shore by a stranger who asked to be ferried to Thorney and back.
Edric, having fished all night so far without success, agreed to the request. While he lay idle in his boat in the darkness waiting for the return of his passenger, he suddenly beheld the windows of the new church spring into life. From it issued sounds of exquisite singing, and in the radiance encircling it arose a ladder, stretching up to heaven, upon which angels were ascending and descending.Presently the stranger who had hired his boat returned and bade him cast his nets once more. Edric obeyed and was rewarded by a noble haul.
Before departing from him the stranger told him that next morning he must go to meet the King and the Bishop at the Abbey doors, bearing a salmon in his hand. He must tell them that St. Peter had already consecrated the church on Thorney as his especial property. Furthermore, he must in future give a tithe of all fish he caught to the Abbot of Westminster, and refrain from Sunday fishing.Edric fulfilled his saintly passenger's commands, and, when Sebert and Mellitus asked for proof of his startling story, was able to convince them by showing them, within the new building, the moisture of holy water, crosses on the walls, signs of consecrated oil, the Greek alphabet traced in the sand, and the remains of the candles used in the miraculous illumination.

King Edgar restored the building in the Tenth century and established a Benedictine monastry.

The first palace was build by King Canute. The very religious Edward the Confessor (King of England 1042-1066) decided to build a great church, which became known as the 'West Minster' [to distinguish it from St Paul's in the city of London which was also known as the East Minster]. He extended, and moved into, the nearby palace to oversee the work.

It was the Norman Kings who moved key functions of government to Westminster. William II (Rufus) undertook further building work on the palace, including a new Great Hall - which remains to this day as Westminster Hall.