Before either pagan temple or Christian church was erected on it, the site of Westminster Abbey was a place of marsh and forest. From its dense bushes of thorn derived its ancient name of Thorn Ey (the Island of Thorns).
According to monastic tradition, the earliest building on the Isle of Thorns was the Roman temple of Apollo, destroyed by an earthquake in A.D. 154.
King Edward I the Confessor was ultra-religious with a special devotion to Saint Peter. Before he acceeded the throne, he had vowed that he would make a pilgrimage to the apostle‘s tomb in Rome, and soon after his coronation he announced his intention of keeping his oath. The Great Council was afraid of the dangers of the journey and a deputation was therefore sent to Leo IX to persuade him to release Edward from his vow. The pope consented on condition that the king should build or restore a monastery to Saint Peter. By this time the wild growths of Thorney had given way to fertile meadows: a quiet retreat admirably suited to the dreamy king, who was further attracted to it by the legends around it. Of these, the best known was the legend of Edric the Fisherman.
Tradition claims that Edric, a fisherman on the River Thames, had a vision of Saint Peter. This is the origin of the salmon that Thames fishermen offered to the Westminster Abbey in later years – a custom still observed annually by the Fishmongers’ Company. The recorded origins of the Abbey date to the 960s, when Saint Dunstan and King Edgar founded a community of Benedictine monks.
King Edward ultimately decided that the old monastery at Thorney should be replaced by a new and magnificent Abbey of Saint Peter. In order to personally supervise the building of the new church, he set himself at the royal residence at West-minster. This residence was rebuilt in great part, so that the Abbey and Palace of Westminster grew up side by side. The Abbey was begun in 1050 on a site to the east of the old church, which was occupied by the monks during the rebuilding. In the Confessor’s lifetime only the choir was completed, and this was joined by an atrium to the old church, which became the nave of the new structure. Of Edward’s work nothing is now seen, but in 1866 small fragments in position, consisting of wall-footings and bases of two piers, beneath the floor of the presbytery, were discovered.
The work of construction carried on after the Confessor’s death, for he had left large funds for its continuation.
Edward the Confessor wanted St Peter’s Abbey to provide himself with a royal burial site. It was the first church in England built in the Romanesque style. The building was completed around 1060 and was consecrated on 28 December 1065, only a week before Edward’s death on 5 January 1066. A week later, he was buried in the church; and, nine years later, his wife Edith was buried alongside him.
The only depiction of Edward’s Romanesque abbey, together with the adjacent Palace of Westminster, is in the Bayeux Tapestry (above), an embroidered cloth nearly 70 metres long and 50 centimeters tall that depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England.
Edward´s remains were not, however, allowed to rest in peace and were exhumed many times in the following centuries.
Henry I and his half-Saxon Queen, Matilda of Scotland, had her great uncle’s tomb opened in 1098. The corpse, was reported to be uncorrupted, at the time considered to be sure evidence of saintliness.
Edward’s coffin was once again opened by Henry II, during this second exhumation, the King’s burial robes were removed and the pilgrim’s ring he was wearing was appropriated by the new king. Edward was canonized in 1161.
When Henry III (a great admirer of Edward I), rebuilt Westminster Abbey in the 13th century, the Confessor’s body was translated to a magnificent shrine which became the centerpiece of the new building. Henry III himself, his brother, Richard, Earl of Cornwall and his two sons helped to carry the coffin to its splendid new resting place. The shrine, built by artisans from Italy, was originally composed of three parts, a stone base decorated with Cosmati work, a gold feretory containing Edward’s coffin, which was flanked by statues of St. Edward and the Pilgrim, with a canopy above it which could be raised to reveal the feretory or lowered to cover it. The feretory was decorated with the figures of six gold kings, set with precious stones.