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Westminster Abbey and the deep foundations of freedom


Image: Westminster Abbey

Consecrated on 28 December 1065, Westminster Abbey is closely connected with the deep foundations of freedom, but those connections are not immediately apparent in the 21st century.

In AD 960 St Dunstan’s monks cleared Thorney Island of brambles, ploughed the fields and built a monastery. The riverine island, formed by rivulets of the River Tyburn as it ran into the Thames, lay just west of London. It caught the eye of Edward the Confessor, the last Anglo-Saxon king, eighty years later, around 1040, when he was looking for a site for his palace.

Edward enlarged the monastery on Thorney Island, and built a large stone church in honour of St Peter the Apostle. This church would become known as the “west minster” and later as Westminster Abbey. It was consecrated on 28 December 1065, while Edward lay dying in his palace,

Since then the level of the land has risen, the rivulets have been built over, and Thorney Island has disappeared. Westminster Abbey’s connections with the deep foundations of liberty have been built over, too, so that it is difficult to see them.

St Dunstan who founded the original monastery on the island, was the author of the Coronation Oath, which binds the Sovereign to a covenant of justice with the British people. The Coronation Oath has been sworn in Westminster Abbey for a thousand years, and the history of Britain is evidence that when a King or Queen forgets his or her covenant, the people, though slow to anger, will make every effort to depose that king or queen.

The first Coronation Oath promised -

“First, that the church of God and the whole Christian people shall have true peace at all time by our judgment; second, that I will forbid extortion and all kinds of wrong-doing to all orders of men; third, that I will enjoin equity and mercy in all judgments.”

To be the guarantor of justice is also to be the guardian of freedom, for freedom is not possible without just laws justly administered. The constitutional role of the King (or Queen) in guaranteeing justice and freedom remains vital today, though government ministers have tried to bury this truth.

In the 12th century, in 1102, Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, called all his bishops and abbots to Westminster. There they ended slavery in Britain.

In the 13th century Henry III, the son of John, decided to rebuild Westminster Abbey. Henry’s inspiring architectural vision gave rise to the Gothic Westminster Abbey we know. In contrast, his refusal to keep his promise to uphold his Coronation Oath inspired a rebellion that gave rise to the reforms of Oxford and Westminster and Britain’s first national parliament.

British reformers were inspired by Judaeo-Christian teachings. Their free and personal interpretation of Scripture placed particular emphasis on the covenant of justice between king and people and on a principle whose political contribution has, curiously, been overlooked –

Christ asks his followers to love their neighbours as they love themselves. When they followed this teaching, and cherished their neighbours, and united with them, British reformers were able to make unprecedented gains in justice and freedom.

David described historian Paul Johnson’s description of leadership qualities in a previous post. It is noteworthy, we guess, that the list does not include any mention of faith in Jesus Christ. Christian faith would have been part of a list of British leadership qualities until the 20th century. Some people will call its omission progress.

May we offer a different idea?

Those men and women who over a thousand years haltingly, painfully, and at the cost of their own safety, comfort, and lives established just law, freedom, and representative government were Christians. It is impossible to ignore their faith. Just as faith was the ground on which Westminster Abbey was built, faith was the ground on which they stood.

The Coronation Oath and Judaeo-Christian teachings connect Westminster Abbey with the deepest foundations of freedom in Britain.

This post was first published on 28 December 2006. It has been rewritten.