According to tradition the abbey was first founded in 616 on the present site, then known as Thorn Ey (Thorn Island); its tradition of miraculous consecration after a fisherman on the River Thames saw a vision of Saint Peter justifying the presents of salmon from the Thames fishermen that the Abbey received. In the 960s or early 970s, Saint Dunstan, assisted by King Edgar, planted a community of Benedictine monks here. The stone Abbey was built around 1045–1050 by King Edward the Confessor and was later rebuilt again by Henry III in 1245, who had selected the site for his burial: it was consecrated on December 28 1065, only a week before the Confessor's death and subsequent funeral. It was the site of the last coronation prior to the Norman Invasion, that of his successor King Harold.
The only extant depiction of the original Abbey, in the Romanesque style that is called Norman in England, together with the adjacent Palace of Westminster, is in the Bayeux Tapestry. Increased endowments supported a community increased from a dozen monks in Dunstan's original foundation, to about eighty monks.
The Abbot and learned monks, in close proximity to the Royal Palace of Westminster, the seat of government from the later twelfth century, became a powerful force in the centuries after the Norman Conquest: the Abbot was often employed on royal service and in due course took his place in the House of Lords as of right. Released from the burdens of spiritual leadership, which passed to the reformed Cluniac movement after the mid-tenth century, and occupied with the administration of great landed properties, some of which lay far from Westminster, "the Benedictines achieved a remarkable degree of identification with the secular life of their times, and particularly with upper-class life", Barbara Harvey concluded, to the extent that her depiction of daily life provides a wider view of the concerns of the English gentry in the High and Late Middle Ages. The proximity of the Palace of Westminster did not extend to providing monks or abbots with high royal connections; in social origin the Benedictines of Westminster were as modest as most of the order. The abbot remained Lord of the Manor of Westminster as a town of two to three thousand persons grew around it: as a consumer and employer on a grand scale the monastery helped fuel the town economy, and relations with the town remained unusually cordial, but no enfranchising charter was issued during the Middle Ages. The abbey built shops and dwellings on the west side, encroaching upon the sanctuary.
The Abbey became the coronation site of Norman kings, but none were buried there until Henry III, intensely devoted to the cult of the Confessor, rebuilt the Abbey in Anglo-French Gothic style as a shrine to honour St Edward the Confessor and as a suitably regal setting for Henry's own tomb, under the highest Gothic nave in England. The Confessor's shrine subsequently played a great part in his canonisation. The work continued between 1245-1517 and was largely finished by the architect Henry Yevele in the reign of King Richard II. Henry VII added a Perpendicular style chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1503 (known as the Henry VII Chapel). Much of the stone came from Caen, in France (Caen stone), the Isle of Portland (Portland stone) and the Loire Valley region of France (tuffeau limestone).
In 1535, the Abbey's annual income of £2400-2800 during the assessment attendant on the Dissolution of the Monasteries rendered it second in wealth only to Glastonbury Abbey. Henry VIII had assumed direct royal control in 1539 and granted the Abbey cathedral status by charter in 1540, simultaneously issuing letters patent establishing the Diocese of Westminster. By granting the Abbey cathedral status Henry VIII gained an excuse to spare it from the destruction or dissolution which he inflicted on most English abbeys during this period. Westminster was a cathedral only until 1550. The expression "robbing Peter to pay Paul" may arise from this period when money meant for the Abbey, which was dedicated to St Peter, was diverted to the treasury of St Paul's Cathedral.
The Abbey was restored to the Benedictines under the Catholic Queen Mary, but they were again ejected under Queen Elizabeth I in 1559. In 1579, Elizabeth re-established Westminster as a "Royal Peculiar"—a church responsible directly to the sovereign, rather than to a diocesan bishop—and made it the Collegiate Church of St Peter, (that is a church with an attached chapter of canons, headed by a dean). The last Abbot was made the first Dean. It suffered damage during the turbulent 1640s, when it was attacked by Puritan iconoclasts, but was again protected by its close ties to the state during the Commonwealth period. Oliver Cromwell was given an elaborate funeral there in 1658, only to be disinterred in January 1661 and posthumously hanged from a nearby gibbet.
The abbey's two western towers were built between 1722 and 1745 by Nicholas Hawksmoor, constructed from Portland stone to an early example of a Gothic Revival design. Further rebuilding and restoration occurred in the 19th century under Sir George Gilbert Scott. A narthex for the west front was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in the mid C20 but was not executed.
Until the 19th century, Westminster was the third seat of learning in England, after Oxford and Cambridge. It was here that the first third of the King James Bible Old Testament and the last half of the New Testament were translated. The New English Bible was also put together here in the 20th century.
Since the coronations in 1066 of both King Harold and William the Conqueror, all English and British monarchs (except Edward V and Edward VIII, who did not have coronations) have been crowned in the Abbey. Henry III, was unable to be crowned in London when he first came to the throne because Prince Louis of France had taken control of the city and so was crowned in Gloucester Cathedral, but this coronation was deemed by the Pope to be improper, and a further coronation was held in the Abbey on 17 May 1220. Lady Jane Grey, whose reign lasted just nine days, and was of doubtful legality was also never crowned. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the traditional cleric in the coronation ceremony. King Edward's Chair (or St Edward's Chair), the throne on which British sovereigns are seated at the moment of coronation, is housed within the Abbey and has been used at every coronation since 1308; from 1301 to 1996 the chair also housed the Stone of Scone upon which the kings of Scotland are crowned, but pending another coronation the Stone is now kept in Scotland.
Henry III rebuilt the Abbey in honour of the Royal Saint Edward the Confessor whose relics were placed in a shrine in the sanctuary and now lie in a burial vault beneath the 1268 Cosmati mosaic pavement, in front of the High Altar. Henry III was interred nearby in a superb chest tomb with effigial monument, as were many of the Plantagenet kings of England, their wives and other relatives. Subsequently, most Kings and Queens of England were buried here, although Henry VIII and Charles I are buried in St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle, as are all monarchs and royals after George II.
Aristocrats were buried inside chapels and monks and people associated with the Abbey were buried in the Cloisters and other areas. One of these was Geoffrey Chaucer, who was buried here as he had apartments in the Abbey where he was employed as master of the Kings Works. Other poets were buried or memorialized around Chaucer in what became known as Poets' Corner. These include; John Milton, William Wordsworth, Thomas Gray, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Burns, William Blake, T. S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and William Shakespeare.
Abbey musicians such as Henry Purcell were also buried in their place of work. Subsequently it became an honour to be buried or memorialised here. The practice spread from aristocrats and poets to generals, admirals, politicians, scientists, doctors, etc..
The Abbey is governed by the Dean and Chapter established under the Elizabethan statute of 1560. This consists of the Dean and the four residentiary Canons.
The exhibits include a unique collection of royal and other funeral effigies (funeral saddle, helm and shield of Henry V), together with other treasures, including some panels of medieval glass, 12th century sculpture fragments, Mary II's coronation chair and replicas of the Coronation regalia, effigies of Edward III, Henry VII and his queen, Elizabeth I, Charles II, William III, Mary II and Queen Anne.
Later wax effigies include a striking likeness of Horatio, Viscount Nelson wearing some of his own clothes and another of the famous Prime Minister William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, modelled by an American lady called Patience Wright. During recent conservation of Elizabeth I's effigy a unique corset dating from 1603 was found on the figure and is now displayed separately.
A recent addition to the display is the late 13th century Westminster Retable, England's oldest altarpiece. It was most probably designed for the High Altar of the Abbey, although it has been damaged in past centuries. The panel has been expertly cleaned and conserved. One section shows the figure of St Peter, the patron saint of the Abbey.