This is Westminster Abbey. It’s not actually an abbey, as those were all deleted by Henry VIII. Nor is it technically a cathedral. Its proper name is the Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster, and it is designated a ‘Royal Peculiar’. But we’re going to call it ‘the Abbey’ like everyone else.
The Abbey has towered over Westminster for almost 1,000 years. Even so, it’s not complete, nor will it ever be. This is an evolving building, whose structure and decorations roll with the ages. In the 90s, statues of 10 Christian martyrs, including Martin Luther King, were added to the Great West Door. In 2018, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries will open in a previously unused space, accessed by a discrete new side-tower. But we’re still waiting for the biggy: the Abbey’s crowning glory.
Spires and towers
Look again at the top photograph. Does the Abbey feel a little unbalanced to you? Shouldn’t there be something to the left, to match the Hawksmoor twin towers?
For centuries, architects have put forward plans to build a tower or spire over the central crossing — the stumpy protuberance handily marked by a Google pin in the image below. The pointy roof is a 1940s replacement, following bomb damage to the medieval structure.
One of the first to covet the spot was Sir Christopher Wren. The man who famously rebuilt the Square Mile’s churches and cathedrals after the Great Fire also had designs on Westminster. Wren would have thrusted up the eastern end of the church with a lofty gothic spire. The idea was both aesthetic and practical. The structure would serve as an eye-catching pinnacle, but also function as a firebreak.
Wren’s brilliant understudy Nicholas Hawksmoor designed the magnificent twin towers at the western end of the church. The architect also had several plans for the crossing tower, one of which is shown below. Work did get underway, but was never completed.
In the mid-18th century, Anglo-Italian artist Pietro-Fabris had a go, with this understated scheme, which included spires on Hawksmoor’s western towers.
Even into the 20th century, the plans kept coming. Architects Seddon and Lamb offered this gothic-by-numbers tower, to harmonise with the west towers and the Palace of Westminster:
Their plans for the Abbey are often overlooked because the wider masterplan involved a much more eye-catching confection just to the south:
Had this monument to Empire been built, few would have noticed the bonus tower on the Abbey. Or, indeed, the suddenly diminished Houses of Parliament.
Plans for the Abbey’s roof have never entirely faded. As recently as 2009, the Abbey proposed a new ‘£10 million crowning feature’ for the spot, as part of its wider Diamond Jubilee development. Alas, nothing came of the idea. Any tower or spire must await the attentions of a future generation.
A good opportunity will come in AD 2043-45. These years will not only mark the 2,000th anniversary of London’s founding, but also 800 years since work began constructing the bulk of the current Abbey under Henry III. Any trainee architects reading this… consider that a challenge.