Westminster Abbey has long been a seat of royal and ecclesial significance; certainly since the time of Edward the Confessor (before the Norman Conquest), up until the most recent times (royal weddings and the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, perhaps the most watched funeral in history). According to the introduction of Jenkyns book, it is 'perhaps the most complex building of any kind'. It still bear the stamp of being a 'royal peculiar' - in that the clergy and ecclesial hierarchy of the abbey fall outside the standard patterns of the church, and instead fall under a more direct jurisdiction of the monarch.
Its history is as impressive as its architecture. It has been a cathedral church and an abbey, a coronation church, a 'national church'; it houses Poets' Corner, the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, the shrine of a Roman saint, and more. The national legislature (the House of Commons) has met here, and it has been both the National Archive and the National Treasury. Still, it is not as large as the French Gothic cathedrals upon which it is based, and (Henry VII's Chapel excepted) much of the art and architecture of the building, each element taken separately, can be better represented elsewhere. However, as a package whole, Westminster Abbey is second to none.
Jenkyns' book on Westminster Abbey is not a tourist guide, but rather a wholistic history of the building. Looking in detail beginning with the medieval church (there were much older structures on the site, but what we come to think of as Westminster Abbey today was really born in the medieval period), Jenkyns continues chronologically through the Renaissance, Reformation, Baroque and Victorian periods. Jenkins then explores particular aspects of the Abbey overall - as a place of ceremony, as a national cathedral or shrine, as a church in and of the city, and the church as a masoleum of sorts of the famous and historical (this last chapter is somewhat out of place, put among the chronological listings).
Jenkyns draws on wonderful material for a complete picture of the spirit of the place. There are poems from the Renaissance up to the twentieth century - Betjamin's portrayal of a woman visiting the Abbey during the war time is a classic example. He has historians and royals with their own reflections of events that have taken place, and material from clergy and monastics who have lived, worked and worshiped here. 'The world changes, but as a building and as a community, the Abbey continues to do what the Benedictines called the opus Dei, the work of God, to teach and preach and praise.'
Jenkyns is not shy with his opinions. For example, in discussion the change in the north transept rose window, he has little good to say about Pearson's replacement of it in the restoration of the late nineteenth century. 'Pearson was a very fine architect and it is a pity (and puzzling) that he chose to blot his escutcheon in this way.' Jenkyns similarly describes others' attempts at restoration and improvement as 'impertinent', 'controversial', and 'destructive'.
The book could benefit from a few more diagrams and a few colour photographs (the only colour prints are on the sleeve on the outside of the book; the rest are black-and-white, which, while they have their own character and excellence, still do not give a sense of the glory of certain aspects, such as the Henry VII chapel). However, the text is interesting, easy to read and interesting without being simplistic or not engaging with its subject, itself a complex Gothic creation.
Part of a series published in the United States by Harvard University Press, published previously in the United Kingdom by Profile Books Ltd., this volume is a joy to have.