The City of Westminster is one of the twin cities that make up most of central London (the other being the City of London), and is the de facto capital of England, Great Britain and the United Kingdom. We describe London as being the capital, and yet Westminster is really the seat of government in our nation.
Westminster contains the Houses of Parliament, the Supreme Court, the office and official residence of the Prime Minister, and the headquarters of over 20 government departments (Treasury, Foreign Office, Home Office, Transport, Ministry of Defence… etc). It is a political city.
The politicians came here because they took over running the country from the royal family, and Westminster has been a royal city for nearly 1000 years. During that time the principle royal residence for our first family has been the Palace of Westminster, then Whitehall Palace, then St James’s Palace, and now Buckingham Palace. All these buildings (or ruins) are within the City of Westminster, along with at least one other former royal residence (Carlton House). So as well as being a political city, it has been and remains a royal city.
Many people assume the story of Westminster started with the royal family moving here, but it actually goes back much further than that. The first building in Westminster was not a royal palace, and certainly wasn’t a government department, but was instead a church. Before it was a political city, or a royal city, the City of Westminster was a holy city.
At some point during our Anglo-Saxon history, a church was founded on the marshy land by the River Thames called Thorney (meaning Thorn Island). A later medieval legend said that this was during the 7th century, and that St Peter himself came down from heaven to consecrate the church, rather than it being done by the Bishop of London.
Whilst that story may not be entirely accurate, we do know that by the 10th century there was a church there, and the Archbishop of Canterbury ordered that it be upgraded to a Benedictine monastery. Thus the area became known as Westminster, because it was a place of monastic learning (a minster) to the west of the City of London.
It was this minster that Edward the Confessor ordered to be built up into a stone abbey when he became King of England in 1042. So Westminster Abbey finally began to take shape. In order to be close to his building project, the king also had a palace built next door. This was how the royal connection with Westminster was established, and the royal family gradually became more and more settled in the area. The Abbey started hosting ceremonial royal occasions with the crowning of William the Conqueror on Christmas Day in 1066. Since then every coronation ceremony for English or British monarchs has taken place in the Abbey.
So at its core, the City of Westminster is a holy city. It was built as a place of worship.
How does it continue that worship tradition today? It should be exciting to us that our capital city, and all our most important government institutions, are based in a city that from its beginnings was dedicated to the worship of Jesus. There is a holy, Christian, worshipful thread that runs throughout Westminster’s history. The City of Westminster was built to worship God. How can that encourage and inform our prayers for today’s politicians and princes?
Mark Williamson also blogs regularly at One Rock International, a training organisation resourcing missionary leaders across the globe. He’s passionate about good films, good food, getting into deep conversations, and going for long walks with his wife Joanna.