The annual lecture this year was given by Professor Warwick Rodwell, OBE, Consultant Archaeologist to the Dean & Chapter of Westminster Abbey and formerly Cathedral Archaeologist to Wells, Bristol and Lichfield, as well as serving on the Fabric Advisory Committees for Salisbury and Exeter. He is also on the Council for the Care of Churches and the Cathedrals Advisory Commission for England. His lecture is entitled "Researching architectural history through archaeology: the case of Westminster Abbey". Professor Rodwell’s publications include ‘The Archaeology of Churches’ (4th edition 2012), ‘The Lantern Tower of Westminster Abbey, 1060-2010’ (2010) and ‘The Coronation Chair and Stone of Scone: History, Archaeology and Conservation’ (Oxbow, 2013).
For half a millennium, scholars have researched and written about the history and architecture of Westminster Abbey, using documents and visual inspection. One might therefore assume that the architectural history of this iconic building is well understood, and in some respects it is. But there are yawning gaps in our knowledge which can still be filled by study, and innumerable details that can be added to the existing information base.
These additions are being achieved through systematic 3D recording of the fabric, accompanied by intensive archaeological scrutiny and analysis. This process began in the 1990s, and has been intensified since 2005. Until recently, the only ground plan was that drawn by RCHME in 1921, and there were no plans of the upper levels; nor did any accurate elevation drawings exist. Surveying the Abbey and its ancillary buildings has revealed much about structural sequencing.
Although very little fabric of Edward the Confessor’s abbey remains, archaeology has revealed unnoticed details including glazed tiles with which it was decorated, and a surviving door from c. 1060. The vaulted undercroft upon which Henry III’s chapter house stands had never been recorded or explained, but is now understood following a comprehensive study. Limited archaeological excavation has also yielded fresh information about the earliest structures on the site, and Henry’s employment of huge rafts of stone and lime-concrete, to support large parts of the building.
Henry III also began a crossing tower in the 1250s, and the various drawings for its proposed completion by Wren and Hawksmoor are well known, but several other attempts to complete the crossing had been overlooked, and the date of the extant masonry not established. A programme of study in 2010 revealed the long and complex history encapsulated in the present stump of a tower.
Above the aisles and side-chapels, all round the church, runs a tribune gallery with a floor area equivalent to one quarter of the ground stage of the abbey. Totally unrecorded or analysed, this gallery encapsulates much evidence for C13 construction and subsequent repairs and modifications, both medieval and by Wren. This lecture presented some of the recent findings and new interpretations.
© Warwick Rodwell 2013