Above: Outline map of the boundary of today’s City of Westminster (red line). Two Roman roads (brown lines) are shown. Parts of those two roads are known today as Oxford Street and Edgware Road. Towards the bottom right corner of the map is the site of Westminster Abbey (red dot). The three yellow names became Metropolitan Boroughs in 1899.
It is generally believed that what we now call Westminster Abbey was founded as quite a small religious house on what was then marshy land some distance to the west of the City of London. The date of foundation is constantly argued over but it was probably in the 7th century. At that time the language of the day had Germanic roots and so the religious house was called the ‘West Münster’ which is ‘pure’ German for the ‘minster in the west (west of the City)’. The city of Münster in Germany was also similarly named.
That therefore gave the building a name which has remained ever since. It was Edward the Confessor who had a large abbey constructed from 1050. The abbey was was on the same site as the smaller Saxon building. Edward died before it was completed and, in 1066, when William the Conqueror became King of England he had the building completed. It was later rebuilt a third time but it is still on the same site as when it was originally founded. Westminster Abbey therefore gave its name to the immediate area. This locality grew up, from Norman times, being called ‘Westminster’. The parish was (and still is) known as ‘St Margaret, Westminster’.
It was the idea of Edward the Confessor to also have a palace built beside the Abbey and that was called the ‘Palace of Westminster’. In fact it still is there but most people call the ‘Houses of Parliament’ because the site gradually ceased to be used as a palace and was instead used as the seat of government.
The monks at Westminster Abbey owned the Manor of Westminster which was roughly the whole of the land within the red line on the above map but below the almost horizontal line of Oxford Street. In the 1530s all the monasteries in England was closed by Henry VIII. The Manor of Westminster was administered by the Abbey and that too was closed. In 1585 an Act of Parliament created a new administration for the old manor, calling it ‘the City and Borough of Westminster’. In effect, the old Manor of Westminster was created a City — equivalent to any other city in England.
We will cut a long story short by moving to Victorian times. In 1899 Metropolitan London was created — with 28 Metropolitan Boroughs being created alongside the City of London. The original Manor of Westminster was created the Metropolitan Borough of Westminster. Because it had been proclaimed the ‘City of Westminster’ by Act of Parliament in 1585, the privileged name of ‘City of Westminster’ was used in its place. So, although the Metropolitan Borough of Westminster had to do what all other Metropolitan Boroughs in London were required to do (like sweeping the roads, providing street lighting and providing schools) it retained the name of the ‘City of Westminster’.
The Metropolitan Borough of Westminster remained an administrative unit from 1899 until 1965. On 1 April 1965 Greater London was created. The Metropolitan Borough of Westminster was combined with the Metropolitan Borough of Paddington and the Metropolitan Borough of St Marylebone to form the ‘London Borough of Westminster’. The old argument raised its head once more and this London Borough was allowed to keep the historic privileged name of ‘City of Westminster’.
That brings us up-to-date with today. In summary we see that the name Westminster has had three different meanings throughout its long history:
(1) ‘Westminster’ can just mean the land around Westminster Abbey — in the same way as there are localities or districts in London known as ‘Mayfair’, ‘Soho’ and ‘Strand’.
(2) ‘Westminster’ had a newly defined meaning between 1899 and 1965 when it referred to the Metropolitan Borough of Westminster. Because of its history it retained the name ‘City of Westminster’.
(3) ‘Westminster’ was newly defined again after 1965 when it was created a London Borough of Westminster. Once more that title was not used because the name ‘City of Westminster’ was retained.
It may help to understand how the name of ‘Westminster’ has different meanings by explaining how other other parts of London worked. We will use the example of Lewisham. In Norman times Lewisham was the name of a village clustered around the parish church of Lewisham. The village was the centre of an original Manor of Lewisham. In 1899 what had once been the Manor of Lewisham was created the Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham (with other original manors added to it). This remained the administrative unit until 1965 when the Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham was combined with the adjacent Metropolitan Borough of Deptford to form the larger administrative unit of the London Borough of Lewisham. The same story would have been true of Westminster but, having once been designated the ‘City of Westminster’, that title has been retained to this day.
When tourists say they are going to visit ‘Westminster’ we know what they mean — they intend walking around Big Ben, Parliament Square and Westminster Abbey. In using ‘Westminster’ they are referring to the fact that the land got its name from the Abbey. Over the years the name had been used for other meanings. The name ‘City of Westminster’ only arose because of the old Act of Parliament in 1585.