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18 September 2014
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All Change at the Palace of Westminster

By Jacqueline Riding
The Painted Chamber

Image of Edward the Confessor being crowned
Edward Confessor is crowned at Winchester by Eadsige, Archbishop of Canterbury in 1043 ©
The centralising of the administration of government at Westminster occurred during the 13th century. It began with the reign of Henry II, when the Exchequer took up permanent residence, and was consolidated along with its position as principal royal residence during the reign of Henry III.

It was during the latter’s reign that major rebuilding of the abbey occurred, as well as some significant alterations to the palace, including the building of the celebrated 'Painted Chamber'. During the reign of Henry III, Parliament also began to convene on a regular basis at Westminster.

'Surrounded by this glorious profusion of colour was a canopied state bed.'

The Lords sat in the newly completed Queen’s Chamber but the Commons (who were not regularly called until late in the 14th century) did not have a permanent home on site but tended to sit in the Chapter House (completed 1259) or the refectory of the abbey.

Behind this major building work at Westminster was the adoption and augmentation by Henry of the cult of St Edward the Confessor (who had been sainted 100 years after his death) to enhance his kingly position by association. The abbey at Westminster not only housed the body of the royal saint but was now the traditional site of the coronation of English kings - a ritual with divine association. It was Henry’s intention to locate the government of his kingdom, with himself at its head, in proximity to the spiritual forces that legitimised his authority.

Of the additions that Henry made to the palace, the most celebrated was the King’s (later known as the Painted) Chamber. The chamber itself no longer exists, but it is possible to gain some idea of its sumptuous decoration through two surviving ceiling panels (now at the British Museum) and the early 19th-century watercolours by Charles Stothard (Society of Antiquaries of London).

The ceiling was painted and punctuated along its length and breadth with polychrome bosses. Its surviving panels are exquisite, and depict a seraph and a prophet. The biblical theme was continued through the wall paintings, which illustrated stories from the Old Testament. Surrounded by this glorious profusion of colour was a canopied state bed. Beneath the canopy a large painted and gilded scene of the coronation of St Edward the Confessor took pride of place.

'By the 14th century the process of parliament had settled into a regular pattern ...'

From the Middle Ages, the most important ceremonies held in the Lords Chamber were the opening and closing of Parliament. The king attended these ceremonies, and subsequent proceedings, as it was his parliament. By the 14th century the process of parliament had settled into a regular pattern and there are signs that a protocol was developing in regard to location and in the form these meetings took.

It began with a proclamation in Great Hall forbidding the playing of games and the bearing of arms in the palace during Parliament. The opening commenced with the summoned Lords assembling in the Painted Chamber whilst the Commons gathered in Great Hall. After the names of the respective assembled houses (Lords and Commons) had been checked, the Commons were led to the bar of the House of Lords - within the Painted Chamber - where the Lords were seated and where, at the centre, the king was enthroned 'in state'.

An address was then made, usually by the chancellor, constituting in part a statement regarding the state of the kingdom and the reasons for the summons. The two houses would then discuss the issues separately, usually the following day, in their respective debating chambers.

Published: 2005-02-02

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