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St Stephen's Chapel: From the Crown to the People

By Jacqueline Riding

Image of the interior of St Stephen's chapel
The interior of St Stephen's Chapel ©
Chapels, like Great Halls, were important elements of great houses during the Middle Ages.

By the 12th century, in addition to the adjoining abbey, the Palace of Westminster is known to have had at least two chapels. Edward I’s chapel was probably instigated in response to the completion of the great domestic 'Sainte Chapelle' of King Louis IX of France, within his palace on the Isle de la Cité in Paris.

'Between 1351 and 1360, large sums were spent on materials including gold, azure and vermilion ...'

The rivalry of the two kings in architecture emulated their rivalry in politics and kingly status. Edward's chapel was designed as a two-storey structure - an upper storey which was the main body of the chapel for the personal use of the royal family, and a lower stone-vaulted chapel - now known as St Mary Undercroft, or the 'Crypt' chapel - which was available to the Court and royal household.

The plan for the interior decoration aped that of Sainte-Chapelle. The building was to be highly decorated in a polychrome scheme, intended to dazzle the eye. However, construction was slow (Edward I died before it was completed) and intermittently suspended - due to lack of funds, a devastating fire, and the deposition and murder of Edward II, amongst other reasons.

Thus the construction of the shell was not completed until 1348 during the reign of Edward III. He, however, after his successes at Crécy and Calais, commissioned magnificent interior decoration in paint and stained glass. Between 1351 and 1360, large sums were spent on materials including gold, azure and vermilion to cover the entire interior – every available space was gilded, painted and stencilled.

The central image, beneath the window on the east wall, was a depiction of the Adoration of the Magi. Below this, on either side of the altar, were the kneeling figures of St George with Edward III and Queen Philippa, accompanied by their ten sons and daughters. Further to the building and decoration, Edward also endowed a college of chaplains to serve the new chapel and it is likely that as a result, the carved wooden choir stalls were commissioned.

The foundation of the college, and the presence of 13 chaplains (or canons), necessitated the building of some accommodation. This was sited to the north of the palace, and it is from here that the name 'Canons Row' derives. The design of St Stephen’s was to influence the development of what is called the Perpendicular Gothic style of architecture, and thus English architecture as a whole. Although the upper storey was gutted in a fire in 1834, the lower chapel was incorporated into the 19th-century palace.

Published: 2005-04-02

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