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

By Jacqueline Riding
Discover how St Stephen's Chapel was transformed from the private chapel of a king to a debating chamber for commoners - as ordinary people gradually took over the reins of state.
The Commons assemble in St Stephen's (detail, Tillemans) 

The debating chamber

The building that houses the British Parliament's modern Commons Chamber is the culmination of a series of changes that can be traced back over a thousand years to the original Palace of Westminster.

During this period structures originally created as part of the Privy Palace of the kings of England (bed chambers, chapels etc), slowly became the permanent homes of the houses of Lords and Commons. What began as a matter of convenience, the occupying of a suitably sized building in order for the Commons to assemble and debate, achieved over centuries a much greater significance - affecting the evolution of the Commons and the manner in which their assemblies and debates were conducted.


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.

From ecclesiastical to secular

Image of a line drawing of the view of St Stephens from the river
View of St Stephen's from the river, 1647
Henry VIII was the last English monarch to reside at the Palace of Westminster. In 1548, after the suppression of the college, St Stephen’s was given to the House of Commons as its permanent chamber.

The palace’s transition from royal residence to the exclusive home of Parliament was now complete. At this point it can be assumed that some alterations occurred to adapt the chapel to suit its new role. Accounts from 1547 to 1558 include:

‘sundry charges made and done in and upon the Parlyament house at Westminster some tyme Saynt Stephen’s Chappell.’

'... the tradition of red for Lords and green for Commons was firmly established by the early 19th century ...'

It is generally believed that members sat in the medieval choir stalls, which had been increased and lengthened to accommodate them. This tradition has informed the structure and format of the seating in all subsequent chambers, including the present Commons chamber.

Little is known of the appearance of St Stephen’s up to the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. In 1670 the chairs were painted green - and there has been much speculation about the use of green as the defining colour for the Commons. Certainly the tradition of red for Lords and green for Commons was firmly established by the early 19th century - the interior decoration of the new palace, particularly in the upholstery within the respective chambers and seat furniture throughout the building, reflected this.

In the 1670s there were rumours of a Catholic plot to replace Charles II with his younger brother, James. Echoes of the Gunpowder Plot heightened concerns regarding security at Parliament and local residents reported ‘... knocking and digging in the earth, in some cellars near adjoining to the Houses of Parliament.’

Sir Christopher Wren was asked to make an assessment of the basement security to which he responded that ‘... the vaults and cellars under or near this House are of such a nature, that there can be no assurance of safety.’ Some improvements were made in 1679 - including structural work to the roof - but by 1692 the Commons requested a major overhaul.

'The format and 'workaday' appearance has remained the signature of the Commons Chamber.'

Designed by Wren, the interior walls of the chapel were completely masked with wainscoting (oak panelling), with rows of benches the length of the chamber at ground level. Because the dimensions of the chamber were restricted (60ft by 30ft), an upper gallery was installed to provide additional seating.

At the east end of the chamber was the Speaker’s chair, in front of which was the clerk’s table. In appearance it was very simple and plain; contrasting dramatically with the polychrome decoration of the Royal Chapel hidden beneath. The format and 'workaday' appearance has remained the signature of the Commons Chamber.

The Act of Union with Scotland in 1707 created a requirement for 45 additional seats in the chamber after which little changes were made until the Act of Union with Ireland in 1800 whereby a further 100 MPs required seating. The job was given to James Wyatt.

The existing furnishings were ripped out, exposing Edward III’s wall paintings ‘... as fresh and vivid as if they could only boast a twelvemonth’s date.’ These were unceremoniously destroyed during Wyatt’s remodelling. The medieval (and thus royal) heart of the chapel had been finally and irreparably ripped out.

Balance of power

Image of Lenthall asserting the Commons' privileges against Charles I
Lenthall asserts the privileges of the Commons before Charles I, 1642
The former Chapel of St Stephen was witness to some of the most dramatic and significant events in the relationship between monarch and Parliament.

The 17th century was perhaps the most turbulent and transitional period in the history of Parliament and at the heart of its transition was the Commons Chamber.

At the beginning of the century, the members of the Gunpowder Plot failed to blow up James I and the assembled Parliament in the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament. James meanwhile continued to cling onto the antiquated (and frankly discredited) idea of Divine Right - that it was God, and God alone, who made and unmade kings. He was to pass this concept on to his son, Charles I, with disastrous results.Charles attempted to rule without parliament, and succeeded - after a fashion - from 1629 to 1640 but was forced to summon Parliament to raise money for a war against Scotland.

'After 11 powerless years, the Commons were in a vengeful mood ...'

After 11 powerless years, the Commons was in a vengeful mood and succeeded in removing and eventually executing Charles's closest advisors, including Archbishop Laud and the Earl of Strafford. In January 1642, Charles, accompanied by over 300 swordsmen, entered St Stephen's in a foolhardy attempt to arrest five of his principal opponents in the Commons on a charge of treason. The members, however, had been warned of Charles’s intention and escaped.

When asked where the members could be found, the Speaker, William Lenthall, fell to his knees before the King and said:

‘May it please Your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here, and I humbly beg Your Majesty’s pardon that I cannot give any other answer than this to your Majesty is pleased to demand of me.’

'The English Civil War ensued, culminating in the dramatic trial and execution of the king.'

This extraordinary declaration established the Speaker as the spokesperson of the House of Commons. Charles left St Stephen’s in humiliation, and no monarch has ever entered the Commons Chamber since. The English Civil War ensued, culminating in the dramatic trial and execution of the king.

Within months the Commons had abolished both the office of king and the House of Lords – England was now a 'commonwealth and free state'. This was, of course, to last only a decade, but the re-established monarchy was an altogether chastened and debilitated one.

The struggle between monarch and Parliament was to be finally resolved with the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which established a constitutional monarchy - ie a monarchy restrained, or perhaps constrained, through Parliament.

'First Commoner'

Image of Henry Addington, Speaker of the Commons
Henry Addington - Speaker of the Commons 1789 to 1801
After the Glorious Revolution the position of Speaker became pre-eminent within the House of Commons, and 'ranked next to the peers of Great Britain both in and out of Parliament'.

The rise of the status of the Speaker reflects the rise of the Commons itself. By the late 18th century, an area along the river front adjoining St Stephen’s was designated the residence of the Speaker. As part of these changes, the lower chapel became the Speaker’s dining room. Prior to this, Speakers had lived in houses in and around London at their own expense.

'What had been the residence of kings, was now the residence of the principal figure of the House of Commons.'

But such was the increased pressure of Parliamentary business, and therefore the requirement for the Speaker to be present, that it became prudent for the incumbent not only to live on site, but adjacent to the Commons Chamber. What had been the residence of kings, was now the residence of the principal figure of the House of Commons.

As head of the social as well as political life of the Commons, the Speaker was required to entertain on a regular basis. A protocol was formed under the first resident, Henry Addington (Speaker 1789 to 1801), as described by Charles Abbot:

'The rule is for the Speaker to give his first Saturday’s dinner to the Ministers and their friends in office, who are Members of the House of Commons. His first Sunday is for the Opposition, and afterwards his parties are promiscuous [ie mixed or casual] - chiefly his private friends and those who visit his levee on Sunday evenings.'

Amongst Addington’s dinner guests in the former under-chapel were some of the great politicians of the day, including William Pitt the Younger, Charles James Fox, Richard Brinsley Sheridan (politician and playwright), William Wilberforce (campaigner against slavery) and Lord Castlereagh.

The tradition, or indeed necessity, for the Speaker to reside at the Palace of Westminster continued within the new palace. Sir Charles Barry (designer of the Houses of Parliament after the fire in 1834) provided a magnificent sequence of apartments, located within the river front pavilion beneath the clock tower, with a suitably grand entrance hall and staircase.

The Residence reflected the status of the office of Speaker and its incumbent, and continues to be used for its original purpose to this day.

Reform and re-form

Image of the ruins of Parliament after the fire of 1834
Parliament lies in ruins after the fire of 1834
By the early 19th century, the accommodation of the Commons within St Stephen's was a subject of continual debate.

After James Wyatt's death, John Soane was assigned the task of continuing the remodelling of the Parliament buildings. His report intriguingly included the plan:

'... to restore St. Stephen's chapel to its original splendour and thereby render it suitable to be used as a chapel for the Members of both Houses of Parliament, with a new House of Lords on one side, and a new House of Commons on the other.'

This was never put into action and the Commons Chamber remained a cramped and uncomfortable environment. In addition, ventilation was a particular problem.

'Full enfranchisement would not come for another 100 years ...'

In 1831, a select committee was formed to debate the 'possibility of making the House of Commons more commodious and less unwholesome'. But the MPs were involved with much greater issues - the expansion of the vote through the Great Reform Act of 1832 - and nothing got done.

Full enfranchisement would not come for another 100 years, and the expansion in numbers of people allowed to vote was limited, but the Act did allow for the representation of major industrial cities such as Manchester and Sheffield.

A new chamber

Image of Joseph Nash's interior of the Commons' Chamber, 1858
Joseph Nash's interior of the Commons' Chamber in 1858
By 1833, it had been accepted that remodelling the existing chamber was futile and that a new chamber was required.

Joseph Hume - the great economic radical - assumed the role of chief agitator for new accommodation but was thwarted (ironically perhaps) for reasons of economy. The fire of 1834, which destroyed so much of the palace and completely gutted St Stephen's, resolved the issue. As one observer commented, 'Mr Hume's motion for a new house is carried without a division'.

'... such buildings became valued as "memories and living records of the past" ...'

To the more conservative commentators, this calamity was perceived as rightful retribution for the passing of the Great Reform Act, which in their eyes damaged the natural right to rule of the aristocracy and in the process also unbalanced the constitution. Others saw it as wiping the slate clean - an opportunity to create a modern, forward-looking chamber that exactly reflected the progressive nature of Parliament itself.

The fire did more than offer the potential for the creation of a purpose-built modern legistature. It reminded people that ancient buildingsshould be valued as 'memories and living records of the past' – witnesses of great events. As one observer of the fire commented:

‘I felt as if a link would be burst asunder in my national existence, and that the history of my native land was about to become, by the loss of this silent but existing witness, a dream of dimly shadowed actors and events.’
The Gentleman's Magazine

Parliamentarians past

Image of the interior of St Stephen's crypt
The chapel of St Mary Undercroft, below St Stephen's hall
As if to hold on to the memories embodied within the ancient walls of the old palace, the winning design for the new building included the integration of Westminster Hall, the lower chapel of the medieval St Stephen’s, as well as the cloister.

Above the lower or 'crypt' chapel arose a new hall, named St Stephen’s, which in size and design loosely followed the medieval chapel. Within this Victorian pastiche, the Fine Art Commission introduced sculptures of eminent parliamentarians of the 17th and 18th centuries, whose deeds and words had resonated through the old chamber, amongst these were Sir Edmund Hampden, the Earl of Clarendon, Sir Robert Walpole and Pitt the Younger - all representing in stone the ghosts of parliamentarians past.

'... the entire interior was decorated in a polychrome scheme of painting, stencilling, gilding and marble ...'

The lower chapel, which had served as a wine cellar, a dining room and - as legend has it - a stable for Cromwell’s horses, was now restored to a functioning chapel. The interior, although charred by the fire, still contained such details as the carved medieval ceiling bosses representing martyrdoms - that of St Stephen was located above the altar.

Sir Charles Barry’s son, Edward, undertook the restoration and as a symbol of its reversal of fortune, the entire interior was decorated in a polychrome scheme of painting, stencilling, gilding and marble which emulated, in a very High Victorian manner, the earlier medieval scheme.

Rebuilt once more

Image of Blaikley's portrait of Queen Victoria at State Opening of Parliament in 1845
Detail from Alexander Blaikley's portrait of Queen Victoria at State Opening of Parliament in 1845
The old Commons Chamber too was to find expression within the new palace. The design, by AWN Pugin and Charles Barry, consciously reflected the simplicity of the old Chamber in the predominance of undecorated oak, and kept the upper galleries and the rows of benches either side of Speaker's Chair as in the old Chamber.

The new House of Commons Chamber therefore formed part of a design history that stretched back via Sir Christopher Wren, to the reign of Edward III. But the creation of the Victorian Chamber was by no means the final chapter in the story of St Stephen's Chapel..

'... the limited space and seating ... was now seen as a virtue along with the confrontational layout.'

It was bombed in 1941, but Churchill insisted that the chamber should be 'restored in all its essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity'. He recognised that the intimacy of the old chamber had created an environment for lively and intense debate, whilst the rows of opposing benches had created the two-party system - in Churchill's eyes the bedrock of British parliamentary democracy.

Thus the limited space and seating - so often berated by Members in the past - was now seen as a virtue, along with the confrontation-inducingl layout. Indeed it had come to define the very nature of government and parliament. As Churchill succinctly observed, 'We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us'.

Published on BBC History: 2005-04-02
This article can be found on the Internet at:

© British Broadcasting Corporation
For more information on copyright please refer to:

BBC History