St Stephen's Chapel

St Stephen's Chapel was a chapel in the old Palace of Westminster. It was largely lost in the fire of 1834, but the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft in the crypt survived. St Stephen's porch and hall, of the new Palace of Westminster, were built in the same location, and are accessed via St Stephen's Entrance (the public entrance).

As a Royal Chapel

According to Cooke (1987), King Henry III witnessed the consecration of the Sainte Chapelle in Paris in 1248, and wished to construct a chapel in his principal palace at Westminster to rival it. Work continued for many years under Henry's successors, to be completed around 1297. In the resulting two-storey chapel, the Upper Chapel was used by the Royal Family and the Lower Chapel by the Royal Household and courtiers.

Historical Events which occurred in the Chapel

On 20 January 1382, St Stephen's Chapel was used for the wedding of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia The bridegroom was aged 15, the bride 16.

The other royal wedding occurred on 15 January 1478, between the younger of the two Princes in the Tower, Richard, Duke of York, and Anne Mowbray. At 4 years old, she was a year younger than Richard. Anne Mowbray died aged eight. In 1964 her coffin was discovered in a church in Stepney and her remains reinterred in Westminster Abbey.

1483 has been termed "The Year of Three Kings." The body of Richard's father, King Edward IV, who died at the Palace of Westminster on 9 April 1483, was conveyed to St Stephen's Chapel on the 10th and lay in state there for eight days.

Following the death of King Henry VIII the Palace of Westminster ceased to be a royal residence. Henry's son, King Edward VI instituted the Abolition of Chantries Act, 1547 and St Stephen's Chapel thus became available for use as the debating chamber of the House of Commons.

As the House of Commons Chamber

The former Chapel's layout and functionality influenced the positioning of furniture and MPs in the Commons. Speaker's chair was placed on the altar steps - arguably the reason that MPs bow to the Speaker, as they would formerly have done to the altar. Where the lectern had been, the Table of the House was installed. MPs sat facing one-another in the Medieval choir stalls, creating the adversarial seating plan in the Commons chamber that persists to this day. The old choir screen with its two side-by-side entrances was also retained and formed the basis of the modern voting system for MPs with "aye" voters passing through the right-hand door and "no" voters passing through the left.

In order to suit the needs of the House of Commons, various changes to the chapel's original gothic form were made by architects such as Sir Christopher Wren and James Wyatt between 1547 and 1834. The building was significantly reduced in height by the removal of the clerestory with other alterations also being made to the exterior. On the inside the walls were reduced in thickness to accommodate extra seating and the grand interior decorations were concealed behind wainscoting and oak panelling. A lower false ceiling was installed in the chamber to help improve its acoustics, the quality of which were vital in an age without artificial amplification. More seating was added for the extra MPs created by the Acts of Union with Scotland (1707) and Ireland (1800), including an upper-level gallery. By the 19th Century the chapel's interior had a very bland and modest look in contrast to its former Medieval magnificence.

Fire and Reconstruction

The fire of 1834 totally destroyed the main body of the chapel with the crypt below and the adjoining cloisters barely surviving. Amongst the few furnishings rescued from the flames was the Table of the House which is now kept in the Speaker's apartments at the palace. The historical importance of the chapel was realised in the design of the new palace in the form of St Stephen's Hall, the lavishly-decorated main public entrance hall built on the same floor plan as the old chapel with the position of the Speaker's chair marked out on the floor.

The crypt below St Stephen's Hall, the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft which had fallen into disuse some time before the fire, was restored and returned to its former use as a place of worship. It is still used for this purpose today. In particular children of Peers, who would usually possess the title Honourable (Hon), have the exclusive privilege of being able to use it as a wedding venue. In addition, MPs and Peers are legally able to use the chapel as a christening venue.