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St Stephen’s Westminster – Chapel to Kings and Queens..

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Reconstruction of a Medieval Painting from St Stephen’s Chapel.  Possibly Queen Philippa with her daughter.  Ernest William Tristram c.1927.   Worked from original drawings made by the antiquarian Richard Smirke 1800-1811 before the fire of 1834. Society of Antiquities.   Parliamentary Art Collection

St Stephen’s was the medieval royal chapel of the Kings and Queens of England and part of the old Palace of Westminster.  What a jewel in England’s crown and what a loss.  Destroyed by a fire in 1834 that also destroyed what was left of the old palace, which had already lost its royal apartments in a fire in the 1530s.  King Stephen is said to have built the original chapel, first mentioned in the reign of King John 1199-1216, with Edward lst beginning a major refurbishment in 1292.  The architect was Michael of Canterbury who also designed the beautiful Eleanor Crosses.   On two levels the rebuild took over 70 years to complete which seems to have been because of the ebb and flow of the finances of the first three Edwards.     The top level was for the use of the Royal Family and a door south of the altar  lead to the royal apartments.  It must have been a sight to behold…with it ceiling painted in azure and  thousands of stars of gold.  The lower chapel,  darker because it was slightly below ground level,   was known as St Mary Undercroft,  and after being used for numerous purposes over the centuries , including some say Cromwell stabling his horses there,  has  managed to survive to this very day and  back to its original use, that of a chapel.

Kings and queens who happened to die while residing in Westminster Palace were taken to the chapel to lie in repose.  Among those to lie there before their burial, usually in the Abbey, was the ‘seemly, amiable and beauteous’ Queen Anne Neville, daughter of Warwick the Kingmaker and consort to King Richard III (1).  On a happier note St Stephen’s may also have been where their wedding took place.  Several royal weddings did take place there for certain including that of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia and also Edward IV’s youngest son Richard of Shrewsbury and Anne Mowbray.  Anne was only 4 years old at the time, the groom being even younger at 3, and Richard Duke of Gloucester led Anne by the hand into the chapel.

The chapel was dissolved at the Reformation in the time of Edward VI and thereafter it became the first permanent home of the House of Commons.  Certain abuses of the Chapel begun from then on including the removal of the beautiful soaring upper celestery by Wren.  The final fire took hold at around 6 pm. on the evening of 16th October 1834.  The final destruction by  fire  begun with  the burning of two cartloads of wooden tally ‘Exchequer’ sticks which caused  a furnace  to overheat.  Warnings of the danger of fire had been ignored by a ‘senile housekeeper and a careless Clerk to the Works’  leading to the Prime Minister to declare the disaster was one of the ‘greatest instances of stupidity on record’.  During the course of the conflagration medieval paintings and decorations that had been hidden over the centuries were once again revealed and gawping crowds flocked to see them.

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Wooden tally or Exchequer sticks. The burning of two cartloads of these caused a chimney to overheat which led to the destruction of Westminster Palace including St Stephen’s hall.

We are very fortunate that 30 years prior to the disaster life sized copies were made of the most important medieval paintings,  which would have been to the east of the chapel where the alter was,   while the chapel was being renovated by an antiquarian Richard Smirke.  The art historian and conservator, Ernest William Tristram (1881-1952) meticulously reconstructed Smirke’s drawing in a collection of 20 paintings.  The British Museum now holds fragments from the paintings and decorations salvaged from the fire and from them can be gleaned an impression of the quality and beauty of the lost works.

The new building, now called St Stephen’s Hall, was rebuilt in Neo Gothic style on the footprint of the old Chapel carefully adhering to the same measurements, 95ft long and 30 ft wide.  Brass studs now mark where the Speaker’s Chair which in turn  would have marked the place where the high  alter once stood.

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King Edward’s Sons.  Reconstruction of medieval wall painting St Stephen’s Chapel.  Ernest William Tristram.  Worked from the original drawings by Richard Smirke.  

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King Edward and St George.  Ernest William Tristram.  Reproduction of medieval wall painting from St Stephen’s Chapel.  From the original drawing by Richard Smirke.  

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Some of the 17 fragments of wall paintings salvaged from the fire and now in the British Museum.  All came from the east end of the north wall.

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Upon Westminster Hall.  George Scharf.   The intrepid Mr Scharf made this painting over four days after climbing on to Westminster Hall’s roof for a better view of the destruction of the chapel and palace.. 

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The smaller chapel on the lower level.  Known as St Mary Undercroft.  Survived the fire and is once again in use as a chapel. Watercolour by George Belton Moore.  

IMG_6178.JPGAnother watercolour by George Belton Moore picturing a demolition of a doorway next to St Stephens.  Ive been unable to ascertain where this doorway was situated.    

IMG_6180.jpgThe Ruined St Stephen’s from the East prior to demolition.   Parliamentary Art Collection.

I am indebted to Sir Roy Strong’s book Lost Treasures of Britain for some of the above information.

  1. Rous Roll.  

THE MEDIEVAL CROWNS OF EDWARD THE CONFESSOR AND QUEEN EDITH

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KING RICHARD III AND HIS CONSORT QUEEN ANNE NEVILLE WEARING  EDWARD THE CONFESSOR AND QUEEN EDITH’S CROWNS.  THE ROUS ROLL.

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THE SAME CROWNS WORN EARLIER BY EDWARD IV AND ELIZABETH WYDVILLE. Photograph by Geoffrey Wheeler.  

The first Coronation Crowns, known as the crowns of  Edward the Confessor  (also known as St Edward the Confessor)  and his wife  Queen Edith were probably made about the IIth century for the king’s coronation in his new completed rebuilt Church of St Peter, now known as Westminster Abbey on Thorney Island.   Edward was one of the last Anglo Saxon kings.  We know that Queen Edith’s crown was valued at £16 and was made of  ‘Siluer gilt Enriched with Garnetts foule pearle Saphires and some odd stones’.   Edward the Confessors crown was described as a ‘crowne of gould wyer worke sett with slight stones and two little bells’.   They were worn by every king and queen after that, excluding Edward V and Jane, who of course were never crowned,  until their destruction by the Parliamentarians.   Its hard to find an absolutely accurate depiction of them as various kings may have added bits and pieces over the centuries.   Having said that we have a  very good idea from the lovely drawings in  Rous roll,  the Beauchamp Pageant, and the Royal Window at Canterbury Cathedral.

 

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King Richard wearing the Crown of St Edward the Confessor, Rous Roll.

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Edward IV’S portrait in the Royal Window at Canterbury Cathedral wearing the Coronation Crown of St Edward.

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Elizabeth Wydeville in her coronation robes and Queen Edith’s crown. the Worshipful Company of Skinners

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Queen Anne from the Rous Roll wearing Queen Edith’s crown..

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Queen Anne Neville wearing Queen Edith’s crown from the Beauchamp Pageant..

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King Richard III wearing the crown of Edward the Confessor..The Beauchamp Pageant.

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King Edward the Confessor’s crown..drawn by Julian Rowe.  The Road to Bosworth Field.  P W Hammond and Anne E Sutton

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Queen Edith’s crown..artist Julian Rowe

These wonderful crowns survived until the end of the English Civil War when the victorious Parliamentarians ordered all sacred symbols and relics of monarchy, now rendered redundant,  to be ‘totallie Broken and defaced’ and the metal to be used to make coins.

New crowns were made for Charles II‘s  coronation in 1661 by Robert Vyner including a new Coronation Crown.  This crown sometimes gets confused with the Imperial State Crown.  It should be remembered that the Coronation Crown is only used for coronation and thus does not get many outings.   The State crown is the one our present queen wears for the State Opening of Parliament.  Having been made comparatively recently in 1937 it has a most exquisite survivor from the Middle Ages…the Black Prince’s Ruby! Its not actually a. ruby but a large irregular cabochon red spinel.  The stone has an astonishing history which is hard to verify  and  I will go into here only briefly but suffice to say it did indeed belong to  Edward the Black Prince.  It then passed to Henry V who was said to have worn it on his helmet at Agincourt.  It was later said that it was worn by King Richard III in the crown that was lost at Bosworth and legend says was found under a hawthorn bush by William Stanley.

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The red cabochon known as the Black Princes Ruby..a medieval survivor and now worn in the modern State Crown.

And so, besides the two royal crowns, much, much more was lost.  Described by Sir Roy Strong  as a ‘treasure trove of medieval goldsmith work’ there were  ‘Several ancient sceptres and staffs, two with doves on top and one with a fleur-de-lis of silver gilt and an ampulla which contained the holy oil for anointing listed as ‘A doue (actually an eagle) of gould set with stones and pearle’    There were ancient medieval royal robes worn by the king before the crowning….and an ‘old Combe of Horne’ probably of Anglo Saxon origin and used to comb the kings hair after the anointing listed as ‘worth nothing’ .  A total of nine items were sold to a Mr Humphrey for £5 in November 1649 (1).

I’ll leave the last word on this tragic part of  British history to Sir Edward Walker, Garter of Arms who wrote his report in 1660.

‘And because through the Rapine of the late vnhappy times, all the Royall Ornaments and Regalia heretofore preserved from age to age in the Treasury of the the Church of Westminster, were taken away, sold and destroyed the Committee mert divers times, not only to direct the remaking such Royal Ornaments and Regalia, but even to setle the form and fashion of each particular’ (2)

1) Lost Treasures of Britain Roy Strong p124

2) Ibid p125

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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