Early Modern Consultation Group

Early Modern Consultation Group


St Stephen’s Chapel

Early Modern Consultation Group


A meeting at 1 Parliament Street, Friday 25 September 2015, 11.30am

Present: John Cooper, James Jago, Paul Hunneyball, Robin Eagles, Alasdair Hawkyard, Mark Collins, Jonathan Hanley

1. Welcome. JC thanked those attending for freely offering their time and expertise, JJ for his work on the agenda and memorandum of primary evidence/ bibliography (circulated at the meeting), and MC for organising the meeting room. Following an explanation of the purpose and timetable of the Virtual St S Stephen’s project, therewas a demonstration of the medieval model. Comment was invited on how best to maintain the high standard of academic content and visual appeal in the early modern model, while remaining within the available evidence and avoiding invention (costly and time-consuming). There was support for a shifting viewing-point in the transitional film sequence 1547-1707, to take in important features including the bar of the House and the lobby, and to highlight them with hotspots (ie to avoid the early modern model seeming too static by comparison with the navigable medieval model).

ACTION: to clarify with Anthony Masinton and Louise Hampson how the viewing-point will work in the transition film 1547-1707.

2. Questions relating to the early modern House of Commons. JC and JJ set out three questions to be considered in modelling the features and culture of the Commons 1547-1707, namely:

the balance of visual and textual sources, and how any apparent discrepancies in visual sources (eg relating to the seating arrangements) should be negotiated;

the choice of hotspots, and how to use these to highlight key features of parliamentary debate and ritual (eg the points at which MPs bowed to the Speaker/ royal arms; the bar of the House; the mace and its meaning) as well as architectural and decorative features of the Commons Chamber;

when to extrapolate from comparative examples, and which examples to choose.

The group was also asked to comment on the whole question of the importance of the Commons being located in a former chapel, in terms of its impact on political culture and the development of parliamentary procedure. The following key points were raised in the morning’s discussion:

the choice of St Stephen’s Chapel as based on availability and accessibility rather than forward planning, perhaps as a temporary expedient, having little to do with the perceived adaptability of the building. However, once that decision had been taken, the nature of the space then imposing something on the way in which the Commons functioned (examples being the culture of petitioning, parliamentary ritual, committee work–hotspots lobby, mace, committee chamber)

the need to set St Stephen’s/ the Commons Chamberin the context of:

a) the adaptation and re-purposing of other former ecclesiastical property in London, eg monastic buildings (a good guide to the mid-sixteenth century adaptation of ecclesiastical buildings to secular use being Maurice Howard’s Early Tudor Country House);

b) the meeting place of the House of Lords in a former royal bedroom in the Palace, and the impact of that space on the development of parliamentary procedure in the Lords, for purposes of comparison;

c) the occasions when the Commons met elsewhere: Oxford Divinity School 1625 (plague), again 1644 (Charles I’s Royalist Parliament), 1665 Oxford Convocation House (plague), again 1681 (Charles II’s third Exclusion Parliament). How were these spaces adapted, and what did MPs feel that they needed? Opposition to removing Parliament to Oxford representing attachment to St Stephen’s as ‘the’ House of Commons?

the sense of the Commons chamber within the bar as being reserved/ set apart/ ?sacrosanct (hotspots bar, pulpitum), but this actually having comparatively little do with its status as a former place of worship (hotspots ceiling, panelling/whitewash to explain how the chapel is secularised in appearance). MPs bow to the royal arms, as per the etiquette of the presence chamber, rather than to any memory of an altar or sacred space – a persistent myth to be busted: hotspots floor, royal arms. The Commons as a space to which the monarch didn’t have an automatic right of access [some disagreement in the group on this point: precedents for Charles I Jan 1642 inc Henry VIII twice and perhaps six times, 1571 Elizabeth’s announcement of her intention to visit the Commons]

the importance of the Commons meeting within the precincts of a royal palace; also some enduring sense of the Commons as legally the ‘King’s chapel’ (as described in 1672 debate). The persistence of the name ‘St Stephen’s’ to mean the Commons into the twentieth century

the ambiguity of the position of the Speaker: chosen by Commons/ an official mouthpiece, yet also reporting to the monarch. Comes to a head in 1629 with Speaker John Finch held in his chair, hotspot Speaker’s chair

These discussions continued over lunch in Portcullis House.

3. Modelling the Early Modern Commons Chamber. JJ led a detailed discussion of issues relating to the modelling of the Commons 1547-1707, informed by the memorandum and guided by the questions highlighted under 2 above. The following principal points were raised:

a) Benches and seating. The Venetian ambassador described the Commons as a ‘theatre’ ten years before Hooker. Confirmation (as per Hooker) that this wasn’t an ‘opposition-government bench’ in fledgling form. The element of artistic licence in seventeenth-century engravings of the Chamber, published in association with lists of members to advertise the business and fullness of the Commons. Great Wardrobe and Lord Great Chamberlain’s accounts as relevant sources. As a point of comparison, hierarchical seating in seventeenth-century parish churches. For hotspot: the sound of wood cracking 19 May 1641 mistaken by MPs for an attack on the Long Parliament.

Decision: seating as depicted in 1624, as it works within the digital model, with 1604 gallery as refined by Inigo Jones (accessed via room above lobby? Continuity with the practice of visitors to Westminster Abbey refectory in Henry VIII’s parliaments?)

b) Speaker’s chair and royal arms. Dimensions of royal arms (Gower) given in TNA E/351/3221. Sources to check in addition to E351 evidence include Hooker, Journal of William Schellinks’ Travels in England 1661-3 (Camden Society), London Letters of Samuel Molyneux 1712-13 (London Topographical Society). Discussion of theputative canopy over the Speaker’s chair which by tradition was given to church of St James the Great, Radleyby Speaker William Lenthall, now the tester of the pulpit (VCH Berkshire; to check revised Pevsner volume for Berkshire; the alleged provenance met with some scepticism in the group). For hotspot:removal of royal arms over canopy 1649 makes Speaker Lenthall ‘the leading citizen of England’ acc to Oxford DNB; arms reinstated Feb 1663.

Decision: follow 1624 engraving (presumably the chair made in 1586-7).

Yetto decide: how to model the post-1645 chair. A model could be sourced in an Oxford college chapel, with Corinthian capitals etc as described in Hawkyard 2012. As part of this, to check whether the royal arms removed 1649 are replaced with Commonwealth insignia.

c) Decoration of walls and textiles. Discussion of the visibility of the wall-paintings in 1601 before the probable installation of wainscot 1604-05 (evidence presented in Hawkyard 2012). Possibility of hinged panelling, to enable wallpaintings to be viewed, met with scepticism (anachronistic?) Suggestion that the upper inner chapel may have been(plastered and?) whitewashed, like the outer chapel (E351 for 1565-7, to check againstextant material evidence for whitewash). Agreement over tapestries mid seventeenth-century (winding columns and foliage; hotspot).

Decision: wainscot with whitewash above, to ceiling, with tapestries (from what date?)

Yet to decide: how to model the still visible wall-paintings in the Elizabethan period, as per Hayward Townshend’s speech of Dec 1601. Possibility of a hotspot on Townshend himself, described by Pollard as ‘incomparably the best of the Elizabethan parliamentary journalists’ (article in HoP 1558-1603).

d) Windows and awning. Decision to follow Hawkyard 2012 as set out in memorandum.

e) Ceiling. Discussion of the hypothesis that a plaster-of-Paris ceiling was constructed when the Chapel was first converted to become the Commons Chamber, to improve acoustics and heating, to make space for the storage of records above, and (perhaps) to obscure the painted medieval ceiling. To check meaning of ‘inner Roome of the parliament House’ in E351 accounts for 1603-04.

Decision: to plan for modelling a plaster-of-Paris ceiling from 1547, perhaps usinghotspotsto explain a) the storage space for records above and b) Wren’s 1692 report.

f) Pulpitum, bar, gallery. The consensus of the group, supported by comparisons with the piecemeal adaptation of the House of Lords, was that a structurally sound wooden pulpitum would more likely have been modified and re-used rather than removed. If this is correct, then the existing stairs could have given access to the new room above the lobby and part of the western gallery. A lath and plaster partition wall from the pulpitum to the ceiling would be in character with modifications of a similar date elsewhere in the Palace. A new door would have been fitted. Although necessarily speculative, this solution is plausible and consistent with such evidence as survives. The method of voting by division through the doorway in the pulpitum (described by Hooker) should be explained by a hotspot. The bar of the House definitely in place by 1604, with some earlier indications (including pre St Stephen’s, 1523 Blackfriars parliament).

Decision: to retain the pulpitum in the 1547-1707 model, with the addition of a door, and a partition wall. Reasonable to assume the bar of the House dating from first conversion.

g) Clerks’ table, mace, other appurtenances inc despatch boxes, candlesticks, clock &c.

A comparable example of a table (c. 1700) survives in the study of the Speaker’s House, to complement the visual evidence. A green plain cloth on the table by the 1640s. Commons greenis discussed in Commons factsheet G10, written by Chris Pond and revised by MC.

The Charles II mace currently in use has been associated with the Commons since the early nineteenth century; discussion of its complex (and sometimes misunderstood) symbolic meaning in House of Commons Library Document no 3 (1957), expanding on Thomas Wilson’s Historical Note on Maces published in 1922.

Despatch boxes (or portable desks?) visible in Tillemans; two of PM Spencer Perceval’s (c. 1800) survive at Parliament; possible discovery of a Georgian despatch box at V&A (to check with Ross Kempsell, email supplied by RE).

Other features of the Commons Chamber: flooring – rush matting. A clock by the early seventeenth century, and a sundial set in glass. Items in pewter including candlesticks, inkwells, chamber pots (hotspot?)

The concluding discussion highlighted two further issues for consideration in the modelling of the early modern Commons:

the absence of people as things stand, which could make the model look artificially bare. Will people figure in the final version of the medieval model, eg dean and canons celebrating mass? – in which case should we consider peopling the benches in the 1707 model? Alternatively, hotspotscould be used to link to biographies of MPs. Colour in the Commons supplied by MPs’ clothing more than the fittings of the House itself, eg in a 1610 account by a clothier MP of the costume worn for the knighting of the Prince of Wales (correspondence with PH).

sound: what has been decided for the medieval model (music of Nicholas Ludford?) We could have an indistinguishable hubbub, or something more ambitious (eg a recording of the re-staged debate, if this goes ahead).

NB the exhibition questionnaire responses indicating that some people had been expecting sound.

The meeting concluded at 4.45.

JPDC, 7x15