ART historians have created a 3D virtual-reality image of the long-lost medieval royal chapel that became the first dedicated House of Commons chamber.
St Stephen’s Chapel, which stood on the site of what is now St Stephen’s Hall, Westminster, was destroyed by fire in 1834. But experts from York University have delved into parliamentary and national archives to build a digital picture of what the interior might have looked like.
They studied documents that revealed details ranging from construction methods to the names of masons, painters, sculptors, and workmen, and even how much they were paid.
Dr John Cooper, from the university’s Department of History, said: “It has been a fascinating journey through time and has taken us in unexpected directions.”
First mentioned in 1184, St Stephen’s was initially the King’s private chapel at the Palace of Westminster. In 1348, Edward III established it as a college for secular canons, but that was dissolved during the Reformation, and, in 1547, Edward VI gave it to MPs as a meeting-place.
UNIVERSITY OF YORKDedicated: the chapel converted for use as the Commons chamber
The chapel’s layout is credited with establishing the design of the present-day Commons chamber. Its choir stalls faced each other across an aisle, and at the west end stood a great screen with double doors. When the MPs moved in, rival parties gathered on opposite sides of the aisle, and, when they voted, those in favour of a motion would walk through the screen’s right-hand door, while opponents used the left one.
The 1840s rebuilding of the House replicated the arrangement, and still today, MPs voting Aye exit to the lobby on the right, and the Noes go out on the left. “MPs had previously met in a number of different locations,” Dr Cooper said, “but, once they took occupation of St Stephen’s, they never left, even though there was never a grand plan for a new home for the House of Commons.
“The move into St Stephen’s was a by-product of the Reformation, but it had profound consequences for the future of British politics. Our politicians still meet there today, in a Victorian reimagination of a medieval and Tudor building. It’s a fascinating example of continuity in British political culture.”
Chris Bryant, the Labour MP for Rhondda and a former Shadow Leader of the House, said: “The shape and architecture of St Stephen’s Chapel frame so many aspects of how we do our business in the Commons today. We shouldn’t be bound by our history, but we should understand it better. This University of York project is enabling us to do just that.”
To see the 3D images, visit www.virtualststephens.org.uk.