FROM at least the tenth century, the English Crown has observed a liturgical round supported by its Ecclesiastical Household.
Medieval monarchy was peripatetic, and the Chapel Royal was originally portable, with a retinue of clerks and choristers. It followed the monarch in his or her various progresses — even on to the field of battle. We know that the Dean of the Chapel Royal and a full choir were present with Henry V on the field of Agincourt, and again in 1520 when Henry VIII and Francis I met at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.
One survival of this peripatetic “chapel” is when, on Maundy Thursday every year, the Queen (or her deputy) distributes the Royal Maundy money: specially minted silver coins, the number of coins and recipients reflecting the number of years of the monarch’s life. George V reinstated the personal distribution of the maundy purses, supported by the Chapel Royal choir and the Lord High Almoner — one of the “Royal” bishops (currently the Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge).
HISTORICALLY, perhaps the most significant person in the ecclesiastical household was the Clerk of the Closet, who is in attendance on the Sovereign when she receives homage from newly elected bishops. The present clerk is the Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome. The elevated royal closets in the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace and Hampton Court echo the ancestor of all Chapels Royal: that of the Emperor Charlemagne, consecrated in 805, which survives as part of Aachen Cathedral. The royal closet in St James’s is used at, for example, Epiphany, when the Sovereign’s gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh are presented at the altar by high-ranking military officers.
The Clerk of the Closet is also responsible for appointing Royal Chaplains, who are entitled to wear the distinctive scarlet cassock that is jealously reserved to royal foundations and clergy who enjoy a special connection with the monarch. Royal chaplains are honorary appointments, usually clergy of distinction and long service, who are preach regularly in the Chapel Royal.
At one time, most of the offices in the ecclesiastical household were full-time but, as their ceremonial duties have contracted, bishops have come to fulfil most of the roles. The Bishop of London, for example, has, since the middle of the 18th century, usually also been the Dean of HM Chapels Royal (as Bishop Sarah Mullally is now). The Sub-Dean, Sub-Almoner, and Deputy Clerk of the Closet (currently Canon Paul Wright) is the full-time resident priest who does most of the day-to-day work, supported by Priests- and Deputy Priests-in-Ordinary. The Tower, Hampton Court, and the Savoy Chapel — of which more below — have their own chaplains.
THERE are, of course, “royal” chapels in places with royal connections, and bodies such as the Royal Foundation of St Katharine, founded in the 12th century by Queen Matilda as a religious community and hospital serving the poor. It moved from its original location in what is now St Katharine’s Dock to Regents Park (where it served as a Danish Lutheran church) before being re-established at Limehouse in the East End of London, where it now operates as a retreat house and conference centre. The formally designated “Chapels Royal”, however, are located in occupied royal palaces, including the Tower of London, St James’s Palace, Kensington Palace, Buckingham Palace, and Hampton Court.
AlamyChapel of St John inside the White Tower of the Tower of London
St John’s Chapel in the White Tower at the heart of the Tower of London, built by Gundalf the architect-Bishop of Rochester, was William the Conqueror’s oratory. It was here, in medieval times, that the Knights of the Bath — having had the ablutions that give them their name — watched over their arms and armour the night before being dubbed by the monarch.
The principal chapel in the Tower of London is dedicated in honour of St Peter ad Vincula, and celebrated its 500th anniversary in 2020. (It is the burial place of, among others, Anne Boleyn.)
Hampton Court Chapel was sumptuously refurbished in preparation for the baptism of Henry VIII’s son and heir, later Edward VI, in October 1537. In 2016, Roman Catholic vespers was sung in the chapel for the first time in more than 450 years.
The Tudor Chapel Royal (one of two) in St James’s Palace was decorated by Hans Holbein on the instructions of Thomas Cromwell in honour of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne of Cleves. The Queen’s Chapel in the same palace has had a variety of uses: built for Henrietta Maria, the Roman Catholic queen of Charles I, it has also served as a Lutheran chapel.
The Savoy Chapel, relic of John of Gaunt’s great palace on the Thames, and home of the Royal Victorian Order, has recently been brought under the umbrella of the Chapels Royal, although in this case the Ordinary is the Queen as Duke of Lancaster.
The Temple Church — originally intended by Henry III as his resting place (he was eventually buried in Westminster Abbey) — although not technically a Chapel Royal has enjoyed a long association with the Crown, including the privilege of scarlet cassocks. Its “Round Church” is modelled on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
AlamyChoir stalls in St George’s Chapel, Windsor
There are, in addition, Royal Peculiars, which are outside the jurisdiction of diocesan bishops and in which the monarch is the Ordinary. The most celebrated of these are Westminster Abbey — scene of almost every coronation since William the Conqueror — and St George’s Chapel, Windsor. (There are also the Royal Chapel of All Saints in Windsor Great Park, and a domestic chapel in the castle, rebuilt after the fire in 1992.) In each case, the Dean, supported by a chapter, is directly responsible to the Sovereign.
AS BEFITS its original peripatetic character, the Chapel Royal is not so much a building as a corporation, under the watchful eye of the Lord Chamberlain. Many of the great names of English music have been associated with it, including Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, and Henry Purcell.
Its choristers — known as the Children of the Chapel Royal — still wear the distinctive 17th-century breeches and short coats introduced at the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. They are seen regularly at the Cenotaph when the Chapel Royal attends the monarch on Remembrance Sunday.
Because of Elizabeth I’s personal taste, music of some sophistication continued to be composed for the Chapel Royal, even when parochial music was little more than metrical psalms.
The plainer tastes of William III saw the flight of the best ecclesiastical music (e.g. Handel’s oratorios) to the stage; but, during the period in English history when the place of any music in worship was under threat, the Chapel Royal played a vital part in ensuring the survival of the musical tradition in worship, and thereby helped to shape the modern identity of the Church of England.
With the exception of the domestic chapels in Buckingham and Kensington Palaces and Windsor Castle, the Chapels Royal are open for regular public worship.
The Rt Revd Lord Chartres GCVO was Dean of HM Chapels Royal 1995-2019.