Parliaments, Politics & People seminar: Miles Taylor, ‘Ritualism from below: St Stephen’s crypt, Westminster and its uses, c.1865-1955’

Our ‘Parliaments, politics and people’ seminar returned last week for a new academic year! Here’s our first report of the term…

Professor Miles Taylor spoke about his work with the ‘Virtual St Stephens’ project, which explores the history of St Stephens Hall, Westminster. The subject of Professor Taylor’s paper was the crypt, now known as St Mary Undercroft, and its transformation after the fire of 1834.

Chapel of St Mary's undercroft, (parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament)

Chapel of St Mary undercroft © Parliament (parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament)

After the decision had been made to transform the old debating chamber of the Commons – St Stephen’s Chapel – into a public hall, Professor Taylor described how Charles Barry, Parliament’s architect, wanted to recreate something of the old chapel in the crypts below. His plans were to build a private chapel for, in his words, the ‘inmates’ of the Palace of Westminster, the families and servants of people who lived on the estate themselves. As time went on and the rebuilding of the Commons took longer than expected, the responsibility for the decoration fell to Barry’s son, Edward. The younger Barry, a noted church architect heavily involved in the Victorian gothic revival, created the lavish chapel we have to day. His work was revealed when the chapel opened in the 1860s.

Unfortunately for the younger Barry, and for his father’s plans, Taylor argued, the chapel opened at exactly the wrong time. Anti-Catholicism was high on the agenda in Parliament in response to the Fenian movement and the growing reaction to the Anglo-Catholic movement in the Church of England. Both men were criticised for the decision to gut the space, accused of ‘spoiling’ the primitive English undercroft. For Barry junior, the backlash was costly: Acton Smee Ayrton, the First Commission of Works, was one of the chief critics, and Taylor argued that Ayrton’s influence led to Barry losing the prestigious Royal Courts of Justice commission.

The backlash also ensured that Barry Senior’s vision of the space as a working chapel for those who lived on the parliamentary estate was never realised; the proposal for a daily service was brushed under the carpet by Gladstone. The chapel itself was rarely used and was even closed between 1885 and 1896 after a Fenian bomb was discovered on its steps. Thereafter it was occasionally used for christenings, and even one wedding, but remained largely neglected until the 1920s.

Controversy surrounding the chapel re-emerged in the 1920s, after Ian Macpherson, an MP with strong links to the Church of Scotland, asked to christen his son in the chapel according to the rites of the Kirk. In Professor Taylor’s words he was ‘spoiling for a fight’ over the issue, which was deftly managed by the then Lord Great Chamberlain, Charles Carrington. The argument revolved around whether the chapel was consecrated; if it was, a Church of Scotland service could not take place there; if it was not, it was simply a lavishly-decorated room under the jurisdiction of the crown as a Royal Peculiar and a non-Anglican religious service could be permitted. This debate revolved around the question of whether St Stephen’s Chapel had remained consecrated after it had been given as a meeting place to the Commons during the reign of Edward VI.

Ultimately, Carrington allowed the christening to take place under the rites of the Church of Scotland, essentially confirming that the undercroft was not consecrated , and thus part of the royal estate. This was later confirmed by legal opinion. From this point onwards, Taylor argued, the crypt was used as a place of prayer for those of all faiths, underlining the separation between church and state within Parliament. Despite not being included in many historical analyses of debates between church and the state in the 1920s, many political lines were drawn over the building, and discussion about the issue foreshadowed the prayer book controversy later in the decade.

Despite damage during the Second World War the crypt became a place of prayer and peace for many, including a group of Anglo-Catholic MPs. It was restored in the 1950s as a piece of Victorian gothic, losing forever the suggestion that it was a ‘restored’ medieval chapel. It has now become a more treasured part of the Palace of Westminster, used by MPs for christenings, weddings and as a place of reflection.


Next week ‘Parliaments, politics and people’ will return with the British Library’s Alexander Lock speaking on ‘Sir Thomas Gascoigne (1745-1810), national politics and the York county election of 1784’. Following the seminar Dr Lock will introduce his new book, ‘Catholicism, Identity and Politics in the Age of Enlightenment: The Life and Career of Sir Thomas Gascoigne, 1745-1810’.

Full details available here.

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