Parliaments, Politics and People seminar – St Stephen’s Cloisters: Politics, Patronage and Space

Ahead of our final Parliaments, Politics and People seminar of the term this evening at the IHR, here’s the blog from our previous session from Elizabeth Biggs of the University of York and Liz Hallam Smith of the University of York and the Houses of Parliament. Their paper discussed the changing identity and uses of St Stephen’s Cloisters…

Space within the Houses of Parliament has often been contested, appropriated and adapted, sometimes with very unlikely consequences. Today, as debate goes on over the plans for modernisation and refurbishment of the Victorian Palace of Westminster, this blog takes a look at a surviving fragment of its pre-1834 predecessor, an area that has been turned to a variety of uses thanks to its location right next to both the old and the new House of Commons.  This is the sixteenth-century cloister besides Westminster Hall, strengthened and restored by Charles Barry in 1851-52 and, following bomb damage, partly reconstructed by Giles Gilbert Scott between 1948 and 1952.

St Stephen’s cloister was built for the college of the same name, which occupied St Stephen’s Chapel just to the south of Westminster Hall. When exactly it was constructed is uncertain, because there are no building accounts for it. The Elizabethan antiquary John Stow says that it was built by John Chambre (dean of the college, 1514-1548) for the extraordinary sum of 11,000 marks, which could have built an entire monastery. The surviving buildings that look most like St Stephen’s, however, were completed under the supervision of Thomas Wolsey, Henry VIII’s most powerful minister, such as the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey, and the nave of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. In addition, Wolsey’s own college project at what is now Christ Church, Oxford would have had a cloister that looked extremely similar to St Stephen’s. Wolsey’s arms are in the bosses of the cloister, which suggests that he had a role in starting the cloister when he was dean of St Stephen’s from 1512-1514. The multiple copies of the royal coat of arms in the bosses may also suggest that Henry VIII funded part of the work to create an impressive ceremonial space for himself.

The palace of Westminster that Wolsey and Chambre knew was in the course of a major shift in usage, which would come to affect the cloisters. Henry VIII clearly used Westminster as a place for set-piece ceremonial, but he never lived there in the way that he did at Greenwich or Richmond, for example. Even before the fire of 1512/13, Henry spent very little time at the palace. After the fire, he continued to turn up for major events, such as tournaments and Parliaments. Otherwise the palace was left to the administrators and law-courts, as well as St Stephen’s College.

Henry’s children were to be even less interested in and aware of the palace of Westminster. On the dissolution of St Stephen’s College in 1548, Edward VI handed adjacent St Stephen’s Chapel over to the House of Commons by 1550, but treated the former college buildings as he would a monastic house.  He granted the cloister and the surrounding buildings successively to courtiers, Sir Ralph Fane and then Sir John Gates, both MPs.  Mary continued this trend, allocating the site to MP Sir Edward Hastings. These men were able to adapt the cloister into a comfortable house and make use of it when they wanted to be present at Parliament.

St Stephen's Cloister - Elizabeth Briggs.png
The north walk of the cloister today waiting for new uses – Elizabeth Biggs, June 2018.

Only on the death of Edward Hastings in 1572, did the cloister and its surrounding buildings come back into royal hands. Elizabeth’s ministers, acutely aware of the pressures on the palace site, did not grant the cloister site to another courtier.  Instead, it became housing and offices for Treasury of Receipt officials – and was soon a contested and highly desirable space.  In 1610 one occupant, Sir John Bingley, Auditor of the Receipt, seeking election as MP for Chester, stressed that his ‘near habitation and dwelling’ to the House of Commons would make him the ideal candidate.  Patronage and politics continued to shape how it was adapted and often abused over the next four centuries; yet it has always been valued sufficiently to ensure its survival to this day as a battered but spectacular remnant of the medieval palace.


Stay up to date with our  IHR seminar schedule here.

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