Continuing our theme of alternative functions once served by the palace of Westminster, Dr Andrew Thrush of the Lords 1604-29 section considers activities at the southern end of the complex in the early seventeenth century…
During the early modern period parliaments were neither regular nor particularly frequent but sat at the whim of the monarch. Consequently, for most of the time the old palace of Westminster, in which Parliament met, stood idle. Or did it? In a recent blog post Dr Paul Hunneyball observed that much of the northern half of the palace was occupied by the central law courts and parts of the royal administration. But what of the southern-most half, which accommodated the House of Lords?
Before the 1620s, the Lords’ chamber did indeed usually stand idle when Parliament was not sitting. That is because there were only two recurring occasions when the buildings employed by the Lords were used when Parliament was not sitting. The first was a royal coronation. On the morning of the coronation the monarch travelled by barge from Whitehall to Westminster to the room situated just south of the Lords’ main chamber. There he or she changed into his or her coronation robes before processing through Westminster Hall en route to Westminster Abbey. The second occasion on which the Lords’ chamber was commonly used during the early seventeenth century was the creation of knights of the Bath. On the evening before their investiture the prospective knights normally dined together in the Painted Chamber, which building the Lords employed for meetings with representatives from the Commons. Once replete, they retired to the Lords’ Chamber, where they bathed in specially erected tubs and slept overnight.
Neither coronations nor creations of knights of the Bath were common occurrences, of course. New knights of the Bath were only ever created on royal ceremonial occasions, such as the coronation and the investiture of the Prince of Wales. Under James I there were only four sets of creations: in 1603, 1605, 1610 and 1616. (Under Elizabeth I there was only one, in 1559, and on that occasion it was actually the Tower of London rather than the Lords’ Chamber that was pressed into service.) Before 1620 the only time outside of a Parliament when part of the upper House was employed for a purpose other than the coronation or the creation of knights of the Bath, was in October 1604, when the Painted Chamber served as the meeting room for the commissioners appointed by the parliaments of England and Scotland to agree the basis for a formal union between the two kingdoms.
This picture, of a House of Lords rarely used when Parliament was not sitting, began to change in January 1621. The previous month had seen the arrival in England of an ambassador extraordinary from France, Marshal de Cadenet. It was customary, on receiving such an important dignitary, for the king to throw a lavish feast at Whitehall for his guest and his entourage. However, the Banqueting House at Whitehall had been destroyed by fire in 1619, and its replacement, built by Inigo Jones, had still not been completed when the third Jacobean Parliament assembled in February 1621. In the absence of the customary venue for the feast, James I was forced to press into service the House of Lords as a makeshift banqueting house for de Cadenet and his exceptionally large entourage, which, according to one account, numbered around 800 (but was probably nearer 250).
The experiment was not entirely successful. According to the assistant master of ceremonies, Sir John Finet, de Cadenet’s entourage was so numerous that ‘no officer was able freely to discharge his service until the king sat down to meat’. Nevertheless, word that de Cadenet had been accorded the honour of being feasted at Westminster rather than Whitehall quickly spread. When an ambassador extraordinary from the Holy Roman Emperor arrived in England in April 1622, he too was accorded the same treatment, even though the Banqueting House at Whitehall had by now been completed. Normal service was only resumed at the feast held to mark his departure.
Although the practice of employing the House of Lords for ambassadorial feasts proved to be of short duration, a longer lasting use for the Lords out of Parliament time was found in 1623, following the revival of the Court of Chivalry. In the absence of any other suitable meeting place, the new earl marshal, Thomas Howard, earl of Arundel, acquired the use of the Painted Chamber. The court continued to use this room right up until its abolition in 1641, though in 1627 and 1628, for reasons that remain unclear, it was also obliged to share it with the commissioners for improving the king’s revenues.
As the meeting place of the Court of Chivalry, the Painted Chamber was not entirely suitable due to its narrowness and great length. It was therefore provided with temporary wooden partitions, which then had to be taken down before Parliament met. Nevertheless, by 1640 the court was sitting so regularly in the Painted Chamber that a Parliament necessarily served as an unwelcome interruption to its business. Indeed, when the Short Parliament met that spring, the court was obliged to decamp to Arundel House, the earl marshal’s house on the Strand, rather than cease sitting.
In the early seventeenth century, then, the southern end of the old Palace of Westminster, which provided the meeting place for the House of Lords, was given a new lease of life. Before the 1620s the rooms employed by the Lords were seldom used except by Parliament. But thereafter they began to be pressed into service more regularly, first as a makeshift banqueting hall and then as a venue for the newly-created Court of Chivalry, demonstrating that the old Palace of Westminster was nothing if not versatile.
- C. and J. Riding (eds.), The Houses of Parliament: History, Art, Architecture (2000)
- T. Rose, The Coronation Ceremony of the Kings and Queens of England (1992)
- J. Perkins, The Most Honourable Order of the Bath (2nd edn., 1920)
- G.D. Squibb, The High Court of Chivalry (1959)
- The Court of Chivalry 1634-1640 ed. R. Cust and A. Hopper [electronic resource: https://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/court-of-chivalry/intro-court%5D
A biography of Thomas Howard, earl of Arundel will appear in the forthcoming volumes on the House of Lords 1604-1629.