The Commons Chamber in the 17th and 18th centuries

St Stephen's Chapel around 1755

The Chapel of St Stephen's was home to the Commons Chamber for over 300 years.

As such it was the setting for many of the great political events of early modern England:

St Stephen's Chapel around 1755

  • Great parliamentarians such as Robert Walpole, William Pitt and Charles James Fox all debated here
  • The religious issues which culminated in the Articles of the Reformation were fought out in the Chapel
  • William Wilberforce pleaded here for the abolition of the slave trade
  • The bills which led to the Great Reform Act were debated here
  • It was in the Chapel that Charles I attempted to arrest five Members and confronted its Speaker, William Lenthall in the lead up to the Civil War
  • In 1812, Spencer Perceval was shot dead by John Bellingham in the lobby in front of the Chapel, the only British Prime Minster to have been assassinated

The medieval character of the Chapel, nevertheless, began to fade as the building was increasingly converted for the use of the Commons.

Paintings whitewashed

During the years following the Reformation, the beautiful wall paintings were whitewashed and panelled over, and tapestries hung over them.

The stained glass was substituted with plain, and the royal arms replaced biblical stories behind the Speaker's Chair.

Somehow, the MPs also settled on the idea of using green for their Chamber, replacing their benches with green serge. And the Speaker's chair had touches of green and gold about it.

Restoration of the Chapel

In 1692, the House of Commons concluded that the Chapel was in desperate need of restoration. Sir Christopher Wren redesigned the structure as a classical building, with wall panels and internal galleries to each side.

The vaulted roof was also hidden by a lower wooden one, presumably to improve its acoustics.

Widening the galleries

When the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707 resulted in the addition of 45 new MPs, Wren tried to squeeze in the new members by widening the galleries he had put in a few years before.

By the 19th century, the Chapel's interior had a very different look in contrast to its former medieval magnificence.

Beyond the 18th century

The Commons stayed in the Chapel until the Great Fire of 1834 destroyed it. While the Palace was being rebuilt it then temporarily sat in the repaired Lesser Hall until moving into its custom built Chamber in 1852.

Biographies

You can access biographies of

Robert Walpole
William Pitt
Charles James Fox
William Wilberforce
Charles I
William Lenthall
Spencer Perceval

from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for free, online, using your local library card number (includes nine out of ten public libraries in the UK) or from within academic library and other subscribing networks.