The Chapel of St Mary Undercroft

The Chapel of St Mary Undercroft around 1863

The Chapel of St Mary Undercroft was completed by King Edward I in 1297, further developed under Edward II, and finally completed by Edward III in around 1365. While St Stephen's Chapel was the chapel of the Royal Family, the Court and the Royal Household worshipped at St Mary Undercroft.

Houses of Parliament, St Stephen's Crypt - Watercolour by Edward M. Barry c.1863 (WOA 1601)

Purbeck marble

The Chapel contained five vaulted bays and clustered columns of polished Purbeck marble. Its ceiling was decorated with fanciful carvings of foliage, dragons, musical angels and the heads of men and beasts, and its floor was paved with tiles mixed with marble.

By the time of the fire of 1834, the Chapel had been used as a wine cellar and (so legend has it) as stabling for Oliver Cromwell's horses.

Speaker's dining room

Part of the Chapel had also been turned into a dining room for the Speaker of the Commons, and holes were bored into the wall to accommodate the kitchen chimneys.

Because of its underground location, the Crypt Chapel was one of the few structures in the Palace of Westminster to survive the great fire of 1834, although much of its stonework was harmed.

Heavily restored

The chapel was heavily restored between 1860 and 1870 by Charles Barry's (the architect of the current Palace of Westminster) son, Edward, who tried to reproduce the earlier medieval decoration and vaulting in a neo-Gothic style.

During the restoration works, the remains of William Lyndwoode, the Bishop of St David's (who died in 1464) were found embalmed in the chapel's north wall; he was reburied in the cloister of Westminster Abbey.

Royal Peculiar

The decision to reinstate the building as a chapel was much debated, but it was slowly brought into use as one. The Chapel is a Royal Peculiar, which means it does not come under the jurisdiction of a bishop but is under the monarch's control. The monarch exercises this via the Lord Great Chamberlain.

Black Rod, who is also the Secretary to the Lord Great Chamberlain, has responsibility for managing the use of the Chapel chiefly by Members of both Houses and their families for weddings and christenings.

 

Biographies

You can access biographies of

Edward I
Edward II
Edward III
Oliver Cromwell
Charles Barry

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.

Also within Living Heritage

Find out more about Oliver Cromwell in our segment on the Civil War
 

Related information

The Chapel of St Mary Undercroft can be viewed on a virtual tour

View photographs of the stunning interior of the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft on flickr