The medieval St Stephen’s Chapel was a two storey structure, with three chapels on two levels. The two principal chapels were St Stephen’s itself on the first floor, and the lower chapel of St Mary Undercroft on the ground floor. The small side chapel of St Mary le Pew housed a cult image of the Virgin Mary and was a place of pilgrimage.
The entire site was built in a series of building campaigns from 1292 to 1363, under three English kings, all named Edward. Despite our assumptions about medieval women, they also were involved in both the construction work and then in maintaining the chapel for the rest of the Middle Ages.
The building accounts for St Stephen’s, surviving today in The National Archives, name thousands of people who worked on the chapel and college between 1292 and 1363. The building site numbered as many as 230 people in the first week of August 1293 at the height of works. Some are identified by place of origin, such as John of St Omer, and others by evocative nicknames, such as Robert le Hackre.
While it was being built, the king and his court used a temporary chapel called St Stephen’s by the Receipt, which was probably near the northern end of Westminster Hall.
No expense was spared while construction was underway, particularly when it came to details and finishing touches. Purbeck marble from Dorset was bought in staggering amounts for columns and the floor of the upper chapel and then polished until it shone. Every imaginable surface was gilded or painted. Walking into St Stephen’s in the Middle Ages, visitors would have been overwhelmed by its opulence.
Find out more about the Cloisters of St Stephen's Chapel.
Last updated April 2017