The Elizabethan Parliaments
As the home of the House of Commons from the mid-sixteenth century, St Stephen's became the venue for political debate and discussion at a time when Parliament was growing in power and influence. Battles over the constitution and access to power, the nature of the United Kingdom, the gathering of overseas colonies, and the legality of slavery, were played out within its walls.
It was at St Stephen's that MPs came gradually to assert their dominance within British government. The former chapel of St Stephen was never an ideal place for the Commons to meet, as it was too small and cramped right from the start, but many MPs came to be fond of it and were sorry to see it go in the fire of 1834.
The decision of Edward VI to give the chapel of St Stephen to the House of Commons was probably practical rather than planned. The chapel was standing empty following the dissolution of St Stephen's College; the Commons needed a new home at Westminster following the demolition of the refectory of Westminster Abbey.
MPs didn't record the change, so far as we know, nor have they left any account of what the chapel looked like when they first arrived. The effect that the chapel had on them, and on parliamentary life more broadly, has to be deduced from other kinds of evidence. We do know that MPs sat on opposing benches facing the Speaker's chair, rather than in the round as they had done in the chapter house at Westminster Abbey. Members wanting to vote in favour of a bill left the chamber and were counted as they filed back in: this was called a ‘division', a term still in use today.
Last updated April 2017