[Paper:] Elizabeth Biggs, James Hillson (Cambridge, UK): A Palace Chapel as State-Room at Westminster, 1348-1450

Saint Stephens Chapel

In 1348 St Stephen’s Chapel was completed.  Sited in the centre of the Palace of Westminster, the blank walls of the new building presented Edward III with an opportunity to create a new iconography of kingship.

Between 1348 and 1363 the king and his craftsmen transformed the chapel’s surface into one of the most elaborate royal decorative programmes of the fourteenth century, including painted masonry, Old Testament narratives, sculptures, heraldic displays and carved wooden furnishings.  The resulting space was a major addition to available settings for ceremonial and liturgical activities within the royal palace, and its decoration was used to articulate a new relationship between the king’s personal identity and his public image.  Heraldry, portraiture and the depiction of carefully chosen Saints were used to present an idiosyncratic image of kingship, which Edward III consciously projected onto his descendants, forever changing the way in which the English monarchy was presented visually.

For the kings who inherited this building, the decorative programme was a constant presence overshadowing their activities within the palace, one which was continuously adapted to the symbolic demands of the present.  The chapel’s decoration remained remarkably static. There were no known efforts to redecorate even when Richard II (r. 1377-99) refurbished the wider palace and hall to better reflect his own sense of kingship and display his own heraldic programme there.  Instead the kings who inherited St Stephen’s made use of Edward’s dynastic concerns and imagery to establish their legitimacy as his successors, whether in their presence at the liturgy or their choice of St Stephen’s as a venue for court occasions. Richard II (r. 1377-1399) and Henry V (r. 1413-1422) are recorded at lavish political masses where their legitimacy and its basis in their dynastic inheritance were on display before the members of their court. Both used the chapel to bolster their inherited kingship and magnificence in difficult circumstances by consciously associating themselves with Edward III’s successful reign through his earlier decorative programme. In addition, Henry VI (r. 1422-61, 1470) used St Stephen’s as a secular venue for meetings of the council and for a treason trial in 1441. It was a flexible space where kingship, administration, and the church intersected, one which the chronicler Jean Froissart called ‘the most noble, most rich and most beautiful’ of the king’s chapels.

Beginning by outlining the programme that was established under Edward III, this paper will analyse how that inherited programme attracted new meanings in the reigns of subsequent monarchs.  Focusing on specific case studies under Richard II, Henry V and Henry VI, it will aim to demonstrate not only the continuing influence of an inherited programme of decoration over the English monarchy’s public image, but also how the same space was reappropriated to serve the changing political demands of each king’s reign.

Biographical notice

Elizabeth Biggs completed her doctorate on The College and Canons of St Stephen’s, Westminster, 1348 to 1548 at the University of York in 2016. It examined the institutional history and connections of St Stephen’s Chapel from its foundation as a secular college through to its dissolution in the Reformation. She is particularly interested in the interactions between individuals, institutions and political events, as well as the usages of the Palace of Westminster. Her current work focusses on the individuals who worked at St Stephen’s and their political, intellectual and ecclesiastical connections.

Dr James Hillson is a Research Fellow at Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge, based in the History of the Art Department.  In 2015 he completed his PhD thesis entitled St Stephen’s Chapel Westminster: Architecture, Decoration and Politics in the Reigns of Henry III and the Three Edwards (1227-1363), focused on interactions between architecture and politics in English royal patronage.  He is currently converting his thesis into a monograph, and has recently embarked on a new research project investigating the processes behind international stylistic transmission in Northwestern Europe, 1200-1400.


This paper will be presented at the international conference:

State-Rooms of Royal and Princely Palaces in Europe (14th-16th c.): Spaces, Images, Rituals – Lisbon/Sintra, 15-17 March 2017 (link)

which aims to put the Sala dos brasões in Sintra in its European context as a royal/princely state-room. It is a follow up to the “Heraldry in Medieval and Early modern State-rooms” held in March 2016 in Münster, which, for its part, focused on the heraldic décor of medieval and early modern state-rooms as such.

Cite this blog post
Torsten Hiltmann (2017, March 6). [Paper:] Elizabeth Biggs, James Hillson (Cambridge, UK): A Palace Chapel as State-Room at Westminster, 1348-1450. Heraldica Nova. Retrieved February 23, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/pi08

Torsten Hiltmann

Torsten Hiltmann is Juniorprofessor for the High and Late Middle Ages and Auxiliary Sciences at the University of Münster. He is interested in medieval and early modern visual communication and heraldry, the medieval notion of kingship and the methods and technologies of Digital Humanities.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search