St Stephen's Chapel, Westminster

Visual & Political Culture, 1292-1941
Project dates: 
October 2013 - September 2016

This exciting ongoing project, using pioneering new ways of integrating academic research with the latest in digital reconstruction, has enabled us to make available for the first time a full account of St Stephen’s chapel. A key project goal was the creation of a 3D computer model detailing St Stephen's chapel as it was in early periods of its life, particularly its astonishingly elaborate 14th-century interior. Since the chapel was lost in the fire of 1834, we have undertaken extensive research using visual representations, such as antiquarian drawings and plans, as well as the few surviving physical fragments (such as the pieces of the internal frieze held by the British Museum) and contemporary documents, such as building accounts of materials used in the chapel's construction, to try and piece together what this royal jewel once looked like.

As the king's chapel in the Palace of Westminster, St Stephen's was rebuilt and furnished over seventy years by Edward I, Edward II and Edward III, to create a lavish setting for royal worship, rivalling any in Europe. Comparisons with the Saint Chapelle have been made, with this royal chapel almost certainly intended to outshine that of the French kings. Although detailed building accounts survive, they naturally do not describe the physical appearance of the chapel or the many objects, paintings, statues and glass which once filled it. Lacking actual descriptions has meant the extensive use of comparanda and academic judgement by the project leads, Dr John Cooper and Professor Tim Ayers as well as the Researcher Dr James Jago, which has fed into the reconstruction. The challenge of actualising details which may be easily elided in sketches or text has proved demanding and many new questions have emerged as a result, validating the use of this technique as a key research tool as well as an engagement output. The physical process of transition from elaborate royal chapel to first Commons chamber is still not fully understood, but the model allows these questions to be explore in virtual space and provides a place where new hypotheses can be tested and refined.

This lost monument to medieval kingship and setting for parliamentary government has been recreated as accurately as we are able at the present time, and this important building in the development of our nation's governance rediscovered: St Stephen’s helped to shape the political culture of the nation.