The Elizabethan House of Commons and St Stephen's Chapel Westminster

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This essay explores the significance of the Elizabethan house of commons meeting in a converted royal chapel within the Palace of Westminster. In 1548 the dissolved collegiate chapel of St Stephen at Westminster was given over to the exclusive use of the Commons, providing MPs with a dedicated meeting space for the first time. Although a great deal has been written about Elizabethan parliaments, little attention has been paid to the physical spaces within which MPs gathered, debated and legislated. Drawing on parliamentary diaries and exchequer records and informed by digital reconstructions of the Commons chamber modelled by the St Stephen’s Chapel project at the University of York, this essay argues for the enduring influence of the architecture and decoration of the medieval chapel on the procedure, culture, ritual, and self-awareness of the Elizabethan house of commons. Famously likened to a theatre by the MP and writer on parliamentary procedure, John Hooker, the Commons chamber is analysed as a space in which parliamentary speeches were performed and disrupted. The sound of debate is contrasted with other kinds of noise including scoffing and laughter, disruptive coughing, and prayers led by the clerk and the Speaker of the Commons. The iconography of the chamber, including the royal arms above the Speaker’s chair and the mace carried by the serjeant-at-arms, is interpreted as enabling a culture of counsel and debate as much as an assertion of monarchical power. Evidence is also presented for the Commons chamber as a site of political memory.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)34-59
JournalParliamentary History
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 13 Mar 2019

Bibliographical note

© The Parliamentary History Yearbook Trust 2019. This is an author-produced version of the published paper. Uploaded in accordance with the publisher’s self-archiving policy. Further copying may not be permitted; contact the publisher for details.


  • Debate
  • House of commons
  • Memory
  • Palace of Westminster
  • Prayer
  • Royal arms
  • Serjeant-at-arms
  • Speaker of the Commons
  • St Stephen’s Chapel
  • Voting

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