Elizabeth Bigg’s new book is the full-length account of St Stephen’s College, the royally-favoured religious institution at the heart of the busy administrative world of the Palace of Westminster and which could soon be at the centre of a major restoration programme.
Westminster on my Mind
A few weeks ago, Andrea Leadsom MP, the former Leader of the House of Commons, returned to political commentary when she wrote an opinion piece for The Times on the urgency of the need to restore the crumbling Houses of Parliament- a cause she became convinced of while serving as leader. In December, the current leader, Jacob Rees-Mogg MP’s official twitter feed posted pictures of test stonework being renewed in Cloister Court, one of the few medieval survivals within the Houses of Parliament. The Parliamentary programme known as “Restoration and Renewal” may very well be back on the political agenda.
Restoration and Renewal will be (if both the Commons and the Lords reaffirm their commitment to the programme) the first time since the 1850s that Parliament’s buildings have been fully refurbished. Obviously, there’s been a great deal done to the site since then, not least in adding internet and phone cables! But that’s all been done without fully going over the entire complex. Everyone will move out into other buildings in Westminster and the builders will move in for a decade or so. It’s a hugely exciting programme for a historian to be aware of, because when there’s going to be building work on that scale, one of the things that will happen is that there will be archaeology, and there will be a chance to try to understand a World Heritage site better than we have ever done before. I’m hoping it will reveal more about the people who lived and worked in the palace over the centuries. Chartist graffiti has already been found in a lost seventeenth-century doorway from Westminster Hall.
Faced with the famous nineteenth-century buildings used by Parliament that appear on the TV, it is hard to remember that the palace is just under a thousand years old. Lots of buildings were put up, torn down, burned down or otherwise used and destroyed on the site. There are several medieval gems to be found hiding within still. Westminster Hall and its roof are justly famous. I always have to stop and stare whenever I’m in there. It’s a space filled with the ghosts of history – it tends to feel cavernous and chilly, but beautiful. It’s sometimes hard to remember that it was once usually packed with people there for their day in front of the law-courts; it was where people came to shop and hear the news; and it was where sensational trials were held. If you take the right door out of Westminster Hall, you come to a world that feels completely removed from the bustle of politics. It is the lower level of Cloister Court, where you will find elaborate sixteenth-century fan vaulting alongside the bright green carpeting ubiquitous on the Commons’ side of the building. One major interest of my research has been working out how this under-documented building came to be what it is today, and what it tells us about medieval political and religious life.
The cloisters are almost the last remnant of St Stephen’s College, which once occupied the Thames waterfront of the palace. St Stephen’s was lots of things, but mostly it was extremely lucky until its luck ran out in 1548. Every English king worshipped in its chapel from 1348 to 1548 and they tended to give land and money in return. Henry VIII was no exception, and his heraldry is all over the cloisters – as is the pomegranate badge of Catherine of Aragon. Pride of place, however, goes to the coat of arms of Thomas Wolsey, who ran St Stephen’s for two years – at the same time that he was building up his power as the king’s chief minister running the entirely of royal administration in the palace. What a statement of power by the cardinal to add his own heraldry to the king’s palace! Westminster has been a public place for most if not all of its history. Restoration and Renewal will add to our knowledge about the long history of public usage of the site and hopefully make more of the oldest parts of the palace accessible to visitors for the first time.
This guest post was written by Dr Elizabeth Biggs. Dr Biggs started work on St Stephen’s College as part of the large research project “St Stephen’s Chapel: Visual and Political Culture, 1292-1941” at the University of York. She has taught at York and the University of the West of England.