Palaces aside, the Queen also owns a series of chapels – the Chapels Royal – in London which, although not as grand as Westminster Abbey, have each played an important role in the history of the monarchy. 

The term Chapel Royal originally referred to a group of priests and singers dedicated to serving the Sovereign’s personal spiritual needs and as such would follow the monarch around the country. It was in Stuart times that they became more settled establishments with the two main Chapels Royal – the Chapel Royal and the Queen’s Chapel – located in St James’s Palace.

• The Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace. Constructed by King Henry VIII, the chapel was decorated by Hans Holbein the Younger in honor of the king’s (short) marriage to Anne of Cleves. Queen Mary I’s heart is said to be buried beneath the choir stalls and it was here that Queen Elizabeth I apparently prayed waiting for news of the progress of the Spanish Armada. King Charles I took the Sacrament of Holy Communion here before his execution in 1649 and the chapel was where Queen Victoria married Prince Albert (her marriage certificate still hangs on the wall). In more recent times, the coffin of Diana, Princess of Wales, was placed before the altar so family and friends could pay their respects before her 1997 funeral. Among the composers and organists associated with the chapel are Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Henry Purcell and George Frideric Handel. The chapel is not open to the public except for services.

• The Queen’s Chapel, St James’ Palace (pictured right). Now located outside the palace walls, this chapel was built by King James I for the Catholic Henrietta Maria, the bride of his son, then Prince Charles (later King Charles I). Designed by Inigo Jones, Grinling Gibbons and Sir Christopher Wren were also involved in its creation. The chapel was used by Henrietta Maria until the Civil War and later became the home of the Danish Church in London. The chapel is not open to the public except for services.For more on this chapel or the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace, follow this link.

• The Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy. Built in the Middle Ages to serve the now long gone Savoy Palace, London home of Count Peter of Savoy (uncle to King Henry III’s wife, Eleanor of Provence, the original building was destroyed in the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. The current building, located in Savoy Hill, off the Strand, was built on the orders of King Henry VII in the late 15th and early 16th century to serve the hospital he founded on the site of the palace. The chapel since served many other congregations – including a German Lutheran congregation – but remains royal property via the Duchy of Lancaster, which is held in trust for the Sovereign and used to provide an income for the British monarch. It is officially the Chapel of the Royal Victorian Order. For more, see www.duchyoflancaster.co.uk/duties-of-the-duchy/the-queens-chapel-of-the-savoy/.

• Chapel Royal, Hampton Court Palace (pictured right). There has been a chapel here since the Knights Hospitallers occupied the site in the 13th century but it was Cardinal Wolsey who built the chapel to its present dimensions after acquiring the property in 1518. The current building, however, dates from the later ownership of King Henry VIII – Wolsey surrendered the property to him when he fell from favour – and further works in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many subsequent monarchs have worshipped here. The chapel, with its stunning ceiling, is open to the public when visiting Hampton Court Palace. For more, see www.chapelroyal.org. PICTURE: Historic Royal Palaces/newsteam.co.uk

• The Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula, Tower of London. Originally a parish church, this was incorporated into the walls of the Tower in the reign of King Henry III. It was subsequently rebuilt at least twice – in the reign of King Edward I and King Henry VIII – and is home to the graves of important personages executed at the Tower including Henry VIII’s one-time wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard as well as Jane Grey, the nine day queen, and Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher. The chapel can be accessed during a Yeoman Warder’s tour of the Tower of London. For more, including details of an appeal for its restoration, see www.hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon/stories/thechapelproject.

• Chapel Royal of St John the Evangelist, Tower of London. Located within the White Tower, this beautiful chapel – arguably the oldest church in London – dates back to the construction of the tower by King William the Conqueror the late 11th century and remains one of the best preserved examples of Anglo-Norman architecture in England. King Henry III added stained glass windows but for much of its later history the chapel was used for records storage. Tradition records that King Henry VII’s wife, Elizabeth of York, was laid in state here following her death in childbirth and that it was here Queen Mary was betrothed by proxy to Philip of Spain. This can be visited as part of a visit to the Tower of London. For more, see www.hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon/Sightsandstories/Prisoners/Towers/ChapelofStJohns

For more on churches in London, check out Stephen Millar’s London’s City Churches
and Stephen Humphrey’s London’s Churches and Cathedrals: A Guide to London’s Most Historic Churches and Cathedrals, Leigh Hatt’s London’s 100 Best Churches: An Illustrated Guide or the Pevsner Architectural Guide London: City Churches.

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And so we come to the last entry in our special series on Lost London looking at some of London’s gates – this time the only gate located on the south side of the Thames.

Located at the south end of London Bridge, this gate guarded the bridge entry in medieval times. When the first gate was built here remains something of a mystery but it is known that the first stone bridge, built in the late 1100s under the direction of priest Peter de Colechurch (it opened in 1209), certainly included a gatehouse known as the Stone Gateway (referred to by some as Bridge Gate) at the southern end.

The practice of parboiling the heads of traitors and the dipping them in tar before putting them on pikes above the gate apparently dates from 1305 when Scottish rebel William Wallace’s head was displayed there. The practice apparently continued until 1678 when goldsmith William Stayley’s head was the last to be displayed there.

As we mentioned in our earlier post on London Bridge, famous heads to adorn the gateway over the years included Peasant’s Revolt leader Wat Tyler in 1381, rebel Jack Cade in 1450, the former chancellor Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher in 1535, Thomas Cromwell in 1540 and Guy Fawkes in 1606.

Pictured above is an enlarged detail of a 1616 print showing London Bridge by Claes Van Visscher – the heads are clearly visible on top. One German visitor famously counted 30 heads on top when he visited in 1598.

The gate (and it should be mentioned there was also another gate on the bridge with a drawbridge which was replaced by Nonsuch House in 1577) was presumably removed sometime after 1756 when an Act of Parliament authorised the removal of shops and houses on the bridge.

Of course, there are many other gates in London – some of them smaller gates in the city walls – which have been lost to time. We’ll be looking at some more of these in future posts…

PICTURE: Wikipedia

Lost London – London Bridge

December 14, 2010

In the first of a new regular series looking at “lost” London, Exploring London takes a look at London Bridge.

It’s a commonly confused fact that many first-time visitors to London think Tower Bridge and London Bridge are the same. As Londoners know, London Bridge (pictured right with St Paul’s and the city in the background) lies west of Tower Bridge. It’s not a particularly inspiring bridge having been built in the early Seventies. But there’s been a bridge spanning the Thames here for almost 2,000 years. So what happened to Old London Bridge?

The first bridge built across the River Thames on or close to the current site of London Bridge is thought to have been a wooden pontoon bridge constructed by the Romans around 50 AD. It was quickly followed by a more permanent bridge (rebuilt after it was destroyed by Boudicca and her marauding army in 60 AD).

Following the end of the Roman era, the bridge fell into disrepair although it’s known that there was a wooden Saxon bridge on the site by around the year 1,000. A succession of Norman bridges followed the Conquest and in 1176, during the reign of Henry II, construction of a new stone bridge began under the supervision of the priest Peter de Colechurch to service to growing numbers of pilgrims travelling from London to Thomas a Becket’s shrine in Canterbury. The new bridge, which had a chapel dedicated to St Thomas at the centre, wasn’t finished until 1209.

The bridge had 19 arches sitting on piers surrounding by protective wooden ‘starlings’ and a drawbridge and defensive gatehouse. The design of the bridge meant the water shot rapidly through the arches, leading boatmen to describe the practice of taking a vessel between the starlings as “shooting the bridge”.

King John, in whose reign the bridge was completed, licensed the building of houses on the bridge and it soon became a place of business with some 200 shops built upon its length, many of them projecting over the sides and reducing the space for traffic to just four metres. Many of the buildings actually connected at the top, creating a tunnel-like effect.

One of the more remarkable buildings on the bridge was Nonsuch House, built in 1577. A prefabricated building, it had been assembled in the Netherlands before being taken apart, shipped to London, and then reassembled. No nails were used in its construction, just timber pegs.

The practice of putting the heads of traitors on pikes above the southern gatehouse (see picture right, dating from 1660) started in 1305 with Scottish rebel William Wallace’s head and continued until it was stopped after 1678 when goldsmith William Stayley’s head was the last to be displayed there. Famous heads to adorn the gateway over the years included Peasant’s Revolt leader Wat Tyler in 1381, rebel Jack Cade in 1450, the former chancellor Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher in 1535, Thomas Cromwell in 1540 and Guy Fawkes in 1606.

Some of the bridge’s arches collapsed over the years and had to be restored and there were several fires which destroyed houses upon it, including those which occurred during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 and Jack Cade’s rebellion in 1450.

Congestion reached such a state by the 18th century that in 1756 Parliament passed an act which allowed for the demolition of all the shops and houses upon it (it had remained the only bridge spanning the Thames east of Kingston until Westminster Bridge was completed in 1750). This was carried out in 1758-62 along with the removal of two central arches which were replaced with a single wider span.

With traffic only increasing – by 1896, 8,000 people and 900 vehicles were reportedly crossing the bridge every hour – it was clear a new bridge was needed and work on a new stone bridge with five arches – following a design competition won by John Rennie – began in 1824. The old bridge, located about 30 metres east of the new one, remained in use until the new one was opened in 1831. Widening work carried out the early 20th century, however, was too much for the bridge’s foundations and it began to sink.

What followed was one of the strangest episodes in the bridge’s history when in 1967 the Common Council of the City of London decided to sell the bridge. It was sold the following year to Missourian entrepreneur Robert P. McCulloch of McCulloch Oil for $US2.5 million.

Carefully taken apart piece by piece, the bridge was then transported to the desert resort of Lake Havasu City in Arizona in the US and rededicated in 1971.

The current London bridge, designed by Mott, Hay and Anderson, was built from 1967 to 1972 and opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1973. It stands on the same site as the previous bridge.

As for the song, “London Bridge is falling down”? There’s several stories to explain its origins – one being that it came about as the result of an attack by a joint force of Saxons and Vikings on Danish held London in 1014 during which they pulled the bridge down, and another being that it became popular after Henry III’s wife, Queen Eleanor, was granted the tolls from the bridge by her husband but instead of spending them on maintenance, used it for her own personal use. Hence, “London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady”.

PICTURES: Top: © Steven Allan (istockphoto.com); Bottom – London Bridge (1616) by Claes Van Visscher. SOURCE: Wikipedia.