The Chapter House of Westmminster Abbey

Writing A New Chapter

25th June 2010

It may be one of the most famous buildings in England, but how many of us really know much about Westminster Abbey, other than that it has been the venue for countless coronations?
The newly restored Chapter House provokes Jack Watkins to take a closer look at a London attraction much taken for granted by its citizens...

Last month the scaffolding came down on a £3.1m project to repair and conserve the exterior of one of London’s oldest buildings. Described in its heyday as ‘beyond compare’, Westminster Abbey’s Chapter House, completed in 1255, was not only the daily meeting place of the monks, but also the venue for gatherings of King Henry III’s Great Council, and of the ‘Commons’ of knights and burgesses, in the evolutionary years of Parliament.

For 18 months, an English Heritage-led team of conservationists, master carvers and stonemasons had cleaned off the decades of grime caused by traffic and industrial pollution, and repaired badly weathered gargoyles, friezes, flying buttresses and stained glass windows. The finished job is a sparkling testament to the skills of the workers who keep alive traditional techniques. Yet while Simon Thurley, English Heritage’s chief executive, proudly described it at a special reception ceremonyas one of the organisation’s ‘most comprehensive programmes of conservation ever’, it doubtless passed over the heads of much of London’s public.

Partly this is because of the somewhat hidden situation of the Chapter House itself, tucked away behind a small stretch of green on the south side of the abbey and the Chapel of Henry VII. But there’s a sense too, that Westminster Abbey is a place we rather take for granted, leaving an appreciation of its finer merits to the hoards of tourists who queue daily to step inside. That the Abbey is an architectural jewel is undisputed, but it still a highly familiar one, as much of a ‘heritage’ cliché as that fading newsreel clip of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation here in 1953, with its crackling Zadok the Priest soundtrack. It’s a place of pomp and pageantry, and imperial bombast, whose spirit seems summed up by the overbearing sculpture of William Pitt the Elder, depicted in mid-oratory, and towering above you as you walk in the through the North Door.

I daresay foreign visitors find Poets Corner, in the south transept, a place of great interest. Paris’s Pantheon has a similarly tedious fascination for me. But as a native Briton, you might recoil at such overkill here. This is not a ‘modern’ reaction. As far back as the 19th century, Augustus Pugin and William Morris were expressing their dislike of the mounting accumulation of statuary. It’s why the Chapter House suddenly struck a chord for me, taking the mind back to the earlier years of the Abbey and the beauty of its architecture.

The Abbey we see today was very much the pet project of Henry III (reigned 1216-1272), who has not gone down in history as one of our great monarchs. While he has escaped the odium heaped upon his father John – the so called ‘worst king of England’ – he was a weak, indecisive ruler, and the famous Plantagenet rages that had made his grandfather Henry II so universally feared, in him merely seemed like petulance. But Henry was not only a very pious man, he was also a great a patron of the arts and a committed Francophile.

In the 13th century, France was the cultural powerhouse of Europe and the patronage by kingdom’s monarchs, allied to their military prowess, had given them a power and prestige that Henry could only gaze on with envy. But they were also great supporters of the church and cathedral building, and the Gothic splendours of St-Denis, the royal necropolis, and Reims, where they were crowned, were potent symbols of their spiritual prestige.

Henry was desperate to acquire some of that stardust for himself, and his rebuilding of Westminster Abbey was firmly modelled on state-of-the-art-French lines. As you walk into the building today, instead of focusing instantly on the endless lines of monuments, look upwards and see the nave rising to over 100 feet (the tallest of its type in the country) – and across to the beauty of the tracery in the transept windows. This was a serious bid to emulate the glories of French Gothic, and it pretty well succeeded.

Westminster has been the coronation church of every English monarch since William I in 1066, but it had a special resonance for Henry because the earlier abbey had been built by Edward the Confessor in the 11th century. Edward was a Saxon but, like Henry, favoured the French. He, too, had a reputation for piety, and had been quickly canonised after his death when a number of miracles were reported around his tomb in the abbey. Henry had a particular obsession with him and staged great banquets at Westminster Palace on his feastday.

The daring form of the Chapter House

So one of the parts of the Abbey where you can feel closest to its medieval heart is in the Chapel of Edward the Confessor, near the sanctuary. You reach it up stone steps and, owing to its fragile condition, it is viewable only by booking onto a verger’s tour, but I was fortunate enough to be granted a look by a kindly warden on a recent visit. Sadly, the Confessor’s shrine was dismantled during the Reformation, and only poorly reassembled during the reign of Mary I (1553-58), but you can see the niches where some folk still kneel to pray in the hope of a receiving a miracle cure. Decoration on the shrine is badly eroded, but there is a special atmosphere about this chapel. It is also surrounded by the tombs of several other medieval kings and their queens and, most relevantly, that of Henry III himself.

The Chapter House exterior may not be easy to appreciate, but the interior is accessed via a door leading off the nave onto the east cloister. Entering via the outer vestibule, you pass under an exquisite twin doorway into an octagonal shaped, broad open space, aspects of whose design were modelled on Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. The recesses contain rare 15th century artwork, much faded now, yet still remarkable in detail. The floor has one of the finest medieval tile pavements to survive, its patterning including the Latin inscription: ‘As the Rose is the flower of flowers, so this House is the house of houses’. Perhaps the most striking feature is the single column in the centre of the room from which, flower-like, spring the profusion of roof-supporting vaults.

The Chapter House suffered the indignity of being relegated to a Public Records Office storeroom in the years after the Reformation. It owes its restoration to the distinguished Victorian architect Sir George Gilbert Scott. Yet, with its tiers of wall seats, you can still sense the buzz of history and imagine Henry holding court in the presence of barons such as Simon de Montfort, or of commoners airing their grievances about the increasingly tax-hungry treasury of the day.

Back in the nave, a minister mounted a pulpit and invited us to pause for a moment as pilgrims, to commemorate the building as a place of prayer. It’s a plea that could be made at numerous Anglican cathedrals across Britain. But it’s Henry VIII you can thank for that, not Henry III.

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