Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Why do members of Parliament sit facing each other like a choir?

This past weekend, I sauntered over to the cinema to watch "Darkest Hour", a biopic starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill during his first month as prime minister. The film was marvelously moving, a perfect companion piece to last year's "Dunkirk". But I mention this not to invite anyone's iconoclastic opinions about Churchill's legacy in a comment (because, truly, I don't care), but rather to highlight the movie's frequent scenes in the House of Commons chamber. Much of the drama is, of course, in the tension between the two halves of the House: one side occupied by the "Government" (the dominant party), the other by the "Opposition" (the minority party). The liturgical viewer might feel that their seating arrangement is vaguely reminiscent of choir stalls in a Gothic cathedral or monastery... but rather than one side responding to other in harmony, Parliament is more like a choir of cacophony, an inversion of the heavenly choir. The choir of hell, perhaps!?

As many of my dear readers already know, the Commons chamber, as with nearly the rest of Westminster Palace, is the child of two eminent architects of the Victorian age: Charles Barry and Augustus Welby Pugin. Following the fire of 1834 which destroyed the old palace, the House of Commons held a design contest, ultimately won by Barry. Parliament's mandate was for a design that would be either neo-Gothic or neo-Elizabethan, to emphasize a continuity with the nation's medieval and Tudor past. As Barry was no true Goth, he enlisted the help of the young, pugnacious Pugin: a zealous convert to Catholicism with a fanatical vision to steer England architecturally back to the purity of its Gothic (and, therefore, Catholic) patrimony. It's no surprise, then, that Pugin would have refashioned the hall where the most powerful group of men on earth in the mid-19th century gathered in the form of a chapel, even if this weren't already the established tradition.

As it turns out, the House of Commons had been accustomed to sitting in choir stalls for centuries prior to the 1834 fire because they regularly gathered in Saint Stephen's Chapel: the remains of what was once the king's royal chapel. From medieval times until Henry VIII, Westminster was primarily the home of the kings of England, not of Parliament. However, a fire (notice this recurring theme?) early in Henry VIII's reign destroyed the residential part of the palace, prompting him to simply leave Westminster entirely in Parliament's hands. During Westminster's prime as the king's principal palace, though, the crown jewel at the heart of the complex was Saint Stephen's Chapel. It began when King Henry III attended the consecration of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris and desired to build a chapel of his own to outshine the Sainte-Chapelle's brilliance. We can never know exactly what the chapel looked like, but the University of York has lately posted a splendid, interactive panorama of how it may have appeared in the 14th century. I highly encourage everyone to click on this link and check it out! The richness of color, heavy use of two-dimensional iconography, and the great rood screen all suggest to me a certain continuity with the styles of the Eastern rite churches.

Click here to visit the interactive panorama of the Chapel c.1360. You have to click the arrow to pass through the screen door into the choir.
Saint Stephen's was staffed by a canonry of priests who all lived in houses near the palace, along a street which to this day is still called Canon Row. Supported by vicars and a choir of some of the most talented boy singers in the realm, the Chapel was a true medieval chantry with three Masses sung daily, especially for the remembrance of the deaths of every past king. Even after Henry VIII abolished these remembrances for the kings of the past, he was always one to hedge his bets and still left a sum of money for the canons to remember his own soul after his death!

Under Henry's son, the boy king Edward VI, Parliament passed an Abolition of Chantries Act which seized and secularized chantries throughout the kingdom, including Saint Stephen's Chapel. The very room where Thomas Cranmer had been consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury just over a decade before was given over to the House of Commons for a meeting space. (Prior to 1547, the Commons had no fixed place of assembly, but seem to have most frequently met in the refectory or chapter room of Westminster Abbey nearby.) The stalls were elongated to seat more members of Parliament, and with each renovation over the centuries, the chapel lost more and more of its sacral appearance. There's another panorama of the Commons chamber as it would have appeared in 1707 here. Much duller there! I believe the benches were covered in green toward the end of the 1600's: a visual association continued by Pugin with the upholstery of the rebuilt chamber.

The Commons chamber today is not strictly Pugin's because in 1941, it was totally destroyed by the Blitz. The room was rebuilt after the war in a somewhat simpler style, so for "Darkest Hour", a set had to be built to faithfully reproduce the look of Pugin's chamber. Here's a still below without any actors to muck it up. Immediately after the palace was rebuilt, the Commons complained to Barry simultaneously of how cramped the space was, and also how ornate: "that it looked more like some monastery of the tenth or twelfth century, that a representative chamber of the nineteenth".

I enjoyed how the film relied mostly on lighting from the windows here, rather than all the garish artificial lighting seen in the chamber today.

A photo of the old Commons chamber, before it was blown up by the Blitz.
Barry and Pugin built Saint Stephen's Hall, above, over the site of the old chapel and Commons chamber.
A register used by the canons of Saint Stephen's Chapel with enrollments of the dead. The canons enrolled not only kings, but merchants and other commoners who donated to have themselves or their loved ones remembered in death by the priests of the chapel.


  1. Indeed, "Darkest Hour" is a very fine film which I saw yesterday in Rouen (in English). I remember the debating society room at my alma mater St Peter's School in York with its oak furnishings by Thompson of Kilburn. The opposite sides of the debate were also inward-facing. This seems to be an English tradition. Also, the use of choir stalls by laity in cathedrals and college students wearing their gowns.

  2. It's interesting how many of our modern institutions actually have their roots in the medieval period. The whole tradition of representative government was a gradual development that grew stronger as the Middle Ages went on. At least by the time of Edward I, England had a Parliament that the monarch had to defer to.

    Yet in the popular culture, the Middle Ages are always portrayed as a period when kings were absolute tyrants who could lock anybody up or have them executed at the slightest whim. Not only was there a developing Parliament in England, along with the tradition of the Magna Carta, Spain had the Cortes and the Scandinavians had their Things. You would never know that from watching any show or movie set in the medieval period.