Consorting with the Enemy: The Queen’s Chapel at St James’s Palace

Now the Times are returned in which the Queens of England are Saints again; and the Fruit infinitely great, when people find the way to Heaven, is the way to be well at Court

Anon., The Compleat Office of the Holy Week with Notes and Explanations (Matthew Turner, London, 1687), dedication to Mary of Modena.

One of the greatest privileges of finding oneself living in St James’s is the wealth of beautiful and historically important structures to be found right on the doorstep. One such structure is the Queen’s Chapel at St James’s Palace, a uniquely beautiful little building whose outward inconspicuousness and petite stature belies a history of political and religious turmoil given physical manifestation in the architecture of the building, the lavishness of its furnishings and the rituals carried on there.

When, on a stormy night in December 1688, Mary of Modena boarded a ship bound for Calais as a “poor fugitive Queen, bathed with tears” (Letter from Mary of Modena to Louis XIV of France, 10th December 1688), England had not known a Protestant Queen Consort within living memory. For over a century, England had been a volatile tinderbox liable to erupt in flame with the slightest spark of political or religious dissent. Into this incendiary mêlée were sent three pious, young Catholic women: Henrietta Maria of France, Catherine of Bragança and Mary of Modena. Each was charged with the impossible task of promoting the acceptance of Catholicism in England whilst at the same time ensuring that the authority of their husband remained unquestioned. Their efforts were given immediate physical form in the architectural spaces they created within the privacy of their respective Courts and no architectural space at Court was so potently infused with symbolic meaning than the Catholic Chapels they created and promoted right under the noses of the Protestant establishment.  These highly charged spaces acted as a means of promoting England’s lost Catholicism by importing a distinctly Catholic style of decoration and mode of ritual which spilled over into the Protestant Chapels Royal of their husbands and even into church building in England generally through Archbishop Laud’s promotion of the “beauty of holiness”.

Under the protection of England’s three Catholic Queens, Catholics were able to practice their rites “collectively, publicly and theatrically” (Frances E. Dolan, “Gender and the ‘Lost’ Spaces of Catholicism”, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. XXXII No. 4, Spring 2002, pp. 641-665). The Catholic Chapels Royal held what Simon Thurley has described as “a central position in the choreography of the Court” (Simon Thurley, “The Stuart Kings, Oliver Cromwell and the Chapel Royal 1618-1685” Architectural History, Vol. 45, 2002, pp. 238-274). To Catholics, such devotional spaces were saturated with meaning and their establishment at the centre of the Royal Court imbued them with a sense of hope that the political and social position of English Catholics could be restored. To the Protestant observer, however, the mere presence of Catholics at Court offered the threat that they might seek to displace the political status quo. The Catholic Chapels Royal were thus politically charged spaces. As a result, they became a primary nexus for Protestant hostility which was to spill over into the wider malaise felt towards Stuart rule and in the end they proved to be at the centre of what became an aesthetic undoing of the Stuart dynasty itself.  Of the three Catholic Chapels Royal constructed after 1620 at St James’s Palace, Somerset House and Whitehall, only the Queen’s Chapel at St James’s has survived largely intact.

The origins of the Chapel lie in that most farcical of abortive political alliances: the Spanish Match.  Upon his accession to the English Crown, James I was keen to bring an end to the Anglo-Spanish war which had doggedly persisted during the latter reign of Elizabeth I.  In addition to ending the financial drain of the war, James I was keen to characterise himself as a bringer of peace and prosperity to his newly united Kingdoms and, as heir to Mary Queen of Scots whose execution had provided the propagandised cause of the conflict, he was perfectly placed to offer terms.  Peace was secured under the terms of the Treaty of London signed at Somerset House in 1604.  Popular reaction to the peace can be fathomed by an examination of The Somerset House Conference, a painted record of the signing of the Treaty.

The Somerset House Conference, 1604, National Portrait Gallery. Delegates from Spain and the Spanish Netherlands on the left, the English on the right.

The Somerset House Conference, 1604, National Portrait Gallery. Delegates from Spain and the Spanish Netherlands on the left, the English on the right.

The virtuous English Legates are shown superimposed on the olive bush of peace whilst the Spanish delegation are seated before a tapestry showing King David giving Uriah the sealed message which would send him to his death: a clear reference to deceitfulness.  Keenly aware of this public scepticism, James began to consider cementing the peace though accepting a marriage proposed by the Spanish Ambassador, the Count of Villa Mediana, between Henry, Prince of Wales and the Spanish Infanta Maria Anna.  James’ fear of a popular rejection of the marriage and prevarication about the terms proposed by the Spanish meant that Prince Henry was dead before any treaty could be signed and thus negotiations began regarding the marriage of his younger son Prince Charles.  Protracted negotiations took place between 1614 and 1623 and it was clear that public and parliamentary opinion was strongly opposed to the match.  However, now significantly in debt, James persisted with negotiations, much enticed by the promise of a £600,000 dowry.  In return, the Spanish set difficult terms including a repeal of the Penal Laws, the upbringing of the royal children as Roman Catholics and a public Roman Catholic Chapel together with the freedom of the Catholic priests appointed to it to wear their habits in the street (David Baldwin, The Politico-Religious Usage of the Queen’s Chapel, 1623-1688, Thesis submitted for the Degree of M.Litt., Durham University, 1999).  Such terms were impossible for James to accept and thus to keep matters moving, the new Spanish ambassador, the Count de Gondomar pressed for the fulfilment of the least objectionable prerequisite for the marriage: the construction of a Chapel for the use of the bride-to-be.  In his enthusiasm, Gondomar paid for the foundation stone which was laid on the 16th/30th May 1623 when building was commenced to plans by Inigo Jones.

Erasmus Kempffer, Illustration of His Majesty in England Signing the Spanish Marriage Treaty in an Imagined Chapel Royal, Whitehall including a Catholic Side Chapel and Showing Gondomar Preparing the Foundation Stone of the Queen’s Chapel St James’s Palace

Illustration of His Majesty in England Signing the Spanish Marriage Treaty in an Imagined Chapel Royal, Whitehall including a Catholic Side Chapel and Showing Gondomar Preparing the Foundation Stone of the Queen’s Chapel St James’s Palace


Consecration Cross Painted by Don Diego Sarmiento de Acuña, Conde de Gondomar, Spanish Ambassador to St James’s upon the occasion of the laying of the Foundation Stone of the Queen’s Chapel, St. James’s Palace on 16th/30th May 1623. (David Baldwin)

As negotiations halted, Charles took matters into his own hands and travelled to Spain to secure the marriage.  His unexpected arrival was met with confusion and dismay by the Spanish Court and, although a secret Treaty was concluded, Charles returned to England without the Infanta and much disillusioned with the Spanish. With renewed political opposition to the match in both Spain and England where it was ultimately rejected by the Privy Council after James had dissolved Parliament, it was quietly dropped. French diplomats grabbed this opportunity and pressed for a marriage between Charles and the sister of Louis XIII, Henrietta Maria.  The mechanics of this marriage proved more difficult than had initially been imagined.  James I died in March 1625 before the marriage was settled and the new King Charles was keen to settle the matter before his coronation. Pope Urban VII denied  special dispensation for the marriage to take place necessitating a secular marriage of State followed by a marriage by proxy attended only by Henrietta Maria in Paris on 11th May 1625 and another in person in the Anglican manner at St Augustine’s, Canterbury on 13th June.

After van Dyke, Henrietta Maria of France.

After van Dyke, Henrietta Maria of France.

The newly arrived Queen came ashore with a retinue of over 400 attendants including 29 priests and a Bishop.  Parliament was outraged to discover that secret terms appended to the marriage contract permitted daily celebration of the Catholic Mass in addition to replicating many of the terms of the Spanish Match.  In order to facilitate the religious needs of his new Queen, Charles pressed for the rapid completion of the Queen’s Chapel for Henrietta Maria to Inigo Jones’s existing plans of 1623.  As David Baldwin has argued, as completed, “the Queen’s Chapel was a startlingly bold statement by Inigo Jones of Palladian classical architecture reminiscent of Rome, and stood, intentionally or otherwise, as an embodiment and public statement announcing the arrival/re-establishment of Catholicism at least in London at the heart of the Court, if not of the monarchy – in some eyes perhaps as a prelude to legal re-establishment of Catholicism throughout the Realm”.

The Queen's Chapel as completed to plans of Inigo Jones

The Queen’s Chapel as completed to plans of Inigo Jones

In plan, the Chapel was surprisingly conventional, closely resembling that of the Tudor Chapel Royal proper in the Palace nearby.  It is composed of a pure double cube without transepts or distinct choir and incorporates a spacious Royal Closet at the West End at first floor level along with shallow lateral galleries in place of transepts, thus closely reflecting the precepts of its Tudor predecessor.

The Chapel Royal, St James's Palace looking West towards the Royal Closet. Steel Engraving, Published 1841 by Joseph Mead

The Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace looking West towards the Royal Closet. Steel Engraving, Published 1841 by Joseph Mead

Stylistically, however, the Queen’s Chapel is shockingly innovative if not utterly revolutionary. Built to a strictly Palladian design, the exterior is strikingly simple in its application of Classical principle and decoration.  It is remarkably less given to the licentious richness of decorative effect seen at the Banqueting House at Whitehall, yet it still manages to display an appealingly decorative, light elegance which avoids the heavy, almost crude brutality of St Paul’s Covent Garden or the stark, open spareness of the Queen’s House at Greenwich.  Gone are the deliberate architectural references to the supposed purity and uncorrupted nature of the “primitive” church made so clearly manifest at St Paul’s Covent Garden. It represents an exceptionally brave if not somewhat foolhardy departure from orthodox early seventeenth century church design. It is a building which consciously and conspicuously speaks only of the influence of Italy with all its difficult Catholic and Papal associations and it does so as a bright beacon in its bright painted stucco starkly contrasting with the aged red brick remains of St James Palace, right at the heart of the Stuart Court.

Little remains of Jones’ interior decorative scheme at the Queen’s Chapel, though what does survive speaks once again of innovation and Palladian influence.  The space was lit by windows along the transverse sides of the building, culminating in a large Venetian window at the East end.

An Exterior view of the East Venetian Window.

An Exterior view of the East Venetian Window.

The space is crowned by an elliptical gilded coffered ceiling and is completed at the West end by a screen of Corinthian Columns at the Royal Closet.  Jones’ original chimneypiece survives in this space, though altered subsequently in the time of Charles II.

The Inigo Jones Chimney Piece in the Royal Closet of the Queen's Chapel, surmounted by the combined arms of Charles II and Catherine of Braganza and decorated with Portuguese palms.

The Inigo Jones Chimney Piece in the Royal Closet of the Queen’s Chapel. (David Baldwin)

The interior of the Chapel looking East and showing the coffered ceiling and Venetian window.

The interior of the Chapel looking East and showing the coffered ceiling and Venetian window.

Of Henrietta Maria’s chancel, nothing remains and one must depend on contemporary descriptions of gilded and marbled altar rails and an altar raised on steps. The liturgy practiced in all Henrietta Maria’s Chapels provided for a very deliberate display of magnificence in a conscious effort to impress the Court and attract the attention of the King and it can only be imagined that similar magnificence was applied to this end in all the Queen’s Chapels.  For the first Mass celebrated in Jones’ Chapel at Somerset House, François Dieussart designed a 40 foot monstrance to crown the High Altar.  As Simon Thurley has written, “the Host was held in a large oval flanked by prophets and supported by two pillars that soared through seven layers of ‘clouds’, amongst which nestled two hundred angels, seraphim and cherubim”.  Behind this structure was placed a choir, so its singing would appear to come from the Heavenly host assembled amid the clouds.  In an act verging on garish theatricality, the whole scene, lit by over four hundred candles was hidden behind curtains so that it could be dramatically revealed to the congregation at the right moment.  Henrietta Maria reportedly wept with joy at the revelation and Charles I spent over an hour examining the construction.

Such overt displays of Catholic reverence and magnificence were powerful iconographic symbols of the Queen’s mission to reassert Catholic dominance in England and reestablish its place in English Society.   Henrietta Maria was a blindly pious and evangelical promoter of Catholicism who perhaps underestimated popular opposition to anything seen as representing a revival of Catholic power in England and failed to appreciate the dangers inherent in so open an exhibition of Catholic resurgence. By the 1630’s the Queen’s Chapels had become a powerful magnet for Catholic worshipers and the Queen had openly taken credit for the conversion of several eminent courtiers, much to the embarrassment of the King.  She continually pressurised her husband into adopting Catholic forms of worship and decorative schemes in his own Chapels and was seen to openly revive aspects of Catholic worship that had been purged from English life for over a century.  Early in her reign, she had attracted flagrant outrage by walking barefoot in peasant’s clothing to Tyburn to pray at the feet of a Jesuit priest put to death without trial on the orders of her husband and courted great controversy by flouting laws forbidding the celebration of marriage according to Catholic rites by facilitating the marriages of several Catholics within the growing Queen’s Chapel community.  More dangerously, in 1637, she privately appointed an agent to represent England at the Papal Court and invited the Pope to appoint the first Papal legate to England since the reign of Henry VIII. When Parliament attempted to impeach her for introducing a series of Catholic practices into the Church of England which even Archbishop Laud had decried, she persuaded her husband to face parliament in person to prevent the passing of the measure. It was clear that such open political interference could not continue. A growing popular malaise fuelled by paranoid fears of Catholic resurgence and the rise of monarchical tyranny was given new impetus by the Queen’s actions and, when these combined with Laud’s attempts to reform the Church of England to stress its Catholic roots, the volatile situation became explosive.

From early 1640, sporadic attacks on several City churches saw the destruction of fixed altars and the removal of altar rails and chancel screens recently fitted as part of Laud’s reforms. It was not long before the focus of this movement shifted to the Queen’s chapels which were popularly believed to be “sheltering the Pope and the Devil”.  The Chapel at Somerset House was severely damaged by a riotous crowd in the wake of the Irish Rebellion of 1641.  Tales of the slaughter of Protestants and the confiscation of their properties in the face of an impotent and haughtily detached King raised a very real sense of panic in London. In June 1641, Parliament enacted the “Ten Propositions” and “Grand Remonstrance”, a series of measures founded on the belief that Court favours were being offered in return for Catholic influence in the Queen’s Chapels and designed to censure the Queen and her Chapel communities, officially banishing several members of the Queen’s household (including her mother, Marie de Medici).  A petition was also sent to Parliament demanding the dispersal of the Capuchin Community the Queen had established to operate the Chapels.  Such measures were unprecedented attacks on the very heart of Charles’ Court and invited French retaliation on the basis that the marriage treaty had been breached.  In the event, events in the Civil War overtook the Queen and she was forced into exile in France in March 1643.

By April 1643, Parliament had begun debating an Ordinance for the removal and demolition of all altars, altar rails, altar steps, candlesticks, crucifixes and painted images.  Whilst this triggered an intense and vicious attack of iconoclasm in the City at the cost of the Laudian interiors of St Katharine Cree and St Giles in the Fields (Graham Parry, Glory Laud and Honour: The Arts of the Anglican Counter-Reformation [Boydell Press, 2006]) in addition to untold cost in artistic works in all churches, at first, the Chapels Royal seemed safe from attack despite the absence from London of both the King and Queen. However, in March 1644, an Ordinance was passed demanding that the Royal chapels be “clensed from all Popish Reliques and superstitions”.  In an unparalleled act of vicious iconoclasm perpetrated at the heart of Court, the Queen’s chapels at St James’s and Somerset House were systematically looted and destroyed.

Woodcut Illustrating how the Queen’s Chapels at Somerset House and St. James’s were Sacked and Burned.

Woodcut Illustrating how the Queen’s Chapels at Somerset House and St. James’s were Sacked and Burned.

One eyewitness to the destruction of the Chapel at Somerset House described how one of the Parliamentary Commissioners “climbed on the High Altar and looked at a very valuable picture done by the hand of Rubens…he called for a halberd and struck the first blow on the face of the crucifix…and ripped the painting to bits”.  Altars were demolished, walls were stripped of murals, statues were removed and smashed, ceiling paintings were torn down, altar plate was melted down for coin and the religious communities which inhabited the Chapels were dispersed or deported.  The entire work of Henrietta Maria was thus completely lost amid this orgy of destruction and by the time her Crown had been added to her list of losses, no trace of the original lavish interior of the Queen’s Chapel was left.

During the tenure of the Commonwealth, the Queen’s Chapels, now little more than whitewashed preaching boxes, were given over to the use of various Protestant communities.  To add insult to the French Queen’s injury, her Chapel at St James’s was presented to a group of Huguenots who had fled France in the wake of a Protestant Rebellion against the government of Louis XIII and his Chief Minister Cardinal Richelieu.

With the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, plans for his marriage to Catherine of Bragança, daughter of John IV of Portugal, which had their origins prior to the Civil War were resuscitated.  Catherine was deeply pious and utterly reserved.  She had spent the majority of her 23 years confined to a Convent in Lisbon under the iron fist of her tyranical mother Queen Luisa living under the stiflingly rigid strictures of Portuguese Court etiquette. It was reported that she “hath hardly been ten times out of the palace in her life”.  Speaking not a word of English, she was shipped to Portsmouth in May 1662 where she was swiftly married to the King in two ceremonies: one, secret and Catholic and the other public and Protestant.  One can only imagine the shock suffered by the sheltered young Queen when she arrived at the licentious if not debauched Restoration Court in London to be faced with the many mistresses Charles II openly courted and promoted at Court.  Initially, the Queen retreated into the comfortable isolation of her imported household centred on the Queen’s Chapel.

Among the recitals to the Marriage Treaty was one requiring that the Queen be provided with “a private Chapel in her residence with the right to practice her Catholic religion”.  In order to fulfil his marital obligations, Charles commenced work on the restoration of the Queen’s Chapel. An organ loft was rebuilt, “un Tabernacle d’argent” constructed in the chancel and the great Venetian window glazed with stained glass emblazoned  by Thomas Bagley with “a Crucifix of paynted glass iii foot broad and four foot deep” together with “2 coates of Armes”. A deal pulpit “with a foote pace for it to stand on and a broad stepp ladder to it with seven stepps” was added in 1663, while a “confessing howse…devided into three parts with arches seven foot wide, 7 foote eight inches high, two foote three inches deepe, with an Architrave freeze and cornish” was constructed by Thomas Kinward who also further beautified the pulpit. A new Royal closet was constructed at the West end upholstered with crimson damask.

Further architectural works were carried out by Christopher Wren in around 1669 to extend the friary accommodations to the rear of the Chapel.  Wren added a semi-circular apse which blocked the eastern window from the interior.  The Venetian window was thus hung with tapestries and the stained glass removed.

Engraving showing Wren's exterior extension of the Chapel and Friary.

Engraving showing Wren’s exterior extension of the Chapel and Friary.

A strong hint as to how the Queen wished to fashion her position at Court and an indication of how she was to cast the Queen’s Chapel as the pivotal epicentre of a virtuous Royal Court with her at its head in contrast to the licentious and debauched Court of her husband from which she initially felt excluded can be found in an early portrait of the Queen painted by Jacob Huysmans in about 1664.


Jacob Huysmans, Catherine de Bragança in the guise of St. Catherine of Alexandria

Huysmans depicted the Queen in the guise of St. Catherine of Alexandria with a martyr’s palm in her right hand. Her left rests upon the miraculously shattered wheel on which the Pagan Emperor Maxentius had unsuccessfully attempted to execute the saint for her refusal to relinquish her Christian faith and chastity. The portrait is unusual in the manner in which the Queen’s pose, dress, hairstyle, gesture and gaze all belong to contemporary Catholic depictions of the saints rather than a conventional portrait. The viewer is thus invited to view the Queen as the embodiment of her name-saint in her devout religious belief and chaste wifely devotion in the face of condemnation, indignity and censure at Court.  In this guise, the Queen invited a moral comparison with her debauched husband and his licentious Court and attempted to establish her identity and authority as Consort in a Court replete with Charles’ many mistresses whilst the steadfast refusal of the Saint to accept heresy was reflected in her own retreat into the bosom of the Catholic faith in her Chapel. The sword of St. Catherine’s final martyrdom is omitted, suggesting victory over these enemies.

This dangerous dichotomy within the Royal Household was given further outward recognition in the iconographic and symbolic messages presented by many of the furnishings in the Chapel.  None was so open to public display nor so richly imbued with volatile symbolism than the Processional Cross commissioned by Catherine for her new Chapel in about 1664.

Processional Cross of Catherine de Bragança (Fundação da Casa de Bragança  Museu-Biblioteca da Casa de Bragança, Vila Viçosa)

Processional Cross of Catherine de Bragança (Fundação da Casa de Bragança
Museu-Biblioteca da Casa de Bragança, Vila Viçosa)

This Processional Cross appears to have been a deeply personal commission by Queen Catherine and it remained in her possession until her death at the Palace at Bemposta near Lisbon in 1705.  The Processional Cross was the most visible of the liturgical instruments and the Queen was acutely aware of its potential to broadcast messages about her identity. The Cross is simple in design and rather poor in finish. The Crucifix is of a plain cylindrical shape with cast fleurs-de-lis at the terminations. The cast figure of Christ is poorly finished. The foot of the Crucifix, which is engraved with the Royal Cypher of Charles II, sits upon a silver globe which is joined to the staff of “Unicorn’s Horn” by means of a silver sleeve embossed with fleurs-de-lis, crowns and cherubim.On the reverse an inscription declares: ‘CRUX PASTORALIS SANCTI THOMAE ARCH. EPISCOPI CANTUARIENSIS A. REGINA CATHARINA IN. AMPLIOREM FORMAM REDUCTAM ANNO 1664 (“Crozier staff of St Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury, Enlarged from fragments by Queen Catherine 1664”). Behind a small window, can be found fragments of pear wood.


A staff of pear wood belonging to Archbishop Thomas Becket appears on an inventory of the treasure of Canterbury Cathedral from 1321 so it may be presumed that the wood contained in the Cross is what remains of this Pastoral Staff. The choice of a relic of Becket for use in a Royal chapel was a potentially explosive one. Becket, having been martyred for defying Henry II, had become a potent symbol of the ascendancy of the Catholic Church over the temporal power of the Monarch. Whilst devotion to Becket had been known in Portugal for some time (see, for instance, Diogo Afonso, História da Vida e Martiírio do glorioso Sao Tomás, Arcebispo, Senhor de Cantuar, [Coimbra, 1554]), in deciding to display a relic of the Saint so conspicuously, the Queen was clearly sending a message to the Court as to where her allegiances lay.

The use of “Unicorn’s Horn” (narwhal tusk) in the staff adds further complexity. “Unicorn’s Horn” had been vested with mystical healing powers by the Medieval Church and was both a symbol of royal authority and of the Incarnation of Christ. It was also related to purity, female chastity and faithful marriage: all attributes towards which Catherine aspired.  However, Catherine must have been aware of the popular medieval legend of the Hunt of the Unicorn in which the unicorn, as the embodiment of fearsome animal passion, is tamed by the chaste maiden and thus captured and broken by civilised noblemen. It seems unlikely that such a pointed similarity to the debauched and religiously ambivalent King Charles and his marriage to the chaste Queen who wished to convert him could have been lost on Catherine nor, indeed, on a hostile Court baying for evidence of the Queen’s potential treachery.

Catherine’s marriage to Charles had initially been deeply unpopular, particularly given recent memory of the political machinations and evangelical Catholicism of Henrietta Maria. However, in providing herself with a “semi-detached” Court which was largely happy to make symbolic statements but which did not politically interfere with the business of the King’s Court, Catherine gradually enamoured herself to the populace.  Fears of Catholic resurgence had not, however, abated and soon the Queen’s Chapels, formerly quiet oases sheltered from both the Court and City, were at the centre of one of the most appalling conspiracy theories in English history: the Popish Plot.  In August 1678, the religious fanatic and fantasist Titus Oates, drafted a manuscript claiming knowledge of a Jesuit plot to assassinate the King.  This he planted in the premises of an acquaintance who passed it to the King.  Initially, the plot was dismissed but on 12th October, an influential anti-Catholic MP was found murdered near the Queen’s Chapel at Somerset House.  Oates seized upon this as evidence of the truth of his conspiracy and as proof of the involvement of the community surrounding the Queen’s Chapels. As one Broadside put it “at Somerset House there is plain to be seen a gate which will lead you into the back Court; this place for the murder most fitting did seem”.  Oates accused five prominent Catholic peers of conspiring with the Jesuits to assassinate the King.  Whilst the King refused to take the matter seriously, Parliament passed the Test Act forbidding Catholics from taking Parliamentary seats which remained in force until 1829. With the Catholic Lords awaiting trial and Parliament debating whether Charles’ Catholic brother James should be excluded from the Succession, the hysteria reached boiling point and, in an outburst of unfounded vitriol, Oates accused the Queen herself of involvement. A Parliamentary measure demanding the Queen’s impeachment and exile was only narrowly avoided through the personal intervention of Charles himself.  Twenty two Catholics were executed including Oliver Plunkett, Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, before it was accepted that Oates had been lying all along.  Whilst Catherine had been saved by the King’s affection, it was clear that her Chapel and its community remained a dangerous and potent symbol of Catholic power.

Popular Broadside suggesting the part the Queen's community played in the murder of Sir Edward Godfrey.

Popular Broadside suggesting the part the Queen’s community played in the murder of Sir Edward Godfrey.

By 1679, Catherine had largely shifted the focus of her Chapel to Somerset House and St James’s Palace was now home to the Duke and Duchess of York.  The Duke of York had secretly converted to Catholicism some time after his marriage to Anne Hyde and when she died in 1671, James felt well positioned to cement his dynastic position by making an advantageous Catholic marriage.  His choice of bride was the deeply religious Mary of Modena.  When news was first announced to the fifteen year old Duchess of Modena that she was to marry the forty year old widower James, she is reported to have been horrified by the thought of entering the debauched Court of Charles II and begged her mother to be permitted to enter a convent instead. Pope Clement X therefore wrote to her in the following terms:

“We…earnestly exhort you to reflect upon the great advantage that would come to the Catholic faith by your marriage…We easily conceived a firm hope that an end might come to the persecution still smouldering in that Kingdom and that the orthodox Faith reinstated by you in a place of honour might recover the splendour and security of former days…”

The effect of the Pope’s words was instant and complete and thrust Mary into the heart of a political crisis which developed in England as it became clear that Charles II would produce no Protestant heir.  The pair were married by proxy on 30th September 1673 with a secret Catholic service being organised for 23rd November.  An attempt by Parliament to introduce a Bill annulling the marriage was avoided only by the dissolving of Parliament by the King.

As Duchess of York, Mary’s deeply pious Catholicism found its expression within the secluded confines of the Queen’s Chapel at St James’s Palace where she and her husband could practice the Roman Rites without the public scrutiny afforded to the more accessible Chapel of Catherine of Bragança at Somerset House.   The relative concealment of her faith, apparent lack of Catholic evangelisation and her seeming inability to produce an heir gradually subdued protests against the accession of her husband in 1685.

From 1682-1685, Mary and James busied themselves with further enriching the Queen’s Chapel.  The quiet politic adopted by Catherine of Bragança in her architectural works and furnishings was abandoned by the politically naïve couple who instead decided to lavish the interior with vastly expensive furnishings and plate. The interior had already been much enriched with statues, altars and paintings during Queen Catherine’s occupation, but just as important was the unavoidable dynastic statement made by the addition of prominent Portuguese heraldry under the tenure of the Duchess of York.  The arms of Queen Catherine, conjoined with those of Charles, appear prominently above the chancel and in the Queen’s closet, stressing the political links between the Royal family and Portugal when links with France (with which Modena was closely related) would have been politically embarrassing.

The Arms of Catherine de Bragança at the East end.

The Arms of Catherine de Bragança at the East end.

Other works carried out at this time included the construction of a new east end where a high Baroque high altar was constructed, carved by Grindling Gibbons and centred on an altarpiece of semicircular plan flanked by kneeling angels and surmounted by the Queen’s arms.  The altar rails were set very far to the West and statues were introduced to the lateral walls.

Johannes Kip, View  of the Interior of the Queen’s Chapel Looking East, 1687

Johannes Kip, View of the Interior of the Queen’s Chapel Looking East, 1687

Simon Thurley has suggested that these works were designed by Wren and were based on engravings of counter-Reformation French altarpieces such as that of Saint Paul-Saint-Louis in Paris by Père François Derand. Gibbons’ work on the High Altar made provision for the liturgical picture barrier supplied by Benedetto Gennari specifically on the Queen’s instructions.  The painting, of the Holy Family, was an intensely private commission for the Duchess and may have hinted at her dynastic intentions within Court and the production of a Catholic heir.

Benedetto Gennari , The Sacra Famiglia, Commissioned by Mary of Modena whilst Duchess of York for the Altarpiece of the Queen’s Chapel, St James’s Palace, 1682.

Benedetto Gennari , The Sacra Famiglia, Commissioned by Mary of Modena whilst Duchess of York for the Altarpiece of the Queen’s Chapel, St James’s Palace, 1682.

The aesthetic connection with the European Counter-Reformation and references to the Duchess’ potential as Catholic family matriarch were a potentially explosive and reinforced the place of the Queen’s Chapel as a centre for Catholic activity and the promotion the interests of foreign Catholic Courts at the heart of the English establishment. This only served to further alienate the Duke and Duchess from popular support on the cusp of their accession to the throne.

With the death of Charles II on 6th February 1685, emphasis shifted away from the Queen’s Chapels.  Somerset House remained in the personal possession of the Dowager Queen whilst the household of Mary of Modena was moved to Whitehall.   James II fervently believed that his Catholicism need no longer be secreted away in Chapels built through marital necessity and protected from a hostile populace only by foreign Treaty.  In his political naïveté and zealous evangelising religious belief, James foolishly thought that the political expediency which had secured his accession could be utilised to re-establish Catholicism at the heart of Court and to revitalise the role of his faith in all aspects of governance. He thus sought to construct a vast and magnificent Catholic Chapel Royal at the heart of government at Whitehall, replace the personnel of the Anglican Chapel Royal with sympathetic courtiers, establish a duplicate Catholic hierarchy at Court and expand the public nature of the Queen’s Chapel at St James’s Palace. James’ attempts to reassert the primacy of the Catholic church increasingly alienated him from a Parliament keen to downplay the King’s religion.  Matters boiled over when it was reported that the Queen was with child and the prospect of a perpetual Catholic succession suddenly became a reality.  The events which unfolded around the birth of the Prince of Wales were crucially centred upon the Queen’s Chapel.  In her lively history of the Royal Bedchamber, Lucy Worsley has keenly stressed the centrality of the privy bedchamber to the downfall of James II.  In doing so, she has perhaps entirely overlooked the actual crucial nexus leading to the fall of the Stuart dynasty: the Queen’s Chapel itself.

Almost as soon as Prince James was born, rumours began to circulate that the baby was not of Royal blood and had been smuggled into the Queen’s bedchamber by the Chaplain of the Queen’s Chapel either in a barrow or, more colourfully, in a bed warmer, to act as a changeling for a the Queen’s stillborn child. Bishop Gilbert Burnet even claimed to suspect that no birth had taken place at all.  He claimed to have observed that the Queen “seemed to be [too] soon recovered, and was…little altered by her labour, either in her looks or voice” (Rev. Gilbert Burnet, Bishop Bumet’s Proof of the Pretender’s Illegitimacy, London, 1724). Simon Burgiss went even further by asserting and even mapping the involvement of those attached to the Queen’s Chapel in the growing hysteria surrounding the supposed conspiracy (Simon Burgis, A full answer to the depositions and to all other the Pretences and Arguments whatsoever concerning the birth of the Prince of Wales. The Intrigue thereof detected, the whole design being set forth, with the way and manner of doing it. Whereunto is annexed a map or Survey engraven of St. James’s Palace, and the Convent there. Describing the place wherein it is supposed the true mother was delivered: with the particular doors and passages through which the child was conveyed to the Queen’s Bed chamber, London, 1689).

Simon Burgiss, plan showing the centrality of the Queen’s Chapel, St James’s Palace to the alleged smuggling of the child into the Queen’s bedchamber.

Simon Burgiss, plan showing the centrality of the Queen’s Chapel, St James’s Palace to the alleged smuggling of the child into the Queen’s bedchamber.

A Jesuit priest attached to the Queen’s Chapel, Fr. Petre, was named as the prime mover behind the conspiracy.  He was said to have taken delivery of the changeling in the Cloisters of the Benedictine Convent before passing through the three great Vestries of the Queen’s Chapel, up the stairs and through the Royal Closet of the Chapel, and thereafter through the adjoining Gallery and numerous winding passages to the Bed Chamber at 9.45 a.m on Trinity Sunday. As David Baldwin has argued, “to have passed unnoticed with a child and warming pan through the midst of the sort of elaborate ceremony being conducted in the Queen’s Chapel and Sacristy that characterised Roman Rites on such a major Festival is little short of miraculous…the Queen’s Chapel would have been full of people, priests and monks involved in the obligatory liturgical ceremony – but one needing thuribles not warming pans. Such a journey must have involved a widespread conspiracy, amazing audacity, and some physical effort”.

Regardless of the truth behind the birth of the Prince of Wales, it is clear that the Queen’s Chapel and its attendant community played a major role in providing ammunition to the Conspiracy theorists.  In the light of this, it was perhaps unfortunate that King James then attempted to utilise and propagandise the Chapel in the very public act of baptism of the child.  The London Gazette reported:

 “Whitehall October 15. This day, in the Chapel of St. James, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, being before Christened, was solemnly named amidst the ceremonies and rites of baptism, James Francis Edward. His Holiness, represented by his Nuncio was the Godfather, and the Queen Dowager, Godmother. The King and Queen assisted at the solemnity with a great attendance of nobility and Gentry, and concourse of people, all expressing their joy and satisfaction which was suitable to the place and occasion”.

This public display of Catholic dominance and Papal influence was all  too much for an already panicked Parliament.  Whatever the truth of the events surrounding the birth and baptism of Prince James Francis Edward, they led directly to seven leading Englishmen signing a request for William of Orange to intervene militarily and thus played a very direct role in the downfall of the Stuart dynasty and the Glorious Revolution.  Much of the movable art in the Queen’s Chapel (perhaps ironically) including Gennari’s Holy Family were stripped from the Chapel by Mary’s retinue and smuggled with the Royal family which had sought to replicate it, into exile.

William III took possession of St James’s Palace in December 1688 and almost immediately set about purging the Queen’s Chapel of its Popish history. David Baldwin has suggested that it provided a venue for a Parliamentary assembly ordered by William to legitimise his rule in late December 1688.  As Baldwin has argued, “William would have seen the political and Protestant triumphalism of using the Queen’s Chapel, of all places, as the venue for having his military victory legitimised, and a wholly Protestant order reinstated”. The long term future of the Chapel remained in doubt and William may have considered its demolition or conversion to Court assembly use.  However, in the end, he granted the Chapel to French and Dutch speaking Protestants who had settled in London to escape persecution in the wake of Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.  The interior was stripped of its statues, relics, side altars and paintings, but much of Gibbons’ work on the High Altar was to survive intact. In 1709, the Wren’s domed monastic Choir was pulled down, uncovering the original east window and in 1729 the remains of the friary were finally demolished. By 1781, the need for a Huguenot Chapel had waned and thus the Chapel was presented to a group of German Lutherans who had come across with the Hanovarian Court, the name of the Chapel changing to the German Chapel Royal.  A new organ was fitted atop Gibbons’ reredos, once again blocking the central panel of Jones’ Venetian window and box pews were fitted.

The German Chapel Royal in 1819.

The German Chapel Royal in 1819.

In 1809 a fire destroyed the Royal apartments abutting the Chapel and, rather than rebuilding them, George III decided to connect Pall Mall to the Mall by constructing Marlborough Road right through the centre of the Palace over the site of the destroyed apartments.  This severed forever the Chapel from the Palace and placed a physical barrier between the royal residence and the former royal chapel, bringing a symbolic full stop to the importance of the Chapel to Court life.  The Chapel now appeared to be connected not to the Palace but to the town house of the Dukes of Marlborough across the road.

The German Chapel continued to flourish under he patronage of Prince Albert but after his death, it too became surplus to the needs of the Court. Marlborough House was now home to the Prince of Wales and his Danish wife Princess Alexandra. The proximity of the Queen’s Chapel to Marlborough House led to its being utilised by Princess Alexandra as a private Chapel and after 1881, a Danish community were established there.  Following the death of Queen Victoria, its name was thus changed to the Marlborough House Chapel and it was given over exclusively to the Danish Church. The box pews were replaced with fixed open pews and a Choir was created to the southeast below a gallery.


The Marlborough House Chapel photographed for the Princess of Wales in 1895.

Services in Danish continued in the chapel for thirteen years after the death of Queen Alexandra until the Chapel was closed in 1938 for its first major restoration since William III purged it of its Catholic past.  The Chapel returned to its original name of Queen’s Chapel in 1939.  Restoration work was largely ceased during the War and was not finally complete until 1951.  As part of the works, the organ, which had blocked the eastern window, was moved to the South gallery, windows in the North and South walls of the chancel were re-opened and the wood panelling was painted and gilded. Choir stalls were constructed in the extended chancel, with the 1679 Thomas Kinward pulpit (now split in two) forming the ends of the stalls and simple eastward facing pews were fitted.

The Chapel in its 1951 colour scheme

The Chapel in its 1951 colour scheme

Following a toning down of the 1951 colour scheme, the Chapel sits today in relative obscurity, playing host to the marriages of minor Royals and providing peaceful surroundings for the repose of many deceased members of the Royal family on their way to the funeral service (as in the case of Princess Margaret in February 2002) or lying in State at Westminster Abbey (as in the case of the Queen Mother a month later).


The Coffin of Princess Margaret resting in the Queen’s Chapel, 2002.

Although used regularly by the Chapel Royal for weekly Sunday services from Easter until October, it no longer plays any major role in the life of the Court. Its current inherently elegant form and restful colour scheme serves only to belie its troubled past and stormy history at the centre of Court life.

The Queen's Chapel prior to a Summer Eucharist in 2014

The Queen’s Chapel prior to a Summer Eucharist in 2014

One thought on “Consorting with the Enemy: The Queen’s Chapel at St James’s Palace

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