3D computer model of St Stephen's Chapel

Lost medieval chapel used as House of Commons rebuilt with 3D model

Image credit: University of York

Researchers at the University of York have recreated the first House of Commons chamber – now lost to time – using archival research and 3D visualisation technology.

Historically, Members of Parliament assembled in St Stephen’s Chapel, formerly a royal place of worship built by King Edward I as a “showcase of English royal splendour” and later dissolved during the Reformation and used for political purposes.

The chamber was almost entirely destroyed (along with most of the rest of the medieval palace) in the Palace of Westminster fire of 1834.

The chapel was never reconstructed following the fire. Instead, St Stephen’s Hall stands in its place today and all that remains of the chapel are fragmentary notes in old documents and archives.

Now, in a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, historians based at the University of York have recreated the building with a detailed 3D visualisation. In order to do this, they combined traditional archival research with digital reconstruction.

3D computer models - which reveal colours and textures in depth - of the old House of Commons and chapel are now accessible on touch-screen displays in the palace for visitors to explore and have also been released online.

“The move into St Stephen’s was a by-product of the Reformation, but it had profound consequences for the future of British politics,” said Dr John Cooper, of York’s Department of History.

“When the Commons was gutted in the Westminster fire of 1834, a new debating chamber was constructed of strikingly similar design. Our politicians still meet there today, in a Victorian re-imagining of a medieval and Tudor building. It’s a fascinating example of continuity in British political culture.”

According to the researchers, the models demonstrate parallels between modern political debate today and in the sixteenth century. Carefully studied records tell the story of how the chapel was painstakingly built and decorated, but also of how MPs engaged within it: the seating was arranged such that politicians of opposing parties faced one another, just like today.

In another parallel with modern Westminster, the chamber often became overcrowded, with discussion rising to intense levels of noise.

 “The shape and architecture of St Stephen’s Chapel frame so many aspects of how we do our business in the Commons today,” said Labour MP Chris Bryant, who had the first ever civil partnership held in the Palace of Westminster.

“We shouldn’t be bound by our history, but we should understand it better. This University of York project is enabling us to do just that.”

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