The Painted Chamber was destroyed in the same fire that claimed St Stephen’s Chapel and much of the Old Palace of Westminster in 1834. With it was lost the magnificent wall-paintings for which it was given its name. In this blog post, I will explore the Painted Chamber as a key building within the medieval palace through parliamentary openings between 1399 and 1484.
Within this eighty-five year period, there were fifty English parliaments held, and we still have the Rolls of Parliament for forty-nine of these. Of these parliaments forty-one were opened in the Painted Chamber. It is also the only space to be repeatedly used for these proceedings. It seems then that we can suggest that the Painted Chamber was deemed a significant space, and by the fifteenth century had come to be associated with the openings of parliaments. But why was the Painted Chamber chosen for this function?
From the middle of the thirteenth century onwards there was an increasing tendency for the king to be based at Westminster, which matches the trend seen in the Rolls of Parliament for this period. Only seven parliaments were held in locations other than Westminster. In 1399, the first parliament of Henry IV’s reign was opened in Westminster Hall. With its vast size, the Hall could have been seen as a monument to royal power. More practically speaking, all of those who attended the opening of parliament would easily have fit into this space. According to the Parliament Roll for 1399 this included “all the lords spiritual and temporal … the commons who had come there … many other nobles and commons in great number”.
Yet, Westminster Hall is only known to have been used once for this purpose between 1399 and 1484. This could be due to the fact that the mention of the “many other nobles and commons” seems to disappear from the Parliament Rolls after 1399. However, the idea that the Painted Chamber had the necessary capacity to accommodate the king (who was enthroned), speaker, lords spiritual and temporal, and the commons (and then anyone not recorded in the Parliament Rolls) still does not seem entirely convincing on its own. There must have been reasons beyond this for opening Parliament in the Painted Chamber.
An initial thought is simply that the magnificence of the wall paintings acted as an indicator of the king’s power. They were vivid depictions of scenes from the Old Testament, virtues and vices, St Edward with the pilgrim, and the Coronation of the Confessor flanked by bishops on either side. These images reinforced the monarch’s own power through their content. Many of the Old Testament images, and the coronation scene, depict regnal power in some form - and through the display of influence and power that the ability to create and maintain this visual culture suggested.
Beyond this, the Painted Chamber may better have reflected the politico-religious nature of parliamentary openings. During this period the Speaker was - with only two exceptions - a member of the clergy, and the audience was a mixture of lay and religious members. When the Speaker addressed Parliament to explain the reasons for summons, it was through scriptural themes. This blending of the political and religious then is matched by the Painted Chamber. Parliamentary proceedings may have politicised the building, but the scriptural basis for most of its wall-paintings will have tempered this politicisation with a religious element.
A final suggestion can be taken from the Painted Chamber’s function outside of parliament – it was also the King’s Bedchamber. This may have worked to foster better relations between the Crown and parliament. Whereas others could enter Westminster Hall to present petitions, only those summoned by the king to Parliament could enter the Painted Chamber. Alternatively, this could have been a further show of power. Only the monarch’s authority could summon Parliament to gather around him, to then have members come to him, in his more personal space may have felt like an exertion of even greater control over members’ movements.
This question of why the Painted Chamber was chosen forms only a small part of the study of the building. There are many more questions that need to be asked of these and other sources. What impact did the Painted Chamber have on the speakers’ choice of themes? Where would individuals or groups be placed within the Painted Chamber? How would this impact their experience of parliamentary openings? And what do these things tell us about individual or collective experiences of parliamentary culture?