St Stephen’s project, first anniversary

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Created on Friday 19th September 2014 by:
Dr John Cooper

As a historian of sixteenth-century England, I have always been interested in the relationship between church, state and art. It would be hard to imagine a... Read more

The impending first anniversary of starting work on the St Stephen’s project seems a good moment to pause and reflect. What have we achieved so far, and where will we be heading next?  What do I know about the role of Principal Investigator that I didn’t know when that marvellous email arrived from AHRC just over a year ago, informing us that we had been granted the money?  What kind of an impact is our project beginning to make?

The project's 'campaign map' of the medieval Palace.
The project's 'campaign map' of the medieval Palace.

As project PI, the thing that I’m most proud about is the group dynamic that we have established. I knew that our researchers would lose no time in bringing their formidable array of talents to bear. What I couldn’t have predicted is how we would come together as a team, to make our research more than the sum of its parts. Historians and art historians are often lone hunters by instinct. So it’s a particular source of satisfaction that we’ve set up such a lively conversation amongst ourselves and with friends of the project. Seminars and study-days at the Palace of Westminster, the British Museum, and the Society of Antiquaries have enabled us to test out and share our research. The project room at King’s Manor has a campaign map of the medieval Palace posted on the wall, a pattern of pins indicating where key buildings were located. Both here and at our London base in the IHR, signs in Gothic script dedicate the study space to St Stephen’s Chapel.

One of our AHRC assessors commented that this is the sort of project which gives ‘impact’ real meaning. The virtual reconstructions will be key to delivering that impact, and we have all been excited to see the tantalising first glimpses of the digital models. But the impact that we are having is human, as well as virtual. I am now a veteran of three parliamentary committees: Works of Art in the two Houses, and the Administration Committee in the Commons. This has been our chance to explain to MPs and Peers some of the deep history of the extraordinary building that they inhabit. Guided by Liz Hallam Smith, we have been able to present the importance of our research to the politicians and legislators whose daily working lives are still affected by the transformation of St Stephen’s from royal chapel to Commons chamber. Nerve-wracking but fascinating, is how I would sum up the experience of talking to MPs about the architectural origins of the modern House of Commons. I’m sure it helped that we weren’t asking for any money.

Other reflections on being PI? I have come to terms with the fact that James, Simon, and Elizabeth have rapidly got to know the site and the sources better than I do; proof in itself that the project is delivering on its promise to enable younger scholars to develop their careers. The opportunity to put buildings and iconography at the core of my research, and to move in art historical circles, is a source of considerable pleasure. I cherish my parliamentary pass, and still can’t quite believe that I am free to wander around the Palace of Westminster at will (though not to wear shorts, or to drill holes without permission). I’m looking forward to presenting the project in locations as diverse as Tours, Beijing, and Vancouver over the next year. My only real concern is how to factor my own research on St Stephen’s into the mix of undergraduate teaching, MA convening, and PhD supervision that accompanies my role as project PI. But I do hope to write something about John Chamber, the last Dean of St Stephen’s, whose previous roles included physician to Henry VIII and Warden of Merton College Oxford. Watch this space.