Using Royal Building Accounts to Research St Stephen's and the House of Commons

Created on Monday 9th November 2020 by:
Kirsty Wright

How do you research a building like St Stephen’s Chapel?  Where would you have found Yorkshire kerseys and Padua serge in the old House of Commons?  In this post, former St Stephen’s Chapel project assistant Simon Neal discusses the manuscript evidence underpinning our research on the medieval royal Chapel and pre-1834 Commons chamber, and some of the stories of places and people at Westminster that it has enabled us to tell.

Until recently, historians have known little about what happened to the site of the former college of St Stephen at Westminster, except that part of St Stephen’s Chapel was used for the chamber of the House of Commons from 1548 until the great fire in 1834.  However,  two classes of manuscript records at The National Archives,  E 351 and AO 1, shed light not only on the history of the site of the former college between the mid sixteenth and later eighteenth centuries, but also provide extensive details on works and repairs carried out to the House of Commons during this time. They outline the money spent, and the type of building works that took place, including the names of many of the people who worked on them. Examining these building accounts reveals previously unknown aspects of the history of St Stephen’s College, and its conversion following the Reformation.

Click the image to enlarge it. The Old Palace of Westminster, 16th Century, Pen and ink drawing by Henry William Brewer, ​​© Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 82.

The records in the class TNA E 351 are the Pipe Office copies of the declared accounts and include extensive documentation about works undertaken on royal buildings. Duplicates of these accounts can be found in the class AO 1. The series of documents concerning works and buildings begin in 1538 in the class E 351, and in 1563 in the class AO 1. The E 351 documents go up to about 1715, as in 1891 most parchment duplicates of declared accounts from 1715 to 1821 were transferred to the Bodleian Library and were destroyed in 1939. The equivalent documents in AO 1, however, appear to have survived up to about 1827.

There is not always continuous coverage in the records, which can be frustrating for the researcher.  Some documents are missing in both series for certain years, especially for 1640 to 1660. The years where we have no surviving documents in either class are 1641-43, 1650-59, 1701-02 and 1703-04. This means there are about 15 rolls missing from the sequence running from 1538 to 1780.  But overall, there is a wealth of manuscript material to work through.

The surviving rolls contain details of works that were carried out to royal buildings. Information about such properties that were in the crown’s hands between the period 1547 and 1780 can be found within the rolls, even if they were only briefly in crown possession. The site of the former St Stephen’s College only features from 1572 onwards, as it had been in the hands of various other individuals since its dissolution.  However, in 1572 it escheated to the Queen on the death of Lord Hastings, and became offices for the Auditor and Tellers of the Exchequer.1

The rolls from 1564 onwards tend to contain large sections about the main royal properties such as the Tower of London, Hampton Court, Greenwich, Whitehall and the old palace of Westminster, often featuring work carried out on individual parts of these buildings. For instance, the roll covering the years 1567 to 1570 contains sections about the king’s bridge near Westminster Hall, the new building at the Exchequer, Star Chamber, the clock-house, and the Henry VII Chapel at Westminster Abbey.2  By this time, the rolls include greater information about the works that were carried out, with introductory paragraphs at the start of each section which describe them. Whether they list all the works is a matter of debate.

For the period 1660 to 1703 the records in TNA WORK 5 are also an excellent source for the architectural historian. With gaps only for 1696-97 and 1698-99, they record payments to tradesmen and others for works undertaken at various royal palaces and other buildings, including Whitehall, Hampton Court, the Tower of London, St James's Palace, Greenwich, Westminster, Nonsuch House, Audley End and the Customs House. They describe the work that was carried out in the first paragraph, before listing the workmen by name underneath with the amounts paid to them. The volumes in WORK 5 also give details of payments to other individuals, such as the master glazier, the master locksmith, and even the workman who pumped water into the stool-room at the House of Commons.  The names of individuals from whom provisions were purchased are also given and details of these provisions are noted; they are often the same people who appear in the sections of task-work in E 351 and AO 1.

The House of Commons and the site of the College of St Stephen

Following the dissolution of the college of St Stephen, the site of the former college was granted to Sir Ralph Fane on 22 July 1550, “nevertheless, always excepting and completely reserving from out of the present grant to us, our heirs and successors the upper part of the chapel of the said late college, which we lately took and assigned for the house of Parliament and for holding our Parliaments there above the vault of the lower chapel or church there.”3 The first relevant reference in  E 351 is in the roll for 1547 to 1559, which contains a small paragraph concerning work done to the “Parliament House sometime St Stephen's chapel.”4 This merely gives amounts that were spent but no details about the actual work that was carried out. It shows that in 1549 £344 16s 10½d was spent, indicating that significant building works were carried out on the Parliament House and that the chapel had probably been used as the Parliament House before the site was granted to Fane.

Throughout the documents the term “Parliament House” appears to cover both the House of Lords and the House of Commons. It is only when the Lower House is directly referred to, that we can be sure that works were being done specifically on the House of Commons. Up to 1572 there are no references to the overall site of the former college of St Stephen, although some details about its history can be gleaned from other sources. After Fane had been attainted and executed, the site was granted to Sir John Gates on 29 April 1552.5 Gates suffered a similar fate in 1553, after which it passed to Sir Edward Hastings.6 Finally, when Hastings died in 1572 without heirs,  the site escheated  to the crown.7 It is at this point that St Stephen’s starts to appear in the building accounts. The buildings on the site were converted into offices for the Tellers and Auditor of the Exchequer of Receipt.8 In the roll for 1571 to 1572 there is a section entitled “the college of St Stephen’s near Westminster,” in which it is stated that works and repairs were carried out during 23 days ending on 13 September 1572.9 The total spent on these was £25 7s 7d, and the work included the laying of new floors, paving the kitchen and mending the gutters and leads. 

Houses Of Parliament, St. Stephen's Crypt, Restored about 1863, Watercolour by Edward M. Barry, © Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 1601.

By the late 16th century the buildings are referred to in terms of the occupiers of the lodgings of the Auditor and Tellers of the Exchequer. In 1594-95 there is reference to the lifting and drawing of boards and laying of a floor in Mr Skinner’s house at St Stephen’s.10 Vincent Skinner had been appointed  Auditor of the Receipt in 1593.  In the period around 1610 there is a vast amount of detail for work done on John Bingley’s office and lodgings, coinciding with his entry into the office of Auditor of the Receipt  in 1609.11 Later, in the roll for 1619-20, there is reference to the repairing of the house at St Stephen’s after the removal of Bingley, who forfeited his office after being implicated in a corruption scandal.12 After this we find mention of works and repairs to Sir Robert Pye’s lodgings. Pye succeeded to the office of Auditor, with letters patent dated 20 December 1624, confirming the office upon him along with “the use and enjoyment of a convenient dwelling house and cloisters with a garden within the precincts of St Stephen’s.”13

By 1644 we find the Lower House referred to specifically as the “House of Commons,” and in 1644 to 1645 there is much detail of works and repairs that took place there under the section for the old palace (or as it is termed in this document, “the palace of St Stephen, Westminster”).14 77s 6d was spent on canvas for the “umbrage” over the great window at the House of Commons, and also to make rolls for the seats there, stuffed with “curled hair” costing £13 6s. 105s was laid out for Padua serge for curtains for the great window, and £33 20d on Yorkshire kerseys for lining the backs of seats.

The period of the Commonwealth during the 1650s is a complete blank. No records survive in E 351 or AO 1, but presumably some works occurred during this period. From the Restoration to 1780 the references to the House of Commons are exclusively in the sections about the old palace of Westminster, which appear in every surviving roll during this period. However, the amount of detail is less than in earlier rolls. While more detail can be found in the record series WORK 5 in the sections for the old palace of Westminster, nevertheless E 351 and AO 1 still contain information that is not in WORK 5. 

Occasionally the House of Commons has its own sections outside those relating to the main palace, showing that significant work took place. In 1692-93 £241 5s 2d was spent on making the Court of Requests fit for the House of Commons to sit in during the repairs of the old house. A vast sum of £4,598 15s 3¾d was spent on works and repairs in and about the Parliament House, i.e. the House of Commons itself. Of this, £1,410 6s 5¼d was spent on emptions and provisions and £30 6s 10d on the “carriage thereof by land and water,” while £51 3s 4d was laid out on “wages and entertainments of plasterers and labourers.”15 

The documents occasionally mention fires that happened in the old palace of Westminster – something not uncommon in its history until it was finally devastated in 1834. In August 1670 John Naylor, bricklayer, was employed for one day and paid 2s 6d for mending tiling over Sir Robert Long’s office, broken when a fire occurred there.16 And in March 1681/82 Robert Little, William Allingham, Francis Brooks and Anthony Godman were paid £1 for working a fire engine during an overnight blaze in St Stephen’s Alley, Westminster.17 

The advance of technology in the 18th century can also be witnessed in the documents. In 1706 Anthony Vernatti received £171 5s 4d  for setting up lights for the accommodation of both Houses of Parliament.18 In 1722 John Gray, engine maker, and others, were paid £41 for an engine pump at the House of Commons.19 In 1723 Dr John Theophilus Desaguliers was paid £105 “for remedying the inconveniency arising by the hot stead and want of fresh air in the House of Commons when it was sitting and in a full house.”20 In 1736 he was paid a further £90 for a centrifugal wheel or a newly-invented air machine that was fixed over the House of Commons to ventilate the chamber.21 

In short, the documents in the three classes of TNA records in E 351, AO 1 and WORK 5 are excellent sources for determining work that took place in the House of Commons and the environs of the old palace of Westminster, where the former college of St Stephen had been situated. Indeed, as they have been so valuable to the St Stephen’s Chapel research project they might also be consulted with benefit by researchers tracing building works in the early modern period at other major royal sites, such as Hampton Court, the Tower of London and Greenwich palace; as well as biographical or social history research into the labourers who undertook them. 

1 British Library (BL): Lansdowne MS 171 ff.359-359v.
2 The National Archives (TNA): E 351/3204.
3 TNA: C 66/834 m. 22; BL: ADD. MSS. 6176.
4 TNA: E 351/3326.
5 TNA: C 66/846 m. 28; DL 10/404.
6 BL: Lansdowne 171 ff. 359-359v.
7 BL: Lansdowne 171 ff. 359-359v; ADD. MSS 6176.
8 History of Parliament: Edward Hastings of Loughborough, Leics, and Stoke Poges, Bucks.
9 TNA: E 351/3206.
10 TNA: E 351/3229.
11 TNA: E 36/266 f. 92.
12 TNA: E 351/3253.
13 TNA: C 66/2338 no. 3.
14 TNA: E 351/3273.
15 TNA: E 351/3304.
16 TNA: WORK 5/15 f. 215.
17 TNA: WORK 5/33 f. 159.
18 TNA: E 351/3311.
19 TNA: AO 1/2450/156.
20 TNA: AO 1/2451/157.
21 TNA: AO 1/2455/170.

Simon Neal
Since working on the St Stephen’s project Simon has been employed on the Manorial Documents Register and worked as a freelance document researcher and translator. He has also been employed by Houston University in taking photos for the AALT website.