Where did all the Johns come from? - An Oddity in the History of St Stephen’s Chapel

Created on Monday 14th September 2015 by:
Dr James Hillson

My research focuses on Gothic art and architecture of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in England and France. I am currently completing a PhD provisi... Read more

From antiquarians to politicians to clerics to academics, St Stephen’s Chapel, Westminster has attracted many diverse interests in its long and tumultuous history. Kings ordered its construction, paupers prayed there after being fed and clothed, pilgrims sought a miracle working statue of the Virgin there, Bishops were buried in its undercroft, members of Parliament argued passionately within its walls, draughtsmen pawed over its remains and work crews pulled it apart after the 1834 fire whilst hired architects and amateurs alike strove to uncover its secrets. Yet in examining the patterns of these men there is one overarching question which has never been addressed: why are so many people called John interested in St Stephen’s?

The Martyrdom of St John the Evangelist, carved and painted boss, 1858-1863. Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, Palace of Westminster.

From its earliest days the chapel was intimately associated with the name. The first surviving reference to St Stephen’s in royal records dates to 1206 during the reign of king John, when vestments were purchased for both St Stephen’s and its counterpart chapel of St John the Evangelist. Also within the palace of Westminster, St John’s Chapel may have been the older institution there and throughout the reign of Henry III (1207-72) the two were almost invariably referenced together with their chaplaincies being increasingly integrated. With St Stephen’s Feast Day on the 26th December and St John’s on the 27th, celebration of the two saints was extremely closely linked and many candles were burned in both chapels in their commemoration. John was an important saint for the Plantagenet kings – St Edward, King and Confessor, whose body is buried nearby at Westminster Abbey (and at whose shrine one can still attend a daily service), was associated closely with John and a favourite saint of Henry III. In the king’s chapel at Clavering, Edward reputedly gifted a ring to an unknown pilgrim as alms, an event which Henry III had painted on the doorway there in 1251. Two travellers met the same pilgrim in the Holy Land who revealed himself as John the Evangelist and asked them to return the ring, which they obliged. The ring in question became part of the coronation regalia of England, and its sapphire still adorns the Imperial State Crown worn during the opening of Parliament.

HM Queen Elizabeth II after her Coronation, 2nd June 1953.

When the new chapel of St Stephen’s was begun in 1292, no Johns were involved in its planning, though several were involved in its execution. Its first week alone employed Johannes (John) de Uenloc, Johannes de Wiltirton’, Johannes de Cockssond, Johannes de La Penne, Johannes de Fresford, Johannes de Chevenigton’, Johannes de Ecclesia Christi, Johannes de Wellys, Johannes de Stone, Johannes de Offinton’, Johannes de Sancto Omero, Johannes de Docton’, Johannes de Husk, Johannes de Corf, Johannes de Wragby, Johannes atte Lofthous, Johannes Coc, Johannes Le Arpour (masons), Johannes Wronge, Johannes ze Suot, Johannes de Westgate, Johannes de Romeneye, Johannes de Fancham (stone-layers), Johannes de Oxon’, Johannes de Netteliswell’, Johannes de Waltham, Johannes de Sandwiz (carpenters), Johannes de Kingsbury (smith), Johannes Averey, Johannes de Christi Ecclesia, Johannes de Lenham, Johannes de Burne, Johannes Redhod and Johannes le Brenere (labourers), and Johannes de Maldon’ was paid for stone and Johannes Philippo, Johannes Athelard, Johannes Payn and Johannes Merenar’ for wood.

The employment of Johns continued unabated throughout the building campaigns of 1292-97 (King Edward I) and 1320-26 (King Edward II) and during the reign of Edward III when the chapel’s structure was completed and decorated (1331-63). William Ramsey, master mason responsible for the chapel’s vestibule, died in 1349 and was succeeded briefly by John atte Grene before he also died, presumably owing to the Black Death that ravaged England in this period. William Edington, the treasurer and Bishop of Winchester, summoned John Box from Canterbury to replace them as master mason over Westminster and the Tower of London, serving c.1350-54 and completing a chapel entrance and the first of three cloisters.

Ernest Tristram (after Richard Smirke). Two Sons of Edward III (john of Gaunt on the left), from the East Wall of St Stephen's Chapel. Tempera on canvas, c.1927. © Palace of Westminster Art Collection WOA 2926, http://www.parliament.uk/art

At the same time John Brampton was appointed to buy glass in Salop and Stafford and impress workmen by letters patent (30th July 1349), and the elaborate decoration of the chapel began. Its iconography featured several named Johns in its programme. John the Evangelist appeared three times. Firstly (1330s-40s), in the bosses of the lower chapel he was depicted being boiled in oil next to St Stephen being stoned to death, separated as a pair from the other martyrdom bosses by a chancel screen. Secondly (c.1333), on the east front facing the river Thames any passing boats would have been greeted by vast statues of the story of St Edward giving the ring to John disguised as a pilgrim, similar to those still extant in the south transept of Westminster Abbey. Thirdly (probably 1350s), the paintings below the south-western window also included a second martyrdom image of St John.

Two other named Johns were commemorated in the chapel’s images. A statue called “John le Wayte”, who can be identified as a vigilator or ‘wayte’ of the king’s household (a form of minstrel-cum-watchman appointed to cry out the nightly hours and guard against night-time dangers such as fire and attack), was placed in an unknown location in the chapel c.1351-52 where it presumably continued to function as a night-time guard. Similarly, the king’s third son John of Gaunt was displayed prominently in the paintings of the east end, along with several Johns commemorated in heraldic form in a sequence of painted shields above the upper chapel’s blind arcading.

St Stephen's Cloister Garth, Palace of Westminster, with the two storey Chapel, built in the early Sixteenth Century.

1348 also saw the foundation of the College of St Stephen, and from the outset it was closely associated with the name John. The first three canons were named John Maidstone, John Buckingham (the future Bishop of Lincoln) and John Chesterfield, and over the years many Johns were integral members of the institution. Several canons called John chose to be buried within the chapel or its cloister, including John Ware (possibly 1409), John Prentys (1445), John Crecy (Cloisters, 1471), John Brown (1497), John Forster (the College’s Dean, 1512) and John Clarke (1541). The college’s last Dean, John Chamber, has been associated with the construction of the surviving 16th-century Cloister courtesy of John Stow (c.1525-1605, the first antiquarian writer to show an interest in the chapel.

John Stow, however, was not the only John of his age attracted to St Stephen’s. John Nalson’s An Impartial Collection of the Great Affairs of State (published 1682-83), a history focusing on the civil war which split Crown and Parliament in the mid-17th century, included as its frontispiece an elaborate allegorical engraving of the chapel shedding light on the stormy seas of the past from its east window. Nor was Stow the last antiquarian called John to study the building. When the Society of Antiquaries in London decided to produce a set of drawings to preserve the chapel’s appearance in the wake of its threatened reconstruction following architectural reports of 1788-90, John Carter was commissioned as the society’s official draughtsman in 1790. The resulting drawings, still held within the society’s library, were converted to engravings and published in a volume entitled Some Account of the Collegiate Chapel of Saint Stephen at Westminster (1795) with an introduction by John Topham, the deputy keeper of the state papers who first published documentary evidence of Edward I’s involvement in the chapel.

Titlepage to John Topham's 'Some Account of the Collegiate Chapel of Saint Stephen at Westminster' (1795).

When, during James Wyatt’s heavy-handed restoration works in the early 1800s, new discoveries were made in the chapel, the volume was expanded with a new set of prints including a drawing by John Dixon, Wyatt’s draughtsman, (1807) depicting a revised reconstruction of the chapel’s interior. In the same year, John Thomas Smith published his drawings of the chapel’s extant fabric and elaborate paintings together with a text written by his then friend, John Sidney Hawkins. Hawkins, however, disagreed with Smith’s editorial practice and pulled out from the book’s production, only to find to his horror that the publication went ahead regardless, resulting in a protracted battle of self-published pamphlets over intellectual property rights which was never resolved. St Stephen’s, thus, became an intellectual battlefield for two Johns, driven apart by the process of academic publication.

Titlepage to Edward Brayley & John Britton's 'History of the Ancient Palace of Westminster' (1836).

Such cautionary tales regarding the potential frictions of interdisciplinary projects aside, the interest of antiquarians was redoubled after the fire of 1834. John Britton (and Edward Brayley) produced their History of the Ancient Palace of Westminster in 1836, publishing translations of many of the financial accounts in the process, and John Wykeham Archer produced a highly accomplished set of drawings now held within the British Museum depicting now lost sculptural fragments. During the twentieth century, however, the chapel became the focus of another protracted battle between Johns. Both John Harvey and John Maurice Hastings agreed that St Stephen’s was truly significant to the early development of the Perpendicular style, but disagreed over its position within that historical narrative. Publication followed counter-publication, and what was at stake was the origins of what both considered to be the most canonical of English architectural styles, an argument which has set the tone for the majority of subsequent scholarship of the building.

Finally, this charting of the affiliations of Stephen and John continues to the present day. John Cooper, the St Stephen’s Project’s Principal Investigator, retains a fascination with John Chamber, also the physician to Henry VIII, which links Johns past and present. The Project has also recently taken on Jonathan Hanley as an administrative assistant, who did sterling work organising the highly successful Project Colloquium at the end of June. Recently, Elizabeth Biggs and myself have been in dialogue with John Harper at the School of Music in Bangor University, who has been interested in the liturgical functionality of the chapel, particularly in relation to the performance of the Lady Mass in royal circles. A chain of coincidences?

'Johannes Cognoscerus': Our Project Principal Investigator John Cooper, the most recent in a long line of Johns.

Perhaps, but from John the Evangelist to John the Investigator there still exists a long line of people connected by both a committed engagement with this fascinating and rewarding space and a simple accident of nomenclature. Hopefully, this post has conveyed some inkling of both the great breadth of the chapel’s diverse history and its enduring association with a popular biblical name.

Follow us

Keep up to date with the latest news from the project via our Twitter feed:

X