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The Queen’s Chapel, St James’s

On 21 September 1662, Samuel Pepys entered the following words into his Restoration diary: “The Queen coming by in her coach, going to her chappell at St. James’s (the first time it hath been ready for her), I crowded after her, and I got up to the room where her closet is; and there stood and saw the fine altar, ornaments, and the fryers in their habits, and the priests come in with their fine copes and many other very fine things. I heard their musique too; which may be good, but it did not appear so to me, neither as to their manner of singing, nor was it good concord to my ears, whatever the matter was…”

He commented his pleasure on seeing the mistress of Charles II, Barbara Palmer, Lady Castlemaine – with whom he was fascinated – attending the Queen, despite the fact that the service was a Catholic one; and that the sermon was preached in the mother-tongue of Queen Catherine of Braganza, Charles II’s queen, namely in Portuguese. Importantly, Pepys correctly referred to the building as ‘her chappell’ [sic] to distinguish it from its adjunctive function as a queenly pendant to the ‘King’s Chapel’ in St James’s Palace.

Evidently, the fact that the first service was conducted in Portuguese was not enough to dissuade Pepys, who noted attending service in the ‘Queene’s chappell’ again in 1663 after a walk in St James’s Park, after which he went to Somerset House. This was the great house along the Thames used by the Stuart queens Anne of Denmark, Henrietta Maria and Catherine of Braganza, the consorts of James I, Charles I and Charles II respectively; he compared it unfavourably to the Queen’s Chapel at St James’s, which was ‘ten times’ less crowded. Pepys similarly documents visiting the Chapel ‘where I do not so dislike the musique’, in London’s great year of 1666, 1667 and 1668, with the last mention of it in 1669, when he ‘carried’ his wife Elizabeth there, to hear ‘excellent musick’.

The Queen’s Chapel survives and is closed to the public. The Chapel, perhaps one of the most perfect of Inigo Jones’ creations to survive, was built in 1623-25, for the first of the three Stuart queens who would subsequently use it, the Catholic French-born Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I. Inigo Jones – as Surveyor of the King’s Works, had completed the Banqueting House in Whitehall in 1622 to the wonder of his contemporaries, beneath which ceiling by Rubens, Charles I would walk to his execution in 1649. Importantly, however, as the plaque outside the Chapel states, it was originally intended for the use of the Spanish ‘Infanta’ – Maria Anna of Spain – whom Charles I was set to marry but never did. It was completed instead for Princess Henrietta Maria, who did marry him, in 1625. The Civil War resulted in the Chapel being used as barracks.

The Chapel was first refurbished in 1662, the year of Pepys’ first diary entry as well as that of Charles II’s marriage to the Catholic, Portuguese-born Princess – another Infanta – Catherine of Braganza. The second alterations were carried out under the direction of the great Sir Christopher Wren. The Queen’s Chapel was used until 1688 by the Catholic James II’s second wife, Mary of Modena, whose coffin-plate is today displayed under glass next to one of the back pews. Mary of Modena was the last of the Roman Catholic queens to use the Queen’s Chapel; the Queen lived out her last days in French exile, highly admired by Louis XIV, dying at Saint Germain-en-Laye, (Louis XIV’s birthplace), being interred at the convent of Chaillot.

Under William III, French and Dutch-speaking Protestants were allowed the use of the Queen’s Chapel; today, William’s portrait hangs above in the Chapel’s gallery, facing his Queen, Mary II. Some of the altar plate on the communion table dates from William and Mary’s reign.

It later was re-christened the Lutheran or German (Royal) Chapel. Pyne’s Royal Residences records it as such in 1816 engraved by Daniel Havell, with the beautiful long windows streaming with early daylight, showing their view of the back of Marlborough House, much as they do today. Queen Adelaide, the German-born consort of King William IV attended the Sunday services; Protestants were allowed to attend service there who had come to visit the Great Exhibition of 1851, as permitted by the Bishop of London (British Survey of London, Vol 4, pp 100-22, retrieved 15/5/18). German services were no longer held following the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 (Simon Bradley, The Queen’s Chapel in the Twentieth Century, Architectural History, Vol. 44, Essays in Architectural History Presented to John Newman (2001), pp. 293-302). Services were also conducted in Danish, a practice begun in 1881 and which ceased in 1938 (Ibid, pp. 293-302).

The Danish association is an important one; even today, visitors from Denmark frequent the Sunday services held here which take place during one half of the year, alternating between the Queen’s Chapel and the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace. A plaque in the Queen’s Chapel commemorates the association with Queen Alexandra, the Danish-born consort of Edward VII. Marlborough House – formerly the official London home of the Prince and Princess of Wales – remained the primary London residence of Queen Alexandra as Queen Mother, following the death of Edward VII in 1910. The art nouveau Queen Alexandra Memorial by sculptor Sir Alfred Gilbert – begun the year after the Queen’s death – stands in Marlborough Road, the road that today separates the Queen’s Chapel from St James’s Palace, and leads straight into the Mall. Queen Alexandra died at Sandringham in 1925, the Norfolk residence of Edward VII when Prince of Wales; this did not, however, cease the Queen’s Chapel’s use as a Danish church, a practice that continued uninterrupted by Queen Alexandra’s death for over ten years.

Whilst Marlborough Road now separates St James’s Palace from the Queen’s Chapel, this is only since the road itself was constructed in 1856-57. The Queen’s Chapel was rightly part of the St James’s Palace complex until the palace’s south and east apartments were destroyed by fire in 1809. It is therefore important to remember that the road instead rather represents a lost part of the palace, whose sections no longer survive, as opposed to dividing the palace from the Chapel as it does today, the State Rooms of St James’s having been rebuilt following the 1809 conflagration. As such it can appear more to be a part of Marlborough House, as indeed the Survey of London describes it as “intruding upon [its] grounds”.

The coffin of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother rested from its journey in the Queen’s Chapel, before being taken to Westminster Hall to lie in state, in 2002; a moving repeat of its association with other earlier, English queens consort.

It became the Queen’s Chapel once more in 1939 and remains in active use as a royal peculiar, within the establishment of the Chapel Royal.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018
About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.