The Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula lies within Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Palace & Fortress of the Tower of London. To begin with the original Parish church building was outwith the Tower walls until 1240 when Henry III expanded the Tower and brought the existing Saxon building within the Tower walls. However less than 46 years later Henry III’s son Edward I had the Chapel demolished and a brand new one built at the cost of approximately £317. Nevertheless this incarnation of the Chapel was not to last either and it burnt down in 1512.
So it was during Henry VIII’s reign that work on the structure we recognise today was started. It is interesting that even although Edward I’s version of the chapel burnt down in 1512 work to create the building that still stands today did not begin until 1519 with the last payment for the works being handed over in September 1520.
The chapel is what is known as a Royal Peculiar. This means that the church is not contained within any diocese, or under the control of a Bishop of the Church of England. Instead these religious establishments of which there are 11 in England, belong to and are directly controlled by the Sovereign.
The practice of Royal Peculiars goes back to Anglo-Saxon times and was retained by Henry VIII in the Ecclesiastical Licences Act of 1533. It was further ratified post Reformation by The Act of Supremacy of 1559 which confirmed the transfer of the Pope’s power over Royal Peculiars to Henry VIII’s daughter Elizabeth I and her successors.
As well as being a royal chapel and a fully functioning parish church for Tower residents perhaps the saddest and the most famous role of this building is its function as the final resting place for many convicted state prisoners who fell victim to either the axe or indeed in Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn’s case the sharp edge of the swordsman’s blade.
As well as Anne Boleyn two other English queens; Katherine Howard and Jane Grey are buried beneath the altar at the far end of the Chapel. Aswell as the three Queens of England there are the bodies of St Thomas More and St John Fisher. Both these men were tried and convicted in 1535. They both accepted their punishment bravely and were beheaded on Tower Hill with 9 days of each other. Their crimes? They would not recognise the King’s new marriage or agree to swear an oath recognising Henry VIII as Supreme Head of the Church in England.
As royal use of the Tower and subsequently the chapel declined one observer commented that ‘…it looked like a meeting house in some manufacturing town…’. It was to this end that Queen Victoria agreed to the Constable of the Tower, Sir Charles Yorke’s proposal that work be undertaken to restore the chapel to its former state of repair.
During the renovation work many bodies were discovered under the floor where the pews had been situated. When it came to the work that urgently needed doing on the chancel floor Queen Victoria gave very clear personal orders…
‘the greatest care and reverence should be exercised in this removal, and that a careful record should be kept of every sign of possible identification which might come to light.’
In compliance with the Queen’s wishes genuine attempts were made to piece together the incomplete bones and they were afterwards interred in coffers and placed under the chancel floor where they remain today beneath their marble markers.
Of course further renovation has been carried out on the building and a great deal of the Victorian renovations were removed or replaced in 1970/71. The most recent repairs were completed in 2014 when extra lighting, new furniture and other works were carried out to allow for smoother running of the Chapel’s day-to-day affairs.