London Open House 2017 – Queen’s Chapel, St James’s Palace, and Marlborough House

Saturday 16 September was one of the days of Open House London – which happens every year – website. Bertie got organised with tickets for 55 Broadway, so we caught the 0821 from Derby and met them at Waterstone’s Trafalgar Square. We walked along towards Buckingham Palace and came to the Queen’s Chapel. Bertie had not realised you needed to book (free) tickets in advance for this, but the family in front had a spare, so I was allowed to enter.

It gets a bit complicated when you look up “Queen’s Chapel” or “Chapel Royal”. In the earliest days the Chapel Royal was not a building, but an establishment, a body of priests and singers to serve the spiritual needs of the Sovereign. According to the Open House website “Its first choir school was founded by King Sighbert of the East Angles in 635 AD – the East Anglians know how to do things properly. They sang on the battlefields of  Crecy and Agincourt, and in Tudor times would follow the Sovereign around the country – singing at the Tower, Westminster, Greenwich and Eltham Palaces. In Stuart times it came to rest largely a Greenwich, St James’s, Whitehall and Hampton Court Palaces.

Since Whitehall burned down in the late C17 the choral headquarters has been based at St James’s Palace – in two chapels! The Tudor Chapel Royal was consecrated by Henry VIII in 1531 – this is the chapel used for the baptism of Prince George in 2013. The Queen’s Chapel, the one I visited, was begun by King James I for the Spanish Infanta as the intended Catholic bride of his son, later Charles I, but was completed for his eventual French bride! Designed by Inigo Jones and operational by 1626 (“Well Mr Jones, is our chapel operational yet?”) it was used by the Roman Catholic Queen Henrietta Maria until the outbreak of the Civil War. The guide says it was used as a library during the Republic and Commonwealth, another source said Cromwell stabled his horses here (seems as if he did that everywhere!). After the Restoration in 1660 it was refurbished by Christopher Wren for Charles II’s Portuguese Queen, Catharine of Braganza. The Stuart and Braganza Coats of Arms appear over the East Window, adorned with botanic garlands from England and the plams and botany of Tangier, part of the bride’s dowry.

Later it was used by the Duke of York (later James II) and Mary of Modena until 1688.  Then it was given over to reformed church worship. Purcell and Handel were both associated with the building. In later years it has been home to French and German Lutheran members of the Court, and to the Danish Church in London. Although originally designed to be part of a much larger C17 extension to St James Palace, much of the rest of the design was never completed. Marlborough Road was built in front of it in 1856-7, thus separating the Chapel from St James Palace.

It is a beautiful building, and I would have loved the chance to poke around with my camera – sadly photography is not permitted. Apparently it is used for Sunday worship between Easter Day and August , but I haven’t found anything which lists when they are.

I went and found the others next door at Marlborough House. They were having problems with disabled access – part of the problem seems to be Open House only happens once a year and seems to overwhelm them. No photos inside this Commonwealth HQ – website.

The house dates back to Sarah Churchill, first Duchess of Marlborough, who needed a town house. She appointed Wren as her architect, but fell out with him, and completed it herself. She lived her for over 20 years, and died here in 1755. The guidebook says “The actual design was probably drawn up by Sir Christopher Wren’s son, under the supervision of his father.” The poor lad doesn’t even get named – you’ve guessed it, he was Christopher too!

The house is built of red Dutch bricks which where brought back to England as ballast in the troop ships that had carried soldiers for the Duke of Marlborough’s European campaigns. The house was lived in by five Dukes and Duchesses of Marlborough, then the lease on was bought back by the Crown in 1817. It has been lived in by three dowager Queens, three Princes of Wales, the future Kings Edward VII, George V and Edward VIII, and Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, before he became King of the Belgians. It has housed the Government School of Design and the Department of Practical Art, and was extended in the C19.

It became the Commonwealth Centre in March 1962, and then the HQ of the Commonwealth Secretariat three years later. Many major conferences and meetings have taken place here, and there are portraits of world leaders you think you vaguely recognise.

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