History of the Chapel

History of the Chapel

The outside of the chapel at the Tower of London

The Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula is a special and unique place of worship with an extraordinary history.

Historical documents refer to St Peter's as a Royal Chapel as early as the 12th century. Today it is a Chapel Royal and it is a 'Royal Peculiar' directly under the jurisdiction of The Queen. It is the parish church to HM Tower of London, the most visited heritage site in the country.

Building the Chapel

Building started on the current site of the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in the early 1500s but the presence of a religious building predates even the White Tower, built for William the Conqueror in 1078.

In common with many other castle-chapels around England, St Peter ad Vincula was a Saxon building which was “taken-into” a nearby Norman castle. We don’t know if the Normans rebuilt the original building they found, but in 1240, Henry III undertook several repairs and improvements. Clearly this work was not to the taste of his son, Edward I, as in 1286 he demolished the old chapel and built a new one on the site. No images of either of these chapels survive, but some of the bricks of Edward’s chapel do survive in the north wall. Edward’s chapel burnt down in 1512 and was replaced with the present structure.

Chapel renovations

Since then the interior has undergone several changes. During the eighteenth century, a large gallery was built on the north and west walls to seat soldiers from the Tower’s garrison, while large wooden box-pews were built on the ground floor for officers and officials. These were all removed in 1876 by the renovations undertaken by the Victorians, who re-laid the floor and moved many of the monuments. The last major renovations took place in 1970-1971, when all the Victorian pews and the stone pulpit were removed to help 'de-clutter' the space.

As a result of the Victorian renovations, the resting places of Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey were discovered in the chancel, near the altar. This led to the Chapel gaining its reputation as the ‘saddest spot on the earth’. Now the Chapel is home to several important pre-Great-Fire monuments and tombs.

Chapel burials

The Crypt of St Peter ad Vincula has had two lives, operating first as a storage area for the ordnance office and secondly as a resting place for deceased members of the Tower’s community including St Thomas More who was put to death in 1535. The ordnance storehouses were built in the first-half of the sixteenth century under Henry VIII to replace earlier ones damaged in a fire. The area still contains several surviving features relating to its time as a storehouse.

However, after the fire of 1841 which destroyed the Grand Storehouse, the decision was taken to remove bodies from the Chapel’s graveyard which ran into the area now known as the Broadwalk. The construction of the new Waterloo Barracks encroached on this area, leading to the removal of the bodies and so the ordnance buildings were converted into a crypt for this purpose. Many of the original lead plaques from this period can be seen on the Crypt’s walls. Although new burials in the Chapel were banned after 1853, the Crypt has been used to take bodies removed from under the floor of the Chapel in the Victorian renovations of 1876 as well as remains discovered during twentieth century excavations.

Today, as the site of St Thomas More’s tomb and the place where we remember Bishop John Fisher, the Crypt is an incredibly important holy and historic place.

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