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St John's Chapel

An architectural gem in the White Tower

An architectural gem in the White Tower

The Chapel of St John the Evangelist in the White Tower at the Tower of London is a unique survival. It is the most complete surviving example of early Anglo-Norman royal ecclesiastical architecture.

The Chapel was built as a place of worship for William the Conqueror, but it was not completed until after his death. It was always intended to be spectacular, giving the worshiper the sense of being at the centre of a much larger church. Its imposing columns, carved capitals, high gallery and aisle for processions were built to impress.

Experience this grand space, where medieval kings and queens would have worshipped, at the top of the White Tower.

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St John’s Chapel is one of the most beautiful spaces we have at the Tower of London, and it’s one of my personal favourite places within the fortress.

Alfred Hawkins, Assistant Curator of the Tower of London

The History of St John's Chapel

The White Tower is a physical manifestation of power – even today it is humbling to stand at its base. In the 11th century though, it was the tallest building in London and would have dominated the surrounding landscape. St John's Chapel is an integral part of this landscape. It is set within a semi-circular projection — known as an apse — on the eastern face of William's keep.

This apse, which is typical of ecclesiastic architecture, would have sent a powerful message to all who saw it; it made clear that the Normans were God-fearing Christians as well as mighty warriors. It is one of the many features of the White Tower built to show the power of the new King.

The inclusion of a chapel also tells us that the Tower of London was built for domestic purposes as well as defensive ones. St John’s Chapel was the monarch’s private place of worship at the Tower.

Kings would have used this space for private worship accompanied by their chaplains and household. It may also have been used by early Constables of the Tower (known originally as Keepers) who looked after the Tower for the king. Over the centuries it was witness to some truly historic and spectacular events.

The White Tower in the Tower of London seen from the South East and Chapel corner

St John's Chapel sits within this semi-circular projection — known as an apse — on the eastern face of the White Tower. This projection would have sent a powerful message to all who saw the Tower's exterior.

Image: © Historic Royal Palaces

Key Moments

Simon Sudbury and the Peasants Revolt

During the Peasants Revolt of 1381, a mob seized Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury in St John’s Chapel where he was at prayer. Sudbury was dragged to Tower Hill, where he was executed.

Knights of the Bath Ceremony

Before coronations, Knights of the Bath were invested in St John's Chapel. These knights had the honour of escorting the monarch on their procession to Westminster.

The ceremony of investiture in the Chapel included ritual bathing and an all-night prayer vigil. After being bathed, which was a symbolic act of purity, prospective knights processed into the Chapel and kept a prayer vigil all night, before accompanying the monarch to the coronation.

The Chapel was used for this ceremony from 1100 until about 1312 when it was converted for use as a record store. At this point it is likely that the ceremony would have taken place in a chapel built by Edward I on the site of the current Tudor Chapel of Saint Peter ad Vincula.

Image: Illustration depicting the murder of Simon Sudbury, the Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury, Sir Robert Hales, Treasurer of England, and the prior of the Hospitallers, in the Tower of London by rebels during the Peasant's Revolt, 14 June 1381 (© British Library Board, MS Royal 18 E. I, f.172)

The murder of Simon Sudbury, the Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury, Sir Robert Hales, Treasurer of England, and the prior of the Hospitallers, in the Tower of London by rebels during the Peasant's Revolt, 14 June 1381
Black and white illustration of St John's Chapel Records Office at the Tower of London with two clerks surrounded by shelves with scrolls. One clerk is shown perched on a ladder trying to stop scrolls from falling, the other is collecting them as they drop on the floor.

From Royal Chapel to State Storehouse

Despite its grand appearance and long-standing use as a royal place of worship, the Chapel soon ceased to be used for its original purpose. New private chapels were constructed within the medieval palace, to the south of the White Tower on the banks of the River Thames.

From at least 1312, St John's Chapel was used to store for important state records, and it was still being used in this way until the 19th century.

Image: © Historic Royal Palaces

Consecration in the 19th Century

Following the removal of the records to a new office in Chancery Lane in 1858, Prince Albert, Consort to Queen Victoria, lobbied for St John’s Chapel to be restored. The architect Anthony Salvin removed the historic bookshelves opening the space once more. In 1877 a stone alter, carved in Romanesque style to match the chapel, was installed – completing the work.

Today, the Chapel is an active place of worship and is used for services and celebrations by the Tower community under the Tower’s resident Chaplain.

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