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Interesting Churches: St. Mary Undercroft, Palace of Westminster

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

This is the first post in a new series in which the Student Brothers will write about “Interesting Churches”. The title is deliberately broad in scope so as to allow for variety between the posts. A church might be interesting because of its place in history, its architecture or interior, or because of a special significance it has to a particular brother. I think that the church I have chosen to write about, St. Mary Undercroft in the Palace of Westminster, has all of these qualities.

First, a brief biographical note is order to explain this eccentric choice. In a previous life, I worked in Parliament for about five years. For a good part of that time, I undertook the various preparations for Holy Mass for the Catholic community at St. Mary Undercroft. “Catholic community" sounds a bit wooly but it’s the best term that I can come up with. Essentially, I’m referring to a group of work colleagues who come together for the Sacred Mysteries. Only, the place of work is a Royal Palace, and the business at hand is nothing less than the governance of the nation.

But contrary to many people’s expectations, the Catholic community that gathers for Mass in Parliament must be one of the most diverse in the country. Of course, there are the grandees: Members of the House of Lords, MPs, Officers of State etc.; there’s their staff, too: political advisors, secretaries, interns; but there's also a much broader array of workers including London ‘Posties’, Caribbean cooks, Filipino cleaners and so on. Regardless of rank and status, all are equally welcomed to Mass in St. Mary’s Undercroft, commonly called, “the crypt”.

History records that this was not always so. The church, which was begun in 1297 in the reign of Edward I as an attempt to imitate the splendour of Saint-Chapelle in Paris, was originally for the exclusive use of the Royal Household. By contrast, the Chapel of St. Stephen’s immediately above the crypt was used by the Royal Court, and accessed only by the Royal Apartments. St. Mary’s Undercroft was eventually completed in 1365 by Edward III. Sadly, the weathers of the Reformation took their toll and this iconic church fell out of use and into disrepair. Legend has it that the chapel was used as stabling for Cromwell’s horses! Certainly, part of the chapel was used as a dining room for the Speaker of the House of Commons, and other parts were used as a wine cellar.

In 1834, a great fire razed most of the Palace of Westminster to the ground. Happily, however, both the historic Westminster Hall (where St. Thomas More stood trial) and St. Mary Undercroft survived relatively unscathed. The gargantuan task of rebuilding of the Palace was undertaken by Sir Charles Barry and A W N Pugin (a Catholic). The crypt was not originally part of their project. After Charles’ death, Edward Barry took on the task of restoring St. Mary’s Undercroft, a project he completed in 1870. The church was restored both in gothic decoration (it was white-washed in Cromwell’s time), and usage as a church. During the restoration works, the remains of the Bishop of St David’s, William Lyndwoode (d.1464) were discovered embalmed in the chapel's north wall. Bishop Lyndwoode was later laid to rest in the cloister of Westminster Abbey.

The interior decoration of the crypt is ornate gothic. Adorned by angels, there is a celestial feel about the place. The elaborate vaulting, punctuated with remarkable bosses, lifts one's eyes heavenward. All around, the gilded wood and golden stone glisten proudly. Behind the altar, there were originally stained glass windows. Now stands a reredos depicting six medieval British saints: St Oswald; St Etheldreda; St Edmund; St Edward the Confessor; St Margaret of Scotland; and St Edward the Martyr. Two further saints, St Peter and St Stephen, either side of the central cross. More photographs of the church can be viewed here.

Behind the visual splendours, there lies a hidden detail that forms a fascinating footnote in British constitutional history. Within a broom cupboard at the bottom of the steps leading from the crypt to Old Palace Yard (outside Peers Entrance) is a plaque. It reads, "In loving memory of Emily Wilding-Davidson”. 

On the night of 2nd April 1911, Wilding-Davidson hid herself in this dark corner of the Palace, illegally.  She did so in order that she could then record her address on the night of the census as being the House of Commons. This brave stunt formed was part of the suffragettes fight for the vote.  In pursuit of this noble cause, Emily Wilding-Davidson tragically died in June 1913 from injuries sustained when she threw herself under the King’s horse at the Derby to again draw public attention to the injustice suffered by women.

Churches need priests. At the start of my time, Fr. Michael Seed SA would come and say Mass, and was a great encouragement to the many who knew him. Later, there was a rota of priests. The appointed cleric would hot-foot it down Victoria Street from Westminster Cathedral on a regular but infrequent basis. After various pleas were made for greater spiritual support, in 2009 the Archbishop of Westminster appointed Canon Pat Browne as the “Duty Priest”, effectively the Catholic Chaplain to Parliament. Fr. Pat, once the Secretary to Cardinal Hume and Parish Priest at Holy Apostles, Pimlico, has been a wonderful blessing to the Catholic Community. He is an exceptionally gifted pastor who makes a vast, if understated, contribution both sacramentally within the precincts of the Church, and beyond.

I would encourage anyone who has the chance to visit St. Mary Undercroft to do so. Sadly, since it is a royal peculiar, such occasions are few. However, it is possible to catch a virtual glimpse of this unique, beautiful and hidden church here. When you pray for politicians (and they certainly need our prayers!) you might think of them gathered in this historic place, with staff and other Christians, praying for God’s grace and mercy.

Br Samuel Burke OP 

Samuel Burke O.P.

Br Samuel Burke O.P. Fr Samuel Burke is based in St Albert the Great in Edinburgh, where he serves as a university chaplain.  |  samuel.burke@english.op.org


Robert commented on 08-May-2016 05:55 PM
Very interesting - know very little of this chapel. Thanks Br Samuel for posting this. Look forward to others in the series.
Anonymous commented on 08-May-2016 06:09 PM
Thank you Br Samuel. It is wonderful to see a place of worship I have heard about but never had the chance to visit. It is a gothic masterpiece indeed.

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