Painted Chamber, Westminster Palace.
by William Capon, 1817
Painted Chamber showing proposed redecoration

The Painted Chamber was part of the original Palace of Westminster. It was destroyed by fire in 1834.

Because it was originally a royal residence, the Palace did not include any purpose-built chambers for the two Houses. Important state ceremonies, including the State Opening of Parliament, were held in the Painted Chamber. The House of Lords usually met in the White Chamber. The House of Commons, however, did not have a chamber of its own; it sometimes held its debates in the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey until a permanent home in the former St. Stephen's chapel became available in the 16th Century.

-- That the palatial buildings at Westminster formed the principal residence of King Edward, may be inferred from the fact of our early chroniclers having assigned the occurrence of several of his recorded visions to that spot. Those of the drowning of a Danish King who had undertaken to invade England ; of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus ; and finally, of the grievous afflictions which his country would undergo after his own decease, were of this number; and tradition has even identified the chamber where he died, as that which after generations called the Painted Chamber, and by which name it is even yet distinguished.

In the ceremonial of the marriage of Richard, Duke of York, second son of Edward the Fourth, in the year 1477, the Painted Chamber is spoken of by the appellation of St. Edward's Chamber and Sir Edward Coke, in his fourth Institute, states, that the causes of Parliament were in ancient time shewn in La Chambre Depeint, or St. Edward's Chamber.

Reverting to the more ancient buildings, we may state that ST. EDWARD'S, or the PAINTED CHAMBER, was one of the apartments of the Old Palace which owed its origin to the pious Prince whose name it has borne for centuries ; but which, after it had been enlarged and newly adorned by Henry the Third, occasionally assumed another appellation, de- rived from the quality and profuseness of its embellishments. Before the late fire, this apartment had two floors (one of which was tesselated and the other boarded) supported on vast joists of chesnut timber, which were propped up by middle walls, purposely erected to sustain them.


Its length was eighty feet six inches, its width twenty-six feet, and its height from the upper floor thirty-one feet ; the ceiling, which was curiously designed, was of Henry the Third's time, and embellished with gilded and painted tracery, including small wainscot paterae variously ornamented. Among the paintings on the walls and window jambs, and which had been entirely forgotten until the removal of some old tapestry in 1800, were representations of the battles of the Maccabees ; the Seven Brethren ; St. John, habited as a Pilgrim, presenting a ring to King Edward the Confessor ; the canonization of King Edward, with seraphim, &c. ; and numerous black-letter inscriptions, chiefly of texts from Scripture. (1)

(1) These paintings are noticed in the Manuscript Itinerary of Simon Simeon, and Hugo the Illuminator, in the year 1322 ; which is now preserved in the Library of Benet College, Cambridge.



The Painted Chamber and the Prince's Chamber are two apartments situated a short distance from the south side of St. Stephen's Chapel, which joins the east side of Westminster Hall at its south extremity. The two chambers are parallel, their lengths extending east and west, but their proportions are very dissimilar. Between these is an ancient building, formerly the House of Lords, which joins the Prince's Chamber (a name of modem derivation), and is connected to the Painted Chamber by a small intervening court, which is now used as a passage. The three buildings thus situated may be described as a centre with two wings, the south of which is the Prince's Chamber, retaining in its sides lancet windows; but all of them are walled up, and the external mouldings much defaced. In the east wall of the old House of Lords are several ancient windows. The Painted Chamber forms the north wing of this group of buildings; it is disfigured by modern alterations and additions, and is so much enclosed by dwelling-houses (attached as well as detached), the encroachments of the new House of Lords and its various offices, that the original extent cannot be seen or even those parts which are exposed viewed without obstructions. But as the Painted Chamber appears never to have been an insulated building, the irregularity in the position of its windows will be accounted for.

The commencement of the thirteenth century is probably the period when the Painted Chamber was built Its architecture is designed in the plainest manner, and its windows have peculiar forms and proportions, being lofty, and formed in two openings by a column, with a circle between the points of the smaller arches and that of the large arch covering the whole; narrow outside, and spreading very wide within, having no mouldings, and being devoid of the quatrefoil tracery which characterized the succeeding style of the Pointed architecture. These remarks do not apply to the double windows in the east end, which have lost their tracery, and, besides having mouldings in the arches of the interior, have also insulated columns at the angles, with carved capitals. The walls of the whole exterior are defaced and present a very rough and inelegant appearance, which are not so much the effects of injury and various alterations as of the soft quality of the stone of which they are built. The design of the east end is handsome; additional arches are carried over the windows, and terminate at their bases upon brackets, the regular forms of which are almost wholly deuced. A portion of the north side preserves its original design unaltered, and contains two elegant windows, separated by a flat pilaster buttress reaching to the parapet, and rising out of the wall, which below the windows increases to a considerable thickness. A heavy sloping brick buttress has been added for support at the north-east angle. Attached to the north wall of the Painted Chamber are the stone springers of groins and arches which have belonged to an oratory, formerly entered by a door from that magnificent apartment." On the brackets by which they are supported are shields and arms; one is certainly Cotton (1) impaling Howard. Cotton (2) bears azure, an eagle displayed argent, armed gules. The arms on the other shield are uncertain.

Ascending the ancient stone staircase in the south-east angular turret, we enter the Painted Chamber, which has for many years been encumbered with modern fittings, which so completely concealed the elegance of its architecture and the richness and splendour of its painted decorations that till within a few weeks no knowledge of its original magnificence seems to have existed. Divested of all encumbrances, its length, breadth, and height, its architecture and its decorations are exposed to the pen and pencil of the curious. The whole is lamentably defaced, but not so much from the hand and havoc of time as from the carelessness of workmen in fixing the wainscot screens at the time the room was altered for the use to which it is now appropriated. We may be allowed to say that these are the most extensive, and certainly some of the most curious relics of ancient art which have ever been discovered on this site. The entire walls are covered with paintings of figures and inscriptions, variously disposed according to their subjects, and the connection they have with each other. The inscriptions are very numerous, and are chiefly written in the Norman-French language, in letters of the old English. They separate the pictures, and are in some places written small and close, but towards the upper part of the walls large and bold.

The internal architecture is plain and well adapted to display the superb paintings which were its principal ornaments. The ceiling, which is fiat, resting at the sides only upon a carved cornice, is constructed of wood, and painted with various figures in compartments of different shapes, uniting into one regular and beautiful pattern, the whole coloured and enriched with stucco ornaments. The heads of a considerable number of these figures were found concealed beneath ancient panels of wood, which had been purposely laid over them — it may be presumed, in consequence of some alteration in the decoration of this part, which was suggested before its first completion (3) In the south side of the room are two windows, and in the north three, all corresponding in proportions and design, excepting that the internal arches of two windows in the latter side are round, the rest being pointed. Every arch rests on a small bracket carved with foliage. The doorway which once led to the oratory on the north side has been walled up since the demolition of that elegant appendage. Over this door is a blank window, and near it a handsome quatrefoil perforation. At the east end are two brackets carved with angels holding scrolls; and in the upper part of the west end are four united windows, each with double openings and tracery, and which appear to be the work of the latter part of the fifteenth century.

Among the paintings, the most extensive, perfect, and beautiful, and perhaps the most interesting, is a representation of the coronation of King Edward the Confessor on the north side, which occupies nearly the whole of the large space of wall between one of the windows and the door which entered the oratory. The figures are of large size and very numerous. In the centre is placed the monarch crowned; around him are prelates in their pontifical robes, with mitres on their heads, and holding crosiers, which are elegantly ornamented. The figures are well proportioned and are admirably disposed in small groups. The features of nearly all are entire, excepting those of King Edward, which are quite obliterated, and must have been intentionally defaced, as the crown and curled hair at the sides are perfect. A painted canopy of arches extends over the picture, the background of which is azure, having over the heads of the figures the following motto :


The colours are of the most brilliant kind and are well preserved. Dark green and red prevail in the draperies, the forms of which are diversified in a manner that evinces superior taste and skill in the art of designing, and proves the state of perfection it had reached at that early period. No other perfect subject will be found on this side the room. Fragments of various kinds of figures are to be observed over the whole surface of the wall, with mottoes and inscriptions, all equally beyond the power of description. A figure in a sitting posture, holding a sword, appears above the canopy which covers the coronation of King Edward the Confessor; but the subject to which it has belonged is wholly obliterated. Towards the west side of the coronation are figures of men on horseback, and on the west side of these portions of mail armour, which appear to have belonged to
figures of large size. The chain mail is represented by stucco, and likewise some of the principal ornaments, while the features and draperies are painted; a mixture which does not destroy the actual flatness of the latter, but which remarkably aids the substance and nobleness of the former.

Accident, decay, and injury are not so apparent among the paintings on the south side as on the north side of the room. The most interesting subjects have evidently been placed towards the lower part of the walls, in the piers of the windows; and the one which appears to have been the principal fortunately remains the most free from dilapidation. This is a representation of the cruel sentence of King Antiachus against a mother and her seven sons (described in chap. vii. of the second Book of Maccabees). "Antiachus " is written over the head of the King, and over the head of the female "la mere & VII. fiuz" in letters of white paint on azure background. The figures of this subject are small, and the whole has occupied a long narrow space between two inscriptions with a canopy of arches at the head. The King is seated on a throne crowned, and in a posture which well expresses his rage when he thinks himself despised by the mother who stands before him, the cauldron, the fire, and the mangled remains of her children, not exhorting her yet living youngest son to save his life and her own by breaking the law of his fathers, but beseeching her child to have courage to bear the threatened torments of the enraged monarch, and to die resolutely like his brethren rather than sacrifice their ancient laws. The female is habited in a gown of a pink colour, with a veil hanging from her head-dress upon her shoulders. The youth standing before her appears in a plain purple garment, with his hands bound. On the other side of the throne is represented the torture of the sixth youth, who stands bound, and bearing, with the firmness described, the loss of the skin of his head with the hair, which is executed by a man with a sharp instrument and a pair of pincers. Beyond this are the flames and several figures too much defaced to be described. On the same wall, more towards the west end, are several mutilated figures of warriors wearing their surcoats of arms. One bears Vert, three lions rampant or; another, Azure, semee of leopards' heads or, caboshed. The figures are clad in mail armour, (5) and each holds a long spear. Over the windows in this side of the room are several detached and mutilated subjects. That perhaps the most worthy of notice displays a multitude of figures armed with spears and lances, holding banners and other ensigns of war, etc., at the base of a lofty embattled tower, upon the parapet of which is a figure of a King, and behind him a group of figures, apparently in consultation. Another picture, still more imperfect than the last, is probably intended to represent Elisha dividing Jordan with the mantle of Elijah.

The reveal and sofits of the windows are also superbly painted and ornamented. In the sides of every window is a figure the size of life, standing under a canopy, which rises to the springing of the arch, and is encompassed with representations of buildings, elegant tracery, and a great profusion of ornaments; all which are diversified with colours, emblazoned with silver and gold, and enriched with stucco patterns in a superb and elegant manner. Over each canopy is the figure of an angel with expanded wings, holding crowns in their hands. They are clothed in garments of a blue colour, trimmed with gilt ornaments of various patterns. The background is red The two figures in the most eastern window on the south side are King Edward the Confessor and a pilgrim asking alms; the monarch is crowned, and holds in his left hand the sceptre and dove. The adjoining window, which when first exposed to view was scarcely defaced, and retained even some small relics of painted glass, exhibits allegorical representations of Justice and Bounty, both crowned. These figures
are very graceful, and have coats of arms which are partially covered with vestments of a crimson colour, beautifully ornamented. Justice has on her left arm a shield, which bears Gules, three lions or, and holds in her hand a rod, and is in the act of scourging an offender who is crouched at her feet. At the head of this figure is an imperfect motto. Bounty is seen pouring riches from a cornucopia, which are greedily devoured by Avarice, a figure of monstrous form lying at her feet. The figure of Bounty is habited like its opposite, and has a shield on the left arm, but the front of it is not seen. At the head is the word " LARGES--- CE" in Longo-bardic characters. At the edges of this window are painted numerous coats of arms in small oblong compartments. Those of Edward the Confessor, Azure, a cross between five martlets or. Azure, three crowns or. Gules, three lions or. Gules, three eagles displayed sable, etc In the east reveal of the easternmost window on the north side is a mutilated figure of a female, crowned clothed like those before described, and in the attitude of striking a blow with a sword, which is raised over her head. In the west reveal of the next or middle window is a similar figure; and in the east reveal of the westernmost window a figure with a sword in one hand, and in the other a shield of a round form embossed and painted.

Amongst the inscriptions, the Lord's Prayer and several texts from the Scriptures are remaining entire on the south wall. The inscriptions as well as the paintings were renewed in ancient times, and it is not difficult to discover the most ancient by the partial mutilation of the most modem workmanship. A doorway on the south side exhibits a curious mixture of ornaments and inscriptions, the works of different periods.

In removing the masonry , which filled some of the windows numerous relics of paintings were discovered, consisting of portions of figures, beautiful patterns, inscriptions, etc., in good preservation, but all are not equally well executed.

It should be observed that at the foot of the cylindrical stone staircase, which is now the approach to the Painted Chamber, is the water-closet, in which, it is said, Guy Fawkes was found prepared to execute the horrid deed that is annually commemorated on November 5.

(1) See Smith's "Westminster," pp. 46 and 104.
(2) These arms fix the date for Sir Robert Cotton, of Conington, com. Hunt, Bart., who married Margaret, daughter of William, Lord Howard, and who deceased A.D. 1640. He resided in
      a house which joined this side of the Painted Chamber.
(3) Thirty-three panels, painted with figures of angels, saints, and kings, are preserved. These panels are formed of two, three, and four pieces of thin board, and measure about 2
      feet 6 inches long by about 14 or 15 inches broad.
(4) Longo-bardic characters, argent, and handsomely ornamented.
(5) The chain-mail of these figures is painted. None of the ornaments of this group are composed of stucco.

-- Antiquities of the City of Westminster by JOHN SIDNEY HAWKINS 1807

For more on Westminster Palace see "A Guide to Westminster Palace"

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