Thorney Tales

History often comes in glimpses and few are more poignant than what you see from the main cloister of Westminster Abbey. If you go into the cloister, which is free and open to the public most days of the week (though not at the time of writing during 2nd lockdown) you will see the top of the Chapter House in the middle of the picture (below) at the back. This is where the monks used to meet daily to discuss the business of the day. In 1352 it became the first place where the King, whose Palace was nearby, formally met Parliament which usually meant he needed to ask for more taxes. In 1362 a statute established that Parliament must approve of all taxation. 

View of the Refectory wall (right) with the Chapter House in the background. 

 

In 1397 Parliament moved from there to the Refectory, or dining hall, of the monastery. A single remaining wall of that medieval refectory is still in existence and can be seen peeping above the wall of the cloister on the right of the photo (above). 

The other side of the wall is part of Westminster School in the garden of Ashburnham House and can’t be experienced unless you are lucky enough to get on a tour. But it can be glimpsed if you go to the upstairs section of the Abbey’s Cellarium café where if you look out of the window you will see a small section of the medieval wall in all its pristine glory (photo below). The dining hall was much bigger than the Chapter House and more fit for purpose even though it was inconvenient for the monks to have to clear up to make room for King and Commons. 

View from the Cellarium window

 

After the Reformation Parliament was moved over the road in Old Palace Yard to the chapel of St Stephen’s College after the monks were forced to vacate it as it no longer served any religious purpose. In 1547 the fiercely Protestant Edward VI gave the Commons full use of the chapel where they stayed for nearly 300 years until it burned down in 1834. The Commons retained the shape of the old chapel where monks faced each other in long lines which is why the design of today's Parliament is oppositional rather than circular as in many other countries. 

The evolution of Parliament wasn’t quite as linear as it might seem. Assemblies of one kind and another - such as Witans - had existed for centuries. The first recorded use of the word “Parliament” was in 1236 under Henry III but it was not like the Parliament of today any more than Simon de Montford’s was in 1265 which involved imprisoning the king and packing parliament with cronies. 

 

 Thorney Tales (20) A History of Parliament in Two Glimpses