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The Chapel Royal is an establishment in the Royal Household serving the spiritual needs of the sovereign of the British royal family. Historically it was a body of priests and singers that travelled with the monarch. The term is now also applied to the chapels within royal palaces, most notably at Hampton Court and St James's Palace,[1] and other chapels within the Commonwealth designated as such by the monarch.

The Chapel Royal's role is to perform choral liturgical service.[2] It has played a significant role in the musical life of the nation, with composers such as Tallis, Byrd and Purcell all having been members of the choir.[3] The choir consists of Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal singing the lower parts alongside the boy choristers known as the Children of the Chapel.



Middle AgesEdit

In their early history, the English chapel royal travelled, like the rest of the court, with the monarch and performed wherever he or she was residing at the time.

The earliest written record of the chapel dates to c.1135 in the reign of Henry I. Specified in this document of household regulations are two gentlemen and four servants, although there may have been other people within the chapel at this time.[4] An ordnance from the reign of Henry VI sets out the full membership of the chapel as of 1455: one Dean, 20 Chaplains and Clerks, seven Children, one Chaplain Confessor for the Household, and one Yeoman. However, in the same year the clerks petitioned the King asking that their number be increased to 24 singing men due to "the grete labour that thei have daily in your chapell".[4]

From the reign of Edward IV further details survive. There were 26 chaplains and clerks, who were to be "cleare voysid" in their singing and "suffisaunt in Organes playing". The children were supervised by a Master of Song, chosen by the dean from among the gentlemen of the Chapel. They were allocated supplies of meat and ale, and their own servant.[4] There were also two Yeoman of the Chapel who acted as epistlers, reading from the bible during services. These were appointed from Children of the Chapel whose voices had recently broken.[4][5]

Tudor periodEdit

The chapel remained stable throughout the reign of Henry VIII and the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The number of singers did vary during this period however, without apparent reason, from between twenty to thirty gentlemen and eight to ten children.[4] The chapel travelled with the King to the Field of the Cloth of Gold, and on the second invasion of France.[4]


In the Tudor period, the chapel increasingly took on another, unoffical, function that would gain in significance into the 17th century - that of performing in dramas. Both the gentlemen and children would act in pageants and plays for the royal family, held in court on feast days such as Christmas. For example at Christmas 1514, the play "The Triumph of Love and Beauty" was written and presented by William Cornysh, then Master of the Children, and was performed to the King by members of the chapel including the children.[6]

The chapel achieved its greatest eminence during the reign of Elizabeth I, when William Byrd and Thomas Tallis were joint organists. The Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal had, until at least 1684, the power to impress promising boy trebles from provincial choirs for service in the chapel. The theatre company affiliated with the chapel, known as the Children of the Chapel Royal, produced plays at court and then commercially until the 1620s by playwrights including John Lyly, Ben Jonson and George Chapman.

17th centuryEdit

In the 17th century the chapel royal had its own building in Whitehall, which burned down in 1698; since 1702 it has been based at St James's Palace. The English Chapel Royal became increasingly associated with Westminster Abbey, so that by 1625 over half of the Gentlemen of the English Chapel Royal were also members of the Westminster Abbey choir.[7] In the 18th century the choristers sang the soprano parts in performances of Handel's oratorios and other works. Under Charles II, the choir was often augmented by violinists from the royal consort; at various times the chapel has also employed composers, lutenists and viol players.

Portrait of a Boy Chorister of the Chapel Royal, c. 1873 by Richard Buckner. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.


In the United Kingdom, the Chapel Royal is a department of the Ecclesiastical Household, formally known as the royal "Free Chapel of the Household". The household is further divided into two parts: an ecclesiastical household each for Scotland and England, belonging to the Church of Scotland and the Church of England respectively. Since such establishments are outside the usual diocesan structure, the chapels royal are royal peculiars. Scotland and England have distinct Deans of the Chapel Royal, that of England being held since 1748 by the (sitting) Bishop of London, while daily control is vested in the Sub-Dean, presently the Revd Canon Paul Wright, who is also Domestic Chaplain to the sovereign at Buckingham Palace. He is assisted by the Revd William Whitcombe and the Revd Richard Bolton, who both hold the office of Priest in Ordinary to the Sovereign, and Jon Simpson who is Sergeant of the Vestry.

The chapels royal are served by a choir, six Gentlemen-in-Ordinary and ten Children of the Chapel— all boys. The current Director of Music of the English Chapel Royal is Joe McHardy [8] who is assisted by a sub organist. The chapel royal occupies a number of buildings.

The Chapel Royal conducts the Service of Remembrance at the Cenotaph in Whitehall and combines with the choir of the host abbey or cathedral on Royal Maundy.


The principal locations in which the chapel operated have varied over the years. For example in the early Tudor period and in Elizabeth I's reign, the chapel's activity was often centered around the Greenwich Palace and the Palace of Whitehall.[9]

Under Elizabeth II the chapel's primary location is at St James's Palace.

St James's PalaceEdit

A window of the Chapel Royal on the right of the main entrance, St James's Palace, London

The chapel at St James's has been used regularly since 1702 and is the most commonly used facility today. Located in the main block of St James's Palace, it was built c. 1540 and altered since, most notably by Sir Robert Smirke in 1837. The large window to the right of the palace gatehouse is in the north wall of this chapel which is laid out on a north-south rather than the usual east-west axis. Its ceiling richly decorated with royal initials and coats of arms is said to have been painted by Holbein.

The separate Queen's Chapel, once also part of the St James's Palace compound, was built between 1623 and 1625 as a Roman Catholic chapel, at a time when the construction of Catholic churches was prohibited in England, for Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I. From the 1690s it was used by Continental Protestant courtiers and became known as the German chapel. After the adjacent apartments burnt down in 1809 they were not replaced, and in 1856–57 Marlborough Road was built between the palace and Queen's Chapel.

Marriage of the future King George V in the Chapel Royal, St James's Palace

Hampton Court PalaceEdit

At the daughter Chapel Royal at Hampton Court Palace a Choral Foundation was registered as a charity in 2011 with an appeal for funds "to preserve its historic tradition of sacred music from Tudor times to the twenty-first century at the present high standard of excellence."[citation needed] The aim is to raise £1 million to provide bursaries for Choristers to help them with the cost of instrumental or vocal tuition; to encourage schools near Hampton Court Palace to promote choral music and organ music with the help of the chapel royal; and to make the musical establishment of the chapel royal financially independent of the Privy Purse Charitable Trust and of the income from collections at services in the chapel royal.

Denis Mulliner in 2010 was made its Canon after no such holder for 530 years.

Tower of London, Brighton and DublinEdit

Two patronised instances almost never attended by the monarch are the chapels of St John the Evangelist and St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London, having their own chaplains and choirs. Roger Hall, the chaplain of the Tower of London, was made canon of the chapel royal at the Tower of London after no such holder for 300 years.

Brighton has a former chapel royal known as the Chapel Royal which was promoted in 2010 to a church in its own right having been for visiting Royalty and primarily a chapel of ease (to the Church of St Peter).[10]

Another one existed at Dublin Castle, the official seat of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, before Ireland's 1920s independence.

Chapels of Royal original purpose without present patronage include the Royal Chapel of St Katherine-upon-the-Hoe in the Royal Citadel, Plymouth.


Three sanctuaries in Canada have the designation of Chapel Royal, and all of them are located in the province of Ontario. They have historic ties both to the Canadian Crown and to First Nations people.

Two of them are associated with the Mohawk people: Mohawk Chapel in Brantford and Christ Church near Deseronto. The former was designated as a Chapel Royal in 1904 by King Edward VII.[11] The latter was designated as a Chapel Royal in 2004 by Queen Elizabeth II and is under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Ontario.[12]

In April 2016, the Queen approved in principle that St Catherine's Chapel at Massey College, Toronto, be designated a Chapel Royal. It became Canada's third Chapel Royal in June 2017.[13]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "The Tudor Palace and Chapel Royal". HM Chapel Royal and The Choral Foundation.
  2. ^ Peter McCullough (ed.). The Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne, Volume 1. p. xxiv.
  3. ^ Martin Cullingford (15 March 2013). "Past and present at the Chapel Royal, Hampton Court". Gramophone Magazine.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Hillebrand, Harold N. (September 1920). "The Early History of the Chapel Royal". Modern Philology. 18 (5): 233–268. doi:10.1086/387341.
  5. ^ Tessa Murray (2014). Thomas Morley: Elizabethan Music Publisher. p. 39. ISBN 9781843839606.
  6. ^ Cambridge History of English Literature 6, Part 2: The Drama to 1642.
  7. ^ Le Huray, Peter (1978). Music and the Reformation in England, 1549-1660. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 73–74.
  8. ^
  9. ^ Peter McCullough (ed.). The Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne, Volume 1. p. 25.
  10. ^ Dale, Antony (1989). Brighton Churches. London: Routledge. p. 29. ISBN 0-415-00863-8.
  11. ^ "History". Mohawk Chapel. Retrieved 4 June 2018.
  12. ^ "Her Majesty's Chapel Royal of the Mohawk". The Anglican Parish of Tyendinaga. Retrieved 19 October 2014.
  13. ^
  • "London (i), §II, 1: Music at court: The Chapel Royal", Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 16 September 2004),
  • The Buildings of England, London 6: Westminster (2003) page 587.
  • "Blow, John." Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 13 December 2006),
  • "Purcell." Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 13 December 2006),

External linksEdit