The Chapel of St John the Evangelist

The Chapel of St John the Evangelist

Over 900 years old, the chapel of St John has had a unique history as a royal chapel and a national record office. This has led to many periods where it was not used as a place of worship.  It is now recognised as one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in the British Isles.

Constructed as part of the White Tower in the late eleventh century, St John’s chapel was probably intended to be used by the royal family while in residence at the Tower of London. Recent work has shown that the chapel was part of the building’s original design and was not added as an afterthought.

It is not clear how often the chapel was used in its early history, but in 1240 Henry III ordered it to be redecorated. This included three stained glass windows, as well as painted figures of St Edward and St John the Evangelist. Eighty years later, however, Edward II ordered that documents from the Royal Exchequer be moved into the White Tower, and it appears that they were stored in St John’s chapel. This arrangement is unlikely to have lasted until the documents were probably cleared so that the chapel could be used by the imprisoned French King, Jean II, who was held in the White Tower in 1360. After Jean’s release, the chapel appears to have regained its religious role, and 1399 saw the first confirmed ceremony of the Knights of the Bath, who held an all-night vigil in the chapel on the eve of Henry IV’s coronation. This ceremony continued to be held in St John’s until the coronation of Elizabeth I in 1559, when it was moved to the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula.

By 1570, state records had once again been stored in the chapel, and they were to stay here until they were removed in 1858. Large presses were installed to help store the documents, the altar was removed and a spiral staircase was installed to allow easier access to the triforium gallery. Despite these alterations and its use as a record office, many observers still noted the importance of the chapel’s architecture, with William Ainsworth claiming that part of his motivation for writing his 1840 book The Tower of London; A Historical Romance was the fact that St John’s was not open to the public.

In 1858, the new Public Record Office was opened in Chancery Lane and the documents were moved out of St John’s. The military initially proposed that it become an army clothing store; the intervention of Prince Albert, however, ensured that it was returned to religious use. Renovation works took place under Anthony Salvin, who removed the spiral staircase and installed a new tiled floor. The chapel was soon opened to the public and was used for religious services by non-conformist members of the Tower’s garrison. After several requests, the Office of Works eventually agreed to place a permanent altar in the chapel in 1878 to assist with their worship.

In the winter of 1968-1969, the chapel underwent some further renovations. Salvin’s tiled floor was removed (although it can still be seen under the altar and in the triforium), and replaced by modern paving. The Victorian altar was also removed and replaced with a modern example, which remained in situ until 1998. In that year, the Victorian altar was located and restored to the chapel.

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