Starting Work on the St Stephen’s Project

Created on Wednesday 13th April 2016 by:
Dr Elizabeth Biggs

I came to the College of Canons based at St Stephen’s from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries from looking at fifteenth-century political interpretations of history. I’m working on all aspects of the college’s life from building projects to the daily round of masses. I can spend half a day... Read more

My role in the larger St Stephen’s Project is both deceptively simple and frighteningly complex. As the PhD student associated with the project I am supposed to write a history of the college of canons which occupied the chapel of St Stephen’s and the surrounding parts of the palace from the middle of the fourteenth century until the Reformation swept it away in the sixteenth century.

That’s the easy bit. I have a defined scope and range, and I know that I am writing a history of an institution which has a specific lifetime. On the other hand, what was the college of St Stephen’s? It’s not quite like an Oxford or Cambridge college today although it had similarities in structure. Like those modern survivals of the medieval collegiate form, it had a corporate existence which based itself around the dean and canons, just like a modern Oxbridge college will be formally the Dean and Fellows. It’s not a monastery, although like monks its staff lived and worked around the chapel itself. It was not closed off; the chapel was used by other people, including those who were attached to the Court and the Royal family themselves.

Richard II, while mourning for his wife, Anne who had just died, built the college a new cloister to pray for her soul. He was to burn the palace of Sheen, where she had died, down, so this was perhaps a more popular response! Indeed, the college was largely run by royal servants who were also doing interesting things beyond being canons. William de Cusance, for example, oversaw the failure of the Treaty of Bretigny, where many of the gains of the first years of Edward III’s campaigns in France were lost. John Gunthorpe was one of Richard III’s closest councillors and somehow managed to survive the shift in regime to Henry Tudor in 1485 after Bosworth. John Chamber, the last dean, studied medicine in Pavia, was a doctor of canon (church) law and survived the English Reformation.

Establishing who was part of the college took me the best part of a term, although it’s still very much a work in progress as I’m still trying to identify some of the canons, and all of the support staff who ensured that the college ran smoothly. These included men such as the composers John Bedynton, and Nicholas Ludford in the sixteenth century.

I also need to start thinking about the finances and internal structures of the college, because they’ve been lost, but if I can reconstruct them I have a guide to the day to day operation of the college. More excitingly, I need to see if I can find places further afield with similar characteristics, so that I can see whether this institution is as exceptional as I’m currently thinking.

I need to see if I can work through the other types of documents that survive, such as land records in the form of charters, Papal documents from a series of nasty disputes, records of any type created by deans and canons that I can find. I then have to consider the way in which it was destroyed, both legally and physically, and the last dean and canons pensioned off.

Then I can hand on the baton, in a way, to James Jago and Simon Neal, to look at the next phase in the history of the chapel building, when it gave Parliament its first permanent home and became jargon for the House of Commons well into the twentieth century. And I can start trying to understand the seventeenth and eighteenth century antiquarians who tried and failed to write a history of the College but who did collect useful information in that quest. May mine be more successful.

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