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Tales from the crypt: The controversies behind the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft

Historian Graham Seel tells the full story of the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft (Alamy)

8 min read

The Chapel of St Mary Undercroft might be familiar to those in Parliament, but few know that a row over its status had the potential to cause an incendiary religious split – until a resourceful Speaker defused the situation. Historian Graham Seel tells the full story.

When John Henry Whitley assumed the office of Speaker on 28 April 1921, the Crypt Chapel, which had already been used as a wine cellar – among other things – prior to its restoration after the 1834 fire in Parliament, had once again fallen into disuse.

As one newspaper put it, it had for many years been “profaned by being put to the basest service”. But by the time Whitley stood down from the Speakership seven years later, it was enjoying something of a revival in its use by MPs as a place for the celebration of baptism and marriage, not only by those of Church of England disposition, but also by Nonconformists, including Whitley.

There is no clear evidence this was entirely due to Whitley – nor that he was responsible for any “reconsecration”. However, it is clear that in two significant ways the Speaker, whose tact, vision and vigour were crucial to the successful prosecution of the Building of Britain scheme (the installation of murals in St Stephen’s Hall), played an important role in the reinstatement of the Crypt Chapel: first, by arranging for the marriage of his daughter in the Crypt; and second, by removing what respective protagonists regarded as impedimenta to the revival of the religious life in the space.

During the course of Whitley’s tenure, the Crypt was at the centre of a church-state tussle, generated in the first instance by the disposition of the Speaker’s Chaplain, Canon Carnegie. At issue was whether the child of Ian Macpherson, MP for Ross and Cromarty, was eligible to be baptised in the Crypt by a Scottish Presbyterian minister, the Rev Fleming. This put Macpherson at odds with Carnegie, who, as the Speaker’s Chaplain and Rector of St Margaret’s, Westminster, claimed jurisdiction over the Crypt. In this capacity he insisted that the law of the established church forbade anyone but a clergyman of the Church of England from conducting a baptism in the Crypt.

In an emotional address in the Commons on 10 March 1924, Macpherson duly challenged Carnegie, claiming that the Speaker’s Chaplain “asserts a pretended jurisdiction”. He argued that a chapel maintained by public funds should be open to all denominations; that since the Crypt was under the general jurisdiction of the Lord Great Chamberlain (Lord Lincolnshire) it followed that it possessed the status of a Royal Peculiar and was directly under the authority of the monarch; and that “having fallen on evil days and having been devoted to mundane and material pleasures”, the Crypt was in effect “deconsecrated”.

In an attempt to resolve the issue the Lord Great Chamberlain referred the matter to the Law Officers of the Crown, an action which enflamed the resistance of Randall Davidson, the Archbishop of Canterbury. In a letter to Lincolnshire dated 22 March 1924, Davidson trumpeted: “[I have told] the Speaker and yourself that I, as at present advised, have no grounds for doubting that the Rector of St Margaret’s [i.e. Carnegie] is responsible for the [Crypt] Chapel. […] This is more or less challenged by the Speaker, though not in any formal way.” The character of the debate was captured by Lord Stamfordham, private secretary to the Sovereign, who, perhaps somewhat mischievously, referred to the circumstances as a “Jehad”.

Although the entire issue was belittled by one newspaper as no more than “tremendous trifles”, it had serious potential for injuring relations between Anglicanism and Presbyterianism and posed a challenge for Whitley, the first Nonconformist to hold the office of Speaker and whose chaplain was directly embroiled in the affair. Whitley avoided escalating tensions by remaining ostentatiously removed from the debate.

Nevertheless, while the law officers deliberated on the issue of baptism, the Speaker secured a special licence from the archbishop for the marriage in the Crypt of his elder daughter, Phyllis, on 27 October 1924 – the first such ceremony involving a Nonconformist minister, though presided over by Canon Carnegie. Thus, at the very time that the law officers were considering their response to Macpherson’s appeal, Whitley demonstrated that no malign consequence ensued when Nonconformist clergy participated in ceremony in the Chapel.

"Although the entire issue was belittled by one newspaper as no more than 'tremendous trifles', it had serious potential for injuring relations between Anglicanism and Presbyterianism"

On 14 December 1925 the law officers pronounced that the Crypt Chapel had been “deconsecrated” and secularised by a special Act of Parliament during the reign of Edward VI. In their view it thus followed that “no ecclesiastical jurisdiction exists in respect of the Crypt Chapel” and that “if anybody cares to use the Chapel for any purpose they must apply direct to the Lord Great Chamberlain”.

In this way the issue of baptism in the Crypt undertaken in accord with Nonconformist practice was apparently resolved, though the judgement was predictably ill-received at Lambeth Palace, the archbishop’s ire already aroused upon learning that the baptism of the Macpherson child had taken place on 11 November without any specific permission by the ecclesiastical authorities.

Davidson now let it be known that since the status of the Crypt Chapel was henceforth that of a deconsecrated place it followed that he could no longer issue special licences to validate a marriage conducted in that place. At this juncture the new home secretary, William Joynson-Hicks – or “Jix” as he was known – became involved, informing the archbishop that he considered affairs relating to the Crypt Chapel as increasingly “troublesome” and suggested that Davidson might be willing to grant licences under the provisions of an Act of Parliament. This was rejected by Davidson, concerned that any such Act of Parliament would “override ecclesiastical rights altogether”.

A month later the archbishop, in an extraordinary letter to his legal adviser (Sir Lewis Dibdin), stated that he remained “rather worried about the whole thing” and that he “did not want to raise a new sort of Thomas à Becket controversy, with possibly a similar climax.” The involvement of what one commentator has called “the most prudish, puritanical, and Protestant home secretary of the 20th century”, threatened an incendiary outcome. That this did not come about was arguably the achievement of Whitley.

In early February 1927, shortly before Parliament was due to discuss proposed revisions of the Book of Common Prayer – already agreed by the Church Assembly but now requiring the approval of Parliament – the ongoing matter relating to the Crypt was brought to a head when Edmund Brocklebank, MP for Nottingham East, made plain his wish to be married in the Crypt Chapel.

Aware that the archbishop was as deeply committed to the proposed revisions of the Prayer Book as many MPs were opposed, especially Jix, Whitley urged the archbishop to grant the necessary special licence “for [otherwise] I foresee the certainty of a deep and regrettable feeling being raised in the House of Commons if questions are asked [about the Crypt], as they surely would be and that in view of the important matters which are likely to come to us from the Church Assembly I am most anxious to preserve the favourable atmosphere which has hitherto prevailed.”

Two days later, the Speaker engineered a meeting with the archbishop at the British Museum to pass him a note stating that the Lord Chamberlain was prepared to issue an order that “His Majesty directs that the Crypt Chapel is a private chapel… to be used solely [underlined] for Christian religious purposes”.

The clear stipulation of this last, combined with the fact that the Crypt now had the same status as the chapel in Buckingham Palace, ensured that Davidson’s conscience was sufficiently salved to allow him to issue a special licence for the Brocklebank marriage on 15 March. The newspapers observed that the luncheon following the ceremony was the first to feature a wedding cake made by the kitchen of St Stephen’s.

In his memoirs Lord Hemingford reflected that one of the “matters for which Whitley deserves to be specially remembered… is what one may call the ‘reinstatement’ of the Crypt Chapel for its proper purposes”. It is hoped that this short account has gone some little way towards reviving that memory and that MPs of the present are mindful of Whitley’s achievement.

Graham Seel was Head of History (2012-17) and Head of Faculty Humanities (2017-21) at St Paul’s School in London. He is a contributor to J.H.Whitley (1866-1935) Halifax Radical and Speaker of the House of Commons (Routledge 2017).

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