The Chapter House and Pyx Chamber in the eastern cloister range of Westminster Abbey, south of Parliament Square, Westminster.
Reasons for Designation
The Chapter House and Pyx Chamber formed part of the Benedictine Abbey of Westminster. A Chapter House was a building where the dean, prebendaries or monks and cannons met for the transaction of business. Westminster Abbey Chapter House is unusual in that it came into frequent use by the State. The Pyx Chamber was part of the undercroft of the monks’ dormitory before it was converted into a strong-room.
From the time of St Augustine's mission to re-establish Christianity in AD 597 to the reign of Henry VIII, monasticism formed an important facet of both religious and secular life in the British Isles. Settlements of religious communities were built to house communities of monks, canons (priests), and sometimes lay-brothers, living a common life of religious observance under some form of systematic discipline. It is estimated from documentary evidence that over 700 religious houses were founded in England. These ranged in size from major communities with several hundred members to tiny establishments with a handful of brethren. They belonged to a wide variety of different religious orders and varied considerably in the detail of their appearance and layout. However all possessed the basic elements of church, domestic accommodation for the community, and work buildings. Monasteries were inextricably woven into the fabric of medieval society, acting not only as centres of worship, learning and charity, but also, because of the vast landholdings of some orders, as centres of immense wealth and political influence. Benedictine monasticism had its roots in the rule written about AD 530 by St Benedict of Nursia for his own abbey at Monte Cassino. Benedict had not intended to establish an order of monasteries and wider adoption of his rule came only gradually, although over 150 Benedictine religious houses were eventually founded in England.
The Chapter House and Pyx Chamber are an integral part of Westminster Abbey, a building of outstanding architectural and historic significance. The Chapter House, constructed by Henry III, has been recognised as the greatest single act of royal patronage in English medieval history and one of the finest pieces of 13th century architecture with one of the finest medieval tile pavements in England. One of the largest English chapter houses, it served as formal meeting place for the monks of Westminster Abbey but additionally was the assembly place for Henry III’s Great Court; the first secular assembly is recorded as having taken place in March 1257, representing the predecessor of English Parliament. The walls are decorated by late 14th and 15th century paintings which are unique and are a most important and remarkable survival.
Despite later alterations, the Chapter House, together with the Outer and Inner Vestibules, retains a high proportion of original masonry fabric. It was carefully restored, largely faithfully to the 13th century design, by Sir George Gilbert Scott, one of the best-known and most prolific Victorian architects. The Pyx Chamber, as part of the 11th century undercroft of the monk’s dormitory, contains some of the oldest surviving fabric in Westminster Abbey. The site will also contain archaeological remains relating to the medieval construction, use and history of the Abbey.
This record was the subject of a minor enhancement on 21 September 2015. This record has been generated from an "old county number" (OCN) scheduling record. These are monuments that were not reviewed under the Monuments Protection Programme and are some of our oldest designation records.
The Chapter House and Pyx Chamber are part of the conventual buildings of Westminster Abbey, which was founded prior to AD 970. It was rebuilt after 1050, following a standard plan for a Benedictine house, by Edward the Confessor and became the coronation church for the monarchy. Henry III again carried out rebuilding work from 1246. The proximity to the Palace of Westminster, the seat of government, meant that both the Chapter House and Pyx Chamber came into use by the State. The Chapter House was used for the earliest meetings of Parliament, from the 1270s to 1395. From the reign of Edward I, the Pyx Chamber was converted from part of the undercroft of the 11th century east cloister range into a secure storehouse. It was controlled by the Exchequer and used to house the crown jewels. It gained its name for its role in storing the sample coin models used in the ‘Trial of the Pyx’, a procedure to ensure newly-minted coins conform to the required standards.
The Chapter House was constructed in Gothic style, probably to a design of Master Henry of Reyns in about 1246-53. The Chapter House opens off the east Cloister walk via the Outer and Inner Vestibules. The Vestibules contain a high proportion of surviving 13th century masonry fabric. The Outer Vestibule is two bays wide and three bays long, with two aisles and a central line of Purbeck columns supporting quadripartite rib vaults. Its eastern bay contains a reused 11th century oak door, one of the oldest in Britain; a felling date range of 1032-64 has been obtained via dendrochronology. The Inner Vestibule is approached by a double doorway from the Outer Vestibule. It has two unequal bays of quadripartite rib vaulting supported by Purbeck wall-shafts with moulded bays and capitals. On the south side is a 19th century three-light window.
The Chapter House is octagonal in plan, about 18m in diameter and 16.5m high to the top of the vault. The 19th century rib-vaulted ceiling is supported by a central clustered shaft of Purbeck marble. There are four-light windows with bar tracery in six of the eight sides. On the north-west side there is medieval blind tracery. Over the door is a small five-light window. The lower parts of the walls have canopied niches carried on miniature shafts, below which are stone benches and steps. The walls are decorated by late 14th century paintings, which survive on five of the eight sides. They represent the Apocalypse and the Last Judgement. A second set of paintings date from the 15th century and comprise birds and animals. The floor has a fine mid-13th century tiled pavement laid out in 15 rectangular bands on an east-west axis, and another on a north-south axis. Thirty-six separate designs can be identified which are mostly geometrical but there are human figures, animals and fish and a Latin inscription. Two continuous bands of tiles display King Henry’s arms, the three lions of England.
The building is supported by flying buttresses, added in 1377, and is faced in Portland stone with a 19th century high-pitched leaded roof. It is raised on an octagonal vaulted crypt, 8.7m in diameter, with a thick central Purbeck marble column 1.78m high. Its floor is of red clay tiles laid in 1909 and its walls are 5.5m thick and finished with Reigate ashlar internally. Six of the chamber’s sides are pierced by large tunnel-like embrasures containing windows.
The Pyx Chamber, to the south-east of the Chapter House, represents two of the seven and a half bays of which survive of the Romanesque undercroft of the monks’ dormitory. The outer walls and columns are of 11th century date, several of the capitals were enriched in the 12th century and the stone altar added in the mid-13th century when the Pyx took the function of a treasury and sacristy. The pillars carry semi-circular arches, which spring from square responds against the walls. It has groin vaulting of rubble masonry and a late 13th century chequer pattern tiled floor. The floor has designs similar to those on the much finer floor in the Chapter House and show mainly heraldic subjects.
Following its dissolution in 1540, the Abbey briefly became a cathedral, was restored as a monastery under Mary I, and then re-established as a collegiate church by Elizabeth I. Following the re-establishment of the Abbey as a collegiate church, the Chapter House came under the control of the Exchequer for use as a record office and was heavily altered in 1744. It was restored by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1866-72. The Chapter House and Pyx Chamber are managed by English Heritage on behalf of the Crown.
Westminster Abbey, including the Chapter House and Pyx Chamber, is Grade I listed. It is within the bounds of the World Heritage Site of The Palace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey and St. Margaret’s Church, as well as the Westminster Abbey Conservation Area.