Chapel Royal

The Chapel Royal is an establishment in the Royal Household serving the spiritual needs of the sovereign of the British royal family. It was a body of priests and singers that travelled with the monarch; the term is now applied to the chapels within royal palaces, most notably at Hampton Court and St James's Palace, other chapels within the Commonwealth designated as such by the monarch. The Chapel Royal's role is to perform choral liturgical service, it has played a significant role in the musical life of the nation, with composers such as Tallis and Purcell all having been members of the choir. The choir consists of Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal singing the lower parts alongside the boy choristers known as the Children of the Chapel. 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.

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, 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". 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, their own servant. There were 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 broken. 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.

The chapel travelled with the King to the Field of the Cloth of Gold, on the second invasion of France. In the Tudor period, the chapel took on another, 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 Master of the Children, was performed to the King by members of the chapel including the children; 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 commercially until the 1620s by playwrights including John Lyly, Ben Jonson and George Chapman.

In the 17th century the chapel royal had its own building in Whitehall, which burned down in 1698. The English Chapel Royal became associated with Westminster Abbey, so that by 1625 over half of the Gentlemen of the English Chapel Royal were members of the Westminster Abbey choir. 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 augmented by violinists from the royal consort; the Chapel Royal is a department of the Ecclesiastical Household, established in 1483, under Edward IV, as the Royal Free Chapel of the Household. The Chapel Royal is a grouping of musicians, rather than a physical building. Traditionally, the members of the Chapel Royal are divided into clerics and gentlemen of the chapel; the Chapel Royal is a royal peculiar. The members of the ecclesiastical household in Scotland are supplied by the Church of Scotland, while the members of ecclesiastical household in England are supplied by the Church of England.

Since the 18th century, the dean of the Chapel Royal in England has been held by the sitting Bishop of London, with control of music vested in the sub-dean (currently Paul Wright. 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 centered around the Greenwich Palace and the Palace of Whitehall. Under Elizabeth II the chapel's primary location is at St James's Palace; the chapel at St James's has been used since 1702 and is the most 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, laid out on a north-south rather than the usual east-west axis.

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