The existence of a Chapel Royal dates back to the first millennium.
In the earliest times the Chapel Royal was not a building but an establishment: a body of priests and singers to serve the spiritual needs of the Sovereign. Its first choir school was founded by King Sighbert of the East Angles in 635 AD. In mediaeval days it accompanied the Sovereign on the battlefields of Crecy and Agincourt.
During Tudor times the Chapel would still follow the Sovereign around the country to whichever Palace or great standing house was in favour at the time, commonly Greenwich. Its earliest permanent homes as buildings were at the Norman Tower of London, Westminster and Eltham Palaces. In Stuart times it came to rest largely at Greenwich, St James's, Whitehall and Hampton Court Palaces. Civil War saw some of its members accompany the future King II to exile before it resumed with the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660.
Since Whitehall Palace burned down in the late 17th century the choral headquarters of the Chapel Royal has been based at St James's Palace, where two consecrated buildings survive and remain in use by the Chapel Royal.
The Tudor Chapel Royal at St. James's Palace was constructed by Henry VIII from 1531and the ceiling decorated by Hans Holbein in honour of the king's short-lived fourth marriage to Anne of Cleves in 1540.
Mary Tudor's heart was buried beneath chancel step in 1558. It was also here, in the Royal Closet of the Chapel Royal, that Elizabeth I said her prayers for the defence of the realm against the threat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, having chosen to remain at St James's Palace to receive messages of its progress by fire beacons from Cornwall.
At the end of the Civil War, Charles I received the Sacrament of Holy Communion in the Gatehouse adjoining the Chapel Royal at St. James's Palace before his execution in Whitehall in 1649.
Queen Victoria was married in the Chapel in 1840, and a contemporary unfolded 'Spooner' panorama of that wedding graces the vestibule to the Chapel.
A number of alterations to the building were carried out in 1836 with the addition of the side galleries by reducing the size of the Royal Closet, and a new ceiling at the 'West' end in tribute to William IV and Adelaide to complement the existing 1540 ciphers of Holbein's ceiling. The oak panelling dates from this time, and replica pews were installed in 1876 to replace the old decayed Tudor ones.
In 1997, the coffin of Diana, Princess of Wales lay before the altar where her family and friends could pay their respects in private, before the Princess's funeral in Westminster Abbey.
The Chapel Royal has a long musical history, and is considered to be the 'cradle of English church music'. Among its many noted organists and composers were Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons and Henry Purcell. Purcell lived in a suite of apartments over the Gatehouse in St James's Palace where the poet Dryden, who was frequently in debt, used to take refuge with Purcell to avoid persistent creditors. The Book of Common Prayer was introduced here first in 1664, and Chapel Royal composers wrote music to accompany it.
One of the Chapel's most notable organists and composers was George Frederick Handel, who was appointed by King George II on 25th February 1723 as 'Composer of Musick for His Majesty's Chappel Royal'. The title was constructed to allow Handel, still a German citizen, to contribute to the musical development of the Chapel Royal without actually being a member of it.
Handel composed the great anthem 'Zadok the Priest' for the coronation of George II in 1727 and it has been used at every coronation since. It is also sung each year at the Royal Maundy service during which The Queen distributes specially minted Maundy money.
The Queen's Chapel, across the road from the Chapel Royal, was begun by King James I for the Spanish Infanta as the intended Catholic bride of his son, later Charles I, to accord with the terms of the 1623 Marriage Treaty but completed for his eventual French bride. Designed by Inigo Jones and operational by 1626, The Queen's Chapel was used by the Roman Catholic Queen Henrietta Maria until the outbreak of the Civil War, and afterwards by Queen Katharine of Braganza, the Duke of York (later King James II) and Mary of Modena until 1688 when it was given over to reformed church worship, licensed by the Dean of the Chapel Royal. Grinling Gibbons and Christopher Wren also had a hand in the decoration in its Braganzan days. In later centuries, at the command the Sovereign, it was home to the French and German Lutheran members of the Court and to the Danish Church in London until WWII, when it was given to the Chapel Royal to operate still in accordance with the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1661.
The Choir of Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal
The ancient foundation of Her Majesty's Chapel Royal has a strong musical reputation.
The choir comprises six Gentlemen-in-Ordinary, who are professional singers, and ten Children of the Chapel Royal, boy choristers who hold the Sovereign's choral scholarships at the City of London School, and wear Gold and Scarlet State Coats, still tailored to the Royal Warrant of 1661. Arthur Sullivan was Child of the Chapel and Oscar Wilde a Probationer.
At St James's Palace the Chapel Royal choir sings on Sundays weekly in the Tudor Chapel Royal or The Queen's Chapel facing Marlborough Road and at other events elsewhere as commanded by The Queen.
These include the annual Royal Maundy service, the Remembrance Sunday Parade at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, and, in recent years, the funeral of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother and the Wedding of Prince William to Catherine Middleton at Westminster Abbey, in addition to the Golden and Diamond Jubilee Services at St Paul's Cathedral. Choirs of other Chapels Royal under the authority of The Dean of the Chapel Royal, whose Ordinary is The Queen, continue to operate simultaneously at the Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace.