More than 900 years old, the Chapel of St. John has had a unique history as a royal chapel and a national record office. The beautiful and austere chapel is situated on the second floor of the in the Tower of London and is considered one of the finest surviving examples of Norman church architecture.
Constructed as part of the tower in the late 11th century, the royal family intended to use the chapel while in residence at the Tower of London. Recent investigation has shown that the chapel was part of the building’s original design and was not added as an afterthought.
It is not clear how often the chapel was used in its early history, but in 1240, Henry III ordered it to be redecorated, which included the addition of stained glass windows. Eventually, the chapel regained its religious role, and 1399 saw the first confirmed ceremony of the Knights of the Bath, who held an all-night vigil in the chapel on the eve of Henry IV’s coronation.
By 1570, state records were moved to be stored in the chapel. Large presses were installed to help store the documents, the altar was removed and a spiral staircase was installed to allow easier access to the gallery. Despite these alterations and its use as a record office, the importance of the chapel’s architecture was still observed. In fact, author William Ainsworth claimed that part of his motivation for writing his 1840 book, The Tower of London; A Historical Romance, was influenced by the mystery of St. John’s Chapel.
In 1674, workmen were employed in the demolition of a staircase of the White Tower, leading to a horrible discovery. The bones of two children were found, and it was believed that the remains were of two princes, Charles V and his brother, the Duke of York. How and why the remains were placed there continue to be under speculation.
In 1858, the new Public Record Office was opened in London, and the documents were moved out of St. John’s. The military initially proposed that the chapel become an army-clothing store, but the intervention of Prince Albert ensured that it was returned to religious use. Renovation work took place; a spiral staircase was removed, and a tile floor was installed. The chapel was soon opened to the public and was used for religious services.
In the winter of 1968, the chapel underwent some further renovations. The tile floor was removed (although it can still be seen under the altar) and replaced by modern paving. The Victorian altar was also removed and replaced with a modern example, which remained until 1998, when the Victorian altar was located and restored to the chapel.