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Though he was the most famous, J M W Turner was only one of many artists to record the burning of the Houses of Parliament in London on 16 November 1834, and the effects that it had on the building. George Balmer produced at least four watercolours of the ruins of St Stephen’s Chapel, which had served as the chamber of the House of Commons, and its adjoining cloisters. Of the three that are now in the collections of the Houses of Parliament, one seems to be a study for the fourth and present image, which was completed in the following year.
St Stephen’s Chapel was built in the Palace of Westminster in the thirteenth century, and for 250 years was used as a place of worship by the Royal Family, with its household and court using the crypt chapel, St Mary Undercroft. During that time, it provided the venue for the marriage of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia in 1382, and the laying in of state of the body of King Edward IV in 1483.
Following the accession of King Edward VI in 1547, the Palace of Westminster ceased to be a royal residence. St Stephen’s Chapel became the debating chamber of the House of Commons, while St Mary Undercroft was used variously as a wine cellar, a dining room and – possibly – a stable for Oliver Cromwell’s horses. Among various alterations, the murals of the chapel were covered by wainscoting, and the walls of the crypt whitewashed. In the decades following the destruction of St Stephen’s in 1834, St Mary Undercroft was restored and reconsecrated. As the debating chamber, St Stephen’s had been the setting, during the mid seventeenth century, for the dramatic events of the Long Parliament and the confrontation with Charles I.