This is one of the most famous churches in the world, but it’s surprisingly small, intimate and non-ostentatious. I’ve been in this room and could hardly believe it was so quaint, at least so far as medieval European churches go. St. John’s Chapel is the oldest Norman church in England, built in or about the year 1080. It’s located at the heart of the building known as the White Tower, which is itself at the heart of the complex commonly called the Tower of London. For centuries this room was the spiritual and moral heart of the British nation. Countless English monarchs have worshiped here, some married, others baptized, and some begged for forgiveness for horrible sins. Few more historic rooms exist on planet Earth.
The story of St. John’s Chapel and the Tower of London in general is closely bound up with that of the Norman conquest. In 1066 William of Normandy, who came to be known as William the Conqueror, invaded England from northern France–the last time this has ever been done successfully. At the Battle of Hastings in October 1066 William defeated and killed the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson, and then set out to replace England’s old Anglo-Saxon elite with a Norman one. The Norman Conquest was not just about political control but also (and particularly) cultural and moral control. William imposed a new language, new customs and very tight control over the landed aristocracy. But he was still a Christian and had to claim moral authority from God to rule England, so religion remained an important facet of his reign. He was crowned King of England on Christmas Day 1066 in Westminster Abbey. Fourteen years later when the White Tower was completed he and his successor Norman kings had their own chapel, in the heart of the fortified keep from which they ruled England with a more or less iron fist.
The stone from which this room is built was imported from William’s native France. The stained glass and wooden implements are all much more modern than the 11th century, but there’s not really much you can do to a room like this to make it look significantly different than it did in William’s time. When I was first here in the year 2000 the Domesday Book–another key piece of William’s regime–was on display here temporarily. It was amazing to see. I will definitely go back.