If you fancy a cup of coffee in the wine cellar, now called the Cellarium, of Westminster Abbey – and why not? – it is worth going upstairs to the upper café where, if you glance out of the window, you will see a very old wall. This is not any old wall. It is all that remains of the refectory where monks ate their meals in mediaeval times. But it wasn’t just a dining room, it was also the place where the embryonic House of Commons – doing a kind of AirBnb with the Abbey – met for over 60 years. Members would have had to move out when the monks wanted to eat.
It wasn’t the first Commons meeting place, but it was the first that it members could call home. The first meeting of the lower house was in the elaborate Painted Chamber over the road in the Royal Palace and after that there was a spell in the Abbey’s Chapter House – a beautiful building which still exists today – but the acoustics were poor and the monks did not like their prayers and rituals being interrupted. So the Commons moved into the much more commodious refectory where, according to historian Alasdair Hawkyard, they met almost without interruption from 1483 until after the dissolution of the monasteries in 1548, when the Commons was moved to St Stephen’s Chapel. It met there until Parliament was burned down in the fire of 1834.
The site of the original Commons can merely be glimpsed from the Cellarium, because it is actually the back garden of Ashburnam House, which is part of Westminster School and can only be seen out of term time on an official visit. The former floor of the refectory is now covered by a lawn, but the north wall is there in all its faded glory. Somewhat bizarrely, on the left side of the photo are several Eton Fives courts – yes in the middle of Westminster – of comparatively recent construction whose roof can be seen on the right side of the photo, which was taken from the Cellarium.
Read more Lost London excavations here.
LONDON AND BREXIT DEBATE: Will leaving the EU be good or bad for the capital? On London and the illustrious London Society have jointly organised a debate about this crucial question. Anti-Brexit campaigner Andrew Adonis, former Boris Johnson adviser Daniel Moylan, Lib Dem AM Caroline Pidgeon and Victoria Hewson from the Institute of Economic Affairs form an all-star line-up of speakers. Buy your tickets here.