The office of Dean of the Chapel Royal was created in the Middle Ages and by 1349 he was the primary representative of the Church in the Royal Court. The Court, and therefore the Chapel Royal with its singers, musicians and priests, travelled around and the Dean was often called upon to administer solemn oaths upon a Bible when treaties or alliances were made in the field after some battle. He also arranged services in great country houses or wherever the monarch settled on a Royal progress.
By 1748 the Royal Court had become more established in the palaces along the Thames, with Chapels in the Tower of London, St James’s Palace, Hampton Court and Windsor Castle (although this has its own Dean). So it was convenient to appoint the Bishop of London as Dean of the Chapels Royal and it has ‘gone with the job’ ever since, although it is a quite separate office.
The Dean still oversees all that goes on in the Chapels Royal as well as some other events such as The Festival of Remembrance at the Cenotaph in Whitehall.
In the early Middle Ages it became common for Kings to engage in battle across various domains in Europe, and it was the need to administer Oaths upon a copy of the Bible to bind parties to Treaties, or terms at the conclusion of hostilities, that led to the creation of the office of Dean of the Chapel as the King of England’s chief ecclesiastical representative in the Sovereign’s Court. The Dean only relinquished these particular duties after overseeing Treaties with Spain, France and Portugal in the Seventeenth Century, in favour thereafter of secular governmental authorities. A number of these treaties remain active and binding today.
The Office of Dean was created from the role initially described in 1312 as “Capitalis Capellanus” and later in 1318 as “Le Chief Chappelin” of the King’s Chapel. The term Dean of the Chapel Royal had subsumed these earlier titles by 1349. As the latter, the Dean of the Chapel Royal also governed ecclesiastical affairs and divine office in all English royal palaces as well as heading the King’s own perambulatory Chapel Royal of priests, vestry and choir in whatever location they found themselves required by the King’s edict, within palace chapels or beyond palace walls. The Dean of the Chapel Royal retains these duties today, for example on Remembrance Sunday at The Cenotaph, while the Chapel Royal has over the past five hundred years become more settled in the standing palaces along the River Thames. Thus since 1748 it has become convenient that the Bishop of London be appointed by the Sovereign also Dean of the Chapel Royal, though the two positions are entirely separate, conferred on different dates, and need not necessarily be vested in the same person.
An idea of the importance of this office is apparent from the Chapel Royal constitution of 1449 which remains extant and states:
“The Dean of the Chapel Royal for the time being holds and exercises full jurisdiction and authority in matters spiritual, and over cases of conscience. The Dean has, moreover, in himself and by deputy, authority and power to order and administer all sacraments and all sacramental rites within the Chapel…and this jurisdiction and power of the Dean extends over all servants and household of the King and Queen, of whatever dignity, estate or condition they may be…whose names are always written in the exchequer Roll of the Royal Household”.
[Liber Regie Capelle, 1449, Chapter II]
In 1721 the Court was reminded that:
“The Dean as such, is immediately Ordinary under the King in all these Chapels within which he has sole Jurisdiction, and ordering of Divine Service, and (next to the Royal Family) the precedence of all persons whatsoever, both Ecclesiastical and Civil”.
[The New Cheque Book of the Chapel Royal, 1721, page 2:]
It should be noted also that there exists one exception to the Chapel Royal having sole ecclesiastical governance of all royal palaces – and this is at Windsor Castle and its Chapels, where the official statutes granted in 1352 following the earlier creation of the College of Our Lady, St.Edward and St.George conferred obligations upon the Warden (later Dean) and College there to minister to the occupants instead of that falling to Dean of the Chapels Royal.