Chantry Chapel in the 1920s
interior of Wakefield Chantry Chapel on the Bridge. The stained glass
windows date from the 1848 restoration. (A P Oldroyd)
Chapels were occasionally
built on bridges to be available for the spiritual needs of travellers,
who would give thanks for safe arrival in a town after a long and difficult
journey. During the Middle Ages, bridge chapels were not uncommon and
could be found at such places as Leeds, Bristol and of course there was
the chapel dedicated to St Thomas Becket on the old London Bridge. Today
however, there are only six such chapels remaining in England. These are
at Bradford-on-Avon, St Ives (Cambridgeshire), Rotherham, Wakefield, Derby
and Rochester – although the latter two chapels are situated on the riverbank
and are not structurally part of their bridges.
In addition to the
spiritual needs fulfilled by bridge chapels, some (such as the bridge
at Wakefield) performed a more practical role, strengthening the structure
of the bridge itself. Before the Reformation, bridge chapels were chantry
chapels, so called because each chapel was served by its own priest or
priests whose duty was to chant masses or dirges for the souls of the
dead. According to George Henry Cook, in Mediaeval Chantries and Chantry
Chapels, ‘masses were sung for the well-being of travellers and for
the souls of the victims of highway violence.’ The priests also assisted
the parish priest in services and other work when called upon. Many cathedrals
and large parish churches also contained a chantry chapel.
The 1547 Act of Dissolution
of the Colleges and Chantries, pensioned off the priests and left the
chapels redundant. Many chantry chapels rapidly fell into decay and most
were eventually lost. Some bridge chapels survived however, purely for
pragmatic reasons – they ensured stability as a structural part of their
bridges, taking on a variety of secular uses. Surprisingly perhaps, it
is the industrial part of Yorkshire that is fortunate enough to have two
of the surviving bridge chapels: one at Rotherham, the other at Wakefield
on a bridge over the River Calder.
- THE OLDEST
Chantry Chapel of St Mary the Virgin is the oldest and most elaborate.
Situated just south of the city on the nine arch bridge over the River
Calder, the chapel’s history dates back over 650 years. It is an unusual
sight – a tranquil historic oasis so close to heavy traffic and some brick
and concrete architectural monstrosities of the 20th century. At 320 feet
in length, the bridge is unusually long for its age.
was built by the people of Wakefield, replacing an earlier wooden structure
and dates from between 1342 and 1356, the date when the chapel was licensed.
Tolls were levied from 1342 with the authority of the Crown, on those
crossing the Calder. The funds provided were used to construct a new bridge
(this time of stone) of which the chapel itself is a key structural element,
built on a tiny island in the volatile river. Building work was probably
delayed by the Black Death in 1349–50, which wiped out over a third of
the population, including the Vicar, Thomas de Drayton.
chapel’s stonework was richly carved by skilful medieval craftsmen, particularly
on the west front of the building, which was divided into five panels
containing depictions of the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Resurrection,
Ascension and the Coronation of the Virgin. Beneath the depictions were
five arches, three had doorways the other two were filled with tracery
resembling blank windows.
the north east corner of the building is a winding staircase leading to
the roof and small bell tower, an embattled turret. This staircase also
descends to the small crypt in the wedge shaped base of the building.
There are seven windows with fine tracery.
chapel continued to be used for worship until the date of the Dissolution
of the colleges and chantries during the Reformation. Each of the two
priests attached to the chapel received a substantial annual pension of
£5. At the Dissolution chapels could be acquired by local individuals
and the bridge chapel was sold to the Saviles. Wakefield’s three other
chantry chapels closed too, and had all been demolished by the early 19th
century. But the lovely bridge chapel building survived for practical
reasons, as it acted as a major support for the long and narrow bridge.
the ensuing 300 years, the former chapel was put to a variety of secular
uses, including that of a warehouse, library, corn factor’s office and
even a cheese cake shop. At one point it was used to store water, which
was carried by carts into the town. The bridge was widened in 1758 and
again in 1797. Its oldest part is therefore the pointed arches adjoining
the chapel. The structure fascinated travellers and was widely painted
by artists in the 18th and early 19th centuries, including Turner who
produced a watercolour of the building in 1793.
modern phase of the bridge chapel’s long history began in 1842 when the
Vicar of Wakefield, the Rev’d Samuel Sharp secured the building’s transfer
to the Church of England and led moves for its restoration. Sharp persuaded
the newly formed Yorkshire Architectural Society to undertake its restoration.
The Society, founded in the wake of the Oxford Movement, was anxious to
restore medieval ecclesiastical remains. Architectural designs for this
purpose were put forward during the following year and those suggested
by George Gilbert Scott were adopted.
massive programme of over-restoration was carried out at a cost of approximately
£2,500, resulting in the complete reconstruction of the chapel above the
pavement level. Approximately £1,700 was raised from donations. The new
west facade was slightly different from its medieval predecessor, in that
the fifth panel now depicted the Descent of the Holy Ghost, instead of
the Coronation of the Virgin. New windows with beautiful tracery were
provided. It was originally intended that all of these windows should
contain stained glass, but the money ran out and the Rev’d Sharp had to
pay a good deal out of his own pocket. Only the east window, two windows
on the south and one on the north have stained glass.
Scott made two terrible blunders during the reconstruction of the chapel.
Firstly, he had been persuaded by a local stone carver not to repair the
worn and decayed centuries-old west front, but to completely replace it.
The original richly carved medieval facade became separated from chapel,
finding a new home at Kettlethorpe Hall three miles south of Wakefield.
Here it became the frontage to a folly boathouse on an artificial lake.
second blunder was in his choice of building material. The new facade
was carved from soft Caen stone, which soon crumbled in the city’s industrial
atmosphere. Local historian, the late Harold Speak, a former headmaster
of the Cathedral School at Wakefield remembered how a heavy storm would
deposit a thick layer of sand on the pavement. The facade had to be completely
replaced less than a hundred years after Scott’s restoration, this time
in gritstone. The work was undertaken by the well known ecclesiastical
architect Sir Charles Nicholson in 1939.
chapel was reopened for Anglican worship on Easter Sunday 22nd April 1848.
It was used for the first few years as the parish church of the newly-formed
ecclesiastical district of St Mary. When St Mary’s new church was built
in 1854 the bridge chapel became a chapel-of-ease, but was more of a liability
than an asset to the poverty-stricken parish. Services were held somewhat
irregularly and for substantial periods of time it was closed altogether.
At the turn of the 20th century the bridge and chapel survived a controversial
proposal to completely reconstruct the bridge slightly downstream, as
it was deemed inadequate to carry the proposed electric tram system. The
bridge carried the only road out of Wakefield to Barnsley and Doncaster
until 1933, when a modern road bridge was constructed alongside it, slightly
clearance led to the merger of St Mary’s with neighbouring St Andrew’s,
Eastmoor in the 1960s and for 20 years this over-burdened new parish struggled
with the chantry chapel’s costly upkeep. By the late 1980s its future
looked uncertain and it seemed likely that the chapel would be declared
redundant by the Church of England. The chapel’s long term survival was
assured however in 1991 with the formation of a new body of Friends whose
immediate task was to raise funds to repair the chapel roof and re-point
some of the stonework. The Friends of Wakefield Chantry Chapel was formed
mainly by members of the Wakefield Historical Society, Wakefield Civic
Society and members St Andrew’s Parish Church.
the past decade an extensive programme of conservation work has been carried
out for the Friends with the approval of English Heritage. This work included
roof repairs, re-wiring and the installation of some very effective new
heating. The re-wiring of the chapel incorporated specially designed lighting
features, which emphasise the major features of the interior including
the communion table, doorway to the crypt and niche.
most significant repairs and renewal took place to the external stonework
of the building in a £30,000 project by William Anelay Ltd. As part of
this restoration work, six new carved stone heads (label stops) were provided
on the south side of the building, where the old heads were too eroded
to conserve. Following the suggestion of architect David Greenwood, the
Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Wakefield, the Lady St Oswald, the Rt
Hon Walter Harrison JP and Cannon Bryan Ellis allowed their features to
be sculptured by stonemason John Schofield. The fifth head is that of
the late Ray Perraudin, a founder of the Friends of Wakefield Chantry
Chapel. The sixth is the head of one of Anelay’s workmen.
Friends of Wakefield Chantry Chapel have gone on to do far more for the
beautiful little building and are just £3,000 short of reaching their
initial target of £100,000. Most recent work has involved the conservation
of the internal stone heads. Their age is unknown. Mixed elements of stone
used in the 1840s rebuilding means that they could be of medieval origin.
The Friends are now turning their attention to the controversial question
of the cleaning of the west facade. In January 2000 a skilful parish boundary
change brought the chantry into the care of Wakefield Cathedral at the
beginning of the new millennium and relieved St Andrew’s of the burden.
ROTHERHAM – ANOTHER YORKSHIRE GEM
Chapel of Our Lady at Rotherham dates from 1483 and is situated on the
original four-arched bridge over the River Don. The chapel itself was
asked for in the will of the master of the grammar school, John Bokyng,
who left a small amount towards its fabric. It is possible that Archbishop
Thomas Rotherham, Archbishop of York bore the cost of its construction.
A light was lit in the chapel every night to guide travellers into the
town. It was richly decorated and included a statue of the Virgin and
Child ‘of gold, welwrought’.
existed as a Chantry Chapel for little over 60 years. After its closure
under the 1547 Act of Dissolution, the building had a particularly chequered
history, serving as almshouses for a time, before being allowed to fall
derelict. In 1779 it became the town lock-up or gaol. The crypt was converted
into two cells which were beneath the office of the Deputy Constable.
Following the completion of a new gaol in the 1820s, the chapel survived
as a house and from 1888 it was used as a tobacconist and newsagent’s
first moves to restore the building as a chapel came in 1901, when almost
1,000 Rotherham residents signed a petition calling for its restoration.
In 1913 it was acquired by Sir Charles Stoddart. Restoration was postponed
by the First World War, and the chapel was finally dedicated as a place
of worship by the Bishop of Sheffield in 1924.
Wakefield’s chapel, the west front
is plain, but there are battlements and elaborate pinnacles. The chapel’s
crypt provides a chilling reminder of the 47 years during which it was
used as the town’s gaol. The cell doors survive, complete with contemporary
impressive feature is the East Window, which dates from 1975 and was designed
by Alan Younger. It depicts symbols of important events in the chapel’s
rich history. These include the coat of arms and letter ‘M’ for Mary Queen
of Scots who spent two days in Rotherham on her way to Tetbury in 1569;
and heraldic devices for the royalist and parliamentary forces that fought
on the bridge during the Civil War in 1643.
THE OUTCOME OF SCOTS FOLLY
original medieval faca de
of Wakefield Chantry Chapel in 1949, when it formed the frontage of
a folly boathouse at Kettlethorpe Hall, two miles south of the city.
the end of his life Sir George Gilbert Scott came to regret his odd decision
to let the beautiful 14th century facade Wakefield Chantry Chapel be sold,
remarking that he thought of this ‘in utmost shame and chagrin.’ Indeed
he was so anxious to have the front returned to its original position
that he offered to contribute towards this objective, if he could persuade
enough people to help him. Sadly nothing was done.
original west facade, described by Pevsner as ‘the most precious of all
boathouses’ spent its first 100 years in gentle decline as a romantic
folly, a favourite view of Victorian artists and the subject of many early
picture postcards. By the late 20th century it was redundant and rapidly
falling into decay. Many of the beautifully carved stones had fallen or
been pushed into the lake. The nearby Kettlethorpe Hall lay empty for
many years and schemes were put forward to move the chantry front to a
less vulnerable location.
number of ideas were suggested, ranging from reconstructing the frontage
inside Wakefield Cathedral to placing it in a proposed extension to the
city’s main indoor shopping centre. Alas, none of the many suggestions
for removal and conservation came to fruition, despite a highly vocalised
campaign by Wakefield Historical Society.
September 1995, time finally ran out for the boathouse. This lovely 14th
century facade, which had survived the Reformation, the Civil War and
centuries of Yorkshire weather was reduced to a heart-breaking pile of
rubble by mindless vandals.
ruined architectural fragments have since been collected and placed into
storage by Wakefield Metropolitan District Council. An estimated 80 per
cent of the stonework survives. It is hoped that the facade can be reconstructed
in the proximity of the bridge, as part of the Wakefield Waterfront Project,
so that visitors will be able to compare the remainder of the original
frontage with its 1930s equivalent.
Rotherham Churches Tourism Initiative
c/o Rotherham Parish Church, All Saints’ Square, Rotherham S60 1PW
Rotherham Unofficial Website:
Friends of Wakefield Chantry Chapel
19 Pinder’s Grove, Wakefield WF1 4AH
Unofficial Wakefield Chantry
Wakefield Waterfront Project: