Praying above the flowing water

ALMOST OPPOSITE THE modern and magnificent Hepworth Wakefield art gallery, completed in 2011, there is a nine arched bridge, built between 1342 and 1356, crossing the River Calder. Midway across the bridge, there is a small gothic chapel. It is the oldest one of only four surviving bridge chapels in England. Between the mid-14th century, when it was built and the Reformation in the 16th century, the Chantry Chapel of St Mary the Virgin served as a place of worship for travellers crossing the bridge on their way from Wakefield to Leeds.

The purpose of a chantry chapel was:

“…to provide for a priest to say mass for the souls of the dead to reduce their time in purgatory.” (www.wakefieldcathedral.org.uk/visit-us/the-chantry/a-history-of-the-chantry-chapel)

Two acts passed during the reigns of King Henry VIII and his successor the young and fanatically Protestant Edward VI resulted in the closure of the well over 2300 chantry chapels in their kingdom. The chapel on the bridge at Wakefield was one of them. Whereas many chantry chapels were demolished or otherwise rendered unrecognizable, that on the bridge at Wakefield survived because it is an integral part of the structure of the bridge (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chantry_Chapel_of_St_Mary_the_Virgin,_Wakefield).

The former chapel on the bridge was used for various purposes between 1547, when its religious use was terminated, and 1842, when it was restored. It was used at different times to house a warehouse, a library, an office, and a cheese shop.

In 1842, the formerly Roman Catholic chapel was transferred to the Church of England and it was restored by the Yorkshire Architectural Society, which was influenced in its philosophy by the Oxford Movement, a group of High Church members of the Church of England who wanted to reinstate older Christian traditions, which had been abolished during the Reformation, and incorporate them into Anglican theological practice. The architect George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878) was involved in the restoration of the edifice.  By 1848, the bridge on the chapel was once again being used as a place of worship. For a while it became a parish church, and then after a new parish church was built in 1854, it became used for occasional rather than regular services, and peopled prayed whilst water flowed below them.

Currently, the chapel is under the care of the Friends of Wakefield Chantry Chapel, which was founded in 1991. The chapel is usually kept closed but is opened on certain days (see: www.chantrychapelwakefield.org/open-days.html). As luck would have it, we walked across the bridge on a sunny day that the chapel was open. The small chapel is on two floors. The upper chapel is well-lit both by electric lamps and light flooding through its five sets of stained-glass windows. A narrow spiral staircase leads down to a lower, poorly lit, rather dusty chamber, somewhat devoid of interest.

The decorative ancient gothic chapel on the bridge makes an interesting contrast to the elegant but puritanically unadorned exterior of the Hepworth Wakefield gallery almost opposite it. Both buildings are definitely well worth exploring.  

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