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.  

Mediaeval in a modern metropolis

A SHORT REMNANT OF the old Roman city wall, which used to surround London, runs just south of the church of St Giles Cripplegate, which itself is on the southern edge of the Barbican complex. The garden of Salter’s Hall lies where once a moat ran along the outer side of the wall. And on the other side of the wall, between it and the wide road called London Wall (the A1211), there are the remains of a mediaeval structure, which look as if they might have been the lower part of a gothic tower. These ruins can be examined close-up or a few feet away, seated at a table under the awnings of Barbie Green, an Australian-style, contemporary eatery, which serves good coffee. The restaurant is relatively new, but the ruins have been there far, far longer. Oddly, although we have passed this area often, it was only yesterday, 16th of August 2021, that we first noticed them.

A notice next to the ruins explains that they are all that remains of the tower of St Elsyng Spital, which was also known as ‘The Hospital of St Mary within Cripplegate’ (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/london/vol1/pp535-537). This hospital was founded in 1330 by the merchant, a mercer, William Elsyng as a college for priests and to provide shelter and other assistance to London’s homeless blind people (https://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?uin=uk.bl.ethos.538317). A victim of the Black Death, he died in 1349.  Following his instructions, after his death it became an Augustinian priory, which survived until it was dissolved in 1536 during the reign of King Henry VIII. After its dissolution, the parishioners of the nearby St Alphage Church, which had become derelict, purchased the church of Elsyng’s establishment. According to the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, the 14th century tower, whose remains we saw, was incorporated into the structure of St Alphage. St Alphage was demolished at the end of the 16th century and its parishioners used what was left of Elsyng’s priory church, which was eventually replaced by a newly built church on a different site in 1777 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Alphege_London_Wall).

The well-maintained ruins consist of several tall gothic arches connected to each other by walls made of roughly hewn stones and mortar. Most of the arches are arranged around what was once the base of a tower. This mediaeval site is surrounded by modern buildings, lies beneath a sinuous elevated oxidised metal walkway. It is sandwiched between the fragment of London’s Roman Wall and the busy London Wall dual carriageway. Part of the joy of stumbling across this relic of pre-Reformation architecture is that unlike so many others we have seen on our travels, it is in the heart of a modern metropolis rather than a rustic environment.  

Small though it is in comparison with its modern surroundings, finding this reminder of London’s distant past, founded long ago by a philanthropic merchant, was a delightful surprise. Even today, so many centuries later, philanthropy thrives in the heart of the old City of London in the form of the descendants of the guilds, of which The Salters, whose hall I mentioned above, is just one example of many.

PS: The nearest Underground station is Moorgate

A chapel that became a barn

PHILIP’S NAVIGATOR BRITAIN is a detailed (1 ½ miles to the inch) road atlas covering England, Scotland, and Wales. It is extremely useful for finding one’s way through Britain’s maze of narrow country lanes if, like us, you do not make use of GPS systems. One of the many features of the maps in this atlas is that it marks old buildings and other sites of interest in both towns and deep in the countryside. Recently (June 2021), we were driving around in rural Wiltshire, having just visited the small town of Bedwyn when I spotted that there was an old chapel nearby, close to the hamlet of Chisbury.

The area in which Chisbury is located is the site of an ancient hill fort in which archaeologists have found artefacts from the Palaeolithic era, as well as the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. The fort, whose earthworks are still discernible, was later used by the Romans. Long after the Romans had left England, the manor house of Chisbury was built within its site.

In the 13th century, the Lord of Chisbury Manor built a ‘chapel of ease’, St Martin’s, close to his manor house. According to Wikipedia, such a chapel is:

“…a church building other than the parish church, built within the bounds of a parish for the attendance of those who cannot reach the parish church conveniently.”

The chapel of ease at Chisbury was built to serve the household of the Manor House as well as villagers nearby, to save them having to travel to the nearest parish church which was in Great Bedwyn.

In 1547, during the Reformation of The English Church, the chapel, like many other places of worship in Henry VIII’s realm, ceased to be used. Instead of being demolished, as so many ecclesiastical buildings were at that time, the chapel was re-used as a barn. The barn continued to be used over several centuries until 1925, when it was designated a building of historical importance. Now, it is maintained by English Heritage. This re-purposing of a place of worship reminded me of what I saw when I visited Albania in 1984. At that time, religion of any sort had been made illegal by the Stalinist regime led by Enver Hoxha. Mosques and churches had either been demolished or re-purposed as sports halls, cinemas, and for other non-religious uses.

The chapel of Chisbury is beautiful. The glass has been long lost from its windows. Trees can be seen from within the chapel through its carved stone gothic windows. The ceiling of the chapel is timber framed, but I suspect that these are no longer the original timbers. The roof is thatched. The floor is at two levels, higher at the west end than the east. Steps lead from one level to the next. The two levels might reflect the fact that the chapel is built on a steeply sloping hill.

On the inside of the west wall of the building, close to the way into the chapel, there is a faded red painted circle enclosing a cross. Symbols like this were painted on to the walls of buildings during the consecration ceremonies of building about to become churches. What you can see in the chapel at Chisbury must have survived many centuries. Maybe, it has been touched up from time to time.

It is written that Jesus Christ was born in a kind of barn surrounded, as the story goes and many artist have depicted, by farm animals. I wonder whether this went through farmworkers’ heads as they used the former chapel as a barn for a variety of agricultural purposes.

Had it not been for builders working nearby, the chapel would have been silent except for birdsong. I am glad we made the small detour to see this delightful relic of mediaeval life in England.

Reform and destruction in an English cathedral

SPLIT IN FORMER Yugoslavia, now in Croatia, is a city that developed in the ruins of a great establishment, the Roman Diocletian’s Palace. Likewise with the city of Ely in Cambridgeshire: it developed within the remains of another great establishment, the large Abbey of Ely, which was dissolved by King Henry VIII in 1539. By 1541, after having its charter renewed by the king, its then bishop, Thomas Goodrich (1494-1554), instigated an orgy of iconoclasm, to which I will return soon.

In 1975, I visited the city of Prizren in the former Yugoslavia, now in Kosovo (Kosova). I was impressed by what I saw in one of the place’s fine mediaeval churches. The caretaker showed me that the frescos on the walls inside the building were badly damaged, but only up to a certain height above the ground, Above this, they were as intact as one could hope for paintings of that age. He explained to me that many centuries ago, the Ottoman soldiers were ordered to destroy the figurative images depicted on the walls. They used the tips of their spears to do the job, but they only destroyed what they could reach from the ground (i.e., without using ladders). Sadly, the iconoclasts working under the orders of Henry VIII and Bishop Goodrich were more diligent in their destructive activities.

Under Goodrich’s orders, first the shrines to Anglo-Saxon saints were mutilated. Then, the vandals attacked all the stained glass and many of the statues in the cathedral, before getting to work on the large Lady Chapel on the north side of the body of the church.

The spacious, airy, light-filled, Lady Chapel is at first glance a magnificent example of 14th century gothic architecture, which was created in 1321. The excellent article in Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ely_Cathedral) describes an important and interesting aspect of the chapel:

“Below the window line, and running round three sides of the chapel is an arcade of richly decorated ‘nodding ogees’, with Purbeck marble pillars, creating scooped out seating booths. There are three arches per bay plus a grander one for each main pillar, each with a projecting pointed arch covering a subdividing column topped by a statue of a bishop or king. Above each arch is a pair of spandrels containing carved scenes which create a cycle of 93 carved relief sculptures of the life and miracles of the Virgin Mary. The carvings and sculptures would all have been painted.”

When we entered the Lady Chapel, we were in so much awe of its beauty that we did not at first notice something, which a church official soon pointed out to us. In each of the booths or alcoves lining the walls, the statues are either missing their heads or their faces have ben erased crudely. The deliberate damage to these statues was ordered by Bishop Thomas Goodrich. He also removed some of the larger statues that once adorned this fine chapel. It was seeing this destruction that reminded me of my trip to Prizren so long ago.

After looking at the Lady Chapel, we explored other parts of the cathedral, where I found other examples of statues that had lost either their faces or their heads. The iconoclasm that occurred in the so-called Reformation, which began in the 1530s, can be seen in many English churches, especially with regard to the acres of stained glass that were wantonly destroyed during that period of religious reform. Maybe, this destructive era should also be known as the ‘de-formation’. Some valuable examples of the pre-Reformation stained-glass can be seen in Ely Cathedral’s fascinating Stained-Glass Museum, which is well worth visiting. Incidentally, apart from European stained glass from across the centuries, the museum has recently acquired a fine example of stained glass from the USA, depicting a black African American.

Although I have concentrated on aspects of destruction, there is plenty of Ely Cathedral left for the visitor to enjoy, including fine gothic and pre-gothic (Norman) architecture. Many mediaeval and Tudor buildings that were once part of the abbey still exist and are now part of the daily life of modern Ely, just as some parts of Diocletian’s Palace in Split are still in use today. Some of these buildings in Ely are used by Kings School Ely, which was one of about 12 schools founded by Henry VIII. These few schools were the only part realised of a more ambitious plan to build many more schools and other new establishments.

We spent a whole day in Ely but could easily have stayed longer without being able to see all of its attractions. Prior to our departure for the city, a friend had told us that it was an unlikeable place not worth visiting. We discovered how wrong he was.