“ Rotherham / South Yorkshire / England „
I find that there is something very cute about Chantry Bridge Chapels and if you have not yet been fortunate to see one it is difficult to explain exactly where their charm lies. Firstly, I suppose that I ought to explain just exactly what a Chantry Bridge Chapel is and more importantly I ought to tell you whereabouts you can find one, just in case by the end of this review I have stirred your curiosity just enough to try and seek one out or better still, if I have convinced you also that Chantry Bridge Chapels are indeed very cute and charming.
Chantry Bridge Chapels are miniature medieval churches. During the 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th centuries several of these small places of worship were built but sadly only four of them have survived into the 21st century. Thankfully however each of the four remaining examples are in pristine condition and provide a wonderful insight into these little chapels.
I have lived in or around Sheffield all of my life and I have worked in nearby Rotherham for the last 15 years. One such example of a Chantry Bridge Chapel stands on Rotherham Bridge and I pass it almost every working day of my life on my journey to and from work. It would be easy to have become complacent and to have taken it for granted but even now, every time that I pass it by it still grabs my attention.
Chantry Bridge Chapels were built to provide a place of worship for travellers who would stop off at them and pray for a safe onward journey. It was common to find a stagecoach inn located at the end of at least one of the sides of a Chantry Bridge and it was not unusual to find a stagecoach inn at both ends, such was their popularity. This was however an age when only the rich travelled, or at least by means of stagecoach so the people that would have visited these chapels included Royalty or other noblemen of distinction. It was not uncommon to take a detour of many miles to visit a Chanty Bridge Chapel as these people were very religious and believed that they needed spiritual guidance for a safe journey.
The location of these chapels on the main bridge leading into a town was significant and during the middle ages many of the important towns in England would have had such a bridge and chapel, including one on the old London Bridge dedicated to St Thomas Becket. The majority of these chapels were however to be found in the English Midlands at points that were roughly mid-way between the Royal houses of London and other important destinations like York and Edinburgh. As well as their religious significance Chantry Bridge Chapels also provided structural support to the bridge on which they stood as they were constructed at the same time as the bridge and became an integral part of its design and structure.
Today the four Chantry Bridge Chapels that have survived are to be found in Wakefield (West Yorkshire), Bradford upon Avon (South West England) and St Ives (Cambridgeshire) as well as the one in Rotherham (South Yorkshire). There are two other similar surviving chapels in Derby and Rochester, but these are located on the river bank and not on the actual bridge.
Rotherham's Chantry Bridge Chapel dates from 1483 making it an example of one of the later chapels of its kind. It is officially known as The Chapel of Our Lady, but it is more usually referred to colloquially as "the chapel on the bridge". Originally this chapel would have had its own dedicated priest . The duty of that priest would have been to chant masses (hence the name chantry) not only for the souls of the dead but more particularly for those that had lost their lives on the highway. This was a time when highwaymen ruled the stagecoach routes and violence and murder was commonplace for those that travelled.
In 1547 a Parliamentary Act called the "Act of Dissolution of the Colleges and Chantries", effectively pensioned off the Chantry Priests and left Rotherham's chapel along with all of the other similar chapels without a purpose. It was shortly after this date that most of England's Chantry Chapels fell into a state of disrepair and eventually disappeared. Rotherham's chapel probably survived largely because it coincided with the main growth of the town and the structural support that the chapel gave to the bridge became vital.
The origins of the chapel at Rotherham go back to a prominent local man called John Bokyng. He was the headmaster of the town's first grammar school and left a request in his will along with a small sum of money that a Chantry Bridge and Chapel be built across the River Don. It is thought that Thomas Rotherham, the Archbishop of York probably funded rest of the cost of the building of the bridge and its chapel. He certainly lavished a large amount of money on the rebuilding of the town's parish church around the same time so it is a logical assumption to make.
The Chantry Bridge was adorned with gold inside and included a gold statue of the Virgin and Child. Outside the chapel a light was lit every night to guide travellers safely into the town. The Parliamentary Act of 1547 however meant that its working life as a chapel was to be just 64 years and was therefore rather short. After this time the chapel had many different uses but in the 19th century it became connected with the nearby parish church and thus protected.
During the English Civil War it was the location of a big battle that took place on the bridge in 1643 but thankfully the chapel survived intact. Prior to its association with the parish church it had been used as an ale house but perhaps its most intriguing time was the period when it was used as Rotherham's gaol. During this time the crypt was converted into two small cells. In 1820 Rotherham built a new larger gaol and the chapel was then used as a house and later a tobacconist shop.
In 1901 over a thousand residents of Rotherham signed a petition to restore the chapel back into a place of worship. Money was raised but the work was delayed by the First World War. By 1924 restoration work was complete and some of the original furnishings that had been safely stored at the parish church were returned. The Bishop of Rotherham blessed the building and declared it once again to be a place of worship.
Looking at The Chapel of Our Lady today it is easy to assume that this is exactly how it looked almost six centuries and certainly from the outside this is true. Some but not all of the stained glass windows have survived but others are early 20th century replicas that have been designed in a sympathetic manner. Even the outer wooden door, complete with its lock and original keyhole date from at least the 16th century. When I was a kid I remember peering through this huge keyhole and being fascinated by what I could see inside.
The chapel is very square in shape and more or less symmetrical. The stained glass windows are each only around a metre high but they are just as elaborate as anything on a larger scale that I have seen. The outer door is thick and solid but somewhat plain and there are is only minimal craftsmanship on the outer stonework, including castle like turrets on the roof.
These days it looks somewhat odd located directly opposite the town's main bus and transport interchange and the value of its inner charms means that its doors are almost always locked. It is however possible to visit the chapel on a handful of days every year and services are still held here every Tuesday at 11am and lasts for 45 minutes. I have passed by on a few occasions when the doors have been open but until recently I had never had the chance to go inside. The Chapel of Our Lady was open daily throughout the English Heritage Open Days recently (September 2008) but back in June earlier this year I was just walking by when the door opened and an elderly man and woman stepped outside onto the pavement in front of me. "Oh is the Chapel open?" I enquired rather surprised. "Afraid not" the woman replied. I enquired if they knew when it was next open the public and before long a conversation had been struck up. I think they must have took pity on me when they asked if I would like to have a quick look inside.
I was somewhat embarrassed stepping inside the chapel and in retrospect did not have nearly as good a nosey around as I liked, but I then again I suppose that beggars can't be choosers.
What I will remember most about the interior of this chapel is the wonderful stained glass windows. There is a very large window at the back of the altar and this allows the sunshine to flood into the chapel as there is only the River Don beyond it and no obstructions from buildings or trees. The most modern window dates only from 1975 and depicts the history of the chapel. This window bears a Royal Coat of Arms with the letter "M" which represents Mary Queen of Scots, who visited the chapel during a two day stay in Rotherham whilst she was a prisoner at Sheffield Castle.
I also remember the chapel's crypt which still bears the signs of its days as gaol, including graffiti on the doors, which are the original cell doors. It might sound odd but I was actually surprised to see how much it looked like any other chapel, albeit a good fancy ornate one. I am not sure if I expected the pews and altar all to be in miniature but I can assure you that they were not.
So would I recommend a visit to the chapel? Of course I would and if I ever get the chance I would like to step inside again.
The Chapel of Our Lady
Telephone: (01709) 364737
Built in 1483, it is one of four examples remaining that signifies medieval Bridge Chantry. Chapels were built on bridges so travellers could pray for a safe journey, or give thanks for a safe arrival.