Finding the Medieval Facade of Wakefield’s Bridge Chantry Chapel

Wakefield district council describes its own post-industrial landscape as ‘a place of independent spirit, of rich heritage and culture’. With ‘beautiful outdoor spaces, historic woodland and country parks galore’, visitors are invited to ‘wander among the romantic ruins of medieval castles’.

You may have to know your way around the area to tick each of those boxes, but there are some remarkable medieval landmarks, if you know where to find them.

One of Wakefield’s finest historic buildings is its medieval bridge chapel dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, which has an incredible 14th century west façade, abundant with gothic sculpture and decoration. But this is not the original facade. What visitors observe today is in fact a dark, grimy, weather-beaten modern replica. So what happened to the original 14th century stone façade? It still exists and has been moved around a fair bit, but it’s still in the city of Wakefield. In summer 2020 I made a 9 minute video to upload to YouTube with footage of me finding the original ruins and talking through its history. Unfortunately the finished video failed to export properly and I lost a lot of the work I put in to making it, so this blog post is a (slightly edited) copy of that script with some photos and illustrations to tell the same story. Essentially I make reference to 3 main sources; J. W. Walker’s Wakefield its History and People (1934) and The Chapel of St Mary Upon Wakefield Bridge (anon.). Thirdly from this fantastic article on The Post Hole written by Joanne Harrison titled Visual Analysis and Phased Interpretation of Chantry Chapel, Wakefield (Nov 2004) – the author of this article has put together a hearty bibliography and given reference to a wealth of visual source material to document the state of the chapel from the early modern period to the present day.

During the second quarter of the 14th century, the old bridge at Wakefield was rendered unsafe by the heavy floods of the river Calder which fractured it quite severely. It was when the bailiffs of the town applied to the crown (Edward III) for help in rebuilding it in 1342 that it was decided to erect not only a new bridge but to build a chapel on it. Examples of medieval bridge chapels survive at Rotherham and St Ives (others elsewhere although their original functions are not known), but Wakefield’s bridge chapel as we see it today, although not entirely medieval anymore, is the oldest bridge chapel in the country.

The construction of the bridge began after 1342 when the right to tollage ‘on all merchandize and animals’ was granted to the bailiffs in order to pay for its erection; the chapel was founded for travellers passing over the bridge so they might enter and pray for a safe journey or return thanks for a completed one. Much like it is reportedly said of Wakefield’s parish church (now the cathedral) in the Middle Ages, the bridge chapel is recorded as “wholly built of costly stonework by the inhabitants and community of Wakefield”.

The foundations of the chapel were laid on a small island in the middle of the river Calder, against and forming part of the northern pier of the bridge’s central arch. It was built of sandstone, probably obtained from the large quarry on the north side of what is today Wakefield’s cathedral and former parish church.  

So what did the celebrated façade look like? (reference the following 5 images in the gallery of images below)

The west front had 5 compartments or panels, which extended the whole height of the edifice, and were separated from each other by slender shafts. The 5 arches below were alike in design, with ogee cornices, above which were gabled crocketed pediments, the tympana and spandrels covered with beautiful diaper work and tracery. Three of these arches were pierced with doorways, the other two were filled with blind tracery. The parapet above this consisted of 5 panels of sculpture, each panel surmounted by a canopy of 3 cinquefoil arches, above which were battlements. The sculptures were (and can be seen labelled A-E in the final image in the gallery below):

A. The Annunciation. Gabriel saluting the Blessed Virgin

B. The Nativity. A busy scene with the Virgin holding the newborn Christ surrounded by Joseph, an Ox and a hovering angel.

C. The Resurrection – dating the armour of the knights here complies with the date for the chapel provided by architectural and documentary study.

D. The Ascension. Christ passing up to heaven and only his feet and legs could be seen, as common with art of this scene at the time. 11 disciples looked on.

E. The Coronation of the Virgin.  St Mary crowned on one side with St Anne on the other; between them an altar shaped tomb, the front of which was decorated with pierced lozengy quatrefoils and spandrels, and behind that a traceried screen.

The bridge chapel was closed following the abolition of the chantries act and in 1549 it was sold to Henry Savile of Lupset. Throughout the following centuries the chapel was put to use as a warehouse, an old clothe-dealers shop, a small library, a cheese-cake shop, a corn factors office and lastly a tailors shop. During this general period, however, both the bridge and the chapel were kept in poor condition. The final occupant apparently gave up possession of the chapel in the hope that it might again revert to a place of worship, for which it was originally built.

In 1842 the vicar of Wakefield, the Rev Samuel Sharp persuaded his fellow governors of the Wakefield Charities, to whom ownership had been conveyed some years previously, to pass ownership of the chapel to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners for building additional churches in populous parishes. Essentially, the chapel was to revert to a place of worship.

One year later, architect George Gilbert Scott drafted plans for a complete rebuilding of the chapel above the bridge level; its at this point that the original west front was removed to Kettlethorpe Hall, just south of Wakefield, where its new owner erected it at one corner of their artificial lake, functioning as the front of a boat-house. Scott’s new west front was a copy of the medieval original. His only alteration to the original scheme was the substitution of the sculpture depicting the scene of the Coronation of the Virgin with the Descent of the Holy Ghost. But as Scott had built his façade of Bath and Caen stone it deteriorated very quickly, and in the course of less than a century it had almost entirely perished. In the early 20th century a metal railing was installed around it so that masonry didn’t fall on passers-by. It was said at the time that the medieval original, then at Kettlethorpe Hall, was actually in a better state of preservation than Scott’s new façade.

Later in life, Scott saw his grave mistake in replacing the original façade of the town’s bridge chapel, and wrote in the Ecclesiologist: “It was an evil hour that I yielded, and allowed a new front in Caen stone in place of the weather beaten old one – I never repented it but once, and that has been ever since… I think of this with the utmost shame”. Furthermore, Scott allegedly lamented his decision to move the medieval façade and even offered to contribute towards bringing the old work back from Kettlethorpe Hall to be reset in its original position, if he could rally enough local support, but whether he was successful in this or not, no action was ultimately taken.

In 1939 the whole of Scott’s Caen stone front was taken down and a new one of Derbyshire stone was erected under the guidance of the architect Sir Charles Nicholson, and dedicated by the Bishop of Wakefield on July 3rd 1940.

In the 1950s the grounds of Kettlethorpe Hall were developed for housing, and vandalism became a serious problem in the decades that followed. In 1996 English Heritage took action and gave consent for the lakeside structure to be dismantled. Some loose stones which had crumbled away over time were also salvaged from the lakebed and all the masonry placed in storage. There these fragments remained until 2014 when, with some local support, the remains were installed at quite a considerable expense as a feature in the new Secret Garden in Thornes Park.

Thornes Park is less than a mile outside of Wakefield city centre and offers 60 hectares of open space to explore. It appeared well maintained when I visited and clearly well used and valued by the locals. There is a mound in the centre of the park which was once the site of a motte and bailey castle, and today provides pleasant views of Wakefield. The secret garden where the medieval remains now rest is tucked away uphill behind the lake, past the aviary and smaller gardens I passed approaching from the city centre.

The medieval stonework is better presented than I had thought, presented with a free standing notice board and semi-circular platform for slightly better observation of the remains. It is exposed to the elements and many of its finer details have deteriorated significantly – owing in part to its neglected past – but on the whole it is remarkable so many aspects of the architectural stonework covered with beautiful diaper work and tracery has survived, given that it’s been moved about so much. Although sadly, I can imagine most of its remaining sculpted ornament will be mostly worn away in another hundred years.


[All images are authors own (2018-2020) unless stated in captions].

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