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Wakefield’s Chantry Chapel - one of only 5 surviving bridge chantries in England



With my tour guiding business, I often have cause to take visitors to the Hepworth Sculpture Gallery in Wakefield.

 

From the outside car park and from the windows inside, you get a good view of a small gothic building sitting on the bridge across the road over the River Calder. I’d been told this was a chantry chapel many years ago, but thought it would make an interesting blog as it so different from the more modern Hepworth Gallery.

 



The history behind the building dates back to the mid 1300’s. The Chantry Chapel of St.Mary the Virgin was built by the townspeople of Wakefield when they were building a new stone bridge over the River Calder to replace a previous wooden one.

 

The original purpose of Chantry Bridges were to provide a place for priests to say mass to help people’s path through purgatory. There would of course be expected to be a financial donation of some form in exchange for the prayers.

 



The chantry chapel in Wakefield was first licenced in 1356, and was actually built into the actual structure of the stone bridge. The bridge has nine arches and stretches 98m across the Calder. The Bridge & Chapel is now Grade 1 Listed and has Scheduled Ancient Monument status.

 



The Chantry lasted until the Reformation, when the Abolition of Chantries Act was passed during the reign of Henry VIII. Wakefield had 3 other chantry chapels which were destroyed and most of England’s other Chapels fell into disrepair and no longer exist. The reason the Chantry Chapel of St.Mary the Virgin survived was that the chapel was actually built into the fabric of the bridge. Quite simply, if it was destroyed, the bridge would fall down!

 

The chapel has ended up having a number of other uses, including a library, a warehouse and even a cheese shop! It survived bridge widening in the 1700’s and was also painted by artists JMW Turner and Philip Reinagle in 1793.

 



 

Wakefield Bridge and Chantry Chapel – Philip Reinagle

 

The Chapel was transferred to the Church of England in 1842. The Yorkshire Architectural Society agreed to its restoration and George Gilbert Scott was brought in to produce designs. A new front was created in a Gothic style and the original façade which had eroded slightly over the years was temporarily moved to Kettlethorpe Hall and now can be found in Thornes Park .

 



This now is seen as a big mistake. Firstly the original could or should have been retained and repaired. But more importantly, Scott commissioned the new front to be carved from Caen stone, a French Jurassic limestone which is particularly susceptible to erosion from the elements and pollution. The Scott facade crumbled and was replaced again in 1939 with a new front carved in the original gritstone commissioned by ecclesiastical architect Sir Charles Nicholson.

 


The Chantry Chapel re-opened for Anglican worship in 1848 and was used as the Parish Church of the newly formed ecclesiastical parish of St.Mary, until a new church was built 6 years later. The Chapel then became a Chapel of Ease.

 

With various ecclesiastical boundary changes in the 1960’s, the Parish struggled to afford the upkeep of the Chapel.

 


Fortunately, Parish boundary changes in 2000 meant that

the Chantry Chapel fell under the care of Wakefield Cathedral. This change as well as the formation of The Friends of Wakefield Chantry Chapel in the 1990’s has helped to ensure the historic chantry chapel’s future is safe and a programme of restoration and conservation work is ongoing.

 

Great to know, that Wakefield has one of the last remaining English Chantry Chapels and within Wakefield’s Cathedral’s care that this important legacy is safe for generations to come.

 

For those who want to know where England’s other remaining Bridge Chantries are…


St.Ives (Cambridgeshire)

Derby

Rotherham

Bradford upon Avon

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