The Chantry Chapel of St Mary the Virgin, commonly known as Wakefield Chantry Chapel, is part of the medieval bridge over the River Calder in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, England. The bridge chapel is designated a Grade I listed building by English Heritage. The chapel has had three west fronts, the original medieval façade was removed to Kettlethorpe Hall. The medieval bridge is a scheduled ancient monument.
Wakefield had four chantry chapels, three of which dated from the 13th century. They were built outside the medieval town on the roads leading to Leeds, Dewsbury, York and Doncaster. The Chantry of St John the Baptist was on Northgate, the road to Leeds, where Wakefield Grammar School stands today. The Chapel of St Mary Magdalene was on Westgate where it crossed the Ings Beck on the road to Dewsbury. St Swithun’s Chantry Chapel, on the York road, was near Clarke Hall. The 14th-century Chantry Chapel of St Mary the Virgin was built on the medieval bridge across the River Calder on the road to Doncaster and the south. It is the only survivor of Wakefields four chantry chapels and the oldest and most ornate of the surviving bridge chapels in England. Others are at St Ives in Cambridgeshire, Rotherham and Bradford-on-Avon.
Wakefield’s medieval nine-arched bridge is 320 feet (98 m) long. It was built in stone between 1342 and 1356 to replace an earlier wooden structure on the site of an ancient ford. The chapel on the bridge was licensed in 1356. The Battle of Wakefield was fought about a mile south of the bridge in 1460 and the Earl of Rutland was killed near the bridge while attempting to escape.
The chapel was used for worship until the Reformation and Abolition of Chantries Acts when all Wakefield’s chantry chapels were closed. The bridge chapel survived because it is a structural element of the bridge. After closure it has been used as a warehouse, library, office and cheese shop and survived bridge widening in 1758 and 1797. The bridge and its chapel were painted by artists including J.M.W. Turner whose watercolour dates from 1793.
Restoration and rebuilding
The chapel was transferred to the Church of England in 1842 and the Yorkshire Architectural Society, influenced by the Oxford Movement, was persuaded to undertake its restoration. The society, keen to restore medieval ecclesiastical remains, adopted designs by George Gilbert Scott. Restoration costing approximately £2,500 (equivalent to £220,000 in 2016) was carried out, resulting in the complete reconstruction of the chapel above pavement level. The new west front differed slightly from its medieval predecessor. Scott made two errors, the first was replacing the old west front and the second was having the new façade carved from Caen stone, which crumbled in the polluted urban atmosphere. The original richly carved medieval façade was moved to Kettlethorpe Hall, where it became the frontage to a folly boathouse. Scott’s façade was replaced in gritstone by ecclesiastical architect Sir Charles Nicholson in 1939.
The chapel opened for Anglican worship in 1848 and was used as the parish church of the newly formed ecclesiastical district of St Mary until a church was built in 1854. The bridge chapel became its chapel-of-ease and services were held irregularly. St Mary’s merged with St Andrew’s, Eastmoor in the 1960s and the impoverished parish struggled with the chapel’s upkeep. In the 1980s it seemed likely the chapel would be declared redundant by the Church of England but in January 2000 a parish boundary change brought the chantry into the care of Wakefield Cathedral.
The chapel, which projects onto the east side of the bridge, is built into a small island in the river and its base is a structural element of the bridge. Rectangular in plan, the chapel measures 50 feet (15 m) by 25 feet (8 m). It is 36 feet high (11 m) to the top of the battlements at the eastern end. It is built of ashlar sandstone possibly from a quarry at Goodybower. The chapel entrance is at street level and a lower chamber, the sacristy, is accessed by a spiral staircase at the east end.
The chapel has octagonal corner pinnacles and at the north-eastern corner there is a small embattled octagonal turret with a small bell tower which originally contained two bells. Its west front has buttresses at either end and three narrow doorways. Its façade is divided into five elaborately carved panels. The panels originally represented the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Resurrection, the Ascension and the Coronation of the Virgin but the fifth panel was replaced by the Descent of the Holy Ghost when it was restored. Its three bays have square-headed windows with “flamboyant” tracery.
In the north-east corner a newel staircase leads to the roof. A spiral staircase descends to a small crypt in the basement of the building. Four of the seven traceried windows, the east window, two south windows and one north window, have stained glass.
Friends of Wakefield Chantry Chapel
The “Friends of Wakefield Chantry Chapel” was formed in 1991 by members of the Wakefield Historical Society, Wakefield Civic Society and members of St Andrew’s Church to raise funds to repair the chapel roof and re-point the stonework. A programme of conservation work has since been carried out with the approval of English Heritage. The work included roof repairs, re-wiring and the installation heating. Renewal to the external stonework carried out by William Anelay Ltd cost £30,000. Six carved stone heads were made for the south side of the chapel. At the suggestion of architect David Greenwood, the Bishop of Wakefield, Lady St Oswald of Nostell PrioryPalladian-style country house built near the site of a 12th-century Augustinian priory. , the Rt Hon Walter Harrison and Canon Bryan Ellis allowed their features to be sculpted by stonemason John Schofield. The fifth head is that of a founder of the Friends, Ray Perraudin, and the sixth one of Anelay’s workmen. The friends have conserved the internal stone heads whose age is unknown.