Centuries ago travel was such an arduous and risky task that chapels were sometimes provided on bridges for travellers to give thanks for safe arrival.
This was a common practice in the Medieval period. According to George Henry Cook, in Mediaeval Chantries and Chantry Chapels, priests attached to the bridge chapels or chantry chapels were sometimes known to chant masses for the well-being of travellers and for the souls of the victims of highway violence.
Only six examples survive in Britain today. Two of them are in Yorkshire, at Wakefield and Rotherham, although the latter does not form an integral part of the bridge. Four other bridge chapels exist, in Bradford-on-Avon, St Ives (Cambridgeshire), Derby and Rochester
Many colleges and chantries disappeared under the 1547 Act of Dissolution and it is a small wonder that the two Yorkshire chapels are intact today when looking back at their history.
Situated adjacent to the River Don in Rotherham, the Chapel of Our Lady of Rotherham came into being around 1483 when the bridge was erected. This is proved by a will of a local teacher called John Bokying dated 1483 in which it is stated: ‘3s.4d. to the fabric of the chapel to be built on Rotherham Bridge’. It is also speculated that Thomas Rotherham, Archbishop of York, provided most of the finance needed for the building, which was lavishly decorated with a gold statue of the Virgin and Child.
Following closure in 1547 the building passed into the ownership of the Feoffees of the Common lands of Rotherham – in effect Rotherham’s first town council. Thereafter, the chapel found a variety of uses. It became an almshouse in 1595, was in ruins by 1681, was converted to a prison in 1778, with a resident deputy constable; and rented as a dwelling house in 1826. In 1888 a further conversion saw the old chapel as a tobacconist and newsagents.
During the early 20th century many of Rotherham’s residents wanted the chapel to be restored to its original use. They found a supporter in Sir Charles Stoddart, who bought the building in 1913. Sir Charles died before any restoration work could take place but it was eventually organised by the vicar and churchwardens of All Saints’ Church and completed by 1924. Additional restoration in 1975 saw the installation of a splendid new east window
The Rotherham minster website says the chapel is used for worship every Tuesday morning at 11am, when a service of Holy Communion is held.
In Wakefield, the Chantry Chapel of St Mary the Virgin is the only survivor of four chantries in the area. Replacing an earlier wooden structure, the chapel, standing on a stone base, dates from between 1342 and 1359. Located south of the city centre on the medieval bridge over the River Calder.
Following the Dissolution Act all four of Wakefield’s chapels were closed. The chapel was acquired by Yorkshire’s Savile family and, c1568, was bequeathed to the Trustees of the Wakefield Poor.
During the following three centuries the building was used for varying purposes: a cheese-cake shop; a corn merchant’s office; a newsroom; and by a tailor. By the late 18th century a lease was taken on the building by the West Riding magistrates because they were responsible for maintaining bridges. Unlike the Rotherham chapel, the one at Wakefield interlocks structurally with the bridge, so its upkeep was important.
The chapel was a source of inspiration for a number of artists including J.M.W. Turner, John Buckler and Ramsey Richard Reinagle, who produced pictures of it. Turner made a water colour of it in 1797 during his first tour of Yorkshire.
The chapel was transferred to the Church of England in 1842 and underwent extensive restoration at a cost of £2,500 under the auspices of the Yorkshire Architectural Society. George Gilbert Scott provided the designs.
Around the same time the front of the original building was acquired by the Norton family who used it at Kettlethorpe Hall as a frontage to a folly boathouse.
The chapel re-opened for congregational worship in 1848 and eventually became a chapel of ease. Further extensive repairs occurred in the 1880s and 1930s; the frontage was restored in 1939 to the designs of Sir Charles Nicholson.
A Friends of the Chantry Chapel group was formed in 1990 and raised around £100,000 for repair and maintenance. Presently the Chantry – a Grade I listed building – is under the authority of the Dean and Chapter of Wakefield Cathedral. There are open days at public-holiday weekends and group visits can be arranged by appointment at other times.