Wakefield Cathedral and the Chantry Chapel


A description, narrative and academic study with archaeological and architectural facts from an aesthetic perspective.

Archaeological Artifacts and Points of Interest:

Points of Interest: Wakefield Cathedral

Early Medieval (600 AD – 1066) BURIAL Anglo Saxon (AD 970-

Early Medieval (600 AD – 1066) CIST Anglo Saxon

Early Medieval (600 AD – 1066) CHURCH Pre Conquest

Early Medieval (600 AD – 1066) CROSS Pre Conquest

Medieval (1066 – 1550) BURIAL Late Medieval (AD 1430-

Medieval (1066 – 1550) CHURCH 12th century and later

Medieval (1066 – 1550) CROSS SLAB medieval

Georgian (1714 – 1836) CHURCHYARD 18th century

Georgian (1714 – 1836) SUNDIAL 18th century

Victorian (1837 -1901) CHURCH 1858

Victorian (1837 -1901) CATHEDRAL 1888

Post-Medieval (1550 – 1901) COFFIN 1718-1856

Post-Medieval (1550 – 1901) BURIAL 1718-1856

COMMEMORATIVE Post-Medieval (1550 – 1901) EFFIGY 1714

COMMEMORATIVE Post-Medieval (1550 – 1901) WALL MONUMENT 18th/19th century

Post-Medieval (1550 – 1901) FONT 1661

Wakefield Cathedral:

It is apparent from the onset that a pre conquest stone church has existed on the site with the evidence of graves and foundations of an eastern extension with the excavation of a Saxon ring. In 1100AD an aisleless cruciform church was constructed where the west arch remained until the 18th century. A six bay north aisle was added to the nave in 1150 and a seven bay south aisle in 1220. In 1315 according to the WYAAS was abandoned as it is thought the central tower collapsed. The church subsequently reopened in 1329. The earliest actual evidence of a church in Wakefield is mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086) where it was inferred that churches of Saxon origin. The church which is dedicated to all saints takes the traditional parish church form of a simple cross that dates 12th century and there is an archived old print which proves the original plan. Gradually over the years additions have been made where, during the middle of the century an aisle was added to the north side of the nave. Towers in the medieval period were expensive, so in the majority of cases towers were constructed outside of the church with adjoining aisles were added to bring the two components together. Towers were constructed at the west end of the building so that it brought about as little disruption as possible. (see figure 1 – 5 in the research folder).

In 1349 the Black Death put paid to construction with more than half the population dying. In some cases construction after the plague did not happen at all but 50 years later in Wakefield’s case rebuilding began and the church eventually received its steeple with additional adjustments aforementioned completing the building in 1420. Unfortunately over the centuries many subliminal works were either given away or destroyed with some exceptions being kept in the museum at York (windows containing panels of painted glass made up of work from the 15th century). Many original pieces of furniture were given away but a Rood is still in existence (dated around 1491). The majority of the painted glass contain heraldic ancestry pieces depicting the names of families of note during the time, notably the Pilkington family. (see research folder for feature on family heraldry).

There are some interesting facts and figures that emerge from research with a 1.5m length of pre conquest cross being used as a doorstep in a Wakefield shop! Additionally, excavations have revealed 91 individuals where burials were subjected to radiocarbon analysis and separate in four periods. Anglo-Saxon, late Anglo Saxon to Medieval, the 15th to 17th century and 1718-1856.

The only 14th century architectural feature to survive are three windows in the north wall of the north aisle. These are each of two lights with quite steeply pointed trofoiled heads. There is an uncusped open panel in the spandrel, according to Ryder (et al). Low side windows had aroused historic curiousity when it comes to dating them because of where they are situated, interestingly, their position indicates that these were situated thus so lepers could receive the consecrated elements of mass without entering the church or these low windows had lanterns hung in them to ward off evil spirits.

Ryder (1997:5) goes on to state that it is not necessary to have specific training in archaeology to be able to see signs of dating a building that has medieval interest. An accurate ground plan of a church will reveal that combined with a good visual inspection. More sophiscated forms of investigation can additionally be used today, such as types of photography which detect remains of wall paintings beneath overlying plaster, or dendrochronology by which timbers can be dated from their tree ring and chemical analyses of mortal or petrological analyses of stone types. (see figure 7 and 8 for an example of structural stone changes during different periods of building at Ledsham church.) It is fair to assume that as Anglo Saxon influences are in existence in churches in the surrounding area and that they are clearly visible to the naked eye, then it must also be the case of Wakefield, Bradford and the Chantry Chapel, as it is in Ledsham, Dewsbury, Adel, Crofton and so on. Additional evidence to support this theory is at both Wakefield and Sandal Magna the nave arches in their present form are 14th century but their reuse of older piers and the use of 13th century quatrefoils (additionally Bradford, Dewsbury and Ilkley) suggest earlier dating overall. A major rebuild at Wakefield prompted by the collapse of the old central tower means that little of the early centuries of 13th and 14th work is visible. Further evidence is documented by the Archbishop of York Henry Bowset who requested his parishioners contributed to the fabric of the new tower at Wakefield. Ryder refers to Wakefield, Bradford and Halifax as ”the three great town churches in West Yorkshire”, which were of ”considerable size and status before the end of the medieval period.”

Wakefield Cathedral Conservation Area:

In Section 5.0 of the report ”The Wakefield Cathedral Conservation Area Appraisal and Management Proposals by the city of Wakefield Council”, details of the site of the cathedral of all saints show the remains of a burial site and Anglo Saxon ring with the cathedral itself being under conservation protection. A site of a medieval market cross, human remains exposed, late 18th and early 19th century inhumations revealed, a watching brief in the south aisle of the cathedral revealed disarticulated human bones in 1995 and a possible Anglo Saxon cross with a fragment being found in 1862 all of which points to archaeological evidence which dates the site back to Anglo Saxon and pre conquest times, with the most important building and ground being the cathedral itself.

Project 2013/2015-15 – What’s new?

The project for 2013 involved the careful lifting of stone flags to restone the floor with limecrete flooring incorporating underfloor heating. The nave was also made more accessible and development work involved archaeological evaluation trenches, ground probing radar non destructive testing and extensive dialogue with lime suppliers and specialists. Lighting was also reserviced and installed.

Points of Interest: Wakefield Chantry Chapel on the Bridge:

Medieval (1066 – 1550) CHAPEL 1350’s

Medieval (1066 – 1550) CHANTRY CHAPEL 1350’s

Courtesy of WYAAS

Chantry Chapel:

A chantry is a chapel which contains an altar where clergy can chant and say prayers for founder members and family during life and for their souls after death. According to Pevsner (1967:529) one of the reasons chapels were built on bridges in medieval times was to collect money for the upkeep of the bridge and town. Built around 1342 at the same time as the now cathedral, it is the best living example in the country and is only one of four in existence. It is small in measurement 50 feet long by 25 feet wide and 36 feet high and it contains two rooms – one of which is a crypt the other a sacristry with a chapel above. An octagonal turret to the northeast corner contains a staircase which connects the two spaces and the bell tower. (Walker:234).

The chapel was licensed in 1356 due to the delays caused by the Black Death. The chapel has a checkered past, the bridge has been widened twice once in 1758 and again in 1797 which indicates the importance of its route. (See figure 1, 2 and 3 in research folder: Wakefield). The traffic on the bridge has meant that the chapel has undergone several major restorations by Scott in the mid 19th century. Figures 8 demonstrates the appearance of missing stonework and figures 9 and 10 show the severe decay to the front particularly the north facade. It is a grade I listed building and is protected by English Heritage.

As is common in the building of churches, restoration has occurred to the building over a number of periods affecting the facade and upkeep of the church which has been further compounded by the levels of traffic and pollution on the bridge itself. The church structure is said to actually support the bridge and so many locals feel that the historical interest, status and fabric needs to be preserved.

The building is listed as ”one of Yorkshire’s best kept secrets by the West Yorkshire Churches organisation who have a website of ‘sacred places’ dedicated specifically to the Wakefield District. They mention that the area of Wakefield is rich in culture and heritage which have their share of impressive and inspirational buildings.

Edward Green (2002 Building Conservation) confirms the use of chantry chapels quoting Cook and goes on to state that Wakefield’s Chantry Chapel of St Mary the Virgin is the oldest and most elaborate. Situated just south of the city over the River Calder it is ”an unusual sight”. The bridge and chapel was built by the people of Wakefield replacing an ”older wooden structure”.  Tolls were levied from 1342 with the authority of the Crown and the funds provided were used to construct a new bridge. The chapels stonework were richly carved by skillful medieval craftsmen and depicts the Annunciation, Nativity, Resurrection, Ascension and Coronation of the Virgin. In the north east tower there is a winding staircase and a small bell tower with an embattled turret. It survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries due to the fact that it acted as a major support for the bridge. In the 300 years that followed the chapel was used for a variety of purposes, from a cheesecake shop to a warehouse and library.

The modern phase of the bridge’s history began in 1842 when the Vicar of Wakefield secured the buildings transfer to the Church of England, founding a society in the wake of the Oxford Movement. The original west facade fell into decay that Pevsner so admired the facade was moved to Kettlethorpe Hall to what was considered to be a less vulnerable situation. In September 1995 time finally ran out for the boathouse according to Green and the facade that survived the Reformation, the Civil War and centuries of Yorkshire weather was reduced to rubble by mindless vandals. The ruined architectural fragments have since been collected and placed into storage by Wakefield Council with an estimated 80% of the stonework surviving. It is hoped that reconstruction in close proximity to the bridge can occur so that visitors will be able to make comparisons between what remains of the original facade and its 1930’s equivalent.

Turner’s Viewpoint:

Turner visited Wakefield on his first tour of Yorkshire in 1797, in the period Wakefield was one of the wealthiest towns in the region and had some of the best architecture. However, it is clear that the chantry chapel in Turner’s watercolour was left dilipitated but the view from the south bank of the river was a detailed study which Turner developed into one of the finest of his ‘tour’ watercolour collection.


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