Building the Pilgrim’s Chapel
The West end of the chapel. Nothing quite lines up, though the overall effect is good, with nice proportions. The buttresses do not match each other, so may have come from two different buildings.
The three light reticulated window is well carved and still in good condition.
The Pilgrim's Chapel
This is part 2 of 3 of a short series on the Grade 1 listed St Mary’s chapel, at Bradwell Abbey, Milton Keynes. In part 1 Our Lady of Bradwell we looked at the detailed timeline and saw how the chapel survived when the other priory buildings didn’t.
Next week in part 3 we shall take a good look at the paintings that gave the chapel its Grade 1 listing, but today we shall see how the 14th Century chapel was designed, constructed and changed.
Once again, many thanks to Peter Martin of the Milton Keynes City Discovery Centre for getting me access.
The chapel was built to enclose a statue of the Virgin Mary, that had been set in a niche on the end of the priory church. Pilgrims would then pay to enter and pray to St. Mary.
The strong cult of St. Mary in England meant the chapel would be a popular pilgrim destination. It would bring much needed revenue to the priory, which had been in decline for over twenty years.
I think that means that the chapel was built on a budget, out of whatever materials were to hand. That meant reusing materials from other parts of the priory, probably from ruined buildings, and that the monks themselves built the chapel.
The R101 airship disaster in October 1930 so affected a boy who lived at Bradwell Abbey that he carved “In memory of the R101” into the left hand side of the West doorway.
Judging by its height above the threshold, I think the boy was about 13 if he stood on the ground to make it.
If the carving seems a bit far off the ground for that when you visit, remember the soil level in 1930 was about 16” higher than it is now.
There are many signs of less than expert construction, though to be fair the chapel has lasted over six and a half centuries. But there are many clues to the design being well thought out.
The inclusion of the church buttress I think was a deliberate act, as a second niche could be built into the window reveal rather than in the same wall as the first one. There could then be two, offset altars. For ease of construction I think the roof was made high enough to go over the top of the church buttress.
The St Mary’s statue niche is right in the corner; perhaps it could not be centred because they did not have the materials to make the chapel any wider.
The windows seem at first glance to be all of the same Reticulated Period design, but look more closely and you’ll see subtle differences. The side windows are set close to the East end of the chapel, to illuminate the altar(s) and the first niche.
The finest window they had, they set into the West wall above the pilgrim’s entrance to give a good first impression. In all, the monks did their best with what they had.
At the end is the old church wall with the statue niche on the left end. Just below it you can see a step in the side wall, which seems to be a correction to an error in setting out the walls.
It avoids the edge of the niche being buried in the wall; perhaps part of the same error which means the chapel is not quite at right angles to the priory church.
On the right hand side of the end wall was once a buttress, part of the church wall; It supported an arch on the inside of the church. Part of that arch can still be seen from the outside.
Above the window on that side is another step in a wall, showing the edge of the buttress. Another niche was in the window reveal, its left side formed by the buttress. I can only think that it contained a crucifix.
The window ledge and so the bottom edge of the reveal’s niche are at or very near the same level as the bottom of the statue niche.
I wonder what paintings were on the buttress?
The Stuart coat of arms under the arch of the ceiling and the cherubs and clouds on the ceiling itself are 17th Century. Above the South window we can see St. Michael weighing souls, while Mary stands by to intercede. This is to encourage pilgrims to pray to her and also bring offerings. Above the door is part of the pilgrims painting. On the end wall is the crucifixion.
Taken with a fisheye lens.
It’s thought that the end doorway was for pilgrims, and the side door for the monks. The doorways do not match; the side one has ballflowers in the external mouldings but the end doorway has concentric arches.
Internally, the tops of the doorways are not the same; one is arched, one is flat. The three light window is set slightly crooked.
A closer look at the South window. It's the same design of 'M' as on the walls. The other emblem is repeated around both the North and South windows; see part three The Illustrated Chapel, to be published next week.
These 14th Century tiles in the middle of the floor were made in Little Brickhill.
Part 3, the paintings, next week.
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