Church Life
A Manor With No Village

Our Lady of Bradwell

St Mary's chapel  Bradwell AbbeyThe East wall of the chapel is all that remains of the main body of the church. The respond or half column on this wall with the base of an arch above it shows the end of an arcade between the nave and aisle; this would have been on the inside of the church.

The Pilgrim's Chapel
Part One
Over six hundred and fifty years ago the monks of Bradwell Priory built a small chapel against the West wall of their church. That church and the rest of the priory buildings are long gone, but the small chapel survives.

The chapel is kept locked, but I managed to get rare access to the interior with my camera and had a good long look; there’s lots to discover. Many thanks to Peter Martin of the Milton Keynes City Discovery Centre for giving me access.

This week I’m going to tell you the story of the chapel, in part 1 of 3. Next week we shall be looking at the way the chapel was designed and built, and on the week after in part 3, the unique wall paintings that gave it a Grade I listing.

Here’s the timeline.

1154
Meinfelin, lord of the manor, gave part of his lands in the parish of Wolverton to the Benedictine monks of Luffield Abbey, so they could found a daughter house. Luffield abbey was right on the border of Bucks, inside what’s now Silverstone Circuit.

Towards the end of this Century, Bradwell Priory claimed its independance from Luffield Abbey.

The 13th Century
The priory flourished. Their lands were extensive and they built many new agricultural buildings. The priory built a grain mill, on the Great Ouse near Old Wolverton. 

Watling Street, a major transport and trade artery, was just a mile away. Until Milton Keynes came, a public footpath led to the priory from that road. It perhaps followed a medieval trackway used by the monks.

1314 to 1317
Four bad summers with heavy rainfall meant poor crops; the priory’s income from farming fell. There was famine. Between 10 and 15 percent of the population had perished by the time the food supply recovered in 1322. This was the start of the priory’s decline.

Inside the Bradwell Abbey chapelThe statue niche, the Medieval floor tiles, the painted barrel vault and the blocked North window are all in this photo. Taken with a fisheye lens.

The 1340s
One of the monks is said to have found a crying statue of the Virgin Mary, just outside the priory walls. They placed it in a niche in the external West wall of the church.

The niche may have been built into the existing wall for the purpose; it’s thought that the hoodmould above it was originally on another building. The statue is rumoured to have healing powers, and pilgrims began to visit the priory.

The cult of St. Mary was very strong at this time and so the monks built a chapel to enclose the statue in its niche, so that pilgrims would pay to enter to see the statue and pray at the shrine. The chapel was an attempt to reverse the fortunes of the priory but they continued to decline.

1348 to the early 1350s
The Black Death or plague swept across England. Bradwell’s prior William De Loughton died of the plague in 1349. He was the last strong leader the priory would ever have.

1361
According to the historian Browne Willis, the incumbent prior was

“sequestered for causing or allowing dilapidation of the conventual buildings”.

That is, control of the income of the priory was taken away from him until a new prior could be appointed.

Chapel of St Mary interior  Bradwell AbbeyThe West door with a reticulated period window above it, and another view of the blocked off window. The door is thought to be where pilgrims entered and left the chapel. Taken with a fisheye lens.

Second half of the 14th Century
The main images in the chapel are painted, over a existing pattern of painted, stencilled letter “M”s which symbolise St. Mary.

1524
The priory was dissolved under the instruction of a papal bull; an official decree from Pope Clement VII. Ownership of the priory defaulted to the crown.

1526
Henry VIII's lord chancellor Cardinal Wolsey endowed the lands to St Frideswide's College Oxford, after he had commissioned William Brabazon to write a report on the priory.

Brabazon wrote:

“Tile and the tymber [of the church]… verie evill which it is right necessarie shortlie to be taken downe.”

and

“Item there is a little Chapell withowte the church which may not welby spared. Item thofferyng at our ladie of Bradwell in the same Chapell is worth yerlie […]”

1536
Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell push a bill through Parliament to begin the dissolution of the monasteries in England and Wales. The Reformation of the church had begun.

1539
An act to close every monastery in England and Wales is passed by Parliament. It was a big step towards the Reformation of the English church, away from Catholicism. As happened in many churches during the Reformation the wall paintings were hidden under limewash, as imagery was no longer permitted.

The reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603)
From some point in or around Elizabeth I’s reign the site was owned by a succession of mainly absent landlords. Much of the cut stone was removed for building materials by the residents of Bradwell, the village less than a third of a mile away.

But the residents of the site used the chapel for private worship, which saved it from destruction. One of those residents had a brick floor laid in the chapel, over the Medieval tiled floor.

It might be that the old church wall buttress inside the chapel was removed at the same time (as it's only roughly level with the original floor) as there was no church left to support; perhaps it was removed earlier as it was realised that the chapel then served to brace the church wall.

Remains of buttress  St Mary's chapelThe chapel was built over a buttress, which was later removed. The shape of the buttress can still be seen in the corner of the floor. In the window reveal is part of another niche; the top would have been of similar design to the top of the two lights in the adjacent window, and the left hand side of the niche would have been the right hand side of the removed buttress.

17th Century
Inside the chapel, the Stuart coat of arms is painted on the semi circular top of the East wall. At about the same time the barrel ceiling is painted with cherubs and clouds. Two stones, each with three quartrefoils, are inset into the external wall; they are stones from another part of the priory.

1913

“The Chapel… is now used as a fowl-house and lumber-shed”

says the 1913 book, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Buckinghamshire. It also says there is a piscina under the South window, but that seems to have gone now. The North window, it also says, is already blocked.

1930
A boy living at Bradwell Abbey is so struck by the tragedy of the R101 airship crash, that he carves a crude memorial into the West chapel doorway.

16th June 1948
The site becomes a Scheduled Ancient Monument; it is now protected under law.

1950s
The chapel is still being used as a farm building when the roof starts to leak. Some of the limewash is washed away to reveal glimpses of wall paintings. Between 1967 and 1984 they will be gradually uncovered and conserved. Uniquely in England, some of the paintings depict pilgrims on a pilgrimage.

Chapel of St. Mary  Bradwell AbbeyThe chapel from the North East. The great thickness of the wall that was once part of the priory church is easy to see. The low banks around the chapel show the level of the floor inside before it was excavated in 1972.

1967
Bradwell Abbey (probably renamed from Bradwell Priory in Victorian times) ceases being a farm when it is incorporated into the new town of Milton Keynes.

1972
Many years of the chapel being used to house farm animals mean the floor level is more than a foot higher than it is now. Milton Keynes Development Corporation’s Archaeology Unit starts excavation work on various parts of the site. In the chapel they dig down and find Medieval floor tiles under the 16th Century brick floor.

2018 to 2021
Repairs are made to the chapel, to make it stable and watertight. Scaffolding is raised around the chapel and a temporary external roof is put over the top of the chapel.

2023
Even after six and a half centuries, the chapel is still consecrated.

Part two next week.

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