Researching the history of chapels

Chapels are places of Christian worship without parochial status. So chapels did not benefit from the system of tithes which supported parish churches for centuries. A chapel could be built and supported by private donors, by a guild, by a charitable, educational or religious body, or by a nonconformist congregation.

Private chapels

Mid-19th-century engraving of the chapel at Ightham Mote manor house, Kent. In the Middle Ages chapels could be created in houses, castles and gatehouses, in royal and bishop's palaces and the lodgings of abbots. These were private places of devotion for powerful men and their households, served by chaplains.

Many a chapel built by a Saxon manorial lord beside his house evolved into to a parish church. With a church on the doorstep, a domestic chapel might be considered unnecessary, so we should not expect to find a chapel in every manor house. However the Reformation pressed hard on the consciences of Catholics, leading some Catholic families to create domestic chapels in later centuries, rather than worship in the Anglican parish church. Private chapels continued to be built in or beside new country houses well into the 19th century.

Medieval hospitals almost invariably had a chapel for their residents and staff and some later hospitals continued the tradition. For sources see charity buildings. Similarly many schools and colleges and some monastic granges were given their own chapels.

Chapels within churches and cathedrals

Many medieval chapels were built within churches. Structurally a chapel could simply be an altar placed in a side aisle or transept, but such chapels could be given greater privacy with decorative stone or wooden screens. Alternatively chapels could be added to the main structure. A common pattern within cathedrals was to group chapels in a semicircle around the east end accessible via an ambulatory. Lady chapels (devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary) tended to be the most magnificent.

Medieval chapels were often built as chantries, where a priest would sing masses for the souls of the founder and any others chosen by the founder. Chantries could have a single founder, but the less well-off could join a religious or trade guild, which arranged funerals and perpetual prayers for its members. Guilds might adorn and maintain a particular chapel: see the surveys of guilds in 1388 and of chantries at the Reformation. Medieval wills might found a chantry or make a gift to a specific chapel. Bishops' registers may record grants of indulgences for the adornment or repair of specific chapels.

Although many chapels were lost at the Reformation, when chantries were dissolved by the Chantries Act of 1547, some new chapels have been dedicated within churches and cathedrals in modern times, in some cases as memorials to war dead.

Bridge Chapels

Nonconformist Protestant chapels

John Wesley's Chapel, City Road, London

Christianity has had its dissenters from its earliest days. For most of its history, the established Church in the British Isles has condemned those deviating from its tenets as heretics, and punished them with varying degrees of severity. The establishment of the Church of England and Church of Ireland at the Reformation simply changed the head of the Church from the Pope to the English monarch, rather than opening up a new era of tolerance. The Church of Scotland made a more radical break from the past, instituting Presbyterianism. Yet Quakers were still repressed in Scotland until 1689.

The word Nonconformist was originally used for anyone who refused to conform to the Act of Uniformity, which came into force on 24 August 1662, and required all English and Welsh clergy to consent to the entire contents of the Book of Common Prayer. The term was later applied to a wide variety of sects with one thing in common - their difference from the established Church. Fear that James II would re-establish Catholicism led to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. James was deposed in favour of the Protestant William of Orange. One outcome was The Act of Toleration passed in 1689, which permitted freedom of worship to Protestant dissenters from the Church of England (though it excluded Roman Catholics.) This Act required the registration of dissenters' meeting houses with quarter sessions (see the appropriate county record office), the bishops or archdeacons (see diocesan records.)

Before this landmark in legislation, Dissenters had mainly been meeting quietly in each other's houses or in rented rooms. Few chapels or meeting houses had been purpose-built. The Quaker Meeting House at Brigflatts, Cumbria, built in 1675, was among the earliest. Freedom of worship encouraged the building of Nonconformist chapels where congregations were large enough, or prosperous enough, to afford it. Early chapels tended to be plain, rectangular structures, and the humbler chapels continued in that style into the 19th century. Wealthier congregations favoured two-storey chapels with a Classical façade and internal gallery on the upper storey. In Victorian times some chose build chapels in the Gothic Revival style, virtually indistinguishable from the new Anglican and Roman Catholic churches of the period. At the other end of the scale were the chapels built cheaply from corrugated iron, often from prefabricated kits, and known as tin tabernacles. Nonconformity dominated in Victorian Wales, leaving a considerable heritage of chapels and associated buildings, many now redundant.   

Studies and gazetteers


Published primary sources

Specialist archives

And see Nonconformists.