Struggles of a Civic Chapel

Most Bristolians will know the Lord Mayor's Chapel. It stands across College Green from Bristol Cathedral, like David challenging Goliath. That image leaps to mind again and again in its history.

The Lord Mayor's Chapel on College Green, BristolThe Lord Mayor's Chapel is unique. It is the only church in England owned by a local authority. It glows with civic pride. On the walls are the hatchments of past mayors of Bristol, starting with that of the city merchant John Becher. It was he who pushed for the creation of a civic chapel.

Why was that? A cathedral makes a grander backdrop than a chapel for civic ceremonies. The dissolution of the monasteries gave Bristol a cathedral in 1542 - the converted Church of the Abbey of St Augustine. The city council was happy to use it for many years. But tensions arose between city and cathedral. There was a squabble over seating in the early 17th century. The city fathers decamped to St Mary Redcliffe until promised an exclusive block of pews in the cathedral.

A century later trouble flared again. This time the council felt so affronted that in 1721 Mayor John Becher urged independence. It so happened that the council possessed a church. St Mark's had been acquired almost by accident. When Bristol's monasteries were closed, the canny council leapt at the chance to buy their properties. Among the gains was St Mark's Hospital, which had its own chapel. Expensively repaired and fitted out, this was to be the ultimate riposte to the cathedral across the way.

Even before it became a civic chapel, St Mark's was unusual. The building is skewed. Throughout Christendom churches are built on an east-west alignment. Deviations from that pattern are very rare. Yet the Lord Mayor's Chapel lies north-east to south-west. Maybe that is because of the twist to its foundation story.

St Mark's Hospital honoured two founders. Maurice de Gaunt was the first. He was the grandson of Robert FitzHarding, the founder of St Augustine's Abbey. Robert - a wealthy merchant - acquired the manor of Billeswick, which lay just outside the walled city of Bristol. There he began St Augustine's in 1140. These were times when men feared the afterlife. The rich poured money into monasteries with the comforting vision of endless prayers lifting their tortured souls from purgatory to heaven.

Robert's grandson Maurice was one of the great magnates of his day. Billeswick was part of his inheritance, along with the patronage of St Augustine's. Maurice piously built and endowed an almonry for the abbey. Many monasteries had almonries. Here their spare food would find eager mouths among the poor. The usual place for it was by the outer gate of the monastic precinct, so that the poor could come into the almonry without disturbing the religious life. It seems that Maurice built the almonry on his own land butting up against the abbey precinct wall, with a gate onto the precinct.

The abbey was to provide a daily dinner to 100 poor people in the almonry. A chaplain to pray for the souls of Maurice and his ancestors was part of the agreement. But did Maurice actually build a chapel? The almonry would need a large hall and little else. An altar at the east end could serve as a chantry. The chaplain would live in the abbey. The food could be cooked in the abbey kitchen.

But after Maurice de Gaunt died in 1230, his nephew and heir, Robert de Gourney, turned the almonry into the independent Hospital of St Mark. He increased the number of chaplains and placed them under their own master, free of the abbey's control. That conveniently provided for his uncle Henry de Gaunt, who became the first master. As a full-blown religious house, St Mark's would need accommodation arranged around a cloister. It would also need a proper church. So was the almonry hall converted into a church? That might explain its odd alignment.

Imagine the annoyance of the Abbot of St Augustine at having his new almonry snatched out of his hands. After years of wrangling the abbey finally accepted the independence of St Mark's in 1251. It wasn't long before quarrels broke out again though. The abbey cemetery was the bone of contention - what is now College Green. Horses and carts trudged across it to the hospital. The abbey complained that the hospital brethren were even digging graves and grazing cattle there. The bishop found a way to keep the peace. It didn't last. In 1475 the abbey objected to new building by St Mark's and took direct action. Carts bringing in materials were stopped, until the abbey was sweetened with a gift of land.

Today the chapel is still struggling to maintain its fabric. Bristol City Council recently spent a quarter of a million pounds on repairs, but there is more to do.