Bridge chapels were once a common feature of major bridges throughout Britain
Mostly built during the 14th or 15th centuries, they were often chantry chapels where prayers were said for the souls of the founders and benefactors of the bridge and also provided a place for travellers and pilgrims to attend mass and pray for a safe journey.
Although sometimes built on land at the end of the bridge, bridge chapels were often built into the bridge structure itself. In some instances, the priest would be responsible for collecting tolls from bridge users. In England, bridge chapels fell out of use with the Reformation, when the Abolition of Chantries Acts, 1545 and 1547 led either to their demolition or to their conversion to secular use.
Today only a few survive: three chapels on bridges in Rotherham, Wakefield and St Ives; one small building believed to have been a chapel or shrine in Bradford on Avon; and two at the ends of bridges in Derby and Rochester. There is also the ruin of a chapel 5th century bridge chapel in Cromford, Derbyshire. Next to it is a fishing temple, built in the 18th century.
Rotherham : The glorious east window features symbols of important events in this Yorkshire chapel’s rich history. They include the pilgrims shell, the coat of arms and letter ‘M’ for Mary Queen of Scots who visited, heraldic devices for the royalist and parliamentary forces that fought on the bridge during the Civil War in 1643, a portcullis for the gaol and the initials of those who restored the building.
Wakefield : The most elaborate bridge chapel. The stonework was richly carved by Yorkshire craftsmen, particularly on the west front which was divided into five panels containing depictions of the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Resurrection, Ascension and the Coronation of the Virgin. The chapel was restored by George Gilbert Scott in the 1840s, and he replaced rather than repaired the frontage.
St Ives : Built in 1426 the chapel was, like others, closed at the Dissolution. During the English Civil War Oliver Cromwell, who had lived in this small Cambridgeshire town, ordered the southern part of the bridge to be blown up, and a drawbridge erected. During the 1800s it was a pub named Little Hell, an establishment with a somewhat dubious reputation and pigs in the cellar.
Bradford on Avon : It is not certain that the small building on this Wiltshire bridge was a chapel. It is thought it could have been a tiny chapel dedicated to St Nicholas, thanks to his emblem, the gudgeon, appearing on the top of the weather vane. By the 1700's it was a jail known locally as 'the blind house'.
Derby : Sitting at the entrance to a medieval bridge over the Derwent in Derbyshire, the chapel has had a chequered history. After being used as a prison and a carpenter's workshop, it fell into ruins, and was eventually restored by the Haslam family in the early 20th century.
Rochester : The chapel was newly constructed in 1393, on the eastern approach to a medieval stone bridge. Three chantry priests celebrated intercessory masses until 1548. Over the next three centuries it was used as a storeroom, private dwelling, a public house, and fruit and sweet shop serving this lovely Kent town.
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