A chapel for children. Great Ormond Street is a world famous children’s hospital, but it is equally famous for the chapel of St Christopher, built in 1875 for the young patients and described by Oscar Wilde as ‘the most delightful private chapel in London’. Not only is St Christopher’s for children, it is built on a scale for children and is arguably the most sumptuous hospital chapel in the country.
London is teeming with chapels of all shapes and sizes, often out of view of the main tourist routes and, sadly, many people miss them.
They are steeped in history, concerning both individual people and international events, provide friendly and welcoming spaces, and have for hundreds of years been places in which people have found respite and comfort.
Here are some often unseen gems to explore.
Fulham Palace was home to the Bishops of London for over 1,000 years and the chapel there, in all its different iterations, remains the private chapel of the bishops. For hundreds of years this particular chapel was built for and would have been used only by a very small number of people, but today it is open to visitors so all can experience and share the wonderful architecture and art inside.
Some of the pivotal events in the history of England happened in the 16th century. Henry VIIIs actions changed the religious, cultural and political climate for centuries to come, and nowhere are the effects of this turbulent time better felt than in the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London. Anne Boleyn was buried by the altar after her execution, as are Thomas More, who was executed for his beliefs, and Lady Jane Grey, the nine day queen of England.
Founded as the English home of the Knights Templar. The tomb of William Marshal also link it to Magna Carta. Marshal was fundamental in both setting out the terms of the charter and organising its sealing at Runnymede. For 800 years Magna Carta has been employed as a beacon of liberty and democracy, and Temple Church is a physical embodiment of the same.
The chapel embodies the intimate grandeur that is potential in chapel architecture better than any other. It is a huge and open space, and the eye is drawn to the commanding golden apse. This is but a hint at the original spectacle, as the chapel was hit by a bomb in June 1944, killing 121 people. The plain style of rebuilding, now decorated with regimental flags, is a reminder of the tragedy of war but also of the resilience and bravery of the human spirit.
Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the chapel is typical of the stunning architectural style of its architect. It has a huge apse painted with a vision of the resurrection and the walls are lined with magnificent 17th century panelling. Charles II established the hospital ‘for the relief of such Land Souldiers as are, or shall be, old, lame, or infirm in ye service of the Crowne’. It was designed to provide both physical and spiritual care for those in need, especially the resident Chelsea Pensioners.
A place of sanctuary. The chapel is relatively plain but beautiful. Underneath its floor lies a hidden gem! The vaults provide a stunning setting for a mass of grave slabs, but in the 18th century it was also a notorious location for young, often unmarried, mothers to abandon their babies, hoping that the Inn would take care of them. In the sometimes impersonal world of the legal profession, this particular chapel and the grand vaults were the settings for some very personal stories.
An ancient survivor. The chapel dates to 1315, and is in fact more ancient than the legal institution it now serves. The first record of a chaplain being employed dates to 1400. In its 700 year history, it has been rebuilt many times, the most recent after suffering bomb damage during the Second World War. Some of the 19th century stained glass was removed and put into storage during the Blitz and avoided destruction, but was only rediscovered in 2009.
From plague pit to monastery. The site originally began life in 1348 as a burial ground for victims of the Black Death. By 1361, the then Bishop of London, Michael Northburgh convinced Sir Walter de Maunay to convert the plague cemetery chapel into a Carthusian monastery, or charterhouse. The first prior and monks arrived in 1370. On 11 May 1941, most of the Tudor buildings at Charterhouse were set alight during an air raid, but remarkably the chapel escaped damage.