During my travels earlier in the year, I saw various kinds of chapels in different parts of castles. I knew that many castles had churches in the bailey and that space inside the castle buildings was at a premium, so I hadn’t really thought that there were many chapels in castles. I was wrong.
I saw three different types of chapel. The first type was the private chapel, usually just off the living quarters of the man who held the castle. The second was a more public chapel for the use of soldiers and members of the household. The third was a huge space, due to the castle concerned having previously been a bishop’s palace. I wasn’t sure whether I should include that one, but I have, as you’ll see below.
The original chapel, from which all others took their name, was the one in which the kings of France kept the cloak (chapele) of St Martin of Tours. St Martin was a bishop in the fourth century. His legend says that he cut his cloak in half to share it with a ragged beggar who later turned out to be Christ. The shrine which held the cloak was a place of private worship for the kings.
Having a private chapel in a castle, however small, seems to me to be a huge luxury. It’s difficult to imagine the lord, his wife and their immediate family and closest members of their household cramming into a tiny space for mass, though. Unless they were built for royalty, they do tend to be very small.
There is a private chapel at Conisbrough Castle, built into one of the buttresses of the Great Tower. It was built at the end of the twelfth century and shows the great wealth of the man who had it built. It’s off the lord’s solar, so you had to have access to that space in order to enter the chapel.
Even while the lord was away, the chapel priest at Consibrough Castle prayed for his soul daily, as well as those of his wife, their fathers and Henry II, who was the king at the time.
The chapel tapers to a point, but isn’t very wide anywhere. It must have been crowded if anyone joined the lord and his wife for mass.
This is the vault of the chapel, which I share simply because the stonework here is rather impressive.
This is the lower chapel at Old Sarum. It was dedicated to St. Margaret and was probably used by the soldiers and servants of the castle. Above it was a chapel dedicated to St Nicholas. It was in the upper chapel that the royal family heard mass when they were in residence.
The chapel for the soldiers at Richmond Castle was a lot less spacious. Also dedicated to St Nicholas, it was built in the eleventh century into the wall surrounding the bailey. It’s tiny, not much more than 6 feet wide. You can just see the niche to the left of the main window which is thought to have held candles. There’s a similar one on the other side. There are benches around three of the walls and the arches that you can see above the bench were supported by painted pillars. It’s worth bearing in mind that this chapel, like the others pictured here, would have been decorated with brightly coloured paintings on the walls and the ceilings.
At Prudhoe Castle a space in the gatehouse was converted into a chapel in the thirteenth century. Given its size and functional brickwork, my guess would be that it was for the soldiers and not the nobility.
The building below is presumed to be the chapel at Sherborne Old Castle. The upper space was the bishop’s chapel and the lower space that of the lowlier members of the household. Sherborne Old Castle was built by Roger, Bishop of Sarum, who was chancellor to Henry I. You’ll recognise that the arrangement is the same as that at Old Sarum, where Bishop Roger also had a hand. Although it was fortified, Sherborne Old Castle was more a palace for the bishop than a castle. When it was first built, it was full of clerics and their servants, and might have been run on monastic lines. I’m not sure how much use such a huge chapel would have seen once the castle took on a more secular role.
A lasting feature of medieval chapels and churches is the piscina.
As you can see, a piscina is a stone basin in which the chalice and paten were washed after mass. It was the priest who washed them, because his fingers had been in contact with the host and the wine, which were believed to have become the body and blood of Christ. His fingers and the vessels had to be cleaned and the water in the piscina drained away to the consecrated ground outside. In a church or an abbey this would be all the surrounding ground, but I’m not sure how this was managed in a castle.
In my novels the castles usually have churches in the bailey, but I’m beginning to see the dramatic possibilities of a private chapel.
Conisbrough Castle by Steven Brindle and Agnieszka Sadraei
Sherborne Old Castle by Peter White
Old Sarum by John McNeill
Richmond Castle by John Goodall
Prudhoe Castle by Susie West
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corédon and Ann Williams
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.