Saturday, 25 July 2009

The Lord Mayor's Chapel, Bristol

The Lord Mayor’s Chapel is often overlooked by those visiting the nearby Cathedral, which it faces across College Green. But this small, Grade I Listed chapel contains a wealth of history, including an impressive collection of tombs and stained glass behind its modest but attractive west front.


The chapel was established to serve a religious hospital foundation in 1230, to care for the sick, feed the poor and educate 12 poor boys. Originally administered by the Cathedral, it became a separate institution in the late 13th century. It was endowed with lands by wealthy Bristol merchants until it was dissolved, along with other such religious foundations, in 1539.

Fortunately, it was purchased by Bristol Corporation in 1541, and has remained in their possession ever since: it is now the country’s only functioning chapel in civic ownership. Most of the foundation’s other buildings have long-since disappeared.

The building

The nave was erected around 1230, followed by the south aisle around 1280. The tower – visible from the passage at the side – was erected in 1487, and the chancel was rebuilt and the south aisle chapel added in 1500. In 1523, Sir Robert Poyntz, a close associate of Henry VII and Henry VIII, built a chantry chapel south of the chancel. The church underwent a major restoration in 1889, undertaken by the renowned church architect J L Pearson, who rebuilt the West Front (albeit retaining the window design) and North Transept. The original west window now resides in a garden, as a romantic ruin, in the Bristol suburbs.

Although the chapel has some fine Tudor architecture – the nave roof, the fan vaulting of the Poyntz Chapel and the East Window are all impressive – the church is chiefly known for its rich stained glass and fittings.

Pride of place must go to the tombs, dating from the 13th to the 18th centuries. Most of these were moved to the south aisle and south aisle chapel in the 18th century. There are simply too many to describe in detail, but as a collection they would flatter any cathedral.

The earliest are two crusader tombs in the South Aisle Chapel, with effigies in full chain mail armour, believed to be of the co-founders, Maurice de Gaunt (d. 1230) and his nephew Robert de Gournay (d. 1269). In the south aisle is a very rare merchant’s tomb from around 1360, wearing civilian dress, including short ‘pixie’ boots, stockings and a full-length cloak. Most poignant is that of John Cookin, dated 1627, who died aged 11. He is depicted, life-size, on one knee, carrying his schoolbooks, under a fine classical canopy.

But the stained and painted glass is also impressive: although some is original, most came from the Abbey of Fonthill in 1823, and dates from the late mediaeval period. Made in England, France and Cologne, much of it was inserted in the East Window, but the south aisle chapel also has 23 roundels of German and Flemish glass from the 16th and 17th centuries, and the Poyntz Chapel roundels from the 15th century.

Also of note are the fine 15th century reredos, and a large number of mediaeval piscinas and carved heads (mostly corbels) - don't miss the wonderful grotesque face in the south transept. Finally, the Poyntz Chapel floor is laid with 16th century floor tiles from Spain - said to be the largest such collection outside the Iberian Peninsular.

College Green, Bristol, BS1 5TB

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