From Old Church Lore by William Andrews; William Andrews & Co., The Hull Press; London, 1891; pp. 44-64.

stylized border engraving of cherubs and interlacing vines [44]

Chapels on Bridges.

manuscript letter THE building of bridges in bygone times was regarded as a religious duty. An order of friars was established on the continent, in the twelfth century, having for its object the erecting and repairing of bridges. Its work extended into several countries. In France, the friars built the celebrated bridge over the Rhone at Avignon, and a bridge, still in use, at Pont St. Esprit, was one of their works. We have not any traces of the operations of the order in England, but there were in the country, prior to the reign of Richard II., lay-brotherhoods performing a similar good work.

Queen Matilda erected and endowed bridges at Stratford and Bow, which she regarded as meritorious. The Church looked upon the work as one deserving of encouragement. Richard 45 de Kellawe, Bishop of Durham, from 1311 to 1316, for example, promised to remit penances for those engaged in bridge-building. The Registry of his Episcopal Chancery contains many entries similar to the following: “Memorandum . . . his lordship grants forty days’ indulgence to all who will draw from the treasure that God has given them, valuable and charitable aid towards the building and repair of Botyton bridge.” We read in another entry: “Forty days’ indulgence is allowed to those sincerely contrite and confessed of all their sins, who shall help by their charitable gifts, or by their bodily labour, the building and maintenance of the causeway between Brotherton and Ferrybridge, where many people pass by.” On another occasion, a similar indulgence was granted for help towards the highroad and bridge between Billingham and Norton.

The most striking case which has come under our notice, where pious motives have caused the erection of a bridge, is set forth in a contract of the thirteenth century. The particulars are given in Jusserand’s “English Wayfaring Life in the Middle Ages.” “Reginald de Rosels,” we are told, “allowed Peter, Abbot of Whitby, to 46 build a permanent bridge on the river Esk, between his own and the convent’s lands. He pledges himself in that act to permit to all comers free access to the bridge through his own property. ‘For which concession the aforesaid Abbot and convent have absolved in chapter all the ancestors of the same Reginald of all fault and transgression they may have committed against the church of Whiteby, and have made them participant of all the good works, alms, and prayers of the church of Whiteby.’” The original contract is in Latin, and was printed by the Surtees Society (1881).

“It was very usual,” says Leland, “in greater brydges to build chappells in which they did pray for the soules of their founders.” There were other reasons for erecting chapels, one being for the place of residence for the priests to solicit alms from all who passed over the bridge, whether walking or riding, to keep it in repair. Some were built for sheltering benighted travellers, having crypts where rest and refreshment might be obtained. In these chapels, the wayfarer could pray for protection on his journey, and return thanks for safety after his undertaking had been completed. Travelling, in mediæval times, 47 was beset with trial and hardship on every side.

The history and romance of London Bridge must ever remain amongst the subjects most popular to the people of England.

An Engraving of the old London Bridge with many multi-storied buildings crowded all along it.  It is shown over the River and the town of London is shown in the distance.


The first and famous London Bridge was regarded as one of the glories of the Middle Ages. The bridge was commenced by Peter Colechurch, in 1176. He worked for twenty-nine years, when death ended his earthly career, and “he was sepultured” in 48 the chapel on the bridge he had done so much to erect. A clever Frenchman, called Isembert, completed the work, in the year 1209. The undertaking had the hearty support of the people, and large sums of money and extensive endowments of land were given to carry it on. The excitement throughout the land was immense. The nation felt it was one of its great undertakings. It was in length nine hundred and twenty-six feet, in width forty feet, some sixty feet above the water, and stood upon nineteen pointed arches, between massive piers. When first completed, it had only one building upon it, a handsome stone chapel, dedicated to St. Thomas Becket, which stood on the middle pier. Subsequently, two rows of houses were erected on the bridge, one on each side of the road. A drawbridge was put up as a means of protection. A terrible fire, on July 10th, 1212, was the cause of the death of upwards of 3,000 persons. Stow, in his “Survey of London,” supplies some important information on this subject. After adverting to a fire commencing on the Southwark side of the bridge, he states that “an exceeding great multitude of people passing the bridge, either to 49 extinguish and quench it, or else to gaze at and behold it, suddenly the north part, by blowing of the south wind, was also set on fire, and the people, which were even now passing the bridge, perceiving the same, would have returned, but were stopped by fire; and it came to pass, that as they stayed or protracted time, the other end of the bridge also, namely, the south end, was fired, so that the people, thronging themselves between the two fires, did nothing else but expect present death; then came there to aid them many ships and vessels, into the which the multitude so unadvisedly rushed that, the ships being drowned, they all perished. It was said, that through the fire and shipwreck, there were destroyed about three thousand persons, whose bodies were found in part, besides those that were wholly burnt to ashes, and could not be found.” A frost, in 1282, destroyed five arches of the bridge. In 1305, when Edward I. was king, was commenced the practice of placing the heads of traitors over London Bridge gateway. Paul Hentzner, a German traveller, visited England in 1598, and counted on it no fewer than thirty heads. Several houses on the bridge were destroyed by fires at various times, and all 50 were swept away by the Great Fire, of 1666. A good idea of these building may be obtained from the picture we give on page 47.

On the west side of the Ouse Bridge, at York, was St. William’s Chapel, an interesting example of early English architecture. Respecting the origin of this chapel, there is a popular story that it was built shortly after the bridge was completed, in 1268, in obedience to royal commands. The tale is to the effect that a Scotch nobleman was visiting the city, shortly after the erection of the bridge, when some of the citizens quarrelled and came to blows with his servants on the bridge. Several of the strangers were slain. The riot was brought under the notice of the kings of England and Scotland for settlement, and it was finally agreed that the citizens of York should pay £300, a large amount in those days, and erect a chapel on or near the spot where the servants met their untimely deaths, and also that they maintain two priests to pray for the souls of the slain men. After the Reformation, the chapel was converted into an Exchange for the Society of Hamburg Merchants at York, and subsequently put to other secular uses. Finally it was taken 51 down, on the erection of a new bridge, in the year 1810.

Under the year 1505, a note appears in Hollingworth’s “Mancuniensis,” stating that “Care was taken for the reparation of the chappell standing on Salford Bridge, built, as it is sayd, by Thomas del Booth, in Edward III.’s time. He certainly gave £30 towards the building of Salford Bridge; and it was very usual on greater bridges to build chappells, in which they did pray for the soules of their founders. This chappell is now converted to a prison for Manchester and Salford.” The building was pulled down in 1778, for the purpose of making the bridge wider.

We have other instances of bridge prisons besides the one at Salford. A familiar example is that at Bedford. It has been asserted by several authors that Bunyan was imprisoned in it, but it has been proved beyond doubt that such was not the fact. The bridge prison belonged absolutely to the borough, and Bunyan was a county prisoner, and spent his time in the county gaol. Much interesting information bearing on this subject will be found in Dr. Brown’s book on Bunyan. The records of the town contain some 52 curious particulars respecting the bridge.

Engraving of a stone bridge, with a small domed structure built on it, topped with a weathervane.


The following may be given as an example: “Item, yt ye ordered that the great cheyne by every nighte at ten of the clocke to be locked crosse the 53 great bridge, and so kept untyl fyve of the clocke in the morninge, and that he or they that shall dwell in the bridge house, to keep the keye of the said locke, and keep the same soe locked, and not suffer aine horse, horseman, or cattell to passe within that tyme wch he shall not knowe. And of them wch he shall knowe, to take a pennie only for letting doune the cheyne and noe more.” The prison was taken down in the year 1765. Here was a chapel or oratory, dedicated to St. Thomas the Martyr, built by a Bedford man, early in the fourteenth century, and endowed with lands for the support of a warden or chaplain, who had to repair the bridge at his own expense.

A small structure on the old bridge at Bradford-on-Avon has also been used as a prison. Its original purpose has provoked some discussion. Some say that it was erected for a chapel, but not a few question the statement. Aubrey of old, and the Rev. J. Charles Cox, LL. D., and Precentor Venables of our time, are of opinion that it was a chapel. For many years it was used as a lock-up, and later as a powder magazine. It has a dome-like roof, of later date than the building. It bears a model 54 of a gudgeon, the emblem of St. Nicholas. The Bradford-on-Avon folk are familiarly spoken of as Bradford gudgeons. Those who had been imprisoned on the bridge were said to have been “under fish and over water.”

A small bridge-chapel at Derby, dedicated to St. Mary of the Brigg, links the past with the present.

An engraving by Llewellynn Jewitt, of a cottage with a little yard, and a lady and infant in the foreground, with another strcture in the background.


It most probably dates back to the fourteenth century. Rev. J. Charles Cox, LL. D., in his “Churches of Derbyshire,” traces with care the history of this old-time building. He says: “St. Mary’s Bridge — by which access was gained from Nottingham and the south into the town of 55 Derby, through whose streets lay one of the most important thoroughfares from London to the north — must, in mediæval days, have been of considerable importance. It is pleasant to think of the busy burgesses or men-at-arms turning aside into the Chapel of Our Lady for a brief silent prayer, before crossing the Derwent, and plunging into the forests that stretched out before them on the other side of the river.” There would, doubtless, be a gatehouse, built for defence and for levying tolls, etc. On the chapel or gatehouse were placed the heads and quarters of the priests who were martyred at Derby, on July 25th, 1588, when the Jesuits were making determined efforts to win England back to Rome. “Two resolute Catholic gentlemen” stole and buried the remains. Here have worshipped the persecuted Presbyterians of Derby. About a century ago it was turned into dwelling-houses, and later was used as a carpenter’s shop. In 1873, a Bishop’s license was obtained, and once more it was used as a house of prayer. We give, by the courtesy of Mr. Richard Keene, a view of the chapel, from an interesting book published by him, in 1881, under the title of “All about Derby,” by Edward Bradbury and 56 Richard Keene. The picture is from the pencil of the late Llewellynn Jewitt, F.S.A., the eminent antiquary.

Prior to the Reformation, the Chamberlains of Derby rendered annually to the monks of the Priory of St. James two pounds of wax, for the privilege of passing over St. James’ Bridge.

On the old bridge at Rotherham, which spans the river Don, is still standing the chapel of “Our Lady.”

“The sacred taper’s light is gone.”

It is an interesting monument of bygone times, but it is no longer used as a house of prayer. Where once the mass was celebrated by devout priests, a trader keeps a small shop. The earliest mention of this chapel which is known, occurs in the will of John Bokying, master of the Grammar School at Rotherham, and is dated August 24th, 1483. He leaves “To the fabric of the chapel to be built on Rotherham bridge, 3s. 4d.” The design of the building was plain, but, on the whole, its effect must be pronounced pleasing. The dimensions of the building in the interior are thirty-two feet nine inches in length, by fifteen feet five inches in width. Leland, the antiquary, visited the town in the middle of the sixteenth


An engraving of a long bridge, with five arches visible, over a wide river, in the midst is a square crenellated tower.  The city is seen in the distance and a boatman in a small flat boat is poling it across the water.



century, and says, “I enterid into Rotheram by a fair stone bridge of iiij arches, and on hit is a chapel of stone, wel wrought.” In old records relating to Rotherham, reproduced by John Guest, F.S.A., in his “Historic Notices of Rotherham,” may be read many items of local interest on this chapel. We find statements respecting the bridge and chapel occupying the attention of the Justices of Peace at Pontefract Sessions and Doncaster Sessions, towards the close of the seventeenth century. The Feoffees of Rotherham successfully maintained that the bridge and chapel belonged to them, but that they had to be kept in repair at the expense of the West Riding. It, at this period, was used as an almshouse for poor people. In the Feoffees records it is stated as follows:

“1778. June 6th. Ordered that the greaves do employ a proper person to examine ye state of ye almshouse, and to report what expense will be necessary to make the same into a dwelling-house for ye deputy-constable, and secure gaols for the receiption of prisoners.”

“1779. February 5th. That the greaves do immediately agree with Mr. Platts for altering the almshouse to a prison, and, according to a 59 plan now in their hands, so that the expense of the alterations do not exceed thirty-six pounds.”

“1779. June 16th. Ordered that John Watson be permitted to inhabit that part of the almshouse designed for the deputy-constable. That the rent of the same shall be five pounds. Only to use the two first rooms and the pantry on the ground floor, and the two chambers over the same. The other parts of the house being designed for other purposes. And that he shall not take out a license to sell ale or spirituous liquors.”

In 1825-6, a new court house was built, and then the bridge-chapel was no longer required as a prison. As we have previously stated, the ancient building is now devoted to business purposes. Let us hope the day is not far distant when it may once more be used as a house of prayer.

Perhaps the most interesting of chapels on bridges, is the one at Wakefield, dedicated to St. Mary. Its history has been carefully compiled by Norrisson Scatcherd, in 1843, by John W. Walker, F.S.A., in 1890, and it has received the consideration of other antiquaries. It has long been a popular, but mistaken belief, that the 60 chapel was built by Edward IV. that masses might be said for those slain in the battle of Wakefield, in 1460, and in which his father, the Duke of York, and his brother, the Duke of Rutland were slain.

Engraving of a large gothic building, rectangular in shape, with arched doorways.  A man in a buggy is pulled by a horse, and a lady and child are on the lawn looking at it.  A small blakc dog is seen running away to the right by them.


It will be remembered, that in this engagement, the Lancastrians defeated the Yorkists. It is clear, from Mr. Walker’s work, that the beautiful chapel was built by the townsmen of Wakefield, and 61 there is not any trace of the King adding anything to the revenues of the chapel. When the first bridge was built over the Calder, is not known, but, in 1342, King Edward III. granted to the bailiffs of the town the right of tollage for three years, on all goods for sale and cattle passing over the bridge, “as a help towards repairing and improving the bridge,” which is stated to be “rent and broken.” In the documents, there is not any mention of a chapel, a bridge only is referred to. Mr. Walker is of opinion that about this time the suggestion was first made for the erection of a chapel in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and that it was soon carried into effect. Three townsmen and two priests obtained the first license, in 1356-7. In a decree, bearing date of November 20th, 1444, it says the chapel is “Wholly built of costly stonework by the inhabitants and community of Wakefield.” It has been suggested that, for a time, the black death, which caused such terrible desolation in the country, in 1349-50, may, for a period, have stopped the building of the chapel. It was a noble structure when completed, the carving being especially fine. On the west front, were carvings representing the five glorious mysteries 62 of the Rosary. We give a picture of the central figures, illustrating the Resurrection.

Engraving of three seated knights in armor, with helmets on, holding shields in a row, looking up at a figure representing Jesus, with two praying, kneeling angels on each side of him.


It will be seen that Christ is rising from the tomb, and on either side of him are two angels engaged in prayer. In front of the tomb are three soldiers, placed there as guards, and they are clad in complete armour of the time of Edward III. An important feature of the Wakefield bridge-chapel is the crypt. “This,” says Scatcherd, “has undoubtedly been the dwelling of the priests — where they might have lodged strangers, or 63 administered relief.” There was a high turret, reached by a little spiral staircase. On this elevated part of the building was kindled the cresset-light, which would guide the wayfarer, and possibly assist the navigator on the river Calder, when day had given way to night.

Engraving of a large gothic building, rectangular and relatively plain.  It has two corner towers, and three large ornate windows are visible.  A bridge over a river is seen on either side of it, so it appears to be in the middle of the bridge.


The chapel was for many years used for secular purposes, but, happily, opened for public worship on Easter Sunday, April 22nd, 1848. It had been previously rebuilt by Mr. G. G. Scott, and the west front is still to be seen at Kettlethorpe 64 Hall, and forms the front of a boathouse. The rebuilding, instead of restoring, was a serious mistake. The Bath and Caen stone used does not resist the wasting action of the impurities in the air. “It was in an evil hour,” says Scott, “that I yielded, and allowed a new front in Caen stone, in place of the weather-beaten old one. . . . I never repented it but once, that has been ever since. . . . I think of this with the utmost shame and chagrin.” We state, on the authority of Mr. Walker, that, “Sir Gilbert Scott, some years before his death, was so anxious to have the old front replaced in its original position, that he offered to contribute freely towards this object, if he could persuade the Yorkshire people to help him, but nothing further was done.”