Common Time 2019

Chapel (Building)

The (west end) organ
Mediaeval misericord
Looking East
One of the bells in the bell tower
The Chapel was built between the years 1387 and 1395 to designs by William Wynford, with Hugh Herland responsible for the traceried wooden ceiling and Thomas of Oxford for the glazing. The building was in six bays with no side aisles or side chapels and was 93 feet long, 30 feet wide and 57 feet high internally. The main access door was at the west end and from the east end there was access to and from a small vestibule which provided the ground floor of the Muniment Tower. At the western end of the south wall there was a small square bell-tower containing three bells. Whether this was of stone or wood or a mixture of both it is not possible to say with accuracy.

The Chapel was consecrated for use on 17 July 1395. Its prime importance in Wykeham’s scheme for the College is shown by its size, the quality of its construction and the prominence afforded to it in his Foundation Statutes. It was designed to accommodate 105 persons for the services but was also to be used (Rubric 31 of the Founder’s Statutes) as a meeting place for the discussion of important Estate business.

Its dimensions are necessarily linked to those of Chamber Court as a whole, of which it forms, with Hall, the southern side. It is, with the adjoining Hall, the only part of Chamber Court built solidly of cut stone. Its woodwork and glazing were products of some of the greatest masters of their craft in England at the time. The building continued to be embellished by later generations and the frequency of references to repairs in the early accounts suggests that the Fellows took seriously the Founder’s stern injunctions in Rubric 35 of the Statutes about not letting his fine buildings fall into decay through ‘laziness and negligence’.
A pair of organs was installed in 1403 and in 1469-73 a stone reredos built beneath the east window. Thurbern’s Chantry was built in the years 1473-6 and the tower replaced with a larger stone tower during the years 1477-81. A new fourth bell was added at the same time and another in 1502.
The layout of the Chapel in the fifteenth century, with its rood screen, its various altars, its images, tabernacle and so on, reflects its use for the daily round of services which are set out in detail in Rubrics 28-29 of the Statutes. Each day the Offices of Prime, Tierce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline would have been sung along with High Mass at about 10 am as well as other Masses for Our Lady and Requiems. More elaborate services were held on Sundays, principal Feast Days and for commemorating the Founder. Maintaining these services was the principal job of the Fellows - who are always referred to in the Statutes as Priest Fellows. In this they were assisted by three professional Chaplains (‘hired and removable’), sixteen Quiristers (choristers) and three Lay Clerks.
The upheaval of the Reformation saw the destruction of the statues on the reredos, (the ones we see today, with the exception of the central three which were dedicated in 1923 during a visit by the Prince of Wales, were added in 1877), and the then existing roodloft. In 1551 the altars were demolished but rebuilt on the accession of Mary I in 1553 and again demolished under Elizabeth in 1562. A table acted as replacement and this was renewed in 1636. The Warden and Fellows appeared to follow with some alacrity the changes of religious opinion in respect to altars!

All that now remains of the original building is the shell – the stone walls and the fan vaulting of the timber ceiling – together with some of the stalls in the choir. These stalls used to extend further and had pinnacled canopies above them.  In the back rows there are still preserved quite a number of the carved misericords. All are in good condition and represent a fascinating insight into the mediaeval mind. On the panelling, the shields of former Wardens (south side) and Headmasters (north) can be observed. They are to be read from east to west. Incumbents who were not armigerous were generally accorded initials within a shield.
To accommodate the increasing size of the school, first the seating in the nave was moved through ninety degrees so that boys sat on pews facing the altar rather than each other; then the junior year was separated off and had its own services in Fromond’s Chantry (1875); then the gallery was built and then St Michael’s Church (Michla) was taken over in 1966 to accommodate the junior two years.

One of the glories of the mediaeval Chapel was its scheme of stained glass windows by Thomas of Oxford – the head of one of the outstanding firms of glaziers working in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century who was also responsible for the chapel glass of the sister foundation, New College Oxford. Thomas provided a portrait of himself as operator istius vitri at the base of the original east window and on the other side, to the same scale, are depictions of the master carpenter (Herland), the master mason (Wynford) and the Clerk of Works Simon Membury.  Quite who was responsible for the overall design is unknown. Research suggests that Richard II, by whose licence the College was founded and who visited it twice in 1393, had such an international court that the Bohemian and North German influences discernible by experts in some of the glazed figures, show the designer had had contact with these influences and thus worked in a broad and eclectic style. Wykeham ensured that building work on his Foundation was done by the best available workers whatever their provenance. In many ways Chapel might seem to have been designed chiefly as a frame for its stained glass.

In the east window was represented the Stem of Jesse: that is the generations between Jesse, father of King David and Jesus Christ. In the side windows was a collection of Old Testament prophets, apostles and other saints from the early church. The glass miraculously survived the ravages of time, boys and doctrinaire reforms until 1821 when it was taken out for repair and sent off to a Shrewsbury company, Messrs. Betton and Evans. However, even the best workshops of the day did not have the technology to deal with the oxidation that had taken place on the outer surfaces of the panels. What came back to the College were copies and not the originals, apart from three small panels in the upper tracery. The glass was re-positioned in November and December of 1822 and was described in the Literary Gazette of September 1826: "Of the modern execution we cannot speak too highly; perhaps there is not another example to compare with it throughout the kingdom". Later generations have not been quite so generous in their opinion as shown by a writer in The Wykehamist (No 648 pp 496-97): ‘Of the grim array of misshapen monsters which frown from Wykeham’s lovely traceries, with a baseness of form and colour that never loses its poignancy, perhaps the vilest is the figure of St Mary ...’. It would be fair to say that opinion these days is much in favour of the original but at the time the Warden and Fellows were evidently satisfied and the side windows soon suffered the same fate: those of the south side in 1825-6 and those of the north in 1827-8. The character of the copies of these latter windows is not as skilled as the east window and one assumes that the company lost enthusiasm for such painstaking and quite possibly financially un-remunerative work.

At the time, Messrs. Betton and Evans’s ‘restoration’ would by many have been considered an improvement, albeit a costly one, and so they presumably felt justified in selling some of the old glass to collectors. It is as a result of the traceability of this glass that the College has been most fortunate in having some of it returned as a result of donations. It is now possible to view it in two locations: Thurbern’s Chantry on the south side of Chapel, and Fromond’s Chantry set within the cloister-garth of Chapel. What strikes one immediately is the lightness of the glass and how different the interior of Chapel would have been with the original in situ.

There was a complete scheme of panelling. Stalls and screen in the then fashionable classical style were added in 1680-1 when English wood carving was at its best. The altar rail is all that remains in place today as the rest was stripped out by William Butterfield in 1874 as part of the 'improvements' he was responsible for. After various adventures the panelling came back to Winchester in 1960 as a result of the great generosity of the Cooper family of Hursley Park. Peter Shepheard designed New Hall around the panelling and this is where it can now be admired.

The west organ, one of the largest new instruments to be built in a school post World War II, was built by N P Mander in the 1980s and fitted into the original casing from the early part of the century when the gallery was added to the west end. It is a three manual organ of 37 speaking stops and was praised by Nicholas Plumley in The Musical Times of December 1987 (Vol 128 No 1738 pp 711-715) as having “beauty, subtlety and flexibility (which) cannot possibly be appreciated in one visit”.

Little mention in this short account of the Chapel has been made of Butterfield’s mid-nineteenth century 'restoration' or of the manifold smaller changes made over the centuries. Each age views change differently and it is easier for those in the present to look back and wish that matters had sometimes taken a different course. But whatever the past has changed we are still able to recognise Chapel as an exceptional building with its feet still firmly placed in the fourteenth century.