In mediæval times, bridge chapels served an important function as wayside chapels for pilgrims. Mediæval bridges were often the only way of leaving a town or city to venture into the countryside across the farthest bank and, as many towns were established across rivers, they must have been plentiful. But did they also serve another purpose?
The authors of a guidebook to the bridge chapel at Derby* clearly think so. They state ‘Bridge chapels served a number of purposes. They were places where travellers leaving the relative safety of a town would call to pray and receive a blessing before setting out on a possibly dangerous journey through the countryside beyond. Others, about to enter a town, might have paused to offer thanks for a safe arrival. Tolls, for the upkeep of the associated bridges, would have been levied on incoming goods and animals.’ They go on to state ‘It was customary in those days for the daily upkeep of the chapel to be the responsibility of a so-called hermit, appointed by the bishop. The hermit, who lived in the chapel, was also responsible for the collection of tolls.’
So there we have it. As tolls were extracted for the upkeep of the bridge, perhaps the bridge itself belonged to the church? But why are there so few bridge chapels left in England? With the coming of the Reformation, such chapels fell out of favour and by 1547 all had been closed. The subsequent arrival of industrialization and the turnpike era rendered mediæval bridges too narrow for traffic so many chapels, now redundant, would have been demolished.
It is fortunate that a few bridge chapels still exist, and two of them are in Yorkshire, at Wakefield and Rotherham.
Wakefield was an important town in mediæval times. The lovely little bridge chapel built around 1350 sits on the old bridge over the River Calder. It is the best bridge chapel we have despite its west front having been faithfully rebuilt by George Gilbert Scott in 1847. Another reference to toll collecting comes from 1342 when toll rights were granted to the bridge, eight years before the chapel was erected and 15 years before the chapel licence was granted.
The bridge chapel at Rotherham, although similar in style to the one at Wakefield, is well over a hundred years younger. It was heavily restored in 1924. The bridge itself, although mediæval, was widened in the 18th century and narrowed back to its original width in the 20th. It is a miracle that the chapel survived the original widening. Both Wakefield and Rotherham chapels are rectangular with typical ecclesiastical features.
Other bridge chapels are at Cromford (Derbyshire), Derby, St Ives (Cambridgeshire – pictured at top), Bradford-on-Avon (Wiltshire) and Rochester (Kent). Spare a thought for those early pilgrims, having to pay tolls to fulfil their religious desires.
* Robert Innes-Smith: The Chapel of St. Mary on the Bridge, Derby (Derbyshire Countryside, 1987)
A longer version of this article by John Higgins appeared in Milestone Society Newsletter, August 2016, no 31, pp 21-22.