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How Lady chapels gave birth to cathedral choirs

29 April 2016

The Henry VII chapel in Westminster Abbey is celebrating its 500th anniversary. Tim Tatton-Brown traces its history

Jim Dyson (copyright: Dean & Chapter of Westminster)

Henry VII chapel, Westminster Abbey

Henry VII chapel, Westminster Abbey

FIVE hundred years ago, on 19 February 1516, the Lady chapel of Westminster Abbey was reconsecrated. This superb structure, which projects prominently from the east end of the Abbey, now lies immediately opposite the main entrance to the Houses of Parliament. Within 30 years of its completion, it was called miraculum orbis universali (“the wonder of the entire world”) by John Leland, and its architecture has been almost universally admired ever since.

Even the monumental early Victorian architecture of the current Houses of Parliament, built by Sir Charles Barry between 1840 and 1860, in the early Tudor Perpendicular style, had to harmonise with the “Henry VII Chapel”, as this part of Westminster Abbey is always known.

The Henry VII Chapel was, however, the last and the grandest of all the great Lady chapels that were created in pre-Reformation England; to understand it, we must look briefly at both its predecessor at the Abbey, and at some of the other great Lady chapels that were built for the cathedrals and abbeys of Britain, many of which are now little known as former chapels of the Blessed Virgin Mary.


”ST MARY” has been by far the most common dedication for English churches since early Anglo-Saxon times. The cult of the Virgin, however, developed rapidly from the late 12th century, and it was at this time that some large new “Lady chapels” began to be erected. At both Glastonbury Abbey and Durham Cathedral, these new structures were added to the west end of the main church, probably in deference to the prejudices of the Benedictine monks in each of these great churches that women should be kept at a distance.

Then, in 1220, the nine-year-old Henry III went to Salisbury to see the first stones of the completely new Salisbury Cathedral being laid at its east end. Just over two weeks later, the boy-king came to Westminster for his coronation; on the day before this, as the monk and chronicler Matthew Paris tells us, he witnessed the laying of the foundation stone for the Abbey’s new Lady chapel, at its east end.

Salisbury Cathedral, which was itself dedicated to the Virgin, began with a wonderful basilical chapel at its east end. The altar here, which, by necessity, was dedicated to the Holy Trinity, was soon to become the place where the daily Lady mass was celebrated, and the Cathedral soon became the source for the new liturgy of secular (non-monastic) cathedrals: the “Sarum Use”.

Salisbury had also hoped to have a new shrine in its eastern chapel (to St Osmund); but it was Worcester Cathedral, inhabited by Benedictine monks, which led the way with its new, early 13th century eastern arm, combining a Lady altar and shrines. Worcester also had the tomb of King John.

During the 13th century, the daily celebration of the Lady mass became central to the liturgy; so the altar where this took place in all great churches was second only in importance to the high altar. Even in parish churches, a daily Lady mass was celebrated, and, in all but the smallest, a special altar was created. Many churches set about rebuilding and enlarging the chancel, and a small Lady chapel was often added beside it.

By the end of the 13th century, most cathedrals — such as Exeter, Hereford, Lichfield, Chichester, Norwich, and Winchester — had fine new Lady chapels at their east ends, as did many of the great abbeys (later to be cathedrals), such as St Albans, Gloucester, Bristol, and Peterborough. This last had a large new Lady chapel, on the north side of its eastern arm, which was destroyed in the 17th century.

At Lincoln (another cathedral that was dedicated to the Virgin), a spectacular new eastern arm was built to house the shrine of St Hugh. This was complete by 1280, and is now known as the Angel Choir. Its eastern altar was also used for Lady mass.

Lincoln is a vast Gothic building, but two other cathedrals — Old St Paul’s, in London, and York Minster — were trying to build on an even greater scale. St Paul’s managed to complete its even larger eastern arm and Lady chapel by the beginning of the 14th century, but the enormous eastern Lady chapel at York was not ready until the early 15th century. Old St Paul’s has, of course, been destroyed, but the setting for York Minster’s eastern Lady altar has recently been enhanced by the recent restoration of its huge east window.

Early in the 14th century, Wells Cathedral built an exceptionally beautiful eastern Lady chapel (in which much fine glass also survives) in the form of an irregular octagon. It was the intention also to incorporate a shrine to the west, but no saint was forthcoming.

The most remarkable of all the new Lady chapels of this time was, however, the one built by the monks of Ely. It was started in 1321 as a free-standing rectangular building, 100 feet long, constructed to the north of the Cathedral’s eastern arm. The wonderful interior of this building, which, after the Dissolution, became a separate parish church, is filled with beautifully carved and painted sculpture. Although it received much damage after the Reformation, a remarkable amount still survives in its elaborate architectural setting.

A year after the new Lady chapel was started at Ely, the crossing tower collapsed on to the monks’ choir. As a result, this area had to be rebuilt before the Lady chapel could be completed. The new octagonal crossing, with its timber lantern above, was an innovative solution to the problem.


BY THE 15th century, almost all the great churches in England had a fine architectural space in which to celebrate their Lady masses, and it was at exactly this time that elaborate polyphonic music was evolving, which was used principally for the Lady mass. This complicated “new music” was beyond the capabilities of most priests and monks (who were accustomed to singing plainsong in their choirs), and so new choirs of “professional” musicians had to be formed.

Not only were skilled men (and organists) needed to perform this music, but also carefully trained boys to sing the “top line”. These boys were often being educated at the grammar schools, which most of the cathedrals and monasteries now possessed; many of them became accomplished singers and keyboard performers. Like football players today, some of the best musicians were “poached” to perform at rival establishments, tempted away by higher wages.

By the early Tudor period, there was a “Premier League” of great churches, consisting of St George’s Chapel, in Windsor Castle, and the richest cathedrals and abbeys. When Henry VIII dissolved all the great abbeys and created his six “New Foundation” cathedrals, including Westminster, these “Lady chapel” choirs migrated to the monks’ choirstalls, and became the first post-Reformation cathedral choirs — with professional boys (and now girls) — that survive to this day.


HOW does Henry VII’s Lady chapel fit into all of this? The eastern Lady chapel at Westminster Abbey was built slowly between 1220 and 1245, but when, in 1245, Henry III decided to spend colossal sums of money (more than £100 million pounds in today’s currency) on completely rebuilding the whole of Westminster Abbey in the new French Gothic style, everything changed. By 1269, the eastern arm had been rebuilt with vaults that were 100 feet high, and, at its heart, the wonderful Cosmati-work shrine of St. Edward the Confessor.

The older Lady chapel, to the east, had probably been heightened, and by the latter part of Henry III’s reign was clearly at the centre of the Westminster monks’ devotional life in the Abbey. Also at this time, the area around the monks’ stalls to the west of the crossing in the nave was also being completely rebuilt. The rest of the nave was only slowly reconstructed in the later 14th and 15th centuries; and it was not until 1507 that the Purbeck marble paving (still there today) was laid in the newly finished nave.


IN THE earlier part of his reign, in the 1490s, Henry VII had decided that he would like to be buried at St George’s Chapel, Windsor; consequently, he paid for the old chapel there, at the east end of the new choir, to be rebuilt as a new Lady chapel. As it happened, King Richard III had, in 1484, ordered the body of the murdered King Henry VI to be moved from Chertsey Abbey to St George’s Chapel, where it soon became the focus of a cult for “Good King Harry”.

Although Henry VI had not yet been canonised by the Pope, Henry VII planned to have a shrine for the earlier Henry constructed in the new Lady chapel, with, in front of it, a monumental tomb for himself and his wife. In 1498, however, after a royal commission had been set up, the abbot of Westminster persuaded the King (with documentary evidence) that Henry VI had always wanted to be buried not at Windsor, but at Westminster, and that a new shrine for Henry VI should be made in a completely new and much grander Lady chapel at Westminster Abbey.

As a result, from 1502 Henry VII put up large sums of money so that the old Lady chapel could be demolished. On 24 January 1503c the first stone of the new, much enlarged and aisled Lady chapel was laid. Building work, and the putting in of fine new choir stalls was almost complete by the time of Henry VII’s death in 1509, but the canonisation of Henry VI had not taken placec and Henry VI’s remains stayed in Windsor. They are still there today.


FAMOUSLY, Henry VII’s very long will sets out the work he wanted to take place in the Lady chapel after his death. As is still apparent, all the painted decoration on the masonry that he had intended was never carried out. Some stained glass was installed, but most of this was unfortunately destroyed in the Second World War.

Henry VIII did ensure the creation of a large, new Renaissance workshop at Westminster Abbey, so that Pietro Torrigiano could make his superb effigies of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. An extraordinary bronze enclosure was also made around the tombs; and the workshop continued to be used for the making of tombs — first for Cardinal Wolsey, and then for Henry VIII himself. This latter monument was not removed to Windsor, where Henry VIII was buried, until 1567, when Elizabeth I finally ordered it.

The death of Henry VIII, and accession of Edward VI in January 1547, stopped all the work, and Henry VIII’s elaborate funeral mass at Windsor was the end of an era.

In the Henry VII chapel at Westminster, elaborate sung Lady masses would have been celebrated for just 30 years after the Chapel’s consecration in 1516, although a few other Lady masses may have been celebrated in the chapel in 1557-58 at the very end of Queen Mary’s reign, when the new body of monks was installed in the Abbey.


Tim Tatton-Brown is a freelance archaeologist and architectural historian, and the consultant archaeologist at Westminster School.

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