Stratford – The Guild Chapel

We went back into Stratford on a sunny Wednesday. the offspring wanted to visit Shakespeare’s birthplace, but we’d been before and as entry is quite expensive me and J decided to give it a miss and have a wander round the small town.

After visiting Waterstones (and ending up buying a couple of books – more to add tot he pile 😂), walking a little further down the street we spotted this chapel and a notice enticed us to have a look inside.

It’s the the chapel built for the Guild of the Holy Cross, a medieval religious organisation created in 1269 which existed until it was abolished in 1547. The Guild membership consisted of gentry, wealthy merchants and tradesmen from Stratford – it probably acted like a sort of Freemasons where the members looked after each other while carrying out some charity work as a public relations exercise. According to Wikipedia

The guild reached the peak of its influence in the late 15th century, when it had become the town’s semi-official governing body, and probably included all of the more important townsmen.

The picture at the top of this post shows their Guildhall and the adjacent alms houses. The chapel was built at the end of the Guildhall – you can see the tower in the photo.

The Medieval Guild Chapel is a Grade 1 listed building and the Historic England listing tells us that the chancel was built in the 13th Century, with some alterations done around1450. The nave and tower were added in around 1490 and comprehensively restored in1804. Further restoration and refurbishment in the 1950s.

During the 19th Century Medieval wall-paintings were rediscovered which had been covered over by limewash during the Reformation.

In Medieval times most churches would have had paintings on the walls to educate and, literally, put the fear of God into the congregation. Even those who were able to read would be unlikely to be able to read the words of the scriptures themselves because until the Reformation the Bible was only available in Latin. The clergy and the Feudal Ruling Class didn’t want the Lower Orders to get any ideas about equality from reading the New Testament!

Following the Reformation, when English translations of the bible became available, the paintings, images, statues and the like were banned by a Royal Injunction by Elizabeth I 1559 which required the “removal of all signs of superstition and idolatry from places of worship”. So the paintings were covered over with limewash (Shakespeare’s dad was allegedly involved in this), which actually served to protect the them – although some have been lost, including some scenes from the Legend of the True Cross when the Chapel was re-modelled in the 19th Century.

Today, however, some of the paintings have been uncovered and can be viewed by visitors to the chapel. A team of historical archaeologists and digital heritage specialists from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, have carried out a major study of the paintings and created a digital model.

The large mural painted above the chancel arch (probably at the beginning of the 16th Century) represents the Day of Judgement, otherwise known as the Doom,

This is what the York team think it would have looked like. (The large cross and silhouettes of two figures – one on either side – were not actually part oft eh painting. there was originally a physical cross and two statues there which were painted around. Now they’re gone they’ve left behind their “shadows”

Another large painting on lower west wall – the Allegory of Death is the best-preserved of the Chapel’s wall paintings.

The York team’s reconstruction can be seen here.

Not all of the paintings are on display. Most have been re-painted with limewash to preserve them, but there are a few which visitors can peek at!

There’s a couple of good websites about the chapel and the paintings here and here plus a website about the York University project.

After looking round the chapel we made our way to the river for a stroll before joining the offspring for a drink in the Garrick, the oldest pub (reputably!) in Stratford –  in a timber framed building dating back to the 1400’s.

After that we walked towards the river, crossed the bridge then walked along the other side

before crossing back over on the chain ferry.

We then made our way back to the RSC. Popping inside we asked how much it cost to go up the tower. It was free! (with the option of making a donation – which we did).

The tower was added during the renovation and remodelling between 2007 and 2010

and after taking the lift to the top we had some good views over the theatre, the town and the nearby countryside.

Wife and daugher took the lift back down an then went shopping. Son and I descended by the steps (more fun!) and sheltered in the shade while we waited for them. It was then back to the car for the short journey to our accommodation.