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Bridge Chapels

With special reference to Blessed Nicholas Postgate and Egton bridge chapel

At several locations around Britain there are surviving bridge chapels. Two important ones are in Yorkshire where they were built as parts of the bridges at Wakefield and Rotherham. Others are at Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire and St Ives in Cambridgeshire. These are the only four survivors of such chapels in England. However, there are other survivors that were not built as part of a bridge but which stood adjacent to the bridge, sometimes close enough to be mistaken as part of the bridge's structure. Chapels at Derby and Rochester are surviving examples.

Chapels at or upon Bridges

An unspecified number of chapels at or upon bridges have been recorded but most have not survived. These include some that were built upon bridges as part of the structure and others that adjoined bridges but were not sited directly upon them. It is believed many records have disappeared.

Bridge chapels were a feature of the landscape long before the Reformation. Some dated to the 12th century, with others being constructed during the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. In some cases, they were known as chantry bridge chapels with some being dedicated to Our Lady or The Blessed Virgin Mary, thus stressing their Catholic origins. Others were dedicated to saints such as St Anthony whilst the patron saint of bridges is St John of Nepomuk, born c.1340 in the Czech Republic. Many of these chapels were lost in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, several being attacked during the Edwardine Visitations when many Catholic churches and chapels were destroyed, looted or ransacked.

Some bridge chapels survived either to continue as a small church or perhaps to be adapted for other uses, eg offices, storage accommodation or shelters for livestock in rural areas.

Such chapels were often described as churches in miniature because they provided a small place of worship where Mass was celebrated for travellers and pilgrims. Many were built upon or near important bridges that were part of the approach roads to towns and abbeys but there were some upon pilgrims' routes. However, the chapels had a secondary purpose - the congregations who attended Mass would be expected to donate cash, this fund being used to preserve, repair and maintain both the chapel and the bridge. At that time few bridges had owners or persons responsible for their upkeep. The Catholic Church often accepted such responsibility, often through the abbots of local abbeys.

Those donations also paid the living costs of the resident priest who said Mass for travellers and pilgrims. He lived in the chapel and would also be expected to offer Mass for deceased members of travellers' families or of local residents and he would not forget those who were injured or attacked by robbers whilst on the road. Travelling during those times was a risky business.

The fact that chapels on or near bridges were protected by patrons such as The Virgin Mary, or a local or renowned saint, meant that the bridge itself was also subjected to that same protection. This sometimes led to bridges bearing the names of saints long after the chapels had disappeared - in fact, London's famous bridge that was in continuous use for 600 years bore houses as well as the Chapel of St Thomas à Becket. For a long time it was known as The Bridge of Saints. In more recent times, bridges have been named in honour of famous or important people.

Modern travellers have compared those ancient chapels with their modern counterparts in airports around the world where today's travellers seek refreshment and rest, perhaps with time for spiritual reflection.

The Catterick Bridge Chapel

Bridge chapel at Catterick

Bridge chapel at Catterick - from an old engraving

North Yorkshire had a selection of such chapels and a notable example was at Catterick Bridge built in 1422-25. The bridge was on the Roman road known as [sic] Erming (Ermine) Street and its builders were ordered to [sic] make a brigge of stane oure ye water of Swalle atte Catrik betwixt ye olde stane brigge and ye new brigge of tree (wood). Its structure had to match the bridge at Barnard Castle with its building being completed by Ye feaste of Saint Michille ye Arcangell in ye yeare of our Lord Gode Mle ccccxxv. (29 September 1425). The bridge was later widened and resurfaced with the medieval structure surviving today beneath those changes.

This bridge had a huge chapel on the left of its southern tip as one faced south and this helped to raise the cash required for its construction and maintenance, as well as support for the resident priest - ie the pious offerings made at the chapel of the bridge. Thanks to a resident of Catterick I have received illustrations of this chapel, along with some details. The chapel was dedicated to St Anne.

Of some interest is the name of one of the stonemasons: Thos. Ampilforde. Could he be from Ampleforth now known for its modern Benedictine abbey? The others were John Garette and Robert Maunselle. In the 18th century, the topographical artist Captain Francis Grose wrote "Upon the south end of this bridge was formerly a chapel or oratory where, as tradition tells us, Mass was said every day at eleven o'clock for the benefit of travellers. By whom or at what time it was founded is not said or known."

It must have followed construction of the bridge in 1422-25 and was known to be there in the reign of Henry VIII, but by the end of the 18th century, the chapel was being used as a coal store by the adjacent inn. A sad end for a splendid Mass centre.

The Ouse Bridge Chapel at York

The bridge that spanned the River Ouse at York had a chapel at its west side. It was known as St William's Chapel and an interesting story is linked to it. This huge chapel was built upon orders of the King soon after the bridge was completed in 1268.

It seems that following completion of the bridge, a Scottish nobleman was visiting York. When he went to look at the bridge along with some of his servants, they were attacked and several Scotsmen were killed. The fracas came to the notice of the kings of both England and Scotland, and their deliberations decided that the people of York should pay the huge sum of £300 in compensation, and also erect a chapel near the bridge. One stipulation was that there must also two priests to say Mass and pray for the souls of the deceased. After the Reformation, that chapel was turned into the Exchange for the Society of Hamburg Merchants in York. It was demolished when a new bridge was built in 1810.

Helmsley Bridge Chapel

Helmsley had a Chapel of Our Lady at one end of Rye Bridge where travellers entered the town, and there was another chapel in the castle. Further information is difficult to locate.

Whitby Bridge Chapel

There was also a very ancient chapel dedicated to St Ninian at the end of Whitby Bridge although there was another in the market place said to have been the true chapel of St Ninian. Some sources suggest the latter was dedicated to St Helen.


(a) Village Names

Of interest to Postgate pilgrims is that there was a chapel at the end of a bridge that earlier occupied the site of the present bridge over the River Esk at Egton Bridge. It is of further interest that the location at that time was not then known as Egton Bridge. According to (sic) Blackburnkitchingancestry, it was called Holm Wath and there was a wath (a ford) there even when I was a child (1936 onwards), hence that name. Clearly, it meant the hamlet had both a ford and a bridge, both in use within my memory. However, the English Place-Name Society in its Vol.5 (The Place-Names of the North Riding of Yorkshire, 1928) records the name as Bridge Holme, this being dated to around 1301. Later the 1604 Recusancy List includes the name "Egton Bridge" where it refers to Anne, the wife of Richard Smith, and later to Richard himself. The "Egton Bridge" name also appears in later Recusancy Lists although it must be remembered these are not originals. They are modern extracts that might have been "updated" but the real origin of this "Egton Bridge" was that it indicated the presence of a bridge in the parish of Egton. It was not originally the name of a settlement or hamlet.

There were also river bridges at Lealholm, Grosmont and Sleights, all carrying the village name whilst Glaisdale's pack-horse bridge (c.1619) was first known as Ferry Brigg, and later Beggar's Bridge. Of those, Gromunde (Grosmont) also had a bridge chapel.

The 1604 List of Roman Catholics in the County of York refers to the Bridgeholme Green area of Egton as Egton-Brigg-End. The 1636 map of the Lordship of Egton does show the locality but it is not named as Egton Bridge. It is depicted as Bridgeholme Green, with Bridgeholme Green Farm (home of the Smiths) nearby and close to Lelum Hall (Lealholm Hall or Lealham Hall).

(b) Holm Wath

I believe that the presence of a bridge chapel at Holm Wath (Egton Bridge) provides clues to the birthplace of Blessed Nicholas Postgate. Indeed, it may be that Egton Bridge as the name of the hamlet did not exist at the time of his birth. I quote from Blackburnkitchingancestry:

"There was a bridge at Holm Wath and a chapel on it previous to the year 1400, also a chapel at Grosmont Bridge and a third, I believe, at Beckhole. These chapels would be dedicated to St Anthony, though all record of them is lost. The modern survival of the bridge at Holm Wath is Egton Bridge which did not get its name before the 16th century. It was, of course, the old pack horse road to Rosedale Abbey, thence to Pickering and York."

(c) The Bridge Chapel

By whatever name it was known, the village we now call Egton Bridge has rarely been without a bridge across the River Esk.

A complete and dated list would be difficult to obtain but it is known that the bridge mentioned above, along with a bridge at Glaisdale, was washed away by floods prior to 1400. Beggar's Bridge at Glaisdale is built on those old foundations. The presence of Beggar's Bridge, originally known as Ferry Brigg or sometimes Ferries Brigg, raises some interesting speculation relating to Nicholas Postgate.

The replacement bridge was commissioned by Thomas Ferris, a wealthy ship-owner, former pirate and later Mayor of Hull, hence its early name (Ferry Brigg or Ferries Brigg) and it made use of the fourteenth century foundations that had survived a huge flood in that century. Beggar's Bridge was completed around 1620 although its head stone, prepared earlier in readiness for its completion, bears the date 1619. It seems that completion was a little late. At this time, Nicholas Postgate would be a teenager trying to raise money to pay for his priests' training course at Douai, then in the Spanish Netherlands. He entered the College in July 1621. When he was earlier prosecuted in 1615 for vagrancy, his occupation was cited as "labourer".

There can be no doubt he worked on his widowed mother's smallholding at Kirkdale Banks only three-quarters of a mile or so up-stream from Beggar's Bridge which was then under construction at Glaisdale. So did he find work on the bridge as a labourer? Did our martyr actually work on the construction of this famous bridge? He was of the right age, he lived nearby during its time of construction, he needed money for his course overseas and he was a labourer. As a devout Catholic he would surely be aware of the old belief that to build a bridge was to engage in an act of faith. He entered the English College at Douai in July 1621, within weeks of the probable completion date of Ferry Brigg. I believe it is highly likely he worked on Beggar's Bridge; as a tribute to its builders it is still standing, having survived the 1930 floods which demolished 17 bridges on the River Esk including the one at Egton Bridge.

Beggar's Bridge was not built for lovers to cross the River Esk as legend suggests. It was a memorial to Agnes née Richardson of Glaisdale who died in 1618, the widow of Thomas Ferris. He ruined the romantic tale by re-marrying in 1620.

However, we are concerned with Egton Bridge so the question we need to ask is: what happened to the chapel at Holm Wath bridge, now known as Egton Bridge? It was not constructed as part of the bridge but erected very close to it. Some references to chapels "on" bridges actually refer to those where a chapel adjoins the structure but is not part of the bridge.

Being built close to the bridge but not actually part of it would mean that if the Holm Wath bridge's foundations and other supports were washed away by floods, the chapel could have survived on the river-bank safely above the flood waters. That could have happened even when the river was in heavy flood. As the chapel was built on the down-river side of the bridge, it would derive some protection from the strength of the bridge structure. A visit to the location will confirm that. So when this bridge over the Esk at Egton was destroyed by floods in the fourteenth century, did its chapel survive either in whole or in part?

Records indicate that further bridges were built at this location without chapels; logically further chapels would be unnecessary if the original had survived. That alone suggests that the chapel did survive but perhaps not always as a chapel. After the Reformation, local people might have found another use for it. As late as 1758, a new bridge was built without a chapel - by then, of course, the consequences of the Reformation had put an end to Catholic chapels at or upon bridges.

(d) Relics of the Chapel

St. Hedda's school

The RC chapel built at Egton Bridge 1797/8. It was one of the first in England following the Catholic Relief Act, 1778, and later became known as St Hedda's Chapel. When the large church was built next door, the former chapel became St Hedda's School which remains in use. Nicholas Rhea was educated there.

We might ask whether the remains of that old chapel were still visible near the end of all those subsequent bridges at Egton. For years, a pile of large dressed stones was shown to pupils of St Hedda's school, including me.

I saw them in the 1940s and thought they looked like a tumble-down dry-stone wall, but were they actually the scant remains of that old chapel? That ever-dwindling pile of stones was in the right place, ie: the likely site of the bridge chapel.

And were the reputed foundations of a house or other building at that same location really those of the old chapel? They were also in the right place. And what about the remains of a building hereabouts described in 1838 as literally a cattle shed? Was it also the remains of that old chapel? Were local people aware of those remains over the years without knowing what they really were?

(e) Home for a priest

The fact that all bridge chapels had a resident priest who said Mass for travellers and pilgrims, and who accepted monies from them as a means of maintaining himself, the chapel and the bridge, means that the chapel was a continuing home for a succession of priests. There was a room within the body of the chapel and that little room would undoubtedly have been a very rough and crude place. It is perfectly feasible that such a place would have become known as the priest's house. Their presence implies that Catholic priests had served Egton's travellers and perhaps a few residents for several centuries before Father Postgate and the other post-Reformation priests appeared on the scene.

So could Egton Bridge's "priest's house" in later years have become erroneously known as the home Father Postgate? That is not impossible. Verbal accounts and misinterpreted statements might have led to confusion about precisely which priests made use of that chapel. Lack of written records would also confound the matter.

It may be significant that Dom Bede Camm in his Forgotten Shrines writes that Nicholas Postgate was born at Kirkdale House in the parish of Egton, adding that it might have been called Kirk House that stood near Egton Bridge. Did Kirk House mean Church House? The home of the priest in the chapel? Few small houses bore names at that time, so was this a reference to the home of many priests of the past, ie: the little chapel that remained near the bridge?

(f) A water colour painting of Egton Bridge

Watercolour view of Egton Bridge

Water-colour painting of Egton Bridge, by Father Thomas Talbot

I now refer to a well-known water-colour painting of Egton Bridge, a copy of which is in the Middlesbrough Diocesan Archives. That painting and copies of it have been viewed by many Postgate fans and is reproduced here. It is the work of Father Thomas Talbot of a well-respected Lancashire family who arrived at Egton Bridge as its priest around 1788. He also had charge of Ugthorpe for a while. (His circular water-colour painting can also be found at The circular painting shows the Smiths' large house at Bridgeholme Green with its secret chapel (right), and it also shows the (then) new chapel that is now St Hedda's School (upper left). This was built on a site donated by the Smith family but which contained an unfinished chapel that was demolished to permit construction of this new one. Even the steep hill rising behind all three chapels leads to another chapel, the old chapel of St Hilda at Egton (see later).

The picture contains an interesting historical background including the remarkable bridge that was built in 1758. So is this picture a true scene of what could be viewed from the artist's vantage point, or is it a compilation that seeks to record all the chapels that existed in the long Catholic history of this famous small village of Catholics? The painting, which was not done to scale, appears to deliberately incorporate several centuries of Catholic history at a single location.

Depicted in the painting there appears to be a bridge chapel dating to the 14th century (right foreground near bridge), a splendid 18th century bridge (itself a religious statement), Bridgeholme Green with its secret chapel dating to penal times, and the newly built (1797) chapel that became St Hedda's school. Indeed a pictorial record of many chapels.

The circular shape of the painting is also worthy of note. The ancient Greeks regarded the circle as the perfect shape because it was eternal without a beginning or end. A single circle is therefore a symbol of the Divine or of eternity. J.E. Cirlot's Dictionary of Symbols adds that a circle stands for heaven and perfection, and sometimes eternity. I wonder if Father Talbot was aware of such symbolism when he produced his image?

(g) A proliferation of chapels

The question needs to be asked about whether Father Talbot's water-colour includes the bridge chapel or did the small building at the end of the bridge serve some other purpose? The bridge shown in his painting was washed away by floods in 1930 to be replaced by a temporary structure that survived until 1993 when the present bridge was built as a copy of its 1758 predecessor. We do not know what happened to the old chapel but can't ignore the possibility that it may have been standing (either complete or in partial ruin from floods) when Father Talbot executed his painting. I do not think the painting is a true representation of what could be seen in Egton Bridge; rather it is a composite illustration of many years of Catholic history.

What cannot be denied is that he depicts a small building at the western end of the bridge, on the left as one heads towards Rosedale and/or Goathland and Pickering. It is precisely where that famous pile of stones was located when I was at school, and it is also the traditional (but not actual) site of Fr Postgate's birthplace.

Indeed, Father David Quinlan of Egton Bridge wrote in the Whitby Gazette of 17th February, 1967 that "Immediately beyond the bridge, behind a barred gate across a track that was once a road, lie the foundations of a very small cottage known as Kirkdale House, the birthplace of Father Nicholas Postgate." I don't believe this was the birthplace of Father Postgate but was this "very small cottage" the ruins of the bridge chapel with its priest's accommodation, ie: Bede Camm's Kirk House?

Those remains referred to by Father Quinlan have never been proved as those of a dwelling known as Kirkdale House or the birthplace of Nicholas Postgate.

Referring again to Father Talbot's painting, was the little house/chapel actually on that site when he painted the scene or was it included for historic religious effect? There may be more to this picture than meets the eye.

If the small building was standing even in a disused and broken condition when Father Talbot painted his picture, it is quite feasible it was the remains of that old bridge chapel and the priest's house. Or was it the building noted later in 1838 as little more than a cowshed? Were they one and the same building? The artist arrived at Egton Bridge in 1788, when some if not all of the bridge chapel may have been safely above flood-water level as he completed his painting. This painting could provide an answer to the question of the identity of the remains of buildings or piles of stones found near this site.

(h) How many chapels?

St Hedda's Roman Catholic Church, Egton Bridge

St Hedda's Roman Catholic Church, Egton Bridge. It was built in 1866/7 and was paid for before completion. The first donation was from a labourer who gave 1s.6d. and so the church became known as The One Shilling and Sixpenny Church. It is now called Cathedral of the Moors.

If the records are correct, Bridgeholme Green/Egton Bridge seems to have enjoyed a proliferation of Catholic chapels even during the Penal Times, including the new chapel at Egton Bridge in 1797, one of the first to be built after the passing of the Catholic Relief Act in 1778.

So how many Catholic chapels were there in Egton Bridge? There was the new RC chapel later known as St Hedda's and some records of St Hedda's Church later built next door (1866-67) refer to it also as a chapel. There was also a secret Catholic chapel within the Smiths' home at Bridgeholme Green.

Father Talbot's painting is said to show that secret chapel, but precisely which of the buildings in his painting of Bridgeholme Green Farm accommodates the chapel is not revealed. Then there was the chapel at the end of the bridge - perhaps it was later owned by the Smith family?

Sadly, Bridgeholme Green Farm was demolished in 1890 by the Foster family who built a shooting lodge on the site, later to become known as Egton Manor. So that secret chapel died with the house.

In considering all the chapels of Egton, we should not forget the tiny chapel of St Hilda that overlooks Kirkdale (now Church Dale) from its hilltop site between Egton and Glaisdale. This was a former Catholic chapel and it dates to the 13th century, but was wrecked following the Reformation. It is now Egton Mortuary Chapel and is half-a-mile from Egton along Glaisdale Lane. It overlooks the former Kirkdale which contained several recusant centres including the Postgate family home at Kirkdale Banks. Egton Mortuary Chapel has a long Catholic history which is largely ignored but it would have been the Postgates' local church in happier times. The road that climbs the hill in the painting leads up to that chapel which is not in view - more symbolism perhaps?

The chapel's Catholic history is confirmed by a Papal Indulgence granted in 1291 to penitents who visited the church, and on 6th June, 1349 it was dedicated by the Bishop of Damascus. It suffered dreadfully during the Reformation, so much so that it was dangerous and had to be demolished, with some artefacts being incorporated in the new (1878-9) St Hilda's C of E Church at Egton and elsewhere. The font, for example, was thrown down Kirk Cliff when the little chapel was ransacked, and is now said to be in a C of E church at either Egton, Goathland or Glaisdale.

What is remains unclear is whether the bridge chapel was demolished, whether it was swamped by floods, whether it was allowed to descend into ruin through lack of use or whether it features in its proper role in Father Talbot's painting.

Indeed we must wonder whether it merely faded away during a difficult period of our history to become a pile of anonymous stones or the puzzling foundations of a former building whilst regarded by some as the traditional, but increasingly unlikely, birthplace of Blessed Nicholas Postgate.

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