The historian Annabel Ricketts uncovered a rich source of Reformation and post-Reformation history in her magnificent study of the development of the English country house chapel between the 16th and 18th centuries, says Robert Gray
The English Country House Chapel: Building a Protestant Tradition by Annabel Ricketts, Spire Books £45 Most historians proceed from general principles to particular instances. In taking precisely the opposite route in her study of the development of country house chapels in England from c 1500 to c 1700, the architectural historian Annabel Ricketts uncovered a rich source of Reformation and post-Reformation history.
As compared with the Middle Ages, few parish churches were built in England during the 16th and 17th centuries, so that there was a dearth of ecclesiastical models for country house owners to follow. Although the local bishop might seek to regulate chapel design, and occasional Parliamentary regulations might attempt to enforce the prevailing orthodoxy, to a large extent the builders were free to express their own religious preferences.
In considering the diversity of chapel arrangements which resulted, Annabel Ricketts highlights the first principle of Reformation studies, that sweeping generalisations must always be subject to revision and modification.
Is it really true, as Catholic historians have suggested, that the Reformation represented a disastrous turning point in social relations? According to such theorists, the Church had conferred a sense of corporate identity on all its members, whereas Protestants were condemned by their theology to self-sufficiency, competition and spiritual isolation.
To some degree Annabel Ricketts's book might be cited in support of such a thesis. It is certainly true that, before the Reformation, a great household would be brought together for worship in rich and beautiful surroundings. There is no doubt, either, that in Queen Elizabeth's reign the importance of the country house chapel declined, so that devotions might take place in an ordinary living room, or even in a space at the bottom of the stairs.
This process is well illustrated at Burghley in Lincolnshire. In the house constructed by William Cecil from 1552, a chapel in the old style, presti giously sited close to the Great Chamber, was planned. When, however, the building was transformed by William's son Thomas Cecil from 1573, the new chapel was created almost as an afterthought, out of a suite of private apartments.
On the other hand, counter to the theory of Catholic brotherhood, Annabel Ricketts makes clear that the pre-Reformation chapel, far from being a model of social cohesion, had been specifically designed to emphasise the strict sense of hierarchy within the household.
In the early Tudor house at Compton Wynyates in Warwickshire, the more important worshippers were provided with separate spaces complete with fireplaces.
At The Vyne in Hampshire (c 1500), the chapel was divided into two distinct halves, separated by stalls, while Lord and Lady Sandys pursued their devotions from their own "closets", set above the rest of the congregation.
In Protestant houses, by contrast, the less formal arrangements for worship meant that, while hierarchal distinctions were maintained, they no longer dictated the ecclesiastical scheme. The patron reading religious texts from a lectern was far removed from the lord set apart in his own section of the chapel.
Simplicity and plainness were the defining feature of Puritan worship. From the reign of Edward VI (1557-1553) altars gave way to communion tables, and images were regarded with deepest suspicion.
"Popery," warned William Prynne in the 17th century, "may creep in at a glasse window, as well as at a door."
The more respectable Joseph Hall, who became bishop of Exeter in 1627, was no less vigilant: "One zealous prayer, one orthodox sermon, is a more glorious furniture than all the precious rarities of mechanic excellence or curious imagery." In Puritan chapels the dominating feature, sometimes indeed the only feature, was the pulpit. The Anglican Church, however, has never been undivided; and in some circles the advent of James I in 1603 heralded a reaction against Puritan ideals. In the chapel built by Robert Cecil at Hatfield, for instance, there was a return to the formal and highly decorated dignity of the pre-Reformation period. In chapel architecture, at least, the ideals of Laudianism were manifest well before the advent of William Laud.
Sometimes a chapel was designed in brave resistance to the ruling fashion. Thus Robert Shirley, several times imprisoned for royalist plotting after the Civil War, expressed his opposition to Cronawell's regime through the extravagant splendour of his chapel at Staunton Harold Hall in Leicestershire.
After the Restoration, when the Puritans were placed outside the pale of the Establishment, it seemed at first as though there might be another revival of ecclesiastical splendour. The Bishop of Durham created a magnificent chapel out of a medieval hall at Bishop Auckland.
Restoration mores, however, were hardly suited to religious zeal; and the predominating style of private chapels built from 1660 to 1680 proved to be rather elegant than devotional. The classical style was now in the ascendant, and images were still used sparingly.
It was not until 1674, at Gwydir in Carnarvonshire, that there appeared the first depiction of God the Father in a private English chapel since the Reformation. More typical of the period were the seemly and secular splendours of Lord Clarendon's chapel at Combury Park in Oxfordshire. The ceiling decorations owed much to those which Christopher Wren had designed for the chapel at Pembroke College, Cambridge; these, as Annabel Ricketts observes, "would not have appeared out of place in a saloon". As for the gallery in the chapel at Petworth, it "resembles nothing so much as a box at the opera". In Oxford, by contrast, the college chapels at Magdalen, All Souls and Wadham afforded the first hints of a Baroque, Counter-Reformation style in an Anglican church.
In 1685, after the birth of an heir to the Catholic King James 11, John Evelyn described "the Romanists swarming at Court with greater confidence than had ever been seen in England since the Reformation, so as everyone grew Jealous as to what this would tend".
From the last years of Charles II's reign foreign painters and craftsmen swarmed into London, creating richly decorated chapel interiors at Windsor and Whitehall. Although James II was deposed, the decorative abundance which he had sponsored spread into Protestant chapels, even if country house owners sometimes seemed as eager to celebrate their own families as to honour the Almighty.
At Chatsworth, however, Annabel Ricketts believes that something more significant was achieved, in the form of a deliberately Protestant reworking of the Counter-Reformation style used in the chapel at Whitehall.
For tile first time, she claims, a distinctly Anglican decorative scheme emerged— no longer simply a variation on pre-Reformation models but rather "a counter Counter-Reformation alternative."
This is a fascinatine and entirely original book, both in the depth of its research and in the openminded complexity of its arguments. which never shirk the awkward detail. In addition, a gazetteer provides information on some 460 chapels, a great proportion of which belonged to houses built on the sites of Pre-Reformation religious foundationsThe great sadness is that Annabel Ricketts died at the untimely age of 58 in 2003 , before she was able to complete her work. Her husband Simon Ricketts has performed a scholarly act of devotion in bringing her project to completion in this beautifully produced and superbly illustrated volume.