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Chapel of St Nicholas

A Grade I Listed Building in King's Lynn, Norfolk

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Latitude: 52.7575 / 52°45'26"N

Longitude: 0.397 / 0°23'49"E

OS Eastings: 561853

OS Northings: 320456

OS Grid: TF618204

Mapcode National: GBR N3Q.564

Mapcode Global: WHJP1.2YBF

Plus Code: 9F42Q94W+XR

Entry Name: Chapel of St Nicholas

Listing Date: 1 December 1951

Last Amended: 31 August 2018

Grade: I

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1210545

English Heritage Legacy ID: 384263

Location: St. Margaret's with St. Nicholas, King's Lynn and West Norfolk, Norfolk, PE30

County: Norfolk

District: King's Lynn and West Norfolk

Electoral Ward/Division: St Margarets with St Nicholas

Parish: Non Civil Parish

Built-Up Area: King's Lynn

Traditional County: Norfolk

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Norfolk

Tagged with: Chapel

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Chapel of St Nicholas, founded in 1146 as a chapel of ease to the Church of St Margaret, rebuilt around 1200, south-west tower added around 1220, all rebuilt (except tower) between 1371 and 1419, steeple built in 1500 and rebuilt in 1869 by Sir George Gilbert Scott.


Chapel of St Nicholas, founded in 1146 as a chapel of ease to the Church of St Margaret, rebuilt around 1200, south-west tower added around 1220, all rebuilt (except tower) between around 1371 and 1419, steeple built in 1500 and rebuilt in 1869 by Sir George Gilbert Scott.

MATERIALS: Ashlar tower, brick aisles, rendered and scored to imitate ashlar, rubble masonry to the clerestory, with ashlar dressings. Lead roofs.

PLAN: Rectangular-plan chapel laid out on an east-west axis, having a north and south aisle, vestries in the north-east and south-east corners, a two-storey porch at the west end of the south aisle, and a two-stage tower in the south-west corner.

EXTERIOR: The chapel measures approximately 62 metres in length, and comprises a nave, continuous chancel and continuous aisles, laid out on an east-west axis, having a two-stage tower in the south-west corner. The nave roof is pitched, with lean-to roofs to the north and south aisles, each having a lead covering. Solar panels were installed on the south slope of the nave roof around 2015. The primary elevations are mainly composed of cut stone, with coursed rubble stone to the clerestory, red brick to the north aisle, east five bays of the south aisle and the east wall, with some brick detailing at clerestory level. The nave is composed of 12 clerestory bays, the south clerestory reduced to 11 bays on account of the south-west tower, and the south aisle reduced to 10 bays on account of the south porch. Each bay has a segmental-arched three-light Perpendicular window, linked by a continuous hood moulding. Each aisle bay has a sill course broken by a stepped buttress, and a continuous plinth course. The north aisle has two late-C14 doorways: that in the second bay having a pointed arch, and carved figurative heads to the corbels of the hood moulding; that to the seventh bay having a segmental hood moulding. The south aisle has one late-C14 doorway to its fifth bay, heavily cusped and sub-cusped under hood moulds forming half an octagon. At the west end of the south aisle, the south porch stands two storeys in height, with a pitched roof, gabled to the south, and a decorative fluted parapet to each elevation. The south elevation of the porch has a pointed-arch opening below a screen of Perpendicular niches in two tiers, having intricately carved mouldings, niches, cusps and decorative emblems. The porch has a three-light window opening to the ground floor of the east and west elevations, and a two-light window opening to the first floor of the east and west elevations. The east elevation of the chapel has a central 11-light Perpendicular window illuminating the chancel, and a nine-light Perpendicular window illuminating each vestry. The west front of the chapel has a large 11-light Perpendicular window with a doorway under, which is stepped into the window. The window is flanked on either side by a stepped buttress spanning the height of the west front, which incorporate ogeed and panelled statuary niches at ground floor level, surmounted by heraldic beasts. The elaborately carved door surround comprises a pointed-arch terminating in figurative head corbels, and containing two cusped door openings separated by a Y-tracery trumeau (mirroring the arrangement of the window tracery above), and two early-C15 doors (restored in 2012). The north aisle is illuminated by a large segmental-headed window with a carved hood moulding and pointed-arch tracery. The bell tower in the south-west corner was constructed in two stages, and stands lower than the rest of the building. It is accessed via a pointed-arch at the lowest level of the west elevation, and has two-light plate tracery windows to the south and west elevations of the first floor and belfry. The west, north and south elevations each have a giant arch of three recessed orders over a battered plinth, enclosing two-light windows at first-floor level, with nail-head carving to the arch soffits, and a quatrefoil light over (the south and north being partially blocked). The bar tracery of the belfry suggests extension of the tower around 1275. The east wall of the west tower, visible from the roof of the south aisle, shows the trace of the roof of the original chapel (built around 1200), before the church was enlarged in the late C14 to early C15. The octagonal-plan leaded spire was constructed in 1869 to the designs of Sir George Gilbert Scott, replacing an earlier spire which collapsed in a storm in 1741.

INTERIOR: The interior of the large chapel measures approximately 59m in length, 22m in width, and 28m in height (to the ridge of the nave). The chapel is 11 bays long without any structural division, having an 11-bay arcade with moulded arches on lozenge piers. The roof has 12 bays of elaborately-carved alternating hammer-beam and tie-beam trusses, the ties having queen posts and arched braces dropping to wall posts on stone corbels. The hammers have carved angels, three of which were wholly re-carved in the C19, the others wholly or largely original. Only in the sanctuary bay are the roof and angels painted, with some original paint surviving. Each wall post has an ogeed canopied niche to the right and left of the corbel. The roof has one moulded butt purlin and ridge piece. The nave and aisles contain C19 enclosed pews, which were installed during the 1852 restoration; a few original bench ends survive at the east end of the south aisle, with carved ‘poppy head’ ends. To the north and south walls, the interior of the door openings are elaborately carved, with cusped and sub-cusped ornament to the north door surrounds. At the east end of the chapel, the altar stands on a three-stepped tiled dais, flanked by a vestry on either side, that to the south being converted into an office space around 2015. The altar has a reredos of 1852, designed by John Brown of Norwich and the painted panels depicting Our Lord, flanked by the Virgin Mary and St John, and by St Nicholas and Bishop William Turbus, were inserted into the niches in 1904. The north wall of the chancel features an elaborately carved door surround to the north vestry with cusped and sub-cusped ornament, with a demi-figure of an angel in an oblong niche to the right. The south wall of the chancel features the remains of badly mutilated sedilia, retaining a single corbel in the shape of a human head, and a line of demi-angels above. The sanctuary arrangement was altered in 1981 by Donald Insall Partnership, and a large paved dais was installed in the chancel at this time. The Willis organ to the north side of the dais was installed in 1900. No medieval glass remains in the chapel: such little as survived the Reformation and Commonwealth was removed in 1805. There are now just four stained glass windows: the large east window (1860 by H Hughes of Ward and Hughes) depicts 32 scenes from the New Testament with Christ’s Crucifixion and Ascension at its centre; the south sanctuary window depicts the parable of the Talents in eight scenes (1854); a window in the south aisle, depicts Christ, Mary Magdalene and angels (1895); and behind the organ, a small panel depicts St Anne teaching the Virgin Mary to read (1935). The south porch contains a lierne star vault to the interior with figured bosses and head corbels at the springers. The double-leaf door to the interior was crafted in the C15, and heavily restored in the C19. A stair turret accessed from a door in the north-west corner provides access to a first floor room in the porch. The west tower has three lancets to the east wall of the tower, representing the west wall of the C13 church, before the tower was built. A kitchenette and universal access toilet were introduced in the ground floor of the tower, and toilets installed in the lower ground floor of the tower (accessed from the west elevation) in 2015. The bells within the west tower most likely originated in the mid-C16, and were recast in the early C17. The ring was increased from five to eight bells in 1766, providing a full octave, and the eight bells were recast by John Taylor and Co of Loughborough in 1869. New headstocks and mechanical fittings were installed during the 2015 restoration. Throughout the chapel, 187 ledger slabs decorate the floor, dated between 1623 and 1834, many with shields of arms, said to be the second largest quantity in England after Bath Abbey.

FURNISHINGS: At the west end of the church, the large octagonal font was granted to the chapel in 1627 by Bishop Harsnett of Norwich, and stands on a three-stepped octagonal platform. The octagonal water stoup at the west end of the north aisle was carved around 1420, and although now free-standing was originally intended to stand in a corner, close to a main entrance to the building. The use of such stoups was later banned by the Church of England in 1549, and this stoup survived locally as a garden ornament. The consistory court was constructed in the north-west corner in 1617, utilising some C15 oak benches and a former communion table, bounded by a C17 balustrade. A carved wooden table tomb at the west end bears an inscribed slate plaque, commemorating the sacrifice of local men who fell during the First World War (1914-1918). An ornate C15 brass lectern, stands at the north end of the nave, decorated with an eagle perched on a round finial, and is reportedly one of only 45 surviving lecterns from before the Reformation, other examples of this same type can be seen at Peterborough Cathedral and St Mark’s, Venice. An ornate wooden sword rest, dated 1743 and 1760, hangs on a column at the east end of the south aisle of the nave. On the east wall of the north aisle a monument hangs to Thomas Snelling (1623), with kneeling figures of Thomas and his wife in an architectural surround, with their children depicted in the plinth below. A monument to Matthew Clarck (1623) hangs on the east wall of the south aisle, having kneeling figures in side profile within an architectural surround, with Clarck’s first wife lying recumbent in the plinth under the scene. At the east end of the south wall, a memorial to Thomas Greene (1675) features large kneeling figures of Sir Thomas and his wife flanked by two Corinthian columns supporting a segmental pediment, with their five daughters and four sons depicted in the plinth underneath. A marble monument stands at the east end of the north aisle, designed by Robert Adam (1757), and dedicated to Sir Benjamin Keene. It takes the form of a tureen-like urn on a square plinth decorated with festoons and inscriptions, the finely carved urn depicting a Lisbon shipping scene.


King’s Lynn, first called Bishop’s Lynn, was founded in 1095 by Bishop Herbert de Losinga, who in the previous year had transferred the see from Thetford to Norwich. There was already an existing settlement which appears to have been based around a salt-water lagoon, or series of inlets, with its centre round the present All Saints Church. Losinga’s town developed to the north of this, between All Saints Church and Saturday Market Place where St Margaret’s Church and Priory were established from Norwich around 1100. Rapid expansion from the C12 onwards required an extension of the town, and Bishop William Turbe laid out a new settlement north of the Purfleet from around 1145, with its market at Tuesday Market Place and the Chapel of St Nicholas as a chapel of ease to St Margaret’s. Both settlements were united under a royal charter in 1204, the united town being named Bishop’s Lynn. Until the early C13, the Great Ouse emptied via the Welle Stream at Wisbech, however following floods in the C13, the river was redirected to join the Wash at Bishop’s Lynn. The town became one of England’s busiest ports, serving the Ouse and its tributaries, exporting wool, corn and cloth, and importing wine, timber and luxury goods, being adopted as a member of the original medieval Hanseatic League. This extremely influential trading association linked a group of towns around the Baltic and the North Seas, and played an important role in the prosperity and development of Bishop’s Lynn as a national port, which by the C14, was ranked as the third port of England (after London and Southampton).

Losinga’s town round the Saturday Market was protected from the river immediately to its west by the ‘great bank’, an earthwork which ran along the present line of Nelson Street, St Margaret’s Place and Queen Street. By about 1500 the river had moved approximately 50m west and was consolidated another 45m by the new South Quay in 1855. The period of development of the area between the Millfleet and Purfleet can therefore be identified, as well as building types and plans. The generous-sized plots are reflected in the surviving buildings dating from the C14 to the C17, which surround open courtyards. To the north, on Bishop Turbe’s ‘newe lande’, much the same pattern emerges: originally the west side of Tuesday Market Place was washed by the river, with King Street forming the line of the bank. The west side of King Street was built upon in the C13, with narrow plots, elongating in stages until river movement ceased in the C17. As land became available, warehouses were built straight onto the river front. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1536-1537, the town and manor became royal property, and Bishop’s Lynn was renamed King’s Lynn or Lynn Regis.

Lynn’s prosperity as a national port was based entirely on trade, and the merchant class dominated the social and economic life of the town until the C19. When the Fens began to be drained in the mid-C17 and land turned to agricultural use, King’s Lynn grew prosperous from the export of corn: cereal export dominated from the C16, and especially in the C18. Coal and wine continued to be imported for distribution inland, and until the railway age, Lynn was the chief East Anglian port for both. Prosperity continued until continental trade was disturbed by the Napoleonic Wars (1796-1815), followed by a brief revival. The economy and population dwindled following the relatively late arrival of railway services to King’s Lynn in 1847, compounded by the irrevocable decline of coastal trading.

The Chapel of St Nicholas, founded by Bishop Turbe in 1146, was a relatively small structure, and stood within what is now the south aisle of the vast chapel. The chapel was rebuilt approximately 50 years later, and the Church of St Margaret was also altered around this time. Cobbles from the Baltic were incorporated into the foundations of the new chapel, illustrating the trade networks which existed between Bishop’s Lynn and the Baltic countries by 1200.The west gable wall of this structure, with three lancets and a central doorway now forms the east wall of the west tower; and perhaps replaced an initial temporary timber structure. Side chapels dedicated to St Edmund and St Peter were recorded in 1371.

From the 1370s, the wealthy merchants of Bishop’s Lynn purchased surrounding properties, raised the ground level above flood level, and built a magnificent new chapel on the enlarged site to exhibit their wealth and power. The building we see today was begun in the 1370s and mostly completed by 1411. The south porch had finials of the lion and eagle, symbolic of Edward III, so it is likely this was begun before his death in 1377. The west front includes the crest of Richard II (reigned 1377-1399), and therefore must have been built before his death. Both Blomefield in his ‘History of the County of Norfolk’ (1807) and the Lynn historian William Taylor in his ‘Antiquities of Lynn’ (1844) cite a papal bull for rebuilding, although they disagree on the date being 1371 or 1374. In 1378, the chaplain of the Chapel of St Nicholas, at the request and expense of some of the townsmen of Lynn, presumably the wealthy merchants living near the chapel, obtained from Pope Urban VI a bull granting the chapel the right to perform the sacraments of baptism, marriage and the churching of women, not permitted under its status as a chapel of ease. A meeting held in the prior’s chapel at St Margaret’s, resulted in a declaration that the bull was fraudulently obtained, and confirmed by third-party arbitration in 1381. This event and the subsequent rebuilding of the chapel, display the wealth and ambition of the merchants of King's Lynn who wished to rival the parish churches of East Anglia. In 1426, the chapel made another attempt to gain the same sacraments, however the matter fell through.

The scale of enlargement, leaving only the older tower and integral earlier gable wall, created the largest chapel of ease in England. Dedicated to St Nicholas, a C4 Bishop of Myra in Lycia (Asia Minor), and patron saint of children, pawnbrokers and sailors, the spire of the chapel was once an important landmark for approaching ships. The vast open hall of the present building would have been divided up by screens to form small chapels in the aisles to accommodate guild altars, while the rood screen would have marked the separation of the nave from the chancel. The great rood screen was recorded in a will of 1523/1524 and was described in 1738 along with the pews as being embellished with carved work. The consistory court, which dealt with cases of immorality, among the clergy as well as parishioners, was constructed in the north-west corner of the chapel in 1617. Court hearings were held twice a year, at Easter and Michaelmas, as recorded in Mackerell’s ‘History of King’s Lynn’ (1738). The chapel achieved the right to administer the sacraments of marriage and baptism in 1627, and a font was commissioned at £13 for this purpose (the present font is a copy of 1902). An elaborate cover was also commissioned, however this was destroyed in the C19. A fine altar piece, designed in 1704 by the Lynn architect Henry Bell, was also destroyed in 1852 as a result of C19 ecclesiological principles.

An engraving by Francis Goodwin in 1806 shows the interior of the chapel looking east, with tiered seating blocking the view of the altar, and the arches and windows blocked by galleries to the side aisles (built in 1791 replacing earlier galleries of 1628). These interventions were criticised by William Taylor in his book ‘The Antiquities of King’s Lynn’ (1844). In 1851 plans were proposed for the replacement of all the existing pews with the present seating, financed by donations and money raised on chapel property. John Brown, County Surveyor, succeeded in stripping out the galleries, pews and Bell’s classical altarpiece. Some of the misericords and two bench-ends found their way to the Victoria and Albert Museum: six of the misericords can be seen on loan at Lynn Museum. It was during this period of works that the carved angels of the roof (installed around 1400) were repaired and renewed. A new reredos was provided in 1852, and oil paintings later inserted in the niches in 1904. The new (present) pews were installed, and the chapel reopened in 1853.

The pre-Reformation octagonal spire reportedly reached a height of 52m, and this was destroyed in 1741 by a violent gale, which also brought down the spire of St Margaret’s and required the rebuilding of its nave. The present spire at the Chapel of St Nicholas was completed in 1869-1870, and designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, when the tower was restored and the bells recast. In 1888 an estimate was obtained for refitting the chancel more in line with High Victorian ideals, including new stalls, desks, paving and plinths, a chancel screen with gates and other side screens. These proposed works were not executed, not least because of the costs involved, however a new Willis organ, reconstruction of the destroyed font cover, new paving in the sanctuary, and painting of the reredos were completed in 1904. Sadly the new font cover was ejected in the 1960s and is now in a private collection.

The chapel came to be known as ‘the Fishermen’s Chapel’ in the late C19, when the North End populace were invited to attend services on Sunday evenings and a number of adults confirmed, becoming the largest congregation in Lynn. For the first half of the C20, the chapel continued to flourish, maintaining a large choir to rival St Margaret’s. Decreasing numbers however later united the two congregations at St Margaret’s and during the 1970s the Chapel of St Nicholas was almost unused for worship, except on Christmas Eve when it was borrowed by the local Roman Catholic congregation. In 1981 the stalls were cleared from the chancel, where the present dais was laid. This carried a new altar table, sedilia and benches in light oak, designed by Alan Frost of Donald Insall and Associates, in line with the liturgical movement’s aim of bringing the communion closer to the congregation. The chapel was the main concert venue for the King’s Lynn Festival each July from the 1950s until 1996, when the Corn Exchange on Tuesday Market Place was remodelled as the primary concert venue of the town. The decision was made in 1989 to retain St Margaret’s as the parish church, and declare the Chapel of St Nicholas redundant. The chapel came into the care of the Churches Conservation Trust in 1992, who carried out restoration of the wall monuments around 1994, and major restoration works in 2015, including the installation of: toilets, a kitchenette and new access to the bell-ringing chamber in the west tower; office and storage facilities in the vestries; interactive interpretation at the east end of the south aisle; and solar panels to the south slope of the roof.

Reasons for Listing

The Chapel of St Nicholas, founded in 1146 as a chapel of ease to the Church of St Margaret, rebuilt around 1200, south-west tower added around 1220, all rebuilt (except tower) between 1371 and 1419, steeple built in 1500 and rebuilt in 1869 by Sir George Gilbert Scott, is listed at Grade I for the following principal reasons:

Architectural interest:

* the chapel retains a significant proportion of its historic medieval fabric, including the ornately vaulted and decorated south porch, elaborately carved window and door surrounds, and majority of the carved angels hammerbeams;
* the plan form of the medieval chapel, and its sanctuary, vestries, and bell tower remains clearly legible;
* for the replacement of the spire in 1869 by Sir George Gilbert Scott, a leading architect of the Gothic Revival with a number of listed buildings to his name.

Historic interest:

* unusually large for a chapel of ease, the Chapel of St Nicholas reflects the wealth of the local merchant community from the end of the C14 onwards, and the prosperity of King’s Lynn as a national port in the medieval period;
* the chapel retains an early-C17 consistory court, which played an important social function, dealing with cases of immorality among the clergy as well as parishioners.

Group value:

* it has significant group value with many neighbouring highly-graded listed buildings on St Ann’s Street, St Nicholas Street, and Pilot Street, many of which were constructed in the medieval period, notably the Tudor Rose Hotel, 30 and 32 Pilot Street, 2A, 2B & 2C St Ann’s Street, and 4 and 6 St Ann’s Street (all listed at Grade II*).

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