Bristol’s Lord Mayor’s Chapel, the only remaining building of the 13th century Hospital of St Mark, marks its 800th anniversary this year (2020).
The 13th century building tucked away at the bottom of Park Street is the only place of worship in England belonging to a Lord Mayor and municipality, therefore designated a ‘Civic Peculiar’. It does not have a Parish or particular denomination, rather seeks to represent the city in its foundations, history and future as a hospital and a provider of food and care for people in need.
The anniversary will be marked by a series of events, including a Choir Festival in May and June in partnership with schools and churches in the city and a service on board The Matthew.
Celebrations will begin on 1 March with the civic service to which all former Lord Mayors will be invited, alongside Aldermen, city councillors and representatives from neighbouring local authorities.
The Chapel was founded by Maurice de Gaunt originally as a Hospital and as a daughter house of Bristol Cathedral, then known as St Augustine’s Abbey. Its mission, which continues today, was to worship and serve the people of Bristol and the chapel would also have been used for eating and meetings.
A decade later it was reformed into a fully independent religious community providing for the poor of the city, work which continued for almost 340 years until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539. Shortly afterwards, the place of hospitality – known then as a Hospital - and its land were purchased by the City Council who granted the use of the buildings and land to the newly formed Queen Elizabeth Hospital School for boys and later for girls of Red Maids School.
Following a short spell as a place of worship for the French Huguenots fleeing persecution, when it became known as the French Church, the City Council decided in 1722 to make the Chapel its official place of worship following a dispute with the Cathedral.
The nave, chancel, and sanctuary date from 1220, although they have been much remodelled over the last nearly 800 years. The Jesus Chapel was built between 1510 and 1520 as a Chantry Chapel by Robert Poyntz, a friend to both Henry VII and Henry VIII, and Chancellor to Henry Vlll’s first wife Catherine of Aragon. It has a fine fan-vaulted ceiling, and the floor is laid with 16th century Spanish tiles, believed to have been gifted by Catherine of Aragon.
Saint Andrew's Chapel was added around 1510, and contains the effigies of two unknown knights, thought at one time to be the founders of the Hospital. John Wesley was a visiting preacher in 1739 after the Bishop of Bristol withdrew his license to preach in any of the city’s churches.
Today the Chapel has a regular congregation and a Choir of eight, supported by a further eight deputies. There are frequent musical concerts, typically on Saturdays, and free recitals from music students at the University and Red Maids School. The Chapel also hosts special services throughout the year for the office of the Lord Mayor, such as the annual civic service.
It continues in its mission to provide hospitality and support to the local community with regular donations to charities such as the Lord Mayor’s Children Appeal and FareShare which redistributes unwanted food to charities and community groups. The Lord Mayor’s Chaplain also offers pastoral care to elected members of Bristol City Council, Aldermen and Council staff.
The Reverend Prebendary Harold Clarke said: “Many people will walk past the Chapel every day unaware of its unique place in history, not just in Bristol but in the country as a whole. We are blessed it has escaped many of the ravages of time, including the bombing of the city in the 20th century and that we can continue to offer it as a place of worship and care as we begin a new decade.
“This year is about revisiting the origins of both the estate and the Hospital, renewing the traditions of hospitality, recalling in action the principles of ‘feeding the poor’ through our work with local charities and continuing links with education.
“We have a wide-ranging programme of events throughout the year that will celebrate the Chapel’s history , the young people it has been connected with and many of the individuals who have passed through its doors. “
The Lord Mayor of Bristol, Councillor Jos Clarke added: “The Chapel is truly one of the city’s historical gems and we are so fortunate it remains as well preserved as it is. Despite this, its existence remains little known amongst the wider public and I see this anniversary as an opportunity to raise its profile and open its doors to the city as it has done over many centuries. I am looking forward to taking part in this year’s celebrations.”
The Chapel is currently closed to the general public due to essential maintenance but will be fully open in late Spring. Before that, on April 10, there will be a performance of the second part of Handel’s Messiah under the directorship of the Chapel’s music director Dr John Marsh.