From 'The Lenton Listener' Issue 39
April - May 1986
The Rock Chapel of St. Mary
Each year, throughout the summer months, members of Nottingham's Civic Society lead conducted tours around the City. Popular with both locals and visitors, the tours offer everyone the opportunity to look more closely at some of our more prominent buildings, go inside one or two not normally open to the public, and become better acquainted with Nottingham's past. This summer those who turn up at the Castle Gatehouse on certain Wednesdays at 7. 30 pm will be conducted through the Park Estate and then directed on to Castle Boulevard in order to take in the venue in our photograph. At first glance Kenning's car and van hire depot might appear a rather lacklustre sort of spot at which to make a scheduled stop. But a few words from the Civic Society guide should soon change all that. The story that the guide will relate will be that of the Rock Chapel of St. Mary.
This ancient Chapel was once to be found within the cliff face here, constructed by person's unknown digging out the soft sandstone rock. The date of its initial excavation is also unknown and this has meant historians, amateur or otherwise, have had free range to suggest connections with the likes of ancient Britons, Romans and the Druids. The Rock Chapel clearly was once an offshoot of the nearby Lenton Priory, but most who have written on the subject seem to favour the idea that 'the chapel' was there before the founding of Lenton Priory. Supporters of this viewpoint pointed to the line of the River Leen. The River Leen had already been rerouted to run beneath the Castle Rock*, when the Priory was established at the beginning of the twelfth century. Yet the Leen was made to follow a semi-circular route around the lands immediately in front of where 'the chapel' would have been. This was felt to be evidence that there were already residents who had ensured that the river wasn't allowed to flow too close to their habitations. As for these inhabitants, it was considered quite possible that they would have been one or more hermits, who would not necessarily have lived alone, having need of servants etc. The suggestion would then be that once the Priory was established, the hermitage would have become part of its domain and the hermits eventually replaced by monks.
A view of part of our main feature as it looked in 1910. Photograph by
Henson & Co. Courtesy of the Local Studies Library.
One of the few written references to the Rock Chapel while it belonged to Lenton Priory comes in a Pipe Roll (29, Henry III) written in 1244-5 which made reference to 'the stipends of two monks ministering in the Chapel of St. Mary le Roche under the Castle of Nottingham - £6 1s. 6d.' This statement indicated that the King was paying for two priests to say prayers on his behalf. A similar reference can be found in the Great Roll (50, Henry III) twenty years later. After that there is little to be found in archival documents until 1414, when Lenton Priory agreed to transfer the ownership of the Rock Chapel to King Edward IV and one Gervase Clifton. The King had presumably decided that he wanted to have control of the Chapel as it was situated within his Royal Park. In exchange Lenton Priory was given the free chapel in the Castle of Tickhill on the Yorkshire border. The Priory didn't have immediate access to it, as three years earlier, in 1411, the chapel had already been granted to a Leonard Say for life. So it was arranged that Lenton Priory should be compensated by an annual grant of £10 during the lifetime of this Leonard Say. It is not known when Leonard Say eventually died but, whenever it was, Lenton Priory cannot have had Tickhill Chapel for long, as in 1504 it was transferred to the Abbey of St. Peter, Westminster.
Part of the agreement between the prior of Lenton and King Edward IV in 1474 had been that the Priory would continue to arrange to say prayers in the Chapel of St. Mary le Roche for the good estate etc. of the King and his family, and also, for ever at their own expense, to maintain a small boat on the River Leen and to look after the garden near the Chapel. Whether the loss of Tickhill chapel in 1504 absolved the Priory of its obligation and duties at the Rock Chapel is not clear. If it did then, quite possibly, the monks would have vacated the Rock Chapel some time before the 1530s when the dissolution of the Priory made it inevitable. What happened to the Chapel after the departure of the monks is not clear. Some think it was later used by Catholics as a secret place of worship, others believe that it was taken over by the common people and used as living quarters. Both options are possible at different periods in time.
For any sort of appreciation of what the Rock Chapel must have looked like, we have to wait until the eighteenth century, when descriptions and drawings of what was left were included in various topographical works. On this page we have included the earliest known drawing of the remains, complete with plan, which appeared in William Stukeley's Itinerarium Curiosum published in 1724, though it is believed that Stukeley carried out his drawing of the Chapel sometime between 1694 and 1711. Mr. Stukeley was known to take slight liberties with his subjects, but from comparison with the later drawings of other draughtsmen, it is fairly clear that at most he can only have 'restored' the remains a little. He didn't actually include anything not believed to be there. Stukeley's etching shows that the excavations were extensive (some 110 yards in length) and that they had already largely fallen in. It is clear that the Rock Chapel was a large residential establishment, consisting of a series of caves on the ground with others, probably dormitories, at a higher level. It is commonly considered that the main reason it was in such a ruinous state was that it had received 'attention' from the Roundheads during the Civil War, who had set about demolishing the Chapel because of its associations with 'Popery'.
Later drawings by other topographical artists show the remains of the Rock Chapel from other viewpoints. The other drawing on this page was included in Charles Deering's History of Nottingham, published in 1744 and it shows three massive pillars that were part of the Chapel, one of which is considered to display architectural work of a Norman character. In the background bits of the rock steps to the upper storey have also been included. John Carter's Ancient Architecture of England published in two parts in 1795 and 1814 probably contains the most complete early account of the remains of the Chapel. Alongside his description of the site, Carter included the customary drawing from across the river, a plan of the site drawn to scale, a sketch of the Norman column in the chapel and a drawing of some 'roman' tiles which had been found incorporated in one of the chimneys. These topographical works were popular reading in polite society and undoubtedly led to the Rock Chapel being put on the tourist trail for visitors to Nottingham. Some of those who visited were evidently keen souvenir hunters, for William Stretton, a local builder and architect, recounted at the beginning of the nineteenth century that none of the tiles earlier described could still be found there.
Roman Bustum or ancient Dovecote? Photographed
in 1900 by J.T. Cooper
Apart from the pillage by curio collectors, the remains of the Chapel also suffered from the ravages of time and the weather. Later drawings suggest that the rock must have continued to collapse, presumably from the effects of damp and frost. Francis Laird writing in his Beauties of England and Wales published in 1813 described how the floor was broken into holes where the water lodged and how the ruins were much disfigured 'with the grossest filthiness'. He indicated that in summer it became the haunt of the very lowest of society and that 'if not a den of thieves, it may be considered as something worse'. On the brighter side he reported that the church and altar and even some vestige of ancient paintings might still be clearly traced. Alongside these, some latter-day artist had added other paintings of elephants and soldiers, which Laird felt were quite well done and so he classed them as 'modern antiques'.
The remains had locally been known as the Popish or Papist Holes or simply as the Rock Holes. In the nineteenth century they were also referred to as the Druids' Holes, as the suggestion of a Druidical origin began to gain currency. In the latter part of the century a further connection for the site was aired. At the western end of the site was a structure that had always been assumed to be just a rock dovecote. Its presence was thought unexceptional as dove colonies were frequently used to provide a source of fresh meat during the winter months. The dovecote had been constructed in a hollowed out area, in the wall of which were a series of niches. There was a hole in its roof that made most people think that the dovecote had been built in an existing chimney or else the dovecote had been converted into a chimney at a later date. In the 1880s a Mr. Dutton Walker excitedly viewed it in a different way. Where everyone else saw a dovecote, he visualised a Roman crematorium or 'bustum' and the niches were now no longer for doves but ledges on which urns containing the ashes were lodged. The idea obviously created a lot of interested speculation, but soon fell into disfavour and all except Mr. Dutton Walker continued to plump for the dovecote. It has been pointed out that the internal arrangement of the dovecote was largely obscured from view until a rock fall earlier in the century, which possibly explains why we had to wait so long before this Roman connection was given an airing.
On the land immediately above the ruined Chapel a bowling green was laid out which was used by the forty or so members of the Newcastle Bowling Club. The Club probably moved there about 1850, which would be when the ruins below underwent a radical refit. The inside of the largest remaining cave was whitewashed, its entrance blocked up and a door and window put in so that the bowlers above could use it as a Clubroom. Later the cave underwent further structural alterations and was enlarged in order that room could be made for a skittle alley there. The Club continued until the 1890s when the bowling green became the private domain of a Mr. McCraith. This gentleman wasn't in a position to make use of the Clubhouse below as all the remains of the Rock Chapel had already been leased to a Mr. John W. Leavers, who lived at 'Gedling Grove House' on nearby Hermitage Walk.
The view from the boulevard in 1900. Photographed by J. Potter Briscoe
Mr. Leavers set about trying to preserve what was left of the Rock Chapel and ensuring it was shown off to its best advantage. He had the cave floors asphalted and put in supporting stonework where any portions of the original rock looked in danger of collapse. As the photograph below and the photograph towards the top of the page show, he landscaped the area in front of the caves with a lawn, shrubbery and formal pathways. There was even a small ornamental fishpond complete with 'some fine trout'. The pathway, which ran from the base of the cliff to its summit, was made more picturesque by the addition of artificial stonework, while at the top were greenhouses 'stocked in a manner to excite admiration'**. Those interested in the caves were welcome to look around 'on presentation of their cards'.
Mr. Leavers obviously took a great pride in the conservation of the site, but subsequent holders of the lease for the Rock Chapel site evidently did not show such concern. We have not found anyone who can recall the caves looking like this and must presume that once Mr. Leavers relinquished the mantle, his ornamental gardens were left to grow wild and the remains of the Chapel continued to suffer the effects of neglect. During the Second World War the cave, which had formally served as the bowler's clubroom, was commandeered for use as an air-raid shelter for Park residents. On the land in front a surface shelter was also erected. A variety of businesses connected with the motor trade began to congregate along Castle Boulevard after the war and the site of the Rock Chapel eventually became obscured from view. The large cave, happily, is still there and in the summer of 1986 the Nottingham Civic Society organised evening walking tours of the caves.
* The river Leen continued to run from Lenton to the Castle Rock and beyond until 1883 when it was diverted into the canal to make room for the creation of Castle Boulevard.
** The details of this description are taken from an article on the Rock Chapel in Religious Institutions of Old Nottingham, which is a collection of essays by W. Stevenson and A. Stapleton for the Nottingham Guardian, which eventually appeared in book form in 1895. Theirs is undoubtedly the most detailed account of what has been written about the Chapel and our article draws heavily on it.