St John the Evangelist, Skipton Castle

Britain’s stock of ancient buildings has not infrequently been diminished by acts of thoughtless vandalism. Those buildings that do survive may achieve this by being incorporated into the fabric of more utilitarian structures. Bradford upon Avon’s Saxon chapel was once, I believe, part of a school. The Roman bath at Ravenglass was included in farm buildings. If eventually a thoughtful owner demolishes the later accretion then what remains of the original structure is revealed. I shall describe a happy local example of this phenomenon. I have visited Skipton Castle on several occasions but about ten years ago the combination of the presence of other Bradford university archaeology students, and the absence of small children requiring entertainment, stimulated my interest in the history of its chapel.

St John the Evangelist is a building also known as the ‘former chapel, Skipton Castle’. It was grade 1 listed in 1952 and its identifying number is 323418. That is about the extent of the knowledge available to the North Yorkshire HER but I have seen an informative press cutting dated 1957/8 which I assume is from the Yorkshire Post or Bradford Telegraph & Argus. The cutting states that: ‘the chapel of St John was erected by Alice de Romille, and first mentioned in a document dated 2 May 1512. It is likely that it was virtually destroyed in Cromwell’s time. During Easter Mr Hugh T Fattorini, who was reading history at Oxford, with the help of his elder brother Mr Thomas P Fattorini and the head gardener Mr Charles Fraser, made an interesting archaeological discovery. Some tons of stone and rubble were taken out and they found a hitherto unknown original doorway and oblique window in the wall which divided the sacristy from the chapel. They face the altar position.

To explain, there was a famous siege of Skipton during the English Civil War. After its surrender to the forces of Parliament the castle (home of the Clifford family) was ‘slighted’ and made unsuitable as an artillery platform, but not reduced to an irreparable ruin. The Fattorini family became famous as jewellers and goldsmiths at Skipton, Bradford, and now Birmingham. They designed and created at least one FA Cup. Since 1956 they have owned Skipton Castle, and have private apartments on site which are not open to the public. The press report continues: ‘already known features of the chapel include the piscina, two entrances, the window positions, the worked roof timbers and the lancet window in the sacristy. During the Easter excavations it was ascertained that the old floor levels were 28 and 48 inches below the present day level. Mr Hugh Fattorini had had this latest investigation in mind for some time.’

The basic plan of the chapel, as now accessible, is rectangular with a sacristy to the north, with north and south entrances at the west end. Originally it was used by the castle owners, garrison, and the occupiers of Holme Farm. It is not believed that any burials took place there. A building has been present at the site of the chapel in all the OS maps. To the immediate north is the castle ‘granary’; this is a seventeenth century building with stone mullioned windows and external stairs to a loft. Even on relatively modern maps it can be seen that the plan of the east end of the chapel building is different from the present structure. A representative of the castle owners has kindly provided me with an image which shows the pre-conserved state of the chapel. Evidently a domestic building with a chimney was demolished from the east end as recorded in a monochrome photos taken in the late 1950s. The mullions and tracery of the large east window are modern and were presumably restored after this demolition. Small fragments of the original tracery have seemingly been recovered and are displayed below the window. More recently the owners have returned the font which had been residing in the conduit court of the Castle itself.

SkiptonCastleChapelFarm2

The information display at the castle explains the medieval original form of the chapel. An exact date has not been established but it is thought to be of thirteenth century origin. Its presence and dedication is apparently attested in 1315. The thickness of the walls is attested by the building’s dimensions. The chapel is 59′ 6” long (internal 54′ 6”) and 27′ 6” wide (internal 22′). The height to eaves is 21′ and to ridge 27′. The wall fabric is a reddish sandstone masonry and at the west end it is built onto the limestone of an original bailey wall. The buttresses offer dating evidence since in the fourteenth century single buttresses would have replaced the twin type now visible. Having said this it is clear that the buttresses are constructed of well cut tan coloured ashlar which is quite different from the reddish roughly dressed sandstone found in the walls. Could the buttresses be the earliest modification to the original build? Perhaps their insertion could have been required by the greater weight of a new roof? Be that as it may the building has certainly been re-roofed and the white stone above the east window suggests the roof pitch was changed at this time.

At the east end of the chapel there is another large window, set high because of its importance. At the west end there is a rose window. Internally there are aumbries, a piscina and sedilia. In many respects it is the additional modifications to the structure since it was deconsecrated that I find most interesting. The owners don’t have any records but they know that before 1957 the chapel was a farm building split into at least two floors with the ground floor being used by cows. On the end was a residential building now demolished as mentioned above. Apparently the building had also been used as a coach house pre-1790 and at one time also a stable. The external south elevation shows signs of many modifications to the structure.

Skipton 008Skipton 012

A door with a Gothic arch would seem to be original. As part of the conversion to a coach-house the wall was later pierced and the arch created to transmit the load of the masonry above the large entrance is still clearly visible. In this space were later inserted a rather grand door and a small window; the remaining space being filled with rather poor quality masonry. The door and window will be datable; they are clearly not medieval, nor sub-medieval. The eighteenth century seems reasonable and would fit with the 1790 date mentioned by the owners. Moving further east along this same wall we can see that a further large medieval window has been blocked up and a further late Georgian door inserted. At the extreme east end of this wall there are further inserted windows and a chase line suggests that an additional external building, now demolished, was once present. The southern stepped buttress is visible.

The north elevation also shows signs of modification. The sacristy has been re-roofed in stone slates. Its east wall has been pierced, and the opening later filled with Victorian machine-pressed bricks. The large window has also been modified. Internally the sacristy appears to be now largely in its original condition. The window and squint ensured that a beam of light fell on the original position of the altar. The west end window and both buttresses seem unchanged. Inside the chapel there are many signs of internal partitions (some of brick) which may have constituted cow or stable stalls. I shall need to re-visit the chapel to record these. There must also have been wooden staging to support a hay loft.

The castle building itself welcomes visitors and, along with the canal, Craven Museum and parish church, is deservedly popular with tourists. The young historian, Hugh Fattorini, was to enjoy a long career in business but also became an authority on antiquarian books. Sadly he died about ten years ago; the chapel remains as a lasting memorial.

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