Magazine article The Spectator

For the Greater Glory of God and Man

Magazine article The Spectator

For the Greater Glory of God and Man

Article excerpt

THE ENGLISH COUNTRY HOUSE CHAPEL: BUILDING A PROTESTANT TRADITION by Annabel Ricketts Spire Books, £45, pp. 348, ISBN 9781904965053 Special offer price: £34 with free p&p within the UK.Contact Spire Books, PO Box 2336, Reading, Berks. Tel: 01189 471525.

Offer ends 30/4/08 It was the achievement of Sir Robert Shirley 'to have done the best things in ye worst times And hoped them in the most callamitous.' So at least reads the inscription over the west door of Holy Trinity, the chapel he founded at Staunton Harold in Leicestershire. The most notable things Shirley did were to build his chapel in an elaborate Gothic style during the Commonwealth and to conspire on behalf of the exiled Charles II. He died in the Tower for his pains. Holy Trinity, so evocative of the Catholic Middle Ages, was as damning a statement of his sympathies as the weapons he was caught stockpiling for the Royalist cause.

The private chapel as propaganda is one of the themes in Annabel Ricketts's richly rewarding study of country-house worship in the two centuries after the Reformation. Fashion, selfaggrandisement and varying degrees of piety played their part, but political considerations were never far away. As times changed, so did chapels. In 1610 the Earl of Salisbury's chaplain, John Bowle, was helping his employer to design an elaborate scheme for painted glass at Hatfield. Four years later Bowle denounced all private chapels as mere 'pomp on earth' and by 1646 the Salisburys were taking the glass out before the Puritans could smash it. So many and such sudden shifts make this a teasing subject for architectural history and Ricketts has often to make deductions about what a chapel was like, or indeed where it was, from fragmentary documents and the subtle reading of ground plans.

Even where a chapel survives or can be reconstructed, understanding it is no easy matter. Not surprisingly, given the risks, few people were as explicit as Shirley about the beliefs their architecture was intended to reflect. In particular the association of Gothic with the High Church tradition is a tantalising one. It comes and goes throughout this period, but Ricketts implies that it was not until after the Restoration that the two developed any consistent association. Until then, as Protestantism cast about for a language of its own, the architecture of the past could be invoked for different, even opposite ends. …

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