Ancient chapels

A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1994.

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A P Baggs. Beryl Board. Philip Crummy. Claude Dove. Shirley Durgan. N R Goose. R B Pugh. Pamela Studd. C C Thornton, 'Ancient chapels', in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester, (London, 1994) pp. 336-338. British History Online [accessed 24 May 2024].

A P Baggs. Beryl Board. Philip Crummy. Claude Dove. Shirley Durgan. N R Goose. R B Pugh. Pamela Studd. C C Thornton. "Ancient chapels", in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester, (London, 1994) 336-338. British History Online, accessed May 24, 2024,

Baggs, A P. Board, Beryl. Crummy, Philip. Dove, Claude. Durgan, Shirley. Goose, N R. Pugh, R B. Studd, Pamela. Thornton, C C. "Ancient chapels", A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester, (London, 1994). 336-338. British History Online. Web. 24 May 2024,

In this section



The chapel, by a holy well on the south side of Harwich Road c. ½ mile beyond East bridge, probably existed by 1344 when Richard Shaw, chaplain, surrendered land at the well. (fn. 1) By 1379 there was a hospital there, under a proctor or warden who seems to have been a layman. (fn. 2) It was rebuilt in 1380, possibly by the St. Anne's guild who collected money that year and who held land near the hospital in the earlier 15th century. (fn. 3) The relationship of the hospital and its warden to the chaplains recorded in 1384 and 1386 and to John Newton, chaplain or hermit at St. Anne's from c. 1387 to 1414 or later, (fn. 4) is not clear. In 1402 the endowments were inadequate for the support of the master and brethren of the hospital, but John Vertue the elder (d. 1485) apparently increased them. He and others also left bedding to the hospital. (fn. 5) Elizabeth Harmanson founded a temporary chantry in the chapel in 1505 and another woman left stained cloths, presumably banners, of St. Anne and the Virgin Mary to the chapel in 1508. (fn. 6)

Chapel and guild apparently survived in 1536 but had been dissolved by 1549. (fn. 7) An attempt in 1559 to revive the hospital seems to have failed. (fn. 8) The chapel, presumably disused, was recorded in 1590; in 1748 the plain rectangular building was used as a barn. (fn. 9)


The north and east walls of the surviving building, on the corner of Maidenburgh Street and St. Helen's Lane, incorporate parts of the lower courses of the north and east walls of the Roman theatre which occupied the site, (fn. 10) but there is no evidence to support the later tradition that the chapel itself dated from the time of St. Helen. It seems likely that there were two chapels of that dedication in the 13th century and perhaps earlier. Only one was recorded in the 14th century, but after the re-establishment of St. Helen's guild in the chapel or hospital of St. Cross (later the Crutched friars) in 1407 that chapel was occasionally called St. Helen's. (fn. 11)

One chapel of St. Helen, next to the castle, was held by the king or by St. John's abbey. Eudes the sewer granted the recently restored church with 14 a. of land belonging to it to the abbey at its foundation; at the same time he gave the abbey the tithes of the castle chapel which were later associated with St. Helen's. (fn. 12) St. Helen's was not among the possessions confirmed to the abbey by Henry I, and although it was included in later papal and episcopal confirmations, (fn. 13) it is not clear whether the abbey actually obtained, or retained, possession of the chapel.

In 1157 Henry II granted to St. John's land called the castle waste, extending from St. Helen's chapel next to the castle southwards to High Street, and the land around the chapel to make a graveyard and a house for the clerks serving it. (fn. 14) Later evidence suggests that he intended to found a small chapel or college of clerks to pray for his soul. If so, the foundation failed, and the unendowed chapel seems to have become a liability to the abbey. A later tradition that the chapel was dedicated, or rededicated, in 1239 in honour of St. Catherine and St. Helen by Roger Niger, bishop of London, in the presence of William de Wande, abbot of Colchester, (fn. 15) may reflect a rebuilding by the abbey, but in 1265 the chapel was repaired at the king's expense, under the supervision of one of his servants. (fn. 16) In 1290, in the course of a wideranging dispute, the town accused the abbot of failing to maintain the chapel or to provide services there for the king and his ancestors, as he was bound to do by his possession of the tithes. (fn. 17) The arguments of both parties make it clear that there was some confusion between St. Helen's chapel and the king's chapel in the castle. The abbot was eventually ordered to provide a chaplain to celebrate three times a week in either St. Helen's chapel or the castle chapel as the constable or other keeper of the castle should direct. There are no further references to a St. Helen's chapel in which the king or St. John's abbey had an interest, and it seems likely that that chapel fell into disuse after 1290 and its functions were taken over by the castle chapel. It is tempting to identify the 12th- and 13thcentury St. Helen's chapel with the chapel in the castle bailey, which appears to have been built or rebuilt in the later 11th century and remodelled in the earlier 13th century, (fn. 18) but that chapel would have been within the castle, and the area south of it would have been occupied by the bailey buildings and separated from High Street by at least an earthen bailey rampart in 1157 and so would hardly have been described as the castle waste between St. Helen's chapel and the road. (fn. 19)

In 1293-4 Master John of Colchester, apparently intending to found a small hospital, obtained licence to provide an endowment of 60 a. of land and 50s. rent for Nicholas, chaplain of the 'new' chapel of St. Helen, to maintain 6 poor people at the chapel to pray for his soul. (fn. 20) Nothing came of the plan, and in 1307 John obtained a new licence to grant to a chaplain celebrating there, the plot of land, held of St. Botolph's priory, on which stood 'a certain chapel of St. Helen of Maidenborough', with an endowment of 40 a. of land and 40s. rent. (fn. 21) No grant was made, however, until 1322 when John gave to John Bracy, the chaplain, the site of the chapel in Maidenburgh Street, 28 a. of arable, and 40s. rent in Colchester to found a chantry in the chapel, which had been built a long time before in honour of Jesus Christ and St. Helen. (fn. 22) The intended foundation of 1307 and that carried out in 1322 clearly relate to the surviving St. Helen's chapel; the fact that the site was held of St. Botolph's priory suggests that it was not the same as the earlier chapel granted to St. John's abbey.

In 1328 John of Colchester conveyed the advowson of his chantry to the bailiffs and commonalty, who presented fairly regularly until 1534. In 1336, however, they merely leased the buildings of the 'old' St. Helen's chapel to a chaplain for just under a year, (fn. 23) and in 1383 the fraternity of St. Helen appointed a chaplain for a year. (fn. 24) In 1416 Thomas Francis left 8 a. of land to augment the chaplain's stipend. (fn. 25) Richolda widow of Richard Cofford (d. 1395) founded another chantry in the chapel c. 1396, and chaplains were apparently appointed to it in the 15th century. (fn. 26) The St. Helen's hospital to which the king gave vestments and other furnishings c. 1414 was almost certainly St. Cross hospital, but St. Helen's guild seems to have retained some responsibility for St. Helen's chapel, providing tapers in 1441-2. (fn. 27)

St. Helen's chapel was granted in 1539 to the bailiffs and commonalty for the foundation of the grammar school, but was not so used. (fn. 28) The borough sold the chapel in 1541 to William Reve who sold it in 1557 to Jerome Gilberd. (fn. 29) In 1610 the borough confirmed the building to George Gilbert, perhaps a descendant of Jerome. (fn. 30) In 1683 the chapel was bought from Robert Torkington by Stephen Crisp and given to the Quakers as a meeting house. (fn. 31) It was repaired or rebuilt in 1701, (fn. 32) re-using old materials. The Quakers sold the chapel in 1801; (fn. 33) from 1830 the building was used by the central National school. (fn. 34) It was later used as a circulating library and as an upholsterer's warehouse. In 1883 it was bought by Douglass Round and extensively restored by William Butterfield, and in 1886 it was rededicated as a chapter house for Colchester rural deanery. (fn. 35) It was still used as a chapter house in 1923, but from 1946 was leased by the borough council for the museum service. (fn. 36)

The surviving chapel is a small, single celled, rectangular building. Much of it, including all the window tracery and the facing of the walls with their prominent brick string courses, appears to be the work of Butterfield. (fn. 37) Two 13thcentury lancets in the north wall confirm the existence of a 13th-century building on the site. The east and another north window date from a later medieval, possibly 15th-century, reconstruction.


The chapel, on St. John's green, was first recorded in 1363 when it had been damaged by flood and fire. (fn. 38) In 1392 the chapel's warden was involved, with two clerks of St. Giles's church, in a dispute with St. Mary Magdalen's hospital, perhaps over jurisdiction. (fn. 39) The chapel presumably survived until the Dissolution but had been demolished by 1581. (fn. 40)


A chapel of St. Thomas outside the walls was recorded before 1238, probably c. 1220, (fn. 41) contradicting the 14th-century tradition that it had been the Jewish council chamber and was consecrated by Abbot William of St. John's in 1251. (fn. 42) A perpetual chantry had been founded there by 1379, and chaplains were presented by St. John's abbey in 1384 and 1386. (fn. 43) The chapel, on St. John's green, was recorded in 1476, and presumably survived until the Dissolution; its site was waste ground in 1581. (fn. 44)


  • 1. Morant, Colch. map facing p. 4; E.R.O., D/B 5 R1, f. 38.
  • 2. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr19, rott. 16, 18d., 23d., 26.
  • 3. Ibid. D/B 5 Cr20, rot. 11; Cr87, rot. 8; D/B 5 R1, f. 167.
  • 4. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr23, rot. 29; Cr25, rot. 44d.; Cr39, rot. 19d.; Cal. Pat. 1385-9, 405.
  • 5. Cal. Papal Reg. v. 588; E.R.O., D/Y 2/2, p. 65; D/B 5 Cr62, rot. 22d.; D/B 5 Cr111, rot. 6; P.R.O., PROB 11/10, f. 34.
  • 6. P.R.O., PROB 11/15, f. 2; PROB 11/16, f. 61.
  • 7. L. & P. Hen. VIII, x, p. 419; B.L. Stowe MS. 829, f. 28v.
  • 8. E.R.O., D/Y 2/2, p. 65.
  • 9. Ibid. D/DCm T 17; Morant, Colch. 153; Colch. Mus., engraving of 1724.
  • 10. P. Crummy, In Search of Colch. Past, 59.
  • 11. e.g. Feud. Aids, ii. 210; for St. Cross see V.C.H. Essex, ii. 181.
  • 12. Colch. Cart. i. 3; Colch. Arch. Rep. i. 26.
  • 13. Colch. Cart. i. 6, 13, 62, 67, 87, 95.
  • 14. Ibid. 24.
  • 15. Colch. Arch. Rep. i. 26.
  • 16. Cal. Pat. 1264-8, 19.
  • 17. J. H. Round, St. Helen's Chapel (priv. print.), 11-13, 22-3: copy in E.C.L. Colch.; E.R.O., D/B 5 R2, ff. 49, 50v.-52v.
  • 18. Arch. Jnl. cxxxix. 323-8.
  • 19. Above, Castle.
  • 20. P.R.O., C 143/22, no. 24.
  • 21. Ibid. C 143/65, no. 16.
  • 22. Ibid. C 143/148, no. 4; E.R.O., D/DRg 6/1, printed in Round, St. Helen's Chap. 24-7; Cal. Pat. 1321-4, 2.
  • 23. Round, St. Helen's Chap. 27; E.R.O., D/DRe Z10, no. 11.
  • 24. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr5, rot. 2; Cr22, rot. 30; ibid. T/A 237.
  • 25. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr40, rot. 1, printed in Morant, Colch. 154 n.
  • 26. Cal. Inq. Misc. vi, p. 43; Cal. Close, 1396-8, 371; E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr32, rot. 16d.; Morant, Colch. 154.
  • 27. Cal. Pat. 1413-16, 228; E.R.O., Boro. Mun., St. Helen's guild compotus roll.
  • 28. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xiv (2), p. 222; P.R.O., E 178/829.
  • 29. Round, St. Helen's Chap. 19; E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr124, rot. 6.
  • 30. E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb2, f. 95.
  • 31. S. H. G. Fitch, Colch. Quakers, 97.
  • 32. E.R.O., T/A 424/7/1.
  • 33. Fitch, Colch. Quakers, 95.
  • 34. Below, Educ. (Other C. of E. Schools).
  • 35. Round, St. Helen's Chap. 19-20.
  • 36. E.A.T. N.S. xvi. 109; E.R.O., Boro. Mun., Council Mins. 1945-6, pp. 175, 391.
  • 37. R.C.H.M. Essex, iii. 50; photographs in Round, St. Helen's Chap.
  • 38. Cal. Papal Reg. iv. 33.
  • 39. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr27, rot. 14 and d.
  • 40. P.R.O., E 178/819.
  • 41. Colch. Cart. ii. 597.
  • 42. Bodl. MS. Gough Essex 1, f. 7; E.A.T. (3rd ser.), xvi. 50.
  • 43. Cal. Pat. 1377-81, 399; Guildhall MS. 9531/3, ff. 89v., 105.
  • 44. E.R.O., D/DHt M146; P.R.O., E 178/819.