The first results of our MA Arch students’ research into using medieval architectural design methods are emerging with a new digital reconstruction of the lost Chantry Chapel of St Mary of the Annunciation in Leicester. This building which once stood in the Newarke precinct of the medieval city of Leicester was where King Richard III’s body was put on display for two days after the battle of Bosworth in 1485 (see previous blog article “Grave Addiction”) and performed a chantry function, acting as a place of prayer for the souls of members of the House of Lancaster. It was demolished in 1548 as part of the Reformation. All that remains of this building that was described by Bishop Leland who visited Leicester about 1540 as “…not very great, but it is exceeding fair…” are one of the minor tombs (Lady Mary Hervey) which was moved in the 16th century to the chapel of the old Trinity Hospital where it lies today and two arches which formed part of the crypt and survived incorporated into the cellar of a house which later occupied the site before it to was demolished to make way for De Montfort University’s Hawthorne Building in the first quarter of the twentieth century.
The MA students collated documentary evidence including plans, maps, photos and drawings, used a laser can of the arches, learned about the background and use of the geometric processes which are known to have been employed by medieval maser masons and transferred them into 3D on computers and went on field trips to examine examples of similar buildings of similar date in the region. Using this evidence they extrapolated the ground plan and vertical elevations and sections of the building and much of the interior and exterior detail. The process of decision making during the reconstruction process and the evidence upon which decisions were based were recorded in a series collaborative development drawings which now form part of the meta-data for the project. This chantry chapel is nationally important because not only is it connected with the death of Richard III but it also contained a number of high status Lancastrian burials such as Constance of (queen of) Castile, Duchess of Lancaster, (1354 – 24 March 1394) wife of John of Gaunt, Mary de Bohun (c. 1368 – 4 June 1394), first wife of King Henry IV of England, Henry Grossmont 1st Duke of Lancaster (c. 1310 – 23 March 1361) and Henry 3rd Earl of Lancaster, as well as a considerable number of knights, their wives and other benefactors. It was also a pilgrimage site. The King of France had given Henry the 4th Earl of Lancaster (the chapel’s founder) a thorn from the Crown of Thorns (worn by Jesus at the Crucifixion). This holy relic was placed on the high altar of his new church on a stand of gold, turning the church into a centre of pilgrimage. The chapel formed part of a wider College and Hospital occupying a site of several acres on the south side of the city next to the castle. Bishop Leland records that “…the walls and gates of the College be stately…”, that there was a cloister on the south west side of the chapel that was “…large and faire…” and that there were houses within the precinct of the college for prebendaries which were “…al very praty [pretty]”. Lelyand also records that “…the rich cardinal Winchester gilded al the Floures and Knottes in the Voulte of the Church…” The cardinal in question was Henry Beaufort, the second of four illegitimate children of John of Gaunt (and his mistress Katherine Swynford) and a so Lancastrian himself. It was he who presided at the trial of Joan of Arc in 1431 before she was burned at the stake. Recent paint analysis from the surviving arches has shown that they were brightly coloured and overall the evidence suggests a small college and chantry chapel with high quality decoration and surrounding buildings. We would be interested in talking to artists and historians who specialise in medieval English wall painting to collaborate on developing representations of the interior surfaces of the chapel which would have been decorated with scenes from the old and new testaments.