New evidence, helping to form a 15th century reconstruction of part of Westminster Abbey, demonstrates how a section of the building was once the focus for the royal family’s devotion to the cult of a disemboweled saint and likely contained gruesome images of his martyrdom.
Peer-reviewed findings, published in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association , reveal a story of how England’s ‘White Queen’ Elizabeth Woodville once worshipped at the Chapel of St Erasmus which may have even featured a whole, single tooth as part of the relics!
The Lost Chapel
Today, only an intricate frame, remains from the lost chapel of St Erasmus. It was demolished in 1502 and little has been known about its role historically.
However, an extensive analysis of all available evidence to-date including a newly discovered, centuries-old royal grant by the Abbey’s archivist Matthew Payne, and John Goodall, a member of the Westminster Abbey Fabric Advisory Commission, reveal the chapel’s wider importance.
Evidence from the study has also helped to create a visual 15th century reconstruction of the east end of the Abbey church and its furnishes – crafted by illustrator Stephen Conlin.
How the east end of the Abbey church and its furnishes may have looked – crafted by illustrator Stephen Conlin, based on evidence from the study. (Stephen Conlin / Taylor & Francis Group )
Commenting on the prominence of the chapel, Payne says: “The White Queen wished to worship there and it appears, also, to be buried there as the grant declares prayers should be sung ‘around the tomb of our consort (Elizabeth Woodville).
“The construction, purpose and fate of the St Erasmus chapel, therefore deserves more recognition.” Goodall adds: “Very little attention has been paid to this short-lived chapel.
“It receives only passing mention in abbey histories, despite the survival of elements of the reredos [ornamental screen covering the wall at the back of an altar]. The quality of workmanship on this survival suggests [sic] that investigation of the original chapel is long overdue.”
Elizabeth Woodville (1437-1492), Queen Consort of Edward IV of England. ( Public Domain )
The interment in the chapel of eight-year-old Anne Mowbray, child bride of Elizabeth’s son Richard, Duke of York, [of the Princes in the Tower ] also confirms its role as a royal burial site, their study finds.
In the end, Elizabeth’s last resting place was next to her beloved husband in Windsor in St George’s Chapel which Edward IV had begun in 1475.
Future monarchs have also been buried in St George’s, including Elizabeth II after her funeral this year at the Abbey.
The Cult of St Erasmus at Westminster
St Erasmus was responsible for child wellbeing as well as being the patron saint of sailors and abdominal pain. The authors suggest his link with children may have prompted the building of the St Erasmus chapel. It followed the wedding a year earlier in 1478 of Anne Mowbray to Richard when both were still infants.
Dedication of the chapel to St Erasmus ‘reflects a new and rapidly growing devotion’ to his cult, say the authors. They speculate the building may also have held relics of the Italian bishop, namely his tooth, which Westminster Abbey is known to have owned.
The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus by Nicolas Poussin. ( Public Domain )
Although the precise location is unknown, the chapel was almost certainly built on space formerly allotted to a garden and near stalls where William Caxton sold his wares, according to the authors.
Commissioned by Elizabeth, Edward IV’s commoner wife and Henry VIII’s grandmother, St Erasmus’ chapel was demolished in 1502.
Visitors to Westminster Abbey can still view what remains, by looking above the entrance to the chapel of Our Lady of the Pew in the north ambulatory.
And what does remain is an intricately carved frame, sculptured out of the mineral Alabaster.
This frame would have surrounded a reredos, which is the imagery that forms the backdrop to the altar.
Missing however, is the image. The study speculates that this was probably of the Saint being disemboweled – tied down alive to a table while his intestines were wound out on a windlass, a rotating cylinder often used on ships.
The screen would have originally been positioned behind the altar of the St Erasmus chapel and contained a panel.
The study presents further evidence that the reredos was created by an outsider to the Abbey’s design tradition. Architect Robert Stowell, the Abbey’s master mason, probably designed the chapel itself and may have helped salvage the chapel’s most ornate pieces when it was knocked down after less than 25 years.
This was on Henry VII’s orders to make way for his own and his wife’s chantry and burial place. The Lady Chapel which replaced it features a statue of St Erasmus which the authors say may be a nod to Elizabeth Woodville’s now long-forgotten chapel.
Top image: A chapel to worship St Erasmus has been discovered at Westminster Abbey, shown here. Source: Richie Chan / Adobe Stock
This press release ‘Lost medieval chapel sheds light on royal burials at Westminster Abbey’ by Taylor & Francis was first posted on Eurekalert.
Payne, M and Goodall, J, 2022. Elizabeth Woodville and the Chapel of St Erasmus at Westminster Abbey. Journal of the British Archaeological Association. DOI: 10.1080/00681288.2022.2101237