Monday, 1 February 2016

St Nicholas, Arundel

Today we naturally assume that a church building is united, every part being owned by the parish, but in medieval times it could be shared by several organisations. The parish might own the nave, the chancel might be occupied by monks, and there might be private chantry chapels with their own priests.
Almost all these arrangements were swept away by Henry VIII in the dissolution, but some survived. The parishioners of St Peter in Chichester, for example, used the north transept of the cathedral as their church well into Victorian times, but the most extraordinary example of shared ownership is St Nicholas in Arundel.
The original church was crucifix in plan, with the nave and transepts used by the parish and the chancel by monks of the religious foundation next door, where the Victorian buildings known as The Priory now stand.
The priory languished and was abolished in 1379, when the 4th Earl of Arundel took it over as a mausoleum for his family. A college of secular priests was installed in the priory to say masses for the Fitzalan family dead.
At the same time, the church was rebuilt in the English Perpendicular style, with a lofty nave, a crossing tower, transepts and a lovely chancel, which was separated from the nave by an iron grille to keep the plebs out of the Earl's burial chamber.
At the reformation, the Fitzalan family was one of the few in England powerful enough to remain Catholic and keep their lands (and, indeed, their heads). Things did not come to a head until 1879 when the vicar became so angry at what he felt was Catholic triumphalism that he sued the Duke for possession of the chapel - and lost. The Duke retaliated by building a wall behind the iron grille to keep out the prying eyes of the vulgar.
In 1937 the guide-book writer Arthur Mee raged "it is pitiful to see the eastern wall of St Nicholas roughly faced up as no good bricklayer would leave it, though in front of it, almost touching it, is one of the finest iron screens in the country, the work of a 14th century smith."
He also complained that he had to pay sixpence to enter the castle grounds to see the chapel. Sixpence is about £1.50 in today's money, but entry to the castle and chapel now costs £9. What would Arthur say about that?
Happily, good sense and improving relations between the churches led to the removal of the wall in the 1970s and its replacement with glass, so visitors can once again see the chapel through the screen in the way the 14th century designers intended.