A recent study has provided new details about the construction and decoration of the St Eramus Chapel, which was part of Westminster Abbey for just a quarter of a century.
Before now, little was known about this short-lived chapel, but Abbey archivist Matthew Payne and John Goodall, a member of the Abbey’s Fabric Advisory Commission, recently joined forces to examine both the documentary and the physical evidence. In a paper highlighting their findings, published in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association, they detail how the chapel was commissioned by Elizabeth Woodville (c.1437-1492), wife of Edward IV, in the 1470s. It was built during a time when the cult of St Erasmus was particularly popular in England. (Also known as St Elmo, he was patron saint of sailors and those suffering abdominal pain.)
While the chapel’s exact location remains unknown, it was probably situated on the south side of the 13th-century Lady Chapel, perhaps near St Mary’s garden. It was not there for long, however, as both chapels saw their end in 1502, when they were torn down to make way for the new Lady Chapel, which still stands today.
Its demolition did not spell its complete end. Matthew and John describe how some of the chapel’s decorative reredos (ornamental screen coverings) were rescued by Abbot John Islip and repositioned over the entrance to the chapel of Our Lady of the Pew, off the north ambulatory of the main church. These elements can still be seen. They were carved out of alabaster, in clear contrast to the style of the abbey master-mason of the time. In particular, the canopy in one of the reredos bulges out from the wall, which is similar in style to many others from this period. Some of the other details on the crocketing (hooked floral decorations), meanwhile, are similar to the alabaster gablette of Alice, Duchess of Suffolk, at Ewelme (Oxfordshire), which is thought to have been produced by a specialist London workshop between 1471 and 1475.
Despite existing for less than 30 years, this chapel continues to have a lasting influence on the fabric of Westminster Abbey.