A tribute to the life and work of Brian Torode

Woodchester Mansion Chapel

Woodchester Mansion 1

Why did William Leigh build the Chapel?

As all visitors will hear when they visit Woodchester Park the focal point of the Mansion is its chapel. When the house was eventually completed visitors would have trundled up the drive in their carriages and they would have been confronted by the chapel’s beautiful eastern elevation. The eyes of those entering the house would be drawn down the length of main corridor towards its entrance. Incomplete the chapel is today a beautiful structure but how was it going to be used?

William Leigh

William Leigh 1802-1873

Already, William Leigh had erected the Church of Our Lady of the Annunciation for the Passionist Fathers but, soon after its completion, these religious were replaced by members of the English Dominican Province. Leigh was evidently drawn by their black and white habits and, it would seem, he wanted his friars to sing daily the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours in his Priory Church. They occupied the choir stalls situated beyond the rood screen, set within the chancel arch, and to their north was the gallery for the organ and beyond this gallery was the tower with its bells.

Like many other converts from the mid nineteenth century Leigh wanted to connect with medieval Catholic Christendom by creating a successor to the bare ruined choirs of England. He would also have watched with interest the revival of religious life over the channel in France. Here Benedictine life was being restored at Solesmes by Dom Prosper Gueranger and the Dominican life was being rejuvenated by Lacordaire and Pere Jandal.  The determination of these clerics to undo the ravages of the French Revolution encouraged Englishmen to contemplate a reversal of the destruction wrought in their own land during the time of the Reformation.

Certainly, Woodchester Priory is part of that romantic movement associated with the Second Spring and Leigh’s work should be seen in a broader context which might encompass the Redemptorist house at Hanley Swan, the Cistercian Abbey at Mount St Bernard in Leicestershire, the Franciscan community at Pantasaph in Wales and the construction of new houses in England for the Benedictine communities that had fled revolutionary France. We should not forget the Dominican nuns who eventually settled at Hartpury and the Franciscan nuns at Taunton.

Woodchester Priory was a lavish expression of Leigh’s personal love for his new Church and the Dominicans responded enthusiastically to the convert’s vision. Soon they were serving the mission at Nympsfield and a further church was opened at Stroud. Within a few years a new order of Dominican Sisters was established at St Rose’s Convent and an off-shoot of the Franciscan Convent at Taunton was planted at Woodchester within sight of the Dominican Priory.

William Leigh was committed to his Priory and it is there that he would have gone on Sundays and Holy Days for High Mass and possibly at other times too. It was in the Priory Church that he established his family chapel dedicated to the Holy Martyrs of Sebaste and it is within this chapel, today, that we find his recumbent effigy and the memorial celebrating his son’s survival from shipwreck. In the crypt of the church there is a mortuary chapel where his body would have been laid before being placed in the family vault beneath the family chapel.

Wood 116

Leigh Family Chapel at Woodchester Priory

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Down in the Priory Crypt

Wood 113.JPG

Recumbent Effigy of William Leigh

The provision of a domestic chapel at Woodchester Park seems to go against a trend found elsewhere in Gloucestershire where the existing domestic chapels were being replaced by public chapels. The Catholic chapel at Horton Court was closed and replaced in 1838 by a church at Chipping Sodbury and, following this, the ones at Beckford Hall and Hatherop Castle were replaced by new churches at Kemerton (1843) and Fairford (1845). However, these earlier domestic chapels were established before the Catholic Relief Acts and were a means of covertly maintaining the Faith. In contrast Woodchester Mansion Chapel should be compared with four chapels designed by Pugin – Alton Towers and Alton Castle for Lord Shrewsbury, Grace Dieu for Ambrose Phillips de Lisle and finally his own domestic chapel at Ramsgate.

The planned chapel at Woodchester Mansion was not going to be a family chapel like the one described at the Priory; there would be no vault for the Leigh Family or personal memorials.  However, the Mansion Chapel does need to be understood in the context of the Priory Church and the community of friars who served it. The chapel was to be a domestic chapel and it was probably intended that a Dominican friar should reside at the mansion to serve the spiritual needs of the Leigh Family. Liz Davenport has noted that the census returns for 1861, 1871 and 1881 reveal that the family had a priest staying with them at ‘The Cottage’. Extensions to ‘The Cottage’ had included the provision of a temporary chapel which was regularly used for Mass.

Although the Mansion Chapel is a majestic structure it has a relatively small floor plan, reduced in the planning from five to three bays. Its purposes would have been three-fold, to be a chapel of ease for the convenience of members of the Leigh Family and their household, to be a place where Leigh and his family could grow in holiness through the carrying out of their devotions and thirdly to be a witness to the truth of the Catholic Religion for those visiting the household.

It seems likely that William Leigh may have considered for a time that the Mansion Chapel would be used by the wider Catholic community; perhaps by families living on the estate and in the village of Nympsfield. It is said that Leigh gave the Nympsfield children lifts back from the Priory Church in his carriage on Sundays. The mass centre there was a converted house and it was not until 1878 that Charles Hansom was invited to draw plans for a proper church for the villagers.

We do not have detailed plans for the furnishings of the Mansion Chapel but we do have some clues. The unrealised plans drawn by Benjamin Bucknall for a larger five-bay chapel include a western gallery and a rood screen. His doodled architectural drawings suggest that the altar piece would include a tabernacle and there is what appears to be a font situated at the west end. The provision of a tabernacle would indicate that the Bishop was intending to allow Leigh the privilege of having the Blessed Sacrament reserved in his chapel. At that time, this may have necessitated an assurance that a priest would be in residence. A lavish font was provided at the Priory Church so the provision of a font at the Mansion would seem unusual. These plans also include the proposed positions for the fourteen stations of the cross which were also privileged. In conclusion, these interim plans might have been for a chapel that would have had wider use than was eventually envisaged for the chapel that was actually built.

Turning to the final plans we can see that there was to be a proper confessional so that a spiritual director would be able to shrive the members of the family and the household. We are also aware that there was going to be a large reliquary on a shelf to the north of the altar which was to be flanked by candles. The final design of the chapel also included an organ gallery to the north, so that the singing could be accompanied, and the area which exists between the stairs and organ gallery may have been intended for the use of a small schola. I think it is doubtful whether the final design would have included a rood screen as the lay-out would be too cramped.

Woodchester Mansion 2

How was the chapel to be used? It is likely that William Leigh intended there to be a daily celebration of Mass for the benefit of the family and the members of the household, as he would probably have intended to employ only Roman Catholics. The existence of this chapel would enable clerical guests to celebrate a Low Mass too. An early morning Mass at the Mansion would have enabled the Leighs and their guests to receive Holy Communion on Sundays and Holydays before driving down to the later High Mass at the Priory Church. During this period fasting before Holy Communion was from midnight.

As at the Priory, Mass would have been celebrated by the friars according to the ancient Dominican Rite so there would be minor variances from the normal Tridentine usage. As the year progressed the seasons, feast days and fast days would be marked and these would impact on the way Mass was celebrated, the colour of vestments, the presence or absence of flowers and other variants.

On entering the chapel worshippers would have blessed themselves with Holy Water from the stoups provided and they might again have blessed themselves with it before bedtime. Although members of the family would have been immersed in Latin they would have knelt and prayed silently whilst Mass was celebrated by the priest who would have been assisted by a server. Leigh, his son, or a male servant may well have acted as altar servers and we know that Willie Leigh was described as an ‘acolyte’ at the consecration of the Priory Church in 1849. During the nineteenth century it was the practice for worshippers to quietly mouth specific devotional prayers at appropriate moments during the Mass. As I indicated earlier Holy Communion would have then been received irregularly and only after careful preparation which would have included going to confession.

The architect’s earlier drawings indicate that the altar was to have a tabernacle which would mean that the family would be drawn into the chapel for prayers before the Blessed Sacrament. There is a tradition of paying a visit to the Blessed Sacrament after lunch. This devotional practice became associated in later years with the devotion of visiting Jesus as if he were the ‘Divine Prisoner’ in the tabernacle – in other words not allowing him to be left alone in his ‘prison’. We can imagine William Leigh praying quietly before the Blessed Sacrament at his rising, at lunch time and before bed. The balcony leading off the first-floor corridor would have offered another way of praying before the Blessed Sacrament for those who were sick and frail and for the family at the beginning and end of each day.

If reservation of the Blessed Sacrament was to be permitted in the Mansion Chapel then, with further permission from the Bishop, the chaplain would have been able to give Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and this might have been linked with other devotions and even a sermon.

According to Bishop Ullathorne, William Leigh recited the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours as if he were a priest. This would mean that he would have owned a Breviary and that he would have recited the eight hours of Prime, Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline and Nocturns. The laity was not generally encouraged to ‘say’ the full Divine Office as this was considered a clerical privilege. However, as an Anglican Tractarian it is likely that Leigh would have said Matins and Evensong daily from the Book of Common Prayer so the use of the Catholic Breviary would have come naturally. Pious members of the Leigh family may have used the much simpler ‘Little Office of Our Lady.’

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A detail from William Leigh’s recumbent effigy in the Priory Church

Leigh probably intended to say his office alone in the chapel and when convenient. Today priests are urged to ‘sanctify time’ by linking these prayers to specific hours. The family may have attempted to sing Vespers on Sunday afternoons but they are more likely to have joined the Dominicans at the Priory Church where the Divine Office would then have been sung daily.

Caroline Leigh

Caroline Leigh

If the chapel had been completed it is likely that the Leighs would have used it for a range of devotions. An example might be the Rosary which was often prayed daily but it was only in later years that people did this audibly and together. There was a range of different rosaries and the Dominicans would no doubt have encouraged the Dominican Rosary but the Franciscan nuns would have used the longer Franciscan Crown Rosary and the Passionist Fathers may have introduced the family to a special chaplet which involved meditating upon the five sacred wounds of Jesus. The family may also have used the Dolours Rosary which focussed its meditations upon the seven sorrows of Mary.

Other devotions would have included the Stations of the Cross, prayers for the dead, Litanies and other daily prayers. Prayer books would have included works such as the ‘Garden of the Soul’ compiled in the eighteenth century by Bishop Richard Challoner. Some of the prayers would have been indulgenced, in other words, they were said to help those who had died make an earlier entry into heaven. Finally, away from the chapel, prayers or Grace would have been said before and after meals in the Dining Room.

The Leighs were much influenced by Oscott College and this establishment had a very strong devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus so this may have encouraged further devotional prayers.

Mary would have had a central place in the family’s devotional life too and we can imagine the Rosary, Litany of Our Lady and the Marian anthems being especially celebrated during the month of May and on special feasts such as the Assumption, the Immaculate Conception, Mary’s Nativity, Our Lady of the Annunciation and Candlemas.

Besides Marian devotions there would also have been devotions to various saints and there is a drawing for a shelf on the north wall of the chancel which would have supported a sizeable reliquary containing relics of the saints. The patron saints of William and Caroline Leigh were St Augustine and St Monica.

The tower housed bells and these would not have only been rung to mark the passing of time but they would have been used for the Angelus – prayers said at 6am, 12noon and 6pm. Bells would also have summoned people to Mass and a Sanctus bell may have been rung before the moment of consecration during the celebration of Mass.

The architect was instructed to provide the fixings for Christmas decorations and so it is also likely the building would be decorated with flowers at appropriate times in the year. The carved foliage in the vaulting indicates a keen interest in the estate’s flora and fauna. We can also imagine a lamp burning before the tabernacle and other lamps and candles would have been lit at appropriate times.

All of this might indicate a very rich spiritual diet to which would have been added Lectio Divina and silent contemplation. We know from the memoir of Blanche, the daughter of William Leigh, who died in 1852 that her desire was to live a consecrated religious life and she took a vow of chastity before her death. This young woman had an intense devotional life centred upon the passion of Jesus and upon the sufferings of his mother Mary.

Woodchester Mansion 3

In conclusion, we cannot be sure to what extent the Mansion Chapel was going to be used by the wider Catholic community but we can be confident that it was primarily intended as a place where members of the family would grow in holiness and, through prayer and devotion, prepare themselves for death. The celebration of Mass would have been the source and summit of their spiritual lives and, if the privilege of reserving the Blessed Sacrament were granted to them, then this would have made the tabernacle the beating heart of their home. Evelyn Waugh catches something of this in his description of the flickering lamp before the ‘beaten copper doors of a tabernacle’ in his closing scene of ‘Brideshead Revisited.’

Richard Barton

6th September 2017





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