01 June 2022

How the Chantry Chapel has survived
as the oldest building in Buckingham

The Chantry Chapel of Saint John the Baptist is the oldest surviving building in Buckingham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

I spent a day in Buckingham last week, and, of course, visited the Chantry Chapel of Saint John the Baptist, the oldest surviving building in the town.

Few buildings in Buckingham date to before the 18th century because a large fire destroyed much of the town in 1725. But the chantry chapel survived, and is tucked away on Market Hill in a cosy corner off the Market Square.

Over the centuries, this chapel has had many uses, including hospital, chapel, school and, more recently, second-hand bookshop and coffee shop.

The Chantry Chapel was built in the late 12th century as part of Saint John’s Hospital. It was granted to the Master of the House of Saint Thomas of Acon in London, and it became a chantry chapel in 1268, founded by Matthew de Stratton, Archdeacon of Buckingham.

The Royal Latin School was founded in the chapel in 1423, with the chantry priests probably serving as the first schoolmasters. A schoolmaster’s house was added to the north. The school was originally established to teach boys the Trivium: Latin grammar, logic and rhetoric.

The Chantry Chapel retains the original Romanesque doorway (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The present building dates from the 15th century, when John Ruding, Archdeacon of Lincoln, undertook rebuilding work in 1471 and 1481, incorporating the Norman doorway. Ruding also gave the school its motto, ‘Alle May God Amende,’ in 1471.

The chantry chapel was dissolved, as were other chantries, at the Tudor Reformation, and it was known as the Royal Latin School from ca 1540. In 1548, King Edward VI granted a charter for the school, for 30-40 pupils, with an endowment of £10 and with 12 trustees.

The school endowment of £10 8s ½d from a separate chantry in Thornton was transferred to the school at Saint John the Baptist in Buckingham in 1597. From that date, the Royal Latin School inherited royal status and a requirement to teach six boys.

At several times in its history, the chapel has been near to decay. A major fire in 1696 destroyed the Master’s House which was rebuilt by Alexander Denton, complete with a garden. The building was restored at the expense of Earl Temple of Stowe in 1776.

By 1781, the chantry chapel was also serving as a Sunday School, said to be only the second Sunday School in England.

The chapel was twice restored by public subscription, in 1857 and again in 1879, under the direction of Sir George Gilbert Scott.

By the 1870s the school had 65 pupils, including 25 boarders) and four masters, and became known as Saint John’s Chapel Grammar School and Saint John’s Royal Latin School.

Inspectors advised the trustees in 1898 that the old buildings were totally inadequate and unsuitable for modern educational requirements. Buckinghamshire County Council agreed to establish the school on a new site on Chandos Road, and the Royal Latin School moved from the Chantry Chapel in 1907.

The chapel was bought by public subscription In 1912 and given to the National Trust. Since then, it has been open to the public as a café and second-hand bookshop.

The Chantry Chapel retains the original Romanesque doorway. This is an aisleless rectangle, built of uncoursed limestone rubble with limestone dressings and a plain-tile roof.

The Norman doorway is near the middle of left side with one order of shafts with leaf capitals, imposts with palmette-in-zigzag ornament, an inner arch with ornaments of shallow pointed-arched arcading, a chevron ornament to the outer arch and to the hoodmould. The gabled bellcote at the apex was added in the 19th century.

The chapel is a Grade II* listed building since it was added to the list by English Heritage in 1952. It was closed when I visited Buckingham last week, but a sign outside indicates the National Trust has plans to reopen it soon.

The National Trust has plans to reopen the chantry chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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