Rotherwas Chapel is listed by Trip Advisor as the 29th most popular place to visit in Herefordshire. Closer reading of the website found that none of the reviewers had actually been inside this historic chapel. This is an interesting omission by these intrepid explorers as the beautiful interior tells the story of the Bodenham Family who owned the chapel, together with the nearby house and its estate from the 15th to the beginning of the 20th century.
Last Saturday a group of us set off by bike, foot, bus and car to explore this gem which lies unpromisingly between the recycling site and the sprawling Rotherwas Industrial Estate. Having collected the key from the Hereford Archive and Records Centre* we congregated in the newly mown churchyard. Consulting Pevsner we learnt that he considered the spire “weird” which seemed rather unkind as this small but perfectly formed ornament, intermittently visible through the trees from the Wye side path, is an intriguing foil to the lower wooded slope of Dinedor Hill. Open opening the door we found ourselves in a small room formed by the walls of the tower through the ceiling of which swung, in Poe style, an ancient looking pendulum. Some of us climbed the fragile looking wooden staircase to examine the electro-mechanical device powering the pendulum (this presumed clock is definitely weird, Professor Pevsner) while the more circumspect among us sought the serenity of the chapel itself. Without pews or pulpit the nave under a splendid timber roof draws one to the chancel where an elaborate altar is the sole furnishing. Have caught our breath and, assisted by the informative information board and the ever dry Pevsner, we began to take in the details. The roof, dated to the late 16th century, consists of hammerbeams with pendants supported by ties and queen posts. The floor, paved in tombstones, recovered from the churchyard, record the birth and passing of generations of Bodenhams who worshipped here for nearly 500 years. The altar, elaborately carved and richly gilded, is the work of E W Pugin, son of Augustus Welby Pugin, the Gothic revivalist. The stained glass in the side chapel on the south east tells the story of the cure at Holywell in Flintshire of “gross tumour” on the leg of one Roger Bodenham in 1606, which convinced him to convert to Catholicism. The Bodenham family kept faith with the Church in Rome throughout the centuries and maintained the chapel for their private use in true Brideshead style.
Primed by the excellent talk the previous Tuesday by Liz Pitman** where we, or at least some of us, were introduced to the term Recusancy, we then discussed the travails of people such as Roger and his kin who stuck to their faith risking heavy fines, imprisonment and death under the Recusancy Act of 1593. This law, and the not so obscurely titled Popery Act of 1698, legalised oppression of the Catholic religion was not fully repealed until the Catholic Relief and Emancipation Act of 1829. The survival strategies of Recusant families such as the Bodenhams, the Shakespeares and the Howards as well as individuals such as John Donne and Alexander Pope were also discussed. We also heard about the Kemble cup, named in memory of a St Weonards born Catholic priest who was executed on Widemarsh Common after having a valedictory glass of wine. If Wikipedia is to be believed, one hand of this local martyr is preserved in St Francis Xavier Church.
At this point it was decided to call a halt to the proceedings and our group, plus 2 curious passers-by, were ushered from the chapel and we dispersed by foot, bike and car. Final thoughts were that the Trip Advisor ranking, was like Pevsner’s judgement, a little harsh. Why not see for yourselves?
* The Chapel is curated by the Friends of Rotherwas Chapel who together with English Heritage conserve this beautiful building. The building is usually locked and the key can be borrowed from the Hereford Archive & Records Centre nearby. Please do visit and support the work of the Friends and English Heritage.
** Liz Pitman gave a talk “The Parish that disappeared” at a BHG Meeting on 4th October 2016. Her book on the subject is published by Logaston Press.
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