Uncovering Bishop Simon Patrick’s Chapel at Ely

by Sir Peter Lely, oil on canvas, feigned oval, circa 1668
Simon Patrick, Bishop of Ely (1626-1707) by Sir Peter Lely

Yesterday I led guided tours of the Bishop’s Palace in Ely for Heritage Open Day, as I have since 2012, which were attended by around 140 people. Each year, as we learn more about the history of the Palace, I have some new discovery to share with visitors. This year I was able to confirm that I have found the site of a chapel that was either constructed or renewed by Simon Patrick, Bishop of Ely 1691-1707. This chapel was the immediate predecessor of the present chapel, which was constructed by Bishop Edmund Keene after 1770.

ground-floor-planThis plan of the ground floor of the Palace as it is today shows Bishop Keene’s chapel immediately south of the Gatehouse Chamber on a north-south axis (something that Keene got in trouble for at the time). However, before 1770 the Gatehouse Chamber was an actual gatehouse under which all north-south traffic through Ely had to pass, meaning that the traffic had to execute a sharp turn to the east as it passed under the gatehouse and re-joined the course of the street now known as the Gallery. Keene’s demolition of a gallery linking the Palace to Ely Cathedral allowed him to re-route traffic away from the Palace to its present route, and made it possible for him to build a chapel in the newly vacated space.

The fact that Keene was criticised by the antiquary William Cole for creating a chapel on a north-south rather than an east-west axis suggested that a previous chapel had existed which was on an east-west axis, and indeed an inventory of 1581, taken at the death of Bishop Richard Coxe, confirms that there was indeed a medieval chapel (as one would expect in a bishop’s palace). The inventory offers few clues as to where this original chapel was located, apart from the fact that it is listed close to the gallery (which was on the east side of the building). However, the Palace fell into a state of considerable disrepair between 1581 and 1619, when Bishop Lancelot Andrewes undertook restoration, and again between 1642 and 1667. There were two late seventeenth-century restorations, first by Bishop Benjamin Laney between 1667 and 1675 and then by Bishop Simon Patrick in 1691-92.

Simon Patrick was translated from Chichester in April 1691 to replace the deprived nonjuror Francis Turner. Patrick immediately set to work restoring the Palace in Ely, which he moved into in May 1692 – it was most unusual for a Bishop of Ely, at this time, to make Ely his main residence. The major evidence of Patrick’s restoration is to be seen on the south, east and west sides of the building where the enormous sash windows (reminiscent of William and Mary’s restoration of Hampton Court Palace) are a significant feature.

For some time I had been curious about the top of a blocked-up round-headed arch or window which appears just above the roof of a twentieth-century plant room on the east side of the Palace. In the photograph below the roof of the plant room and the round-headed arch above it can be seen on the left; the gothic window on the right is the southernmost window of the Victorian restoration of Bishop Keene’s chapel, and the eliptical window in between is at the end of the corridor leading to the present-day chapel.


It seemed possible to me that the blocked-up arch could be the east window of Bishop Patrick’s chapel, but it was also possible that it was an arch through which the traffic going under the Palace before 1770 was supposed to pass, making its sharp turn east onto the course of the present street. Finally, in April, I was able to get inside the plant room, and I was delighted to discover that it had simply been built against the east wall of the Palace, leaving the features of that wall intact.

Inside the plant room: the east window of Bishop Patrick’s chapel

Once inside the plant room, it was clear that the blocked-up arch was that of a window, since the bottom of the window is clearly visible in this image. The huge size of the window, its position facing east and its architectural conformity to the other features of the building known to date back to Bishop Patrick’s restoration mean that I am as sure as I can be that this is the east window of Bishop Patrick’s chapel of 1691-92. It is possible – even likely – that Patrick built his chapel on the foundations of the earlier chapel mentioned in the 1581 inventory. Their status as sacred sites meant that chapels tended to be restored in their original locations rather than rebuilt on a new site, and furthermore the location of Patrick’s chapel was hardly ideal; traffic would have passed very close to the northeast corner of the chapel, and it was probably quite noisy. The simplest way to explain this unusual choice of location is that Patrick wished to honour the site of an earlier chapel.

Site of Bishop Patrick’s chapel of 1691-92 in relation to the present-day groundplan of the Palace

Unfortunately, nothing survives of the interior of Bishop Patrick’s chapel and nothing is likely to be discovered, since the southeast corner of the Palace has been altered so significantly. The east end of what was the chapel is now occupied by a flight of stairs and, beyond that, a modern kitchen, toilets and a staff common room. It is also difficult to judge how large the chapel was and how far west it reached, since all of Patrick’s sash windows are the same. It seems likely, judging from the surviving evidence, that Patrick’s chapel would have been quite a plain one, which would certainly be consistent with that prelate’s latitudinarian principles.


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