St Lawrence Chapel in the centre of Ashburton in Devon isn’t any kind of Nonconformist chapel. It’s much older than Nonconformity.
It’s a medieval chantry chapel, established so that a priest, financed by a guild, could say masses for the soul of the founder – in this case Walter de Stapledon, Bishop of Exeter from 1308 and co-founder of Exeter College, Oxford.
He suffered a violent end, along with his older brother Sir Richard Stapledon, in a riot in London in 1326. His body was defiled and buried on the bank of the Thames until Queen Isabella, the consort of King Edward II, ordered his remains to be taken to Exeter Cathedral, “there to be honoured with most magnificent exequies”. He lies beneath an exquisite tomb in the cathedral.
The chantry building in Ashburton looks at first glance like a church, not least because of its sixteenth-century tower and spire. The east end contained an altar for the celebration of mass, and the pupils were taught in the nave.
Chantries were, in the beliefs of the time, spiritual insurance policies, intended to shorten the ordeal of the soul in purgatory by employing priests to say masses in perpetuity. They also operated, in this life, as accumulations of capital until they were appropriated by King Henry VIII in 1545 and 1547.
Successive chantry priests at Ashburton had run a grammar school, and to preserve this amenity a group of townsmen purchased the chantry assets and supervised the school from the mid-sixteenth century until 1938.
The nave was refurbished in the eighteenth-century and the classroom accommodation was extended in the late-nineteenth century and in 1911.
The Grammar School moved to more modern premises in 1938, and the chantry building continued as a local school until the 1980s.
In 1984 the ancient Guild of St Lawrence was recreated to preserve the building and manage it as a heritage, cultural and community centre: St Lawrence Chapel at Ashburton – About.
This remarkable building has seen centuries of children through their elementary education, among them the Dean of Westminster, John Ireland (1761-1842), his friend the satirist William Gifford (1756-1826) and the Australian explorer William John Wills (1834-c1861).
It’s open to the public in the summer months: St Lawrence Chapel at Ashburton – Find Us.