Revealed: The Lost Chapel of St Erasmus

The chapel of St Erasmus in Westminster Abbey was demolished in 1502 but new evidence has now emerged of how England’s ‘White Queen’ Elizabeth Woodville would likely have worshiped there.

How the east end of the Abbey church and its furnishes may have looked – crafted by illustrator Stephen Conlin, based on evidence from the study. Image courtesy of Stephen Conlin

Examining new sources of evidence includes a newly discovered, centuries-old royal grant by the Abbey’s archivist Matthew Payne, and John Goodall, a member of the Westminster Abbey Fabric Advisory Commission.

Westminster Abbey archivist Matthew Payne said:

“The White Queen wished to worship there and it appears, also, to be buried there as the grant declares prayers should be sung ‘around the tomb of our consort (Elizabeth Woodville). 

Today, only an intricate frame, remains from the chapel.

Anne Mowbray, the 8 year old child bride of Elizabeth’s son Richard, Duke of York, also confirms its role as a royal burial site.

Who was St Erasmus?

Erasmus of Formia, also known as Saint Elmo (died c. 303), was a Christian saint and martyr. He is venerated as the patron saint of sailors and abdominal pain. Erasmus or Elmo is also one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, saintly figures of Christian tradition who are venerated especially as intercessors.

Feastday: June 2
Patron: of sailors, Gaeta, Formia, colic in children, intestinal ailments and diseases, cramps and the pain of women in labor, cattle pest
Death: 303

St Erasmus

The new evidence is leading the researchers to suggest that his link with children may have prompted the building of the St Erasmus chapel. It followed the wedding a year earlier in 1478 of Anne Mowbray to Richard when both were still infants.  

They also speculate that the building may also have held relics of the Italian bishop, namely his tooth, which Westminster Abbey is known to have owned.  

The exact location of the chapel is not known but it was almost certainly built on space formerly allotted to a garden and near stalls where William Caxton sold his wares.

It was commissioned by Elizabeth, Edward IV’s commoner wife and Henry VIII’s grandmother.

Visitors to Westminster Abbey can still view what remains, by looking above the entrance to the chapel of Our Lady of the Pew in the north ambulatory.  There they can see the remains of an intricately carved frame, sculptured out of the mineral Alabaster.  This frame would have surrounded a reredos, which is the imagery that forms the backdrop to the altar. 

Missing however, is the image of the Saint. The researchers suggest that this was probably of the Saint being disembowelled – tied down alive to a table while his intestines were wound out on a windlass, a rotating cylinder often used on ships. 

The screen would have originally been positioned behind the altar of the St Erasmus chapel and contained a panel. 

The study presents further evidence that the reredos was created by an outsider to the Abbey’s design tradition. Architect Robert Stowell, the Abbey’s master mason, probably designed the chapel itself and may have helped salvage the chapel’s most ornate pieces when it was knocked down after less than 25 years.  

This was on Henry VII’s orders to make way for his own and his wife’s chantry and burial place. The Lady Chapel which replaced it features a statue of St Erasmus which the authors say may be a nod to Elizabeth Woodville’s now long-forgotten chapel. 

To read more about the study please click on this link Elizabeth Woodville and the Chapel of St Erasmus at Westminster Abbey published in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association

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