Shropshire’s Langley Chapel looks rather lonely, stuck on the edge of a cornfield, practically hidden by a tall hedge. But appearances can be deceptive because this chapel is one of Britain’s best surviving examples of Christian heritage. For down a narrow lane, one-and-a-half miles from the village of Acton Burnell, this quiet, unassuming chapel became one of the first buildings to be saved by the nation, for the nation.
In 1913, an Act of Parliament gave the Government’s Office of Works new powers, enabling it to acquire and protect for the future the greatest historic sites in the country. The organisation, now known as English Heritage, looks after a variety of sites like Stonehenge, Whitby Abbey, Tintagel Castle and Osborne House. But the following year, in 1914, it secured Langley Chapel because it is one of the few places in Britain still to retain its original Puritan church fittings.
In the Middle Ages, nearby Langley Hall was a thriving community. It was mentioned in the Domesday Book, and in 1212 it was owned by William Burnell. Such was the size of the community here a century later, Richard Burnell was granted permission to build a chapel in 1313, and the structure that exists today dates from this time.
It would seem they considered the trek to Acton Burnell Church too far for the Burnell’s walk, because over 250 years later, a document dated 10th November 1572 measured the distance from Langley Hall to Acton Burnell Church as 1000 ½ paces. (A pace was about thirty inches, so a thousand paces is equivalent to approximately 833 yards.)
In 1377, the Lee family became the new owners of Langley Hall by marriage. It was their ancestors who, 169 years later, refitted the church interior in its Puritan style.
From the field, the exterior comprises a basic rectangular structure, built from dressed grey sandstone, with a stone-tiled roof and a weather-boarded bell tower at its west end. There are two doors in the south wall, with flattened Tudor-arch frames.
Strangely, perhaps, this pleasingly simple design does not seem out of place here.
A wonderful sense of calm envelops those who push open the substantially heavy, nail-studded wooden church door and enter the simple, rectangular space. A huge, plain glass, three-light window dominates the east wall, which provides most of the light. There are windows in each of the three other walls, but they’re so small it’s easy to miss them.
There are some glorious details to be found in what, at first glance, looks like a simple and unpretentious interior. On the south wall, high between the rafters, there are roses and a Fleur-de-Lys pattern embossed in the plaster frieze. And the design of the wooden pews changes as you pass along the nave, reflecting upon the social standing of those who used them.
At the nave’s rear is a single raised pew with a desk for musicians. After that, the next series of pews are modest benches with backs, where the dust of history has collected in their grooves. Servants and labourers used these spartan pews. Between those and the chancel are some more substantial, panelled box pews, where farmers, tradespeople, and the Lee family sat.
In 1601, another member of the Lee family paid for the building’s re-roofing, the date still clearly visible in the wooden church rafters.
Interestingly, if you were to lie down in the aisle and gaze up at the roof, you would clearly see the demarcation point separating the nave from the chancel. Above the pews, the beams are collar-braced, whereas above the chancel, the rafters are trussed.
This demarcation is also noticeable on the ground too, because the chancel floor is raised and lined with re-used medieval tiles, unlike the plain stone nave flooring.
From the mid-16th century onwards, as part of the reformation from the Catholic Church, many churches across the country removed their altars. They put more emphasis on the preaching of scriptures in English, so in 1604, an ecclesiastical law dictated that all churches should have “a comely and decent pulpit” that was “to be seemly kept for the preaching of God’s Word.”
At Langley, a small hexagonal pulpit stands just inside a second door along the south wall, and right in front of the largest box pew. Langley’s pulpit is relatively small, suggesting the labourers and servants sitting in the back pews probably only heard the sermon, whilst the Lee family had, quite literally, a front-row seat.
Opposite the pulpit, against the north wall, is the chapel’s reading desk. This is where the Bible was usually kept, and they gave readings or led prayers from here. Langley Chapel’s reading desk is unusual because it has a roof and seats. Sadly, the lectern where the Bible was placed is no longer there.
The box pews, reading desk and pulpit are all decorated in a typical early Jacobean style, comprising a carved motif of blank arcades. There was skill in their creation, yet the design remains unornamented.
Prior to the Reformation, most churches had a stone altar set against the east wall. But afterwards, a table replaced the altar, around which people could sit, as if sharing a meal, as Jesus and his disciples had during the Last Supper.
Surrounding the communion table, along the chancel’s north, east and south walls, are seats and combined bookrests and kneelers for those taking communion. Puritans and Anglicans had differing theological opinions about how the sharing of this Christian practice should be undertaken. Puritans preferred to sit, whereas Anglicans favoured kneeling. The combined seats and kneelers at Langley offered the opportunity for worshippers to practise the theology that best suited their beliefs.
But by 1700, the chapel had fallen out of use. Farm labourers were on the move, heading to nearby Ironbridge Gorge for higher paid work in the new industrial furnaces of Coalbrookdale, where the Industrial Revolution was gathering pace.
Ultimately, it was this population movement from the countryside to industrial areas that saved Langley Chapel. With no congregation to speak of, there was no incentive to reorder the church’s 16th century Puritan interior to the more favoured 19th century High Church format, which swept across the country during the Victorian era. Langley Chapel’s last regular service took place in 1871.
While Langley Chapel survived, later that decade, most of the once great medieval moated Langley Hall was demolished.
Sadly, all that remains is the gatehouse, next to Langley Hall Farm, which can be seen from the nearby quiet, single-track lane. However, for a closer look inside, the Landmark Trust manages the property and hires it out as self-catering holiday accommodation.
There’s a proper sense of stepping back in time when entering Langley Chapel. And yet, if a 16th century Puritan were to open the chapel’s south door today, they would recognise the view, barely unchanged in over four hundred years ago. Fields of crops and grazing livestock stretch for nearly a mile to the heavily wooded Netherwood Coppice.
It’s a wonder the Government’s Office of Works ever knew about this place, let alone found it.
© Simon Whaley