Historical Summary of the Chapel
This is a building on a grand scale, reflecting Lynn as one of the main port towns of medieval England. It is the largest “chapel-of-ease” in England – subordinate to the parish church of St Margaret’s (King's Lynn Minster). It is worth visiting not only for its wonderful architecture and fittings but also the human stories in its memorials.
The building shows the early development of the Perpendicular style, having been rebuilt c.1380-1410. The building is perfectly rectangular apart from the south porch, and largely built in brick rubble and rendered. Only the stone tower (c.1225) remains from the earlier churches, showing that there was a lower ground level; its lead spire was a replacement in 1869 by Sir George Gilbert Scott. Before going into the Chapel, take time to admire the intricate carvings outside the majestic south porch; inside is the painted lierne vault with carved heads as bosses. An architects report of the building prior to its redevelopment in 2015 can be found at: church-building---king-s-lynn-case-study.pdf
On the street façade there are pre-1399 heraldic carvings and the huge west window with 11 lights fills the Chapel with sunshine. The doors themselves are original c.1400 timbers and paint research found they were originally brightly coloured in a terracotta base with green decorative woodwork, in about 1460. Restoration work to the doors (in 2012) has returned them to this colour. Inside the doors, carvings show ‘devils’ trying to gain access. for more detailed information go to: West Doors Interpretation 2013-03.docx
Perhaps the most spectacular feature is the oak timber roof structure. The tie beams are carried on shallow traceried arch-braces, with queen post trusses above. Uniquely, in each bay above each clerestory window is a short hammer beam carrying an angel with outstretched wings – 40% of them playing musical instruments, and others holding religious symbols. In the sanctuary are the only painted roof timbers, and two angels without wings who are acting as assistants to a Mass service. More detailed information on the Angels at: angel-musiciansl.pdf . Medieval carvings are also seen in the sanctuary and south chancel aisle, where poppyheads and bench fronts which survived the re-seating in 1852 have been placed. More St Nicholas' bench ends and misericords (tip-up seats) are in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and three others in the Lynn Museum.
The spread eagle brass lectern is one of only 45 in England dating from before the 1534 Reformation of the English church. There is a large collection of 17th and 18th century coloured and gilded wall monuments and many ledger (floor) slabs, for merchants, officials and tradesmen, which are worth a closer look. At the west end near the font are ledger slabs referring to members of the local Cruso family, two of them named “Robinson” but dating after Daniel Defoe’s famous book published in 1719. In the north-west corner the consistory court is another unusual survival. It was built in 1617 using older furniture as a ‘court room’ where cases concerning parishioners’ morals and church law were heard by an archdeacon.
Beyond the organ (by ‘Father’ Willis, 1900) is a marble urn designed by Robert Adam to commemorate Sir Benjamin Keene, a local man who became Britain’s ambassador to Portugal and Spain in the 1730s. The carving includes the Order of the Bath and a Lisbon harbour scene, and the urn bears a strong resemblance to another Adam design for a wooden wine cooler in Harewood House, Yorkshire.
For an in-depth description of the building this illustrated report is excellent: R.Harris St Nicholas report Standing Archaeology.pdf
1146 -1175 - William Turbus, Bishop of Norwich, enclosed unused land to the north of town, and built a 'chapel of ease' which is granted to the monks attached to the priory church of St Margaret’s. The chapel was dedicated to St. Nicholas, and was probably built of wood.
1200 - By this time the chapel was built in stone, where the south aisle is now.
1220 -1230 - The lower part of the tower was built, incorporating the former west wall.
1371 - Pope Gregory XI granted permission to rebuild a larger chapel.
1373 - Payment was made to hermits at the chapel.
1378 - Pope Urban VI gave the right to administer the sacraments, but St. Margaret’s objected and it was withdrawn.
1419 - St Nicholas’ was referred to as ‘recently rebuilt’. This was the building which exists today.
1432 - Another application, this time by the Mayor, to administer baptism, was refused.
1543 - Much of the chapel’s treasure was sold "for the advancement of the common wealth of this town". More was later sold off and proceeds used to strengthen the flood defences.
1559 - Images of saints were removed.
1617 - The Consistory Court was installed.
1627 - The right to administer baptism was given and a font installed.
1741 - The spire blew down in a major storm and was replaced by a wooden octagon the next year.
1852 - New seating installed. The last carved medieval pews and misericords were mostly destroyed. Some can be seen in the sanctuary, and in the Victoria and Albert Museum and the King’s Lynn Museum.
1868 - St Nicholas’ had the largest congregation in King’s Lynn.
1869 -70 - Old bells recast and a new peel of 8 made. New spire built, designed by George Gilbert Scott.
1900 - Willis organ installed.
1905 - Ralph Vaughan Williams was introduced to local fishermen by the curate. As a result he collected over 70 of their traditional tunes, and included three in his ‘Norfolk Rhapsody’.
1921 - 1914-18 'tomb chest' War Memorial dedicated.
1947 - 1939-45 War memorial to civilian deaths dedicated.
1981 - Dais laid over chancel floor and ledger slabs, for an altar table nearer the centre of the chapel, and modern seating around it.
1989 - Congregation very small, and St Nicholas’ declared redundant. From 1992 the Churches Conservation Trust now cares for the chapel.
1996 - Until then St Nicholas’ was used as a concert hall for the annual King’s Lynn Festival. The new Corn Exchange concert hall provision ended this central role in the Festival, but individual concerts continue to be programmed each year.
2015 - The 'New Life for St Nicholas' project was completed, assisted by the Heritage Lottery Fund.