7 Welsh Chapels
After the civil wars of the seventeenth century, laws were passed which banned Nonconformists from attending Anglican church services. As a result, they often ended up worshipping in their own homes or those of their neighbours. Meanwhile, groups, which during the 1700s remained within the Church of England, like the Calvinistic Methodists, attended Anglican services but also often held additional meetings for prayer and discussion in each other’s houses. Those domestic roots fed into an eighteenth-century tradition of chapel building in a ‘vernacular’ style, meaning a type of building that had more in common with local houses and barns than the traditional churches that you and I might be familiar with (Harvey, 1995, pp. 6–9).
In part this reflected a shift across Protestant Britain as a whole, away from the grandiose architecture and ornate decoration of medieval Catholicism towards a simpler form of architecture intended to emphasise the relationship between minister and congregation. However, that trend was amplified for Nonconformists, especially since many Anglicans still worshipped in the medieval churches they had inherited from their Catholic forebears. As King and Sayer argue, the architectural simplicity of chapels built in the 1700s by Congregationalists or Baptists, or later by Methodists, was in part ‘an indicator of the modest means of early nonconformist communities’, but also stemmed from ‘a stricter concern with spiritual matters over worldly display’ (King and Sayer, 2011, p. 4).
Yet as Nonconformity grew in popularity and respectability during the nineteenth century, more elaborate designs began to become common. The two Methodist chapels above, in the village of Llanddewi Brefi near Lampeter, provide a good example of this.
One of the two buildings pictured above was built in 1770. The other replaced it in 1873. Which of them do you think was built first?
- building on the left
- building on the right
The meeting house on the left was built first, in 1770. The chapel on the right replaced it in 1873. The new chapel is larger and more imposing than the original meeting house. It would have had space for significantly more people and presumably cost a lot more to build. It also boasts elements of some of the ‘Gothic’ architectural features associated with medieval Catholic churches, and which made a comeback in Protestant church building during the nineteenth century. These include a gable-ended design, a high roof, tall windows, rounded arches, and a decorative clock-like design in the gable. In this respect, the new chapel looks more like a church whilst the original one looks more like a house. What this reveals is that Calvinistic Methodism was a lot more popular and wealthy in that part of Wales in the 1870s than it had been in the 1770s. The incorporation of churchlike design elements in the new building also suggests that the Methodists of the late nineteenth century were a lot more confident about their religion than their forebears had been a century earlier.
Now let’s consider chapel architecture in more detail. The activity below introduces you to two useful new sites for historical research:
- People’s Collection Wales: this is a site where people can upload and share images, texts, audio and video relating to Welsh history and culture. It currently boasts over 80,000 individual items and that number is growing daily. The website is funded by the Welsh Government and maintained by a partnership which includes Museums Wales, the National Library of Wales, and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Wales.
- Coflein: this is an online catalogue of historical buildings and sites run by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales. The name ‘Coflein’ is a composite word from the Welsh ‘of’ (memory) and ‘lein’ (line).
You are going to use these websites to learn more about Welsh chapels, but they also contain a wealth of information and material relating to Welsh history and heritage more generally.
Read these webpages on chapel building in Wales in the eighteenth and nineteenth century:
Next, go to the People’s Collection Wales website and search for ‘Methodist chapels’. Pick a chapel that you like the look of (it could be an exterior or interior view). Then look up your chosen chapel on the Coflein website, taking particular note of when it was built and any other historical details provided.
Finally, make some notes in the box below about what your chapel’s architecture and history tells us about the people who built it. Some of the questions you might consider include:
- When was it built? How popular was Calvinistic Methodism in that period? What architectural trends in church building were influential at the time?
- Does it look large and expensive or small and simple? What might this tell us about the people who built and paid for it?
- Is the design house- or barn-like, or more ornate like an Anglican or even a Catholic church? What does its design suggest about the views of the people who built and paid for it?
What does your chapel tell us about Calvinistic Methodism in Wales?