The English Country House Chapel

Annabel Ricketts

(Spire Books, £45)

This book is not only a welcome and important addition to the standard literature on the English country house, but is a fitting memorial to a remarkable scholar. Annabel Ricketts, a historian and teacher who specialised in the architecture of the 16th and 17th centuries, died in 2003 at the age of 58. Just before her death, she submitted her doctoral thesis, on which this publication is based. The task of editing and producing the text has been undertaken by her husband, Simon.

The aim of the book, which is sub-titled Building a Protestant Tradition, is to present an account of the development of the household chapel in England from the Reformation until 1700. A pair of short introductory chapters explains the purpose of chapels and the manner in which their religious observation was regulated over the time-span of the study. These are followed by a broad chronological survey in four chapters dealing respectively with the early Tudor, Elizabethan, early Stuart and Restoration periods.

Among the issues that Dr Ricketts engages with are the architectural prominence of chapels within houses, their varied furnishing, and the fashion in which they were used. Apparent in the narrative is a fascinating and complex tension between devotion, social identity and power that conditioned the form, furnishing and use of the chapel. The text naturally focuses on Protestant buildings, but embraces chapels created to serve all denominations. Throughout the text, Dr Ricketts clearly sets out the changing social, political and religious context of her narrative, which she illustrates with material drawn from an impressive array of historical sources, including inventories, letters and diaries. The text is also illustrated throughout by pictures and specially drawn plans that helpfully set out the terms of her argument. Most of the illustration is in black and white, but there is a group of colour plates at the end of the main text.

The book concludes with a gazetteer of chapels. As its foreword explains, this is not intended as an exhaustive list of all such buildings, but draws together from the author’s notes information about buildings that had particularly attracted her interest or attention. Amassed in Dr Ricketts’ book is a great deal of fresh and insightful research into a subject that has as yet stimulated relatively little scholarly attention. It demonstrates that the household chapel is a building that deserves to be taken more seriously in assessments of the English country house and its history.