01 November 2007

The ancient chapel of St Mary del Key, Liverpool

Since at least the mid-thirteenth century, but probably even earlier, a chapel dedicated to Our Lady has stood on the Liverpool waterfront. Surviving records show that up till the Reformation, it was clearly a centre of Catholic worship and devotion in the little town created by King John's charter in 1207. After the Reformation this once noted local shrine was almost completely forgotten, and its very existence was denied and doubted by historians. Dom Julian Stonor O.S.B. tells the story of the ancient chapel of St Mary del Key.

'Saint Mary of the Quay'

From at least the time of King John's Charter and for 350 years afterwards one small building, right on the water's edge, held an absolutely unique place in the lives of every man and woman in the little harbour town of Liverpool. That was the ancient chapel always known to the townspeople as "Saint Mary of the Quay" [St Mary del Key]. Its origins are lost in the mists of time. One of the earliest written records of Liverpool mentions it incidentally as a landmark in 1257[1] but the fact that it was in danger of destruction in 1361 and that its repair and maintenance were an anxiety to the far-off Bishop of Lichfield seems to imply that it was very much earlier than that. Even when, in 1355, the bigger church, dedicated to Saint Nicholas, the patron of seafarers - "at the west end whereof, next to the river, stood the statue of Saint Nicholas, long since defaced and gone, to whom mariners offered prayers when they went to sea[2] - was built just behind St Mary's, it was still the ancient chapel, from which, since at least 1318, Chapel Street takes its name,[3] which retained the deepest hold on the hearts of the townspeople. It was the high altar of this little chapel which was always referred to as "The High Altar of Liverpool"; three of Liverpool's four chantry altars endowed for Masses in perpetuity - St John (1326), Our Lady (1353) and St Katherine (1465) - were in this little chapel and only one - St Nicholas (1361) - in the bigger church; and it was in the ancient chapel with its white alabaster statue of the mother and child that all Liverpool's most distinguished sons asked to be buried, or at any rate to have masses offered for them there. Eight wills between 1353 and 1529 have survived, in each of which the dying persons bequeathed land as a further endowment of the chantry of Our Lady of the Quay that the Sacrifice of the Mass might be offered for them in perpetuity. One example will suffice.[4]
The most distinguished of Liverpool's early sons was William of Liverpool, the first recorded Mayor of the town, who was chosen for that office eleven times by his fellow townsmen and who was held in high regard by Henry Plantagenet, "the Good Duke of Lancaster", that he granted him a personal pension for life. Already in 1361, on the feast of Our Lady's birthday, William had given an endowment" to God and the Blessed Mary the Virgin and to a chaplain in the chapel of the same Blessed Mary and to his successors at the chantry there" to offer Mass for his family every year by arrangement with the Mayor and commonality,[5] and when he came to die in 1383 his last message to his fellow townsmen was: "I bequeathe my soul to God and the Blessed Virgin and all saints, and my body to be buried in the chapel of Liverpool before the face of the white image of Mary, where my burial-place is already appointed".[6]

On December 14th, 1459, Bishop John Hayes assured those who should make any offerings "towards the upkeep and repair of the chapel of the Blessed Mary at the town of Liverpool, commonly called the Chapel of St Mary of The Quay" or should out of devotion contribute to the support of a chaplain to offer Mass there for the souls of the faithful departed, or "in any way afford proof of their lover by contributing ornaments to the chapel or lights to burn before the image of Mary in her honour", that their "names will be devoutly mentioned whenever Mass is said." And it was not only those who lived in the town who showed this devotion.

In 1509 there died in Westminster, four months after his royal master, King Henry VII, a certain Thomas Barrow, "Chief cook for the King's mouth". The King's mother, the saintly lady Margaret, whose confessor was Saint John Fisher, (traditions of his visits to the sick when staying at Knowsley still survive in the district), had married for her second husband the Earl of Derby and spent part of her last years at Knowsley and Lathom, which perhaps accounts for her royal son taking a native of Liverpool into his household, with the special responsibility of safeguarding him against poison. Having bequeathed his soul "to Almighty God, my maker and redeemer, to the most glorious Virgin His Mother, Our Lady Saint Mary, and to all the company of Heaven" Thomas Barrow gave his most precious possession, the golden collar given him by the King "my colar of Esses to the use of the image of Our Lady in the chapel of our Lady in Lyrepole, where I was borne".

Incidentally, the last will of his royal master four months earlier, which suddenly addresses Our Lady in person, is a most moving document and reveals quite another side of the King whom history books consistently represent only as a cold and scheming character. "My most merciful Redeemer, Maker and Saviour, I trust, by thy special grace and mercy, in thy Blessed Mother, ever Virgin, Our Lady Saint Mary, in whom, after Thee in this mortal life hath ever been my most singular trust and confidence and whom in all my necessities I have made my continual refuge, and by whom I have hitherto in all mine adversities ever had my special comfort and relief. Wilt thou, in my last need, show infinite pity; take my soul into thine hands and present it unto thy most dear Son. To do this, sweet lady of mercy, true mother and virgin, well of pity and sweet refuge in all need, most humbly, most entirely and most heartily I beseech thee". There, in the King as on his Liverpool servant, spoke the voice of medieval England.

Six years later, the thoughts of another exile from Liverpool dying in far away London were centred on the same little chapel. This time it was a priest. His Father, John Crosse, who had inherited Crosse Hall, the old home of Williams of Liverpool, had, like most of his family, been Mayor of the town and, like his great predecessor, had at his death in 1502 asked to be buried before the image of Our lady in the Chapel of the Quay and have a yearly Mass offered for him at her altar there.[7] His second son, William, who had died the same year, had left money for the building of a Town Hall or Guild Hall, to be called 'Our Ladye House', the income from its courts and other business to support a priest who would sing Mass "before Our Lady of the Key in Lyrepolle".[8] The third son, John, had become a priest, but, at the request of the devout Lord Mordaunt (who as an old man would be imprisoned for his faith) had spent all his priestly life in the city of London. At his death in 1515 he left all the money he had been able to save to the chantry of St Katherine in Our lady of the Key, to support a priest who would offer Mass every year for members of the Crosse family" and all their friends' souls", the priest to be chosen by his brother Richard Crosse, and the Mayor, one who would be suitable to keep a grammar school and take his recompense "from all the children except those whose name be Crosse and poor children that have no succour.

Mercifully, the future was hidden from his eyes. For, after those 350 years in which as we have seen, the ancient chapel in honour of Christ's Mother was the most sacred spot in Liverpool, were to come another 350 years (1150-1900) during which it would be desecrated and destroyed, and finally, even the memory of it completely obliterated.

In 1545, nine years after his seizure of the monasteries and convents, the King himself had empowered to seize all colleges, chapels, chantries and hospitals and to appropriate all the stipends which the priests who served them received for offering Mass for the deceased founders and benefactors. The new Protestant Bishop of Chester and Sir Thomas Holcroft were ordered to make an immediate inventory of all such endowments in Lancashire and Cheshire and to keep all plate and jewels "for such goodly intent as we shall hereafter appoint". It is scarcely necessary to add that the goodly intent proved to be the Royal mint at York. Sir Anthony Milday, who came to Liverpool to execute this decree in 1548, found "but one chantry" in St Nicholas and three in St Mary of the Quay. The gifts and endowments which the Corporation was allowed to retain in order to keep a Protestant vicar for the church of St. Nicholas (not an easy post to fill in Catholic Lancashire, and of the first one, John Jenison, the Corporation books only tell us that after two years he had "retired to Spain") and a school teacher to replace Father Humphrey Cross (a nephew of the founder) in the grammar school.

On October 4th, 1552, Lord Derby, Sir Thomas Gerard and Thomas Butler of Bewsey appeared at St Nicholas and ordered everything not already appropriated "to be kept to the use of our sovereign lord the king." But this proved to be only eight chasubles, four copes, a chalice, a pyx and a bell. In October 1553 Edward Parker, the Receiver, arrived in Liverpool with a new commission to enquire if anything that ought to have come into the hands of the king had not done so. He discovered a silver pyx that had belonged to St Mary's and sold it the next day for 33s. 4d., and he also discovered that St Mary's itself, as a guild chapel, was not technically the property of the town as was St Nicholas. He accordingly put it up for sale and it was bought by the Corporation for 20s.

With the accession of Queen Mary, a few months later life returned almost to normal in Catholic Liverpool, and on June 3rd, 1558, we find the Mayor and Corporation deciding that the priest of the altar of St John in the Chapel of St Mary of the Quay, "shall daily say Mass between the hours of 5 and 6 in the morning to the intent that all labourers and well disposed people may come to Mass at the said hour".

But, only five months later the Queen died and was succeeded by her half sister. Within a few months all the English Bishops were imprisoned for life,[9] and the Mass was proscribed so savagely that, soon, any priest who could be convicted as such and anyone who had given hospitality to the priest was to hanged and then cut down an butchered while still conscious. St Nicholas was retained as a Protestant church for the town, though the Porte Mote Books (1,362) tell us that it was also used for the retailing of wines and other business until 1582, when sales in it were prohibited (ibid. 11,254). St Mary of the Quay was used at first as a warehouse for storing and selling the Mayor's Toll corn from the market; but as the town grew, it eventually proved too small for the purpose and after various attempts to let it out as a warehouse, it was used for a time as a schoolroom, until 1745, the Parish Vestry Book directs that being "ruinous and a great nuisance", it be demolished.

Historical references compiled by Dom Julian Stonor relating to the medieval chapel of St Mary del Key:

1326 - John of Liverpool founded a chantry Mass at the altar of Saint John in the chapel of "Saint Mary del Key".

1356 - A chantry Mass at the High Altar of Our Lady in the chapel of Saint Mary of the Quay was founded by Henry Plantagenet, the Good Duke of Lancaster.

1355 - This was confirmed by King Edward III (know ye that of our especial grace we have granted… to our beloved Mayor and commonality of the town of Liverpool that they may give… certain lands… and rents, which they hold of our beloved and faithful Henry, Duke of Lancaster, to certain chaplains to celebrate Mass every day for the souls of all the faithful departed in the chapel of the Blessed Mary… to be held by the said chaplains and their aforesaid in the form aforesaid for ever. Witness, the King, at Westminster, the nineteenth day of May, (1355). By writ of Privy Seal.

1361- Henry's successor as Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt, founded a chantry Mass at the altar of Saint Nicholas in the newly-built church, dedicated to that saint, which was consecrated that year. This was the only chantry in that church founded by the King's Commissioners in 1548, the others all being in St Mary of the Quay.

1411- A certain Nicholas made an endowment of land "to God, the blessed Mary and to one priest to celebrate Mass in the chapel of Liverpool at the altar of the blessed Mary there by arrangement with the Mayor and commonality.

1464 - In this year is recorded another donation "for the maintenance of a chaplain in the chapel of Saint Mary, commonly called Saint Mary of the Key, to celebrate Mass therein.

1465 - On October 10th Charles Gillibrand granted to the Mayor of Liverpool lands in Garston to hold forever for the maintenance of a suitable chaplain at the altar of Saint Katherine in the chapel of Saint Mary of Liverpool, or, in default, for the maintenance of a suitable chaplain at the Altar of Saint Mary.* The altar in Saint Mary's dedicated to saint Katherine was mentioned in the Crosse Deeds as early as 1407, and in 1515 Father John Crosse was to endow this chantry still further and attach a grammar-school to it. Gillibrand is a very local name, and Father William Gillibrand, one of the Gillibrands of Gillibrand Hall, Chorley, the first priest of the new Saint Mary's in 1707, was probably a member of the same family.

1470 - In this year came yet another donation "for the sustenance of a chaplain in the chapel of Liverpool at the altar of the Blessed Mary the Virgin, and for the habitation of the priests of Saint Nicholas and the Blessed Mary del Key.

1524 - Thomas Walker, a former Mayor, bequeathed on his deathbed his last gift "to the altar of Saint Mary the Virgin in the chapel of Liverpool" - the rent of the land to be paid to the successive Mayors, "for a priest in the chapel aforesaid at the altar of the blessed Mary".

1529 - The last recorded bequest, only six years before the storm broke, was from Cecily Halghton, the widow of yet another former Mayor, who gave lands in Wavertree and West Derby for a priest to celebrate Mass "at a certain altar called Our Lady's altar".

Historical Sources
In the period after the Reformation the very existence of the "Chapel del Key" of Liverpool was disputed by historians, not least because there is no trace of foundation or original endowment left. Yet written evidence for the existence of the chapel can be found. In a paper read to the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire in March, 1902, John Elton presented a history of the chapel based on information derived from the Moore and Crosse charters, the Porte Mote books of the Liverpool Corporation, the Okill Manuscript, and copies of various Duchy of Lancaster deeds.

In writing his account Dom Julian Stonor OSB seems to have drawn principally from Elton's research, though some of the dates which he cites, especially in the appendix, do not correlate with those provided by Elton. Those who are interested may read Elton's paper for themselves, which can be found in the Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire for the Year 1902, Liverpool, 1904, pp.73-118.

In addition to English manuscript sources mentioned by Elton and Stonor, there is a reference to the medieval chapel, in the form of a papal letter, of which a copy survives in the Vatican Registers of Pope Calixtus III. The letter deals specifically with the devotion of the faithful at "the chapel of St. Mary del Key situated within the cemetery of the chapel of Liverpolle".

Calixtus III
To all Christ’s faithful who shall see these presents. Confirmation of the indulgences and remissions which the late John cardinal bishop of St. Rufina’s and by papal dispensation archbishop of Canterbury, William archbishop of York and very many bishops of England, having regard to the devotion of the people who flock to the chapel of St. Mary del Key situated within the cemetery of the chapel of Liverpolle in the united dioceses of Coventry and Lichfield, and to the miracles which God was working therein by the merits of the same Virgin, have granted to all the faithful who pray there, or who make an offering for the repair of the said chapel, or for the maintenance of the priests who celebrate [divine offices] therein, or for the adornment of divine worship in the same; with relaxation hereby of five years and five quarantines of enjoined penance to all who, being penitent and having confessed, visit the said chapel on the feasts of St. Mary and Whitsuntide and the octaves thereof and give alms for such conservation, repair and maintenance, or for such adornment, these presents to hold good forever. The pope’s will is that if any other indulgence have been granted by him to the same chapel, in perpetuity or for a certain time not yet elapsed, the present letters shall be null and void. ‘Et si docente propheta’, 7 Kal. July (25 June) 1456.


[1] Moore Deeds.
[2] Blore's Antiquities, 1673.
[3] Moore Deeds, passim.
[4] The others will be found in the appendix below.
[5] Moore Deeds, 183.
[6] Crosse Deeds, 77.
[7] From the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries the Crosses of Crosse hall and the Moores of Moore Hall were the two chief families in Liverpool and frequently provided the Mayors of the town. Crosse Hall stood near the site of Holy Cross Church in Great Cross Hall Street and its park extended from Marybone down to Whitechapel, which was then, of course, a tidal waterway. Moore Hall stood on the site of the Liverpool Warehouse building in Old Hall Street, its park extending from Moorefields down to the river and commanding a magnificent view across the Wirral to the Welsh mountains. It is a curious fact that the two neighbouring Catholic parishes of St Mary [closed 2000 ed.] and Holy Cross [closed 2001 ed.] are almost identical with the estates of these two families whose devotion to our Lady and the Church had been so conspicuous in the past.
[8] There was even a special ale, called Ladye of Mary ale, which was sold at the "Ladye House" on festivals of Our Lady, which were public holidays in Liverpool. (W.T. Harrises. Landmarks in Liverpool History p. 32).
[9] The Bishop of Chester, Cuthbert Scott, described by a contemporary as "equal to the rest in constancy and superior to all in eloquence", was imprisoned in the Fleet on May 13th, 1560; he eventually managed to escape and cross the sea to Belgium, but he was broken in health and died very soon afterwards in Louvain.

Stonor, Robert Julian, O.S.B. 'Saint Mary of the Quay' in Liverpool's Hidden Story, Birchley Hall Press, Billinge ,1957. pp.6-11, 106-7.

Calendar of entries in the Papal registers relating to Great Britain and Ireland, Papal letters, Vol. XI : A.D. 1455-1464 , prepared by J.A.Twemlow, London, H.M.S.O., 1921,

1 comment:

johnf said...

I am a Liverpudlian and I am saddened that we were not taught about any of this at school.

We were taught about St Nicholas' Church and St Mary's, Walton on the Hill as the first Churches in Liverpool

Thanks for the information