The Fight And The King’s Lynn Treasure: St Nicholas’

The Fight Over Services

Can you imagine a religious building not being allowed to conduct certain religious services? That’s what happened to St Nicholas’, even though it was one of the largest churches of its kind in the country. Initially it was prohibited from conducting christenings, purifications after childbirth, and marriages. People requiring those ceremonies had to go to the mother church (St Margaret’s) and pay the requisite fees there. And to add insult to injury, it wasn’t even designated as a ‘church’. Legally St Nicholas’ Chapel was merely an appendage of the parish church (St Margaret’s). It remained a chapel subordinate to St Margaret’s Church until the 19th century.

St Nicholas’ Chapel, King’s Lynn 
Photo © James Rye 2022

It is no wonder then that in 1379 and again in 1432, coinciding, it seems, with new building campaigns, the parishioners of St Nicholas’ sued for the right to conduct their own ceremonies. However, the campaigns were resisted because, as Margery Kempe pointed out, “the chapel [would then be] equal to the parish church”.

Despite the resistance, baptisms were not conducted until Bishop Harsant donated the octagonal font in 1627.

The Construction

The chapel was founded in 1146 to serve St Margaret’s congregation in the northern part of the town, making it easier for them to practise their religious faith. It was originally built around 1200, with the southwest tower added around 1220. The Perpendicular Style building in the present is mainly a result of major rebuilding in the 15th century which made it one of the largest chapels of ease in the country (around 200 feet long). The soaring spire was designed by Gilbert Scott and is a Victorian addition. (The original medieval spire was blown down in 1741.)

The Angels

Angel roofs flourished in the eastern region after the remodelling of the roof at Westminster Hall (c.1393-1399). Richard II’s hammer beam angels become the king’s guardians and display his royal arms. However, although the royal roof was a catalyst, its form was never precisely replicated. The concept of roof angels was adapted and developed according to the purposes and resources of local communities.

The angels in Lynn derive their imagery more from the Angel Choir at Lincoln Cathedral (1280). As in Lynn, the Lincoln angels carry musical instruments and Passion attributes.

Angel, St Nicholas’ Chapel, King’s Lynn Photo © James Rye 2022

There are twenty-four angels, twelve on each side, in twelve bays. Ten are playing musical instruments (such as a psaltery, a recorder, a tambourine), and others hold artefacts with symbolic religious meaning (a bible, a hammer and nails, a crown of thorns). The tenor recorder is the first known sculptural representation of a recorder player (though the angel itself is a Victorian re-carving in pine of the original, c.1852). (St Nicholas’ Facebook Page has excellent close-up images of the angels.)

The attributes held by the beam angels at St Nicholas’ reference:

  • Christ’s Passion (his suffering and sacrifice on the Cross);
  • the Eucharistic sacrifice (in which the wine and bread offered at the Mass became the blood and body of Christ);
  • and the eternal chorus of musical angels.

Quality Fixtures And Fittings

Many of the original C15th oak benches or pews in the nave or chancel have been reorganised or re-used, or were broken up during the 1852 restoration. However some of the original bench-ends survive at the east end of the chapel, and have carved poppy heads. Other examples of the original high-quality carving are now in the Victoria and Albert Museum (bench-ends and misericords depicting reminders of the importance of the maritime trade between Lynn and the Baltic states).

Many of the church fittings would have been destroyed in the C16th and C17th, but the brass lectern survives. It is shaped like an eagle with outspread wings (the emblem of St John). The lectern dates from the C15th and one of only 45 which remain from this early date (43 are in England and two in Italy). The fact that over half of them are in Eastern England suggest either that they were made in this region, or that they were made in Flanders (with which Lynn had flourishing trade links).


St Nicholas Chapel is a tapestry woven with the stories of King’s Lynn’s past. Following the Reformation the Puritans stripped St Nicholas of its religious images and icons. By the C17th these were being replaced by impressive stone memorials announcing the wealth and status of Lynn’s dominant merchant families.

The numerous historic memorials that line the chapel’s walls offer a glimpse into the lives of the town’s notable residents, from seafarers and merchants to mayors and shopkeepers (the Bagges, the Brownes, the Greenes, the Clarcks, the Snellings, the Turners, and the Says).

One of the most striking memorials is the one dedicated to Sir Benjamin Keene, designed by the esteemed neo-classical architect Robert Adam. Keen’s family lived on the site of what is now the Old School Court in King Street, although he spent most of his working life in Spain and Portugal (probably why he is relatively unknown in Lynn today). He has been described as one of the greatest British diplomats in the C18th and played a significant part in delaying Spain’s entry in to the Seven Years’ War.

Consistory Court

Among the chapel’s many treasures is the consistory court. Tucked away in the north-west corner, this space was once used by the Archdeacon to preside over matters of ecclesiastical law, including divorce cases and marriage disputes. Benches surround a table, creating an intimate setting that transports visitors back to the 17th century when such courts were an integral part of the church’s authority.

The court was constructed in 1617 using some of the C15th oak benches. The oak table in the middle had once been the communion table.

Moving On

The chapel became redundant in 1989 and is no longer used for regular worship. It was taken into the care of the Churches Conservation Trust in 1992 and is now used as an exhibition space, a concert hall, and even a party venue.

© James Rye 2024

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  • Parker, A. (2015) The Angel Roof of St Nicholas’ Chapel, King’s Lynn, Lecture given at King’s Lynn Town Hall (24/11/2015)
  • Various (2017) St Nicholas Chapel, King’s Lynn: Discover More, The Churches Conservation Trust

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