If you visit the riverside market town of Stratford-upon-Avon today, you can’t fail to see the chapel of the Guild of the Holy Cross at the heart of the town’s medieval street plan. It still resembles the fifteenth-century building paid for by Hugh Clopton (c.1440-1496), a local wool and cloth merchant who, like Dick Whittington before him, made his fortune in London and became Lord Mayor of London. With its fresh white sandstone, the spectacular new Chapel would have stood out amongst the mostly timber-framed buildings around it, and it remains one of Stratford’s most impressive buildings.
Just across the lane from the Chapel was New Place, the large brick and timber house Hugh Clopton built for himself in 1483, the house William Shakespeare bought for his family just over 100 years later. Down the lane was Clopton’s new stone bridge spanning the River Avon, ensuring trade with London all year round. Opposite was one of Stratford’s four market crosses, the White Cross, and the Chapel’s once open porch would have provided an ideal shelter for locals to meet and do business.
The White Cross was nearly as old as the first guild buildings on this site. Around 1269, the Guild of the Holy Cross constructed a complex of buildings including a hospital with private chapel, and almshouses for the poor and needy. The old infirmary, which had become the Guild’s meeting hall, was converted into a place of worship after a new Guildhall was completed in 1422. The Guildhall then became the meeting house, with rooms for the priests who served the Chapel.
Even though the Guild now had its own chapel, it retained its links with the parish church, Holy Trinity, where it had previously maintained an altar. It was at Holy Trinity that Hugh Clopton built a magnificent tomb for himself, although he was actually buried in London where he died.
Medieval Christians believed that charitable acts would get them into heaven more quickly, and the wealthy would build themselves private chapels believing it would give them a passport to heaven. This may be why Hugh Clopton paid for the Chapel to be rebuilt in stone. He also made numerous bequests in his will to various good causes, including the Guild and its priests. One such bequest suggests he was trying to seek forgiveness after being charged with illegal trading by his fellow merchants in London.
It wasn’t unusual for someone to leave money in their will for a worthy cause, and Clopton’s bequests, together with his rebuilding of the Chapel, tell us a great deal about his wealth and status, and how he wanted to be remembered as a deeply religious, educated man.
The Stratford guild
You’ve probably heard of trade guilds, but the Stratford guild was a religious guild not a trade guild, set up to provide charity for the local poor and chaplains to pray for your soul – it was a bit like having an insurance policy for getting into heaven! The small school they founded continues on the same site to this day.
Anyone could join the Guild of the Holy Cross, as long as they could afford the fee, and most members were local merchants, craftsmen and yeomen, along with their wives, although there were some with royal connections! The Guild became very wealthy and powerful locally and, by the time Hugh Clopton was thinking about rebuilding the Chapel in the 1490s, it owned most of the property in the town.
Hugh Clopton’s plans
We know Hugh Clopton was responsible for the Chapel because his 1496 will instructs his executors to complete the rebuilding in line with plans he had already drawn up. His will even names Thomas Dowland, the master mason he had employed to run the project. Clopton’s plans probably included the brightly-coloured scheme of religious and allegorical wall-paintings which once covered the Chapel’s walls, and you can still see some of the paintings today. They would have reminded people that they should lead a good Christian life in order to have a ‘good death’, a recurring theme in the late-medieval period. There is a lot of script running alongside the paintings - medieval Christians were more literate than we sometimes think - but even those who couldn’t read would have understood the images.
We’re not sure if Hugh Clopton’s scheme included the paintings in the chancel of the Legend of the Holy Cross – they may have been there already. They told the story of the origin of the wood used to make the cross on which Jesus was crucified, and what subsequently happened to it. It’s not surprising the Guild wanted the legend somewhere in the Chapel, since the Guild was dedicated to the Holy Cross and they placed great importance on it.
Clopton, William Caxton and The Golden Legend
Hugh Clopton and his friends would have drawn inspiration for the Chapel’s wall-paintings from a wide range of contemporary poems, religious books and manuscripts, and we think one of the books Clopton’s painters were working from was The Golden Legend, a popular book printed by William Caxton in 1483.
William Caxton introduced the printing press to England in 1476, and he and Clopton very likely knew each other as they mixed in the same circles in London. Maybe Hugh Clopton bought his copy of The Golden Legend directly from Caxton himself, and visited Caxton’s printing press in the precincts of Westminster Abbey?
The medieval painters
Most medieval churches were highly decorated and would probably have looked a little gaudy to our eyes. Even the stone carvings would have been painted and traces of colour remain on the stone faces in the Chapel. We don’t know who the Stratford painters were, but they may have come from nearby Coventry where there was a famous painters’ and stainers’ guild.
We think there was a team of painters as some of the Chapel’s paintings seem to have been done by different hands - one or two apprentices, perhaps, and their master who finished off what the students had begun and painted the finer details. The young apprentices likely slept in the draughty building where they worked, while their boss made himself comfortable in one of Stratford’s inns, possibly owned by the Guild, or lodged in the home of a Guild member. They would have been amazed to know their artwork was attracting attention even now!
While we don’t know who painted the Chapel, we do know something of the painters’ working practices, and how they might have mixed their paints in shallow saucers, or shells such as oyster shells. We also know some expensive colours were used in the Chapel: cinnabar, copper and a rich blue, azurite. There was also gold leaf - no expense was spared! The local sandstone used to rebuild the Chapel may have been readily available, but these costly colours would have been much harder to find.
One of the executors of Hugh Clopton’s will was his friend and apprentice, Thomas Hannys, or Handys, another Stratfordian. Hannys and the other executors would have had to manage Clopton’s project, contracting with the craftsmen, sourcing materials and overseeing everything down to the smallest detail.
Concealing and revealing the paintings
It cost nearly £100,000 to clean and preserve just two of the Chapel’s medieval wall-paintings in 2016 - the impressive Doom or Day of Judgement over the chancel arch, and Erthe Upon Erthe, with its worms and skulls, on the west wall. This is considerably more than the 2 shillings (about 10 pence) that it cost to cover the paintings with whitewash during the Reformation in the sixteenth century, when England went from being a Catholic country to a Protestant one, and images such as these were banned. John Shakespeare, William Shakespeare’s father, who was town chamberlain (treasurer) at the time, recorded the payment in the town accounts shortly before his son was born in 1564.
We would love to remove more of the wooden panelling currently covering the Chapel’s wall-paintings, and reveal the secrets that lie behind. We can already see tantalising glimpses of what might be there, including perhaps our most exciting and dramatic wall-painting, The Dance of Death. There are only fragments left now, but it once showed rows of dancing skeletons leading people from all walks of life to their deaths. It was based on an earlier painting in Old St Paul’s Cathedral in London, a place Hugh Clopton would have known well as new mayors would process to St Paul’s after their inauguration.
The Chapel’s historic graffiti
After some of the panelling was removed in 2016, we found graffiti that had been carved onto the walls before they were painted, more than 500 years ago. Whoever left it seems to have been trying to ward off the evil spirits that people once believed were everywhere and in everything. Was it the masons who built the Chapel? Or the Guild members keen to protect their brand-new building? Or even the painters alone in the dark at night? The walls of the Chapel are covered with historic graffiti, telling us what was important to those who left it, people so often excluded from historical records. Nowadays, the graffiti is hard to see - once we’re fully open again, bring a torch and discover it for yourself!
When you leave the busy streets of Stratford and step into the cool calm of the Guild Chapel, you can still sense the ghosts of Hugh Clopton and his friends, and the generations of people who have come and gone over the centuries, the whispers of the painters calling out from the walls they painted more than 500 years ago.
- Clifford Davidson (2008) The Guild Chapel wall paintings at Stratford-upon-Avon (New York: AMS Press)
- Pamela Devine (2020) Writing on Shakespeare’s Walls. The Historic Graffiti in the Guild Chapel, Stratford-upon- Avon (Oxford & Shrewsbury: YouCaxton)
- Kate Giles, Anthony Masinton and Geoff Arnott (2012) ‘Visualising the Guild Chapel, Stratford upon Avon’, Internet Archaeology 32: https://intarch.ac.uk/journal/issue32/1/toc.html
- Mairi Macdonald (2007) The Register of the Guild of the Holy Cross, St. Mary and St. John the Baptist, Stratford-upon-Avon (Dugdale Society no. 42)
- Ronnie Mulryne (ed.) (2013) The Guild and Guild Buildings of Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon (Farnham: Ashgate)
- Roger Rosewell (2014) Medieval Wall Paintings (Oxford: Shire Publications)
Places to visit/recommended by our volunteers:
- The early-fifteenth century Doom painting at Holy Trinity Church, Coventry
- The remarkable wall-paintings in the priest’s chapel in Shakespeare’s Schoolroom and Guildhall, Stratford-upon-Avon
- The mid-sixteenth century wall-painting in the oak room of the White Swan Hotel, Stratford-upon-Avon
- The very fine fourteenth century, and more rustic fifteenth century, wall-paintings in the church of St Peter ad Vincula, South Newington, Oxfordshire