Moorhouse Chapel


Lidar image, showing
platform and earthworks

Moorhouse is a small hamlet in the parish of Laxton. The present church of St Nicholas, usually described as Moorhouse Chapel, was built in 1860-1 in a bold French Gothic Revival style by the architect Henry Clutton. The expenses for this were met entirely by John Evelyn Denison of Ossington, then Speaker of the House of Commons, and the major landowner in Moorhouse at the time. The chapel stands unfenced in a field, surrounded by pasture, on a small raised oval platform towards the bottom of a shallow, poorly drained valley, with an abrupt low escarpment to the north. It is in the centre of the scattered hamlet which was aptly called Moorhouse-in-the-Bogs in earlier centuries. This present building replaced an earlier one erected on the same site after the hamlet was created in the course of the late twelfth or early thirteenth century. At that time woodland and scrub on the eastern fringes of Laxton parish, adjoining neighbouring Weston, Sutton and Ossington were colonised. Parallels with the contemporaneous agrarian development of the not-too-distant hamlet of Norwell Woodhouse in Norwell parish are strong, though this latter never had a chapel-of-ease like Moorhouse. Such chapels served those who, because of distance or other impediments, might find attendance at the main parish church inconvenient.

The establishment of Moorhouse chapel, which lies almost two miles as the crow flies from its present ‘mother’ church of St Michael, Laxton, needs to be understood in relation to it. Of the history of Laxton church itself, little is certain before the twelfth century: it is not mentioned in Domesday Book (1086), but twelfth-century fabric survives. The first documentary references to Moorhouse occur early in the thirteenth century when Robert de Lexington (d1250), began to create a manor there. He was the leading member of an influential local gentry family resident in Laxton and prebendary of Norwell Palishall, who became Henry III’s senior justice in 1236. In 1220 he was granted a licence to take wood in Moorhouse for his houses (whether these were in Moorhouse or Laxton is not clear). A few years later he also acquired further lands in the hamlet from John de Birkin, then holder of Laxton manor. On 1 December 1228, Archbishop Walter Grey of York granted Lexington a licence to have a chapel in his curia (ie court) at Laxton, with a chaplain ministering there, reserving the rights of the parish church, in all probability the first specific reference to Moorhouse chapel.

A further charter of 4 February 1232 reveals that by then Robert’s manor at Moorhouse had become fairly extensive (in modern literature it is often called a sub-manor since although Robert’s lands were freehold, many of his tenants owed suit of court in Laxton manor). His manor house probably lay to the south of the present chapel; the ‘mansion house’ of a later, sixteenth-century lord of Moorhouse was sited there, before its demolition by the first Earl Manvers around 1800. He replaced it with the present Church (or Manor) Farm through which access to the chapel is currently gained. Among Robert de Lexington’s tenants was Hugh the clerk, who owed an annual rent of 12d for four acres of land. The Orwins, in their notable book The Open Fields (1938), the first serious detailed modern study of Laxton, called him priest of Laxton, though Hugh may well have been chaplain to Lexington at Moorhouse. In 1227 Robert had received a gift of 12 tie-beams from Mansfield Wood to repair Laxton church from the king, while between 1231 and 1244 he got many further royal grants of timber from Sherwood, the last on 16 April 1244 specifically for 15 oaks from Mansfield Wood ‘for building a certain chapel’, perhaps that at Moorhouse.

The bell turret

The survival of a small medieval bell now mounted in the bell turret of the modern chapel, currently recorded as the second earliest surviving in Nottinghamshire, and almost certainly dating to this period, seems added confirmation that Moorhouse chapel was indeed built by Lexington between 1228 and 1244. No other fabric or material remains from this first chapel survive, although traces of masonry wall earlier than the present church (but undated) apparently survive in the lowermost courses of the north wall.

The subsequent history of the chapel is very poorly documented. When Richard de Nottingham was presented to the vicarage of Laxton in 1239 in succession to another Richard, mention is made of his rights to take tithes of wheat and hay at Moorhouse and from men dwelling there, so income to maintain the chapel was limited. It certainly existed by 1290 for in that year, Henry de Mora, clerk (possibly the chaplain at Moorhouse) struck Henry, son of Ivo of Ossington, in the cemetery drawing blood, after which the vicar of Laxton had withdrawn the chantry (in dicta capella subtrahit cantariam), a matter which raises issues treated in more detail below. Learning of the incident, Archbishop John Le Romeyn ordered the Dean of Newark to establish whether the chapel and cemetery had previously been dedicated, and if necessary to carry out a ritual cleansing of both by aspersion of water. Some twenty years later, on 3 August 1309, the chapel again required reconcilation after another incident when Archbishop William Greenfield personally officiated, though the reason why he had to do so is unknown.

Reference to the vicar of Laxton ‘withdrawing’ or ‘removing’ the chantry in 1290 poses various questions that need to be addressed about the status of the chapel and its relationship with Laxton church. Almost certainly first built to serve as the private chapel of Robert de Lexington as lord of the manor and for his household, it is probable that patronage and upkeep remained in the hands of subsequent lords of Moorhouse for the rest of the Middle Ages. But the descent of Lexington’s estate, following his death without direct heirs in 1250, and its division, after the death in 1289 of his grand-nephew, Robert de Markham, among three female heiresses (one of whom died without heirs), most likely meant neglect. A clutch of charters in the White Book of Southwell (the main collection of medieval title deeds relating to the Minster and its lands) were drawn up at Moorhouse in the early part of the fourteenth century, giving the names of some leading villagers, but there is no reference to the chapel, and no other medieval documents mention it after 1309. No names of any chaplains at Moorhouse are definitely known: it is possible that Hugh (c1230) and Henry de Mora (c1290) served there, so too may Gilbert Dande, chaplain of Laxton who died around 1268. Most probably he served one or more of the chantries founded by the Lexington family in Laxton parish church (see below) and may well have done so at Moorhouse itself, where Robert de Lexington had also left land to found a chantry, the one removed at least temporarily to Laxton church around 1290.

Its subsequent history down to the suppression of the chantries in Edward VI’s reign remains very obscure. Uncharacteristically, Thoroton (1677) may have compounded the mystery which surrounds it. He mentions the chantry at Moorhouse and that a guild was also established there, facts which have been endlessly repeated in later works. But the only other reference that has been discovered to the guild dates to 1549, just after guilds like chantries were supressed nationally. In that year Thomas Spadyman was occupying a messuage and land at Moorhouse, which had previously belonged to the guild or fraternity of St Mary in the parish of Laxton Moorhouse (sic). However, since there is no mention in the chantry certificate returns of 1548 of any chantry at Moorhouse, but there is to the chantry ‘of our Lady’ in Laxton parish church, last served by John Herberye, Chantry priest, in post since at least 1534, we can conclude that any chantry that had been founded at Moorhouse had long since been transferred to or combined with those in the parish church. Here two chantries, that of Our Lady and that of St Edmund are both said in 1548 to have been founded by Robert de Lexington. Other evidence suggests that St Edmund’s chantry was established rather by his younger brother, Sir John (d1257). It had accumulated around 40 acres of land as endowment for a chaplain, one of whom (Robert Barker) was still serving it in 1548. It is likely, however, that the two chaplains, Herberye and Barker, actually lived in ‘the Mansion House’ at Moorhouse belonging ‘to the late chantry of Laxton Moorhouse’ before its suppression as a document of 1552 reveals, whilst serving all the Lexington chantries whether in Moorhouse or in Laxton.

With the suppression of the chantries, the land belonging to Lexington’s chantry in Laxton and Moorhouse passed eventually into the hands of Southwell Minster, where around 1241 Robert had also founded one of the earliest chantries to be established there. These holdings can be precisely located, thanks to a famous 1635 survey of Laxton parish. They were still held by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners (as successors to Southwell Chapter) in 1853 when those in Moorhouse were sold to John Evelyn Denison, then becoming the principal landowner in the township.

The architectural form of the medieval chapel like so much of its history is equally uncertain. What might be expected is a simple, small rectangular stone building, with chancel, nave and bellcote. From royal grants of oaks to Robert de Lexington, it can be assumed that it had a substantial vaulted wooden roof much like its modern successor. But whatever its form, in 1575 it was said to be in ruins, and ‘no services have been held since the suppression of mass’, that is since late in Henry VIII’s reign. Among possible later evidence, the 1635 survey shows a small rectangular building with bellcote and porch fenced off in a rectangular enclosure in the middle of a field with boundaries not markedly dissimilar to the current ones. Just behind the chapel, on its northern side, a small structure which could be a round stone dovecote can be glimpsed, a reminder that the chapel was (or had been) part of a manorial complex. This image may represent the original medieval chapel, a recent rebuilding (given the dilapidation noted in 1575) or simply artistic licence, though the depiction of an appropriately larger Laxton church, with western tower, a relatively extended low nave and a heightened chancel, largely as represented in early paintings of the church suggests an effort was made to reflect actuality.

Most more recent documentary evidence for the chapel before its demolition in 1860 continues to stress its poor state of repair. In 1621, for instance, the churchwardens of Laxton, Francis Roos, Samuel Holbem, Thomas Freeman and Christopher Hassard, were in dispute with the vicar, William Rooke, for his failure to repair the chancel of Moorhouse chapel ‘according to custom’. Dilapidation apart, this shows that by that date care of the chapel no longer rested exclusively with the lord of the manor of Moorhouse, since the 1540s the Hinde family. The vicar of Laxton would continue to provide necessary services down to the modern times. It can be noted that one of the fields held by the Hindes at the time of the 1635 survey, lying due west of the chapel astride the Green lane to Laxton, was called ‘Cristes Inges (ie Christ’s meadow) & Chapell Close’. Perhaps it represented part of the original endowment for the chapel? Curiously, in 1677 Thoroton refers to the chapel in the past tense as if by his day it had fallen down or disappeared, though if the fine wooden chair, dated 1662, and an oak side table of the late seventeenth century, now in the chapel, were acquired as new, this would imply some investment in its fittings during his lifetime. Records relating to numbers of church members in 1641-2 and 1664 mention Moorhouse, but since the figures for communicants in the chapelry were aggregated with those of Laxton (as it is assumed they also were in similar surveys in 1603 and the Compton Census of 1676) specific details on attendance are lacking.

An archidiaconal visit in 1718, which resulted in an order to the vicar and wardens of Laxton to repair it, shows it functioning a generation later:

Item Moorhouse Chapel must be repaired in ye out walls by draining a suff. lasting and in ye windows where wanting and butified within. Item ye chancel there must be repaired and butified likewise and certified in manner above mentioned.

A year later, on 16 April 1719, Samuel Greatorex, vicar of Laxton, and five villagers reported that the work had been completed. At the time of Archbishop Herring’s visitation in 1743 there were twelve families in the hamlet, and services appear to have been held fortnightly by the then vicar of Laxton, the Revd John Warrell. By the time of Archbishop Drummond’s visitation in 1764 services were only being held once every three weeks. The chapel is shown conventionally on Chapman’s map of 1774 of Nottinghamshire as a small rectangular building without a tower. Between 1730 and 1814 at least five marriages were solemnized in it by special licence. In 1810-11 the churchwardens of Laxton spent £11 10s 4d on repairs.

The last and most poignant description of the old chapel is provided by White’s Directory in 1832, though it repeats the hoary tradition about the supposed guild and chantry. William White may have picked this up as family lore since his grandfather, John White, a giant of 33 stones (d1782, aged 70), was a farmer in Moorhouse:

The chapel is a very small ancient building, which has lately been cleansed and repaired, previous to which its clumsy and decayed oaken benches were so worn by the tooth of time as to tremble under the monthly pressure of its slender congregation. It had formerly a guild or chantry, endowed with land in the hamlet. The curacy is annexed to the vicarage of Laxton, and is endowed with the rectorial tithes of the chapelry ... .

In 1814 these tithes had been worth £70 1s 6d, while according to the 1851 Religious Census, the chapel seated 40, had 15-20 worshippers at the monthly service but had no Sunday scholars.

In order to understand the building of a new chapel it is necessary to turn to John Evelyn Denison, squire of Ossington. Already by 1838, he was eagerly extending his landed interests into the adjacent parish of Laxton, where he acquired some remnants of the manor of Moorhouse descending from its sixteenth-century lord, Augustine Hinde, Master Clothworker, Alderman, Sheriff and Mayor-elect of London at his death in 1554. A vigorous improving landlord, Denison championed the enclosure of Moorhouse from 1847 on which the second Earl Manvers, the major landowner in Laxton parish, was less than keen. In the next few years Denison laid out a further £12,789 to acquire some 237 acres of land, mostly in Moorhouse (including 20 acres coming from Lexington’s chantry in Laxton), for the enclosure of which an Act of Parliament was passed in 1849. Although work began straightaway on drainage and laying out roads, it was not until May 1860 that the process was finally completed.

The new start this implied, with Denison now the main landowner in Moorhouse, was crowned by a symbolic act. At a meeting of the parish vestry in June 1860 a proposal by Denison to demolish the old chapel and erect a new one was discussed. He was willing to build a new church in stone, with a brick lining. His proposal was carried unanimously. The faculty noted that ‘the fabric is in a dilapidated condition requiring immediate repair’, and that as a result of the rebuilding ‘many additional sittings will be gained’. The old chapel was ‘insufficient for the accommodation of the inhabitants who desire to attend divine service therein.’ Nationally the mid nineteenth century was a period of very considerable population increase which locally reached its peak in Moorhouse in the census of 1861, when 121 inhabitants were recorded. Plans were drawn by Henry Clutton, a fashionable architect (among his works were many churches in Southern and Midland England; he also won the competition for rebuilding the cathedral of Lille but his design was not executed) while Denison met the whole cost of £890. Not everyone appreciated his generosity. One local newspaper described the resulting chapel as having ‘rather an unfavourable appearance’, though grudgingly admitted it was ‘beautiful outside’. It was re-consecrated on 1 June 1861 by Bishop John Jackson of Lincoln, with Henry Martin, vicar of Laxton, reading the prayers. Unfortunately the benefactor himself was not present, having ‘missed his train from London’.

In his Visitations, Bishop Jackson showed a particular interest not only in the state of churches but of their churchyards. In 1873, the Archdeacon of Nottingham (who was also bishop suffragan of the current bishop of Lincoln, Christopher Wordsworth), remembering Jackson’s concerns, wrestled with a minor but thorny problem at Moorhouse. Someone had drawn to his attention variations between the shape of the Chapel Yard in the Tithe Map of 1839 and the Enclosure Map of 1860. After inquiry, as he wrote to the Rural Dean:

It seems certain, i. That the present Chapel extends some 20 feet westward beyond the line of the old line of demarcation; ii. That the Ground has not been used for Interment within the Memory of Man.

Anxious to avoid the expense of new fencing, he continued:

I recommend therefore that the present fencing be allowed to remain as the most convenient to all parties concerned; but that the quantity of Land stated in the parish maps (ie 2r 30p) be marked off by measurement as nearly as may be according to the lines laid down in the Tithe Map of 1839, and be defined by boundary stones not less than 8 inches above the level of the ground. The line to the W. side must lie not less than 10 feet from the W. wall of the Chapel, and the land thus taken must be compensated for by the diminution of the land on the E. side of the Ground.

The large-scale OS map of 1887 depicts the Chapel within a small rectangular enclosure. By 1900 it simply stood unenclosed in the field, though the marker stones which the Archdeacon had recommended certainly survived to the 1930s when Mr Ken Saxelby, who farms the land adjacent to the Chapel, recalls seeing them as a boy. They have now all disappeared.

The history of the chapel through the twentieth century was largely uneventful. Its present dedication to St Nicholas was current by 1912 although it was usually known as Moorhouse Chantry Chapel. By then it had 100 seats, while six children in the hamlet attended Sunday School. The Register of Services still in use was begun in October 1916, at which time there were regular services every Sunday (apart from harvest time in July and August when there was a monthly one). That pattern continued more or less unchanged until the eve of World War II, though attendances declined, and from 1938-1944 the chapel was closed, with services resuming on a regular basis again in August 1944. The present pattern is for there to be monthly services for most of the year, but the chapel is not used after Christmas until Easter because of the lack (and cost) of effective heating. The regular congregation is small, but on special occasions like Christmas carols as many as 90 might be present. Marriages continue to be solemnized at the chapel by special licence.