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A lady chapel, also called a Mary chapel or a Marian chapel, is a traditional English term for a chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary inside a cathedral, basilica or large church. Most large medieval churches had such a chapel, as Roman Catholic and some Anglican ones still do, and middle-sized churches often had a side-altar dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Traditionally, a lady chapel is the largest chapel of the cathedral. Generally the chapel was built eastward of the high altar and formed a projection from the main building, as in Winchester, Salisbury, Chester, Exeter, Wells, St Albans, Chichester, Peterborough and Norwich cathedrals, in the two latter cases now destroyed.
The earliest English lady chapel built was that in the Saxon cathedral of Canterbury; this was transferred in the rebuilding by Archbishop Lanfranc to the west end of the nave, and again shifted in 1450 to the chapel on the east side of the north transept. The lady chapel of Ely Cathedral is a distinct building attached to the north transept which was built before 1016. At Rochester the lady chapel is west of the south transept.
Probably the largest lady chapel was built by Henry III in 1220 in Westminster Abbey. This chapel was 30 feet (9.1 m) wide, much in excess of any foreign example, and extended to the end of the site now occupied by Henry VII's Lady Chapel.
Among other notable English examples of lady chapels are those at the parish church at Ottery St Mary, Thetford Priory, Bury St Edmunds Cathedral, Wimborne Minster and Highfield Church in Hampshire. The Lady chapel was built over the chancel in Compton, Surrey; Compton Martin, Somersetshire; and Darenth, Kent. At Croyland Abbey there were two lady chapels. The Priory Church at Little Dunmow was the lady chapel of an Augustinian priory and is now the parish church.
The occurrence of lady chapels varies by location and exist in most of the French cathedrals and churches where they form part of the chevet. In Belgium they were not introduced before the 14th century; in some cases they are of the same size as the other chapels of the chevet, but in others (probably rebuilt at a later period) they became much more important features. Some of the best examples can be found in churches of the Renaissance period in Italy and Spain.
It was in lady chapels, towards the close of the Middle Ages, that innovations in church music were allowed, only the strict chant being heard in the choir.
- Cathedrals by Robin S. Oggins 2000 ISBN 0-281-05349-9 page 43
- Mary: The Imagination of Her Heart by Penelope Duckworth 2004 ISBN 1-56101-260-2 pages 125-126
- "Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.
- Alston, George Cyprian. "Chapel", The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 3 Dec. 2013