International Significance of Welsh Chapels

What made Welsh Chapels different from churches and chapels built elsewhere and how significant are they?


Hidden Catholic Church behind a domestic façade of 1671 at the Begijnhof in Amsterdam; Photo, Stephen Hughes


Hidden Catholic Church in an attic, Ons Lieve op Solder, Our Lord In the Attic, 1661-63 Amsterdam, Photo: Stephen Hughes.

Early Welsh chapels were simple domestic-type structures. From the mid 19th century they were more complex in style on the front façade but still generally built at a fraction of the cost of the more elaborate buildings of the established Anglican Church.  It has often been simplistically asserted that the elaboration or simplicity of a Christian religious building depends on the type of Christian worship practised there. This implies that a Catholic Church exhibits a very elaborate edifice and an Anglican or Episcopalian Church a very traditional and impressive structure.  The theory would also mean that Nonconformist chapels are always built as simple prayer-halls reflecting Puritan worship practices inspired by Calvin and others.

That theory can be tested by comparing the simplicity or complexity of Christian religious structures in other countries. A good test is in countries where at the Reformation Calvinism or Lutheranism became the state Protestant religion and where new Catholic churches and Protestant splinter groups became the new Nonconformity.

By the 16th century Amsterdam was the chief trading city of northern Europe, went through a 17th century golden age as the capital of a vast empire and in the 18th century became the world’s financial capital.   It was a staunchly Catholic city siding with Spain in the Dutch civil and religious wars until in 1578 Calvinists took civil power and expelled Catholics from Amsterdam in the Alteration; after 1581 the overt practice of the Catholic religion was officially prohibited.   However, many people in Amsterdam remained Catholic.  They celebrated mass in their living rooms, places of work and in warehouses, frequently with the tacit consent of the authorities.  In the greater toleration of the 17th century this first international financial centre acquired a network of ‘hidden’ churches of which some notable examples remain.   In this period not only were Catholic churches not allowed to have the appearance of churches because Protestantism was the State Religion but they also had to have a secular name.

The female Catholic religious order of the Beguines in Amsterdam lived together in the close of houses that can still be seen. In 1671 the foundation-stone for a new purpose-built chapel was laid.  The municipality approved the building plans on condition that the building did not look like a church from the outside.

The most famous of the hidden churches of Amsterdam was built in the same years in a position close to the Olde Kirk in a house block fronting onto the old Voorburgwal Canal. The house had been bought by the German-born Merchant Jan Hartman in 1661 and he produced the present seven-storey block in the following two years.  Jan’s canal-side house fronted two others facing onto an alley and three storeys up he built a church, largely in the upper three storeys of the rear houses.   There are two floors of galleries to the church and it was extended in c.1735.   Its original non-religious name so as not to further provoke the secular authorities was ‘t Haantje’ but in the 19th century it became known as ‘Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder – Our Lord in the Attic’ and is now the Amstelkring Museum.

By contrast the great Pre-Reformation Catholic churches carried on in use for the new Protestant religion but stripped of sculpture and paintings. The great new 17th century churches that reflected Amsterdam’s pre-eminent position did not primarily assert the simple precepts of Calvin but instead reflected the pre-eminence of the new state religion at the richest financial centre in the globe.  The first of these was the Zuiderkerk designed by Hendrick de Keyser and built in 1603-11 but in form it was very much a traditional great church with western steeple, and two transepts but in the contemporary Renaissance style rather than the earlier Gothic.

The urban expansion project of 1613 produced the beginning of the new Outer Canal Ring Suburbs (now a World Heritage Site) which initially required new Protestant churches for the north-western urban development.   The ‘Nieuwe Werck’ or Jordaan area outside the central canals to the north-west was a much poorer outer suburb and this was given a church at the same time as the very elaborate Westerkerk serving the inner canal area.  This was the Noorderkerk (North Church of 1620-23) which was a centrally planned worship space where the apparent western ideal of worship centred on the pulpit was realised.  Yet the wealthier, and more traditional, Zuiderkerk and Westerkerk congregations built edifices that design-wise were more suited to the previous worship focus of the Catholic Mass centred on processions and the east end altar.  Interestingly, this debate came out into the open during the design debate for St. Paul’s in London in the period 1671-75 when the traditionally-minded clergy overcame the architect Christopher Wren’s plans to build the cathedral in the form of a Greek Cross.

By the middle of the 19th century the resurgent Catholic Church had firmly developed a mature Gothic architectural style, forgoing the earlier domestic-looking churches with classical interiors. The Dutch State Church – the Dutch Reformed Church – had continued the building of large free-standing structures with a Mannerist or Renaissance guise.   It was now up to splinter groups, and also to minority faiths or denominations of foreign origin, to produce modest worship structures set within terraces of canal-side houses and to have what focus of architectural embellishment that could be afforded firmly focussed on the front elevation facing a canal-side street.  This form of simple barn -like structure with a show-front facing the street was barely indistinguishable from the thousands of prominently façaded Nonconformist chapels built in southern Britain after the 1858-59 Great Revival and into the early 20th century.

Many architects in later 19th century western Europe and in north America were trying to establish a new distinctive style which often incorporated disparate elements from the past. Nonconformists were especially keen on the often playful use of patterns of stylistic mixtures on the ornament focussed on their show-fronts which so distinguished them from the great churches of the state church and the resurgent Catholic religion.

One of the main splinter groups from the Dutch Reformed Church was the Gereformeerden who in 1888-90 built a gable-fronted chapel, or church, on the street bordering the wide Keizersgracht in Amsterdam.   This Keizersgrachtkerk shows a mixing of the early Gothic and Venetian styles in a design produced by G. B. and A. Salm.  A classic problem with the profile of single-roofed worship buildings fronting onto a street is how to avoid the impression that the congregation is worshipping in a rather inelegant and ungainly shed.  The most grandiose solution for this is to provide the gable with two flanking towers or steeples; in Wales for example there may be some 20 chapels, from 6,000, which have these ‘cathedral facades.’  The Keisergrachtkerk in Amsterdam uses a form of a Gothic pointed version of the great arch design breaking-up into the gable.

Another chapel of the Gereformeerden also shows some classic chapel design ideas. Like many chapels in Britain, particularly those of Wesleyan Methodism, this occupied a corner site which gave many of the benefits of being able to assert a dominating presence without the costs of having to acquire a larger site which a free-standing structure required.   The chapel was executed in Renaissance style and this more modest towerless structure resembles other Nonconformist structures built internationally.

A second Gothic church, or chapel, built into a terraced row of buildings and with only its front façade visible is the English Episcopal Church in Amsterdam.   Its large-shed profile clearly suggests its origin as a cloth-hall which the architect J. Janssen converted into the present church in 1827-29.  Although this church was built to accommodate the resident congregation of the state Anglican Church of southern Britain it represents in this context a denomination which was Nonconformist in relation to the Dutch Reformed Church.  Its context is reflected in its architectural style which, although a very early and influential use of Gothic, is divided into three bays by slender spirelet turrets;  each bay is filled with three large traceried windows with simple intersecting tracery that would not be out of place in any simplified, or ‘chapel gothick’ structure in Wales or England.

This relationship between the extravagant, elaborate and sometimes traditional buildings of a state Calvinist or Presbyterian church and the simpler, discreet or hidden buildings of minority denominations is a fairly consistent picture between different states. A similar picture is found in Scotland where the state religion became Presbyterian in the 16th century.

What design factors made Welsh chapels special?

There were two specific design features that made Welsh chapels distinctive. One was the universality of the Sedd Fawr in Welsh-language chapels: the Great Seat for the deacons of the chapel who stood-up and faced the rest of the congregation when they sang.  The Great Seat was immediately below the pulpit and within Britain is paralleled by the ‘Leaders Pews’ found in some Cornish Chapels.    The clock placed on the gallery front opposite, so sermons could be timed, was a feature remarked on by preachers and architects from elsewhere.

Congregations wanting to maintain the use of the Welsh language were very keen to maintain the use of a distinctive Italianate style to the end of the 19th century in order to distinguish themselves from the Gothic style of the buildings of the established Anglican Church.   In a parallel movement in Catalonia a group of architects including Antonio Gaudi sought to establish Art Nouveau as a distinctive expression of a national Catalan architecture for use in religious and other buildings in Barcelona and its surroundings.

Internationally buildings that did not conform to the main state religion have a family resemblance and Protestant chapels in China, the U.S.A., Australia and France recognisably use a domestic, Italianate and simple Gothic style vocabulary familiar from their denser placed, and linguistically important, Welsh cousins. Robert G. Thomas in Australia and Frank Lloyd Wright in the U.S.A. are among those architects from Wales, or of Welsh parentage, who have used Welsh ideas in their designs of Nonconformist chapels abroad.

The chapels of Wales are significant for their great density pointing to a singular importance in supporting the use of a minority language and culture into the 20th century.   The density of chapel complexes with Sunday Schools and houses for caretakers and ministers produces a townscape among the communities of Wales that is particularly distinctive from elsewhere.

Stephen Hughes


Further Reading

Amsterdam Heritage, Bureau Monumenten & Archeologie.

Archimon: The virtual museum of religious architecture in the Netherlands.

Coleman, B. I. 1980. The Church of England in the Mid-Nineteenth Century: a social geography, London, Historical Association.

Hughes, S.R. 2012.  ‘The Architecture of Nonconformist Christian Religion and National Identity’ in P. Bellamy and G. Montpetit, Religion: Beliefs, Theories and Societal Effects, New York, Nova Science, 103-142,

MacInnes, R.; Glendinning, M.; MacKechie, A. 1999. Building a Nation: The Story of Scotland’s Architecture, Edinburgh, Canongate.