Churches, Chapels, Abbeys, and Cathedrals in Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey refers, at least obliquely, to churches, a chapel, an abbey, and a cathedral. All four types of places of worship were found in Bath, where much of the novel is set. The Historic and Local New Bath Guide for 1801, the year Jane Austen moved to Bath, advertises “places of Divine Worship for all the denominations of England that are popular and prevalent . . .”.

What was the difference between these places of worship?

A church was a parish church; intended to be the single center of worship for the whole parish and easily reached by everyone.

A chapel was any other place of worship. There were various types, including:

  • “Chapels-of-ease”: When the population of the parish got too large for the church or not everyone could reach the church easily, secondary chapels were established to “ease” the crowding in the mother church. It took an act of Parliament to build new “churches,” but it was easier to get permission to build a chapel.
  • Some chapels-of-ease were “proprietary chapels,” belonging to some person or group of people who ran it for profit; subscribers paid a fee to attend.
  • Private chapels might be attached to a nobleman’s residence (such as the Rushworths’ family chapel in Mansfield Park).
  • Institutional chapels were for specific institutions, such as a military garrison (in Mansfield Park, Fanny’s family in Portsmouth attend the garrison chapel), a hospital, or a college (Edmund Bertram in MP  mentions going to chapel at Oxford), or another institution. Northanger Abbey mentions Christ Church college at Oxford. Its chapel was and is also the cathedral for the diocese of Oxford! That’s where Edward Ferrars of Sense and Sensibility would have gone to be ordained.
  • Dissenter chapels (sometimes called meeting houses) were places of worship for denominations outside of the Church of England.
  • There are also small chapels inside major churches or cathedrals. These have their own altars and can be used for smaller worship services. Some were originally built as Catholic chantry chapels, where the souls of a rich person or his/her family, who endowed the chapel, were prayed for.

An abbey was a community of monks or nuns. After Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church (so he could get a divorce), he dissolved the monasteries and abbeys, taking over their buildings and lands. Some abbey churches, like Westminster Abbey and Bath Abbey, continued as Church of England churches. Others were given to or bought by wealthy families who used them as private residences, like the Tilney family who lived in Northanger Abbey.

A cathedral church is the seat of a bishop. Parishes in England are areas intended to be served by one church. A group of parishes in a geographical region is a diocese. The bishop who oversees the diocese is based at the cathedral.

How do each of these show up in the first novel Jane Austen sold (see below), Northanger Abbey?

Churches in Northanger Abbey and in Bath

Northanger Abbey parodies the Gothic novel. These were suspenseful novels set in remote, romantic locations, where the heroine faced a series of unlikely trials. Austen begins by telling us that Catherine Morland is not a likely heroine, partly because, “Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard—and he had never been handsome. He had a considerable independence besides two good livings—and he was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters.” (This gives us a good idea of what might be found in a Gothic novel; a poor, neglected clergyman who locks up his daughters!)

Catherine thus grew up in a country parsonage, near a parish church. Her father had “two good livings”: he was parson of two churches, each of which would probably be the only church for a parish.

Catherine soon goes on an adventure to visit Bath. The main parish church of Bath is Bath Abbey, which was once the church of an abbey. Many mistake this imposing building for a cathedral, but it is not, because it is not the bishop’s seat for the diocese of Bath and Wells (which is at Wells). Another parish church, in neighbouring Walcot, is St. Swithin’s. Jane Austen’s parents were married there, as were William Wilberforce and his wife some years later; her father was later buried there. This is the church that the boastful John Thorpe passes (“Walcot Church”) as he races into Bath; it seems to be the only church mentioned by name in Austen’s novels.

Christ Church, built as a “free church” for the poor

Christ Church, in northern Bath, was built as the first “free church” for the poor, where they could sit in pews on the main floor of the church without paying pew rents (wealthier supporters rented pews in the balcony). It was built by contributions from many charitable people, including William Wilberforce. Another parish church, “St. Michaels’ Without,” was originally outside the medieval walls of Bath, though now it’s inside the city.St. Michaels’, St. James’, and Bath Abbey were combined into one parish during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I; one rector was appointed for them all by the Corporation of Bath and different curates served each church. (See Getting a Church Living on rectors and curates).

Chapels in Northanger Abbey and in Bath

Catherine Morland  is delighted with the many joys of Bath. She and her new-found friend Isabella Thorpe both love “horrid” Gothic novels, especially the scenes of terror in ruined chapels and abbeys. When Catherine and Isabella part affectionately at Catherine’s door, they are relieved to find that they will “say their prayers in the same chapel the next morning.”

Bath offered chapels of all types. The city was full of visitors, and the available churches were not nearly sufficient. The 1801 Guide lists six proprietary (for profit) chapels; visitors paid a fee to attend one while they were in Bath. Jane Austen probably attended several of these chapels during her stays in Bath. Some of them were considered “chapels-of-ease” for the Walcot Church.

Balcony and Dome of the fashionable Octagon Chapel

The Octagon Chapel in Milsom Street, where Catherine and Isabella shop, was known for its luxuriousness; floors were carpeted and the expensive enclosed “box pews” included private fireplaces! William Herschel, who discovered the planet Uranus from his back yard in Bath, was the Octagon’s first organist. Alternatively, Catherine and Isabella might have attended another fashionable chapel, the Laura Chapel, which had “fires in its recesses” (presumably around the edge of the room); this was close to Pulteney Street where Catherine and her friends were staying.

Organ Pipes of the Octagon Chapel organ played by William Herschel, astronomer

There were also two chapels attached to charity hospitals in Bath; one was at a “Hospital for Lunaticks” under Beechen Cliff, where Catherine and the Tilneys go walking.

The Dissenters, those who were outside of the Church of England (though they still had to pay tithes to their parish rector), worshipped in their own chapels in Bath.

You can still visit Lady Huntingdon’s Chapel, now the Museum of Bath Architecture. The Countess of Huntingdon became a Methodist, when Methodists were still part of the Church of England. When Methodist clergymen were banned from preaching in the churches of many parishes, she started “private chapels” next to her homes in various cities—they were open to everyone, and were sometimes bigger than the house! Sometimes she built a house so she could start a chapel in a new city. She brought Methodist preachers to these chapels, including the famous George Whitefield, who was one of her chaplains. Her denomination split from the Wesleyan Methodists and members were considered “Calvinistic Methodists.”

Independent Meeting House in Argyle Street, now a United Reformed Church

Near Pulteney Street where Catherine stayed was an “Independent Meeting House” with John Jay as the officiating minister. It is now a United Reformed Church. When Evangelicals such as Wilberforce and Hannah More visited Bath, they often went to an Anglican service in the morning, then to an evening service at this chapel, since there were no Evangelical Anglican clergymen preaching in Bath at the time.

The Wesleyan Methodists also had their own chapel in Bath, as did the Unitarians, the Roman Catholics, the Quakers, the Moravians, and the Baptists. Some of these were called “meeting-houses” instead of chapels, depending on the denomination’s preference. But they could not be called churches.

Bath Abbey - 1
Bath Abbey, parish church of Bath, towers over central Bath

Catherine falls in love with Henry Tilney, and is invited to visit his home at Northanger Abbey; its name evokes romance and excitement for Catherine. She imagines “its long, damp passages, its narrow cells and ruined chapel.” Cells were the small rooms where monks or nuns slept; the chapel was the place where the monks and nuns worshipped together. The monastery chapels were all ruined, as Henry VIII’s agents were directed to destroy these first, preventing the restoration of Catholic worship, and to loot them of their treasures such as gold, silver, and tapestries. Catherine is disappointed, though, to find a mostly-modern house; the only fearful parts of it are in her imagination.

And a Cathedral

When Henry’s father discovers that Catherine is not the rich heiress he imagined, he suddenly sends her home.  Feeling sad about leaving her sweetheart and his sister, and worried about explaining to her family why she was cast out so suddenly, Catherine “rather dreaded than sought for the first view of that well-known spire which would announce her within twenty miles of home. Salisbury she had known to be her point on leaving Northanger . . .” The spire that told her she was near home was the spire of Salisbury Cathedral.

Spire of Salisbury Cathedral

Catherine’s father’s parish would have been part of the diocese of Salisbury, and he was under the Bishop of Salisbury. There has been a cathedral at Salisbury since 1092, and the spire that Catherine saw is the tallest in Britain. The Salisbury Cathedral website says the cathedral is the “Mother church of several hundred parishes in Wiltshire and Dorset.” The Morlands lived in Wiltshire.

You’ll need to read the book to find out how Catherine got her “happily ever after.”  Northanger Abbey, by the way, was the second or third novel Jane Austen wrote (about the same time as Pride and Prejudice, late 1790s), and the first that she sold. However, the publisher who bought it for 10 pounds in 1803 never got around to publishing it. In 1816 Austen finally had enough spare cash to buy it back and revise it; it was published after her death along with Persuasion, her much later novel partially set in Bath.

Americans are used to a splintered multiplicity of churches, always giving more choices, like the choices in Bath; if you don’t like one, you can move to another. What might be the advantages and disadvantages of having just one parish church for everyone in an area, as English country parishes did?

For maps showing the locations of churches and chapels in Austen’s Bath, see Where did Jane Austen Attend Church and Chapel in Bath?

For more posts on the church and clergy in Austen’s England, click here.

For a series on the church and clergy in Sense and Sensibility, click here.

To test your knowledge with quizzes, see Churches and Chapels and Clergymen in Austen’s England.

For a more academic approach with additional insights, see my article in JASNA’s online journal, Persuasions On-Line.


The Historic and Local New Bath Guide (Bath: J. Browne, 1801)

Salisbury Cathedral

Oxford English Dictionary

Jane Austen and the Reformation, by Roger E. Moore

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