The Chapel is 56 feet long. It is divided into 3 parts – a nave, a chancel and an apse (a rectangle, a square and a semi-circle). The nave is 15 feet 9 inches broad and the chancel measures 13 feet 9 inches across. The Chapel has been described as the most perfect and elaborate specimen of Norman architecture to be found anywhere in Europe.
The chief features of interest are the porch, the chancel and the apse.
The porch is composed of a triple arch resting on three pillars. The innermost member of the arch is plain while the second and third are ornamented with the beak-head and with the zig-zag design. On the pillars the sculptor had lavished his art, but time has worn them. The innermost one is simply moulded, the next was very rich with deeply-cut interlacing foliage, the third ornamented with picturesque medallions and, on the capital, a siren, or mermaid, and two fish. It is not extravagantly fanciful to suppose that these three pillars represent the works of the Creation, three steps in the process of life. The innermost is inanimate, the second displays the wealth of vegetable growth, the third the activity of animal life – the sea monster and the fish, the wild beast and the lamb of the flock, the man and the flying eagle; that is things “in heaven above, in the earth beneath and in the water under the earth”. This idea is visible on both sides of the porch. There is, no doubt, a further meaning in the medallions. Thus, on the left side is the Good Shepherd delivering the lamb out of the paw of a bear, on the right the figure of the pelican in her piety.
Outside the porch, right across the entrance, was found a priest’s tombstone, now housed inside the Chapel, and, beneath the stone, a skull. On the stone is carved an alter with three legs, a chalice and paten on the altar and a hand extended in blessing. At the head and foot is a sort of cross in a circle. There are two other stones, one plain and the other with a cross rudely sketched on it.
Perhaps that unearthed skull beneath the carved stone was part of the skeleton of Lawrence le Leche who was instituted to Steetley the year before the great plague of 1349, during which 77 priests in Derbyshire died and 22 resigned. It is not difficult to imagine him, like Mr Mompesson at Eyam in 1666, refusing to quit his post, comforting the sick and dying or restoring them to health by that medical skill which had earned him the title of ‘le Leche’. Then, after 7 years’ service, he died and, in the humility of his self-devotion chose, like St Swithun at Winchester, to be buried before the porch so that the people whom he had so faithfully served during his life might tread upon his bones as they passed within to prey. Dying he left no name, no epitaph on his tomb, only a hand stretched out eternally to bless.
The chancel arch forms a kind of frame through which the second arch and the lovely apse are seen. It gives an effect of solemn depth and rich beauty. The arch is triple, the innermost design is the zig-zag, the next the battlement and the third is an escalloped border over reticulated cones. The two pillars on the north side are richly carved, one with a double-bodied lion and the other with St George and the Dragon. The winged dragon, his long sweeping tail curled round the next capital and terminating in foliage, tramples on a prostate lady. The warrior, in a complete suit of armour, strides to the rescue. His left hand thrusts a kite-shaped shield against the monster’s mouth and his right hand, grasping a long broadsword, is stretched out behind him to deal a death-blow. The chancel is paved with stone, as it was anciently.
The aumbry in the north wall contains a specimen of the stone tiles with which the Chapel was once roofed. An old copper key, a piece of wrought iron and a silver penny of the reign of Richard II are the only other things found here. The decorated window in the south side is the only feature later than the Norman period.
The apse has a stone vaulted roof, supported by four ribs resting on engaged pillars. In the centre, where the ribs meet, immediately over the altar, is a medallion containing the “Lamb as it has been slain”. The capitals of the pillars are elaborately carved. On the left is represented the tree of knowledge, loaded with fruit. Around it curls the serpent and on either side stand Adam and Eve; an emblem of temptation and defeat. On the right are seen two doves; a symbol of peace after resisted temptation. The two together suggest and teach the text, “Be ye as wise as serpents and harmless as doves”. Some remains of the colour can still be seen on the capital of the south pillar of the arch.
A new chancel window was donated in 1990. The design is centred around the theme of The Resurrection with the centre of the window showing the Risen Christ, the Lamb of God. To the left and right above is Alpha and Omega symbols and, at the very top of the window, the Trinity Symbol of the Triangle.
The lower parts of the window has representations of Whitwell Wood, Steetley Works, farming and adjacent buildings; the lower central panel being taken with a view of the Chapel Chancel showing the Altar at its centre and from this the Tree of Life ascends towards the Lamb with the souls of the faithful (doves) ascending the tree towards the Godhead.
The neighbouring village of Thorpe Salvin is said by some lovers of romance to be the site of the celebrated castle of Front de Boeuf. If that be so, it is maintained that Steetley Chapel is the ruined shrine where the Black Knight enjoyed the hospitality of “the holy clerk of Copmanhurst”. Certainly when “the gentle and joyous passage of arms of Ashby-de-la-Zouch” took place this chapel had been standing nigh on 100 years, for it was probably built be Gley le Breton when Stephen was seated on the royal throne of Westminster and Roger de Clinton, 33rd successor of St.Chad, on the episcopal throne of Coventry.
Steetley Chapel is then older than the nearby Welbeck Abbey. Gley le Breton built it, perhaps, for his own convenience as a private chapel to stand near his home and, no doubt, Parson Hugh or Parson Walter used sometimes to walk down here from Whitwell early in the morning to say mass for the benefit of Gley, or Gely’s son, John, with his four sons and their sister, Matilda, and the Gurths and Wambas of his day.
These 4 young men, if they married, left no children and Madilda, becoming heiress, brought the property, by marriage, to the Vavasours, who held it until the year 1360. Thenceforward, and all through the reformation period, it was held by the Frechevilles. From them it passed to the Wentworths, to the Howards and to the Pelham Clintons.
Although for some 200 years this building remained as a “capella” in Whitwell parish, in the 14th century, while Roger Northburgh and Robert Stretton were Bishops of Lichfield, 9 separate institutions are known to have been made and the priest was called ‘Rector of Steetley Church’. This brief independence of 40 years lapsed as mysteriously as it arose and Steetley Chapel now serves, once more, the purpose for which Gley le Breton built it.