The founder of the chapel, John the Mason, was probably the Master builder engaged in repairing the castle and the medieval parish church of Knaresborough. This latter is now dedicated to St John the Baptist but prior to the Reformation, it was dedicated to St Mary. The modern Roman Catholic church at Bond End, established in the 19th century, has therefore reclaimed the name St Mary's, and a statue of our Lady of the Crag now resides in the church garden.
There is a story that attributes the founding of the chapel to a divine miracle. Its historical basis is uncertain, but it has become part of the folklore of the shrine. It is told in this way: one day, John's young son had accompanied his father to the quarry. As he played there a rock fall started without warning and John's son was right in its path. John was too far away to snatch his son to safety, but he cried out a prayer to Mary to protect the boy. Miraculously the rock fall changed course and the lad was unharmed. It was in thanksgiving for this that John founded the chapel. It is interesting to note that in 1428 the Archbishop of York visited Knaresborough and the priest of St Mary's parish church at this time was - John Mason. It is nice to think that John's son who was saved from the rock fall eventually became a priest and offered Mass in his father's chapel!
The details of what the chapel contained in its early years are not known, nor what happened to the original statue of Madonna and Child, if there was one. It may have have suffered the same fate as the statues of our Lady of Walsingham, Doncaster, Ipswich, Willesden and Penrhys that were publicly burned during the Reformation, in the 1530s. We do not know whether the figure of the knight was carved at the same time as the chapel, although there is no reason to think otherwise. Neither do we know the origins of the carved heads inside the chapel, and exactly what they meant to their creators. We do not know when the windows were added. However, with all its mysteries it is a rare and striking building, remarkable for having been hewn from the rock with altar and vaulted ceiling.
The chapel is reasonably well-known nationally, being mentioned in several travelogues and local histories from the 16th century onwards. In 1540 soon after the suppression of the monasteries, the antiquary John Leland visited Knaresborough and recorded that he saw 'an old chapel yn a Rock hewed oute of the mayn stone' but no other detail is given. Well after the Reformation there are reports of the chapel being well attended.
In her diary of around 1700, Celia Fiennes reported that she visited Knaresborough 'to see a chapel with alter decked with flowers and the ground with rushes for ye devout which did frequent it.' So there were probably Catholic devotions still being practised in secret in Knaresborough at this time. The owner in the 1700s was a member of the Slingsby family, the son of a royalist martyr and a Catholic mother.
Not all visitors admired the shrine, however: in his Rides around Britain (1792), Viscount Torrington wrote 'the only thing in character here is an old ivy tree covering much of the front. Within it is filthy; and without there is a little dirty flower garden'!
For some time in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Chapel of our Lady of the Crag was confused with St Robert's Cave and his own Holy Cross Chapel, which is about a mile further down the river Nidd. This error found its way into the most famous mention of the shrine by William Wordsworth in the third section of Memorials of a Tour in Scotland 1814.
Although he wrongly suggests that St Robert lived in the Chapel of Our lady of the Crag and that his body had been interred there, only to be later removed to the Abbey, Wordsworth's poem shows how the shrine has a particular emotional power because of its natural beauty. In the modern context, with our growing concern for the environment ancient, tranquil places like Our Lady of the Crag can become symbols of the spiritual value of Nature in itself.
An archaeological survey in the late 1990s confirms what was already known: that the Crag was the site of many rough dwellings over the centuries. The rock provides one secure back wall for the shanty residences of poor people, and the evidence for this can be seen in the many post holes that still mark the sandstone of the Crag. What use they made of the chapel we do not know but they were gone by the end of the Victorian period.
In the court rolls for 1408, the license granted to John Mason reads in translation from the Latin: 'John Mason received from the lord a piece of waste land below the quarry with licence to excavate there beneath the quarry in order to make and hold a chapel; which he and his assigns are to have and to hold for the term of their life for an annual rent'. The chapel was frequently referred to thereafter in later deeds in such terms as 'Chapel of Our Ladie of the Crag' or 'Quarrell Chapel' or 'Our Lady of the Quarrell'. For example, as late as 1657 Will Conyers bequeathed 'one field within the parish of Knaresborough commonly called the Quarry Field or the Ladie of the Quarry.' The title 'Our Lady of the Crag' is the one that survived.