The private chapel was built by Sir John Towneley (1473 – 1540) in the first quarter of the 16th Century. The ceiling of the nave is carved with the initials of members of the Towneley family.
The early 16th Century altarpiece is a magnificent example of Flemish craftsmanship and was installed in the late 1800s. Until the building of the Catholic Church in Burnley in 1846, the chapel would have been used by staff and worshippers from the surrounding areas.
The chapel at Towneley was the main centre for Catholic worship in Burnley, until modern times. Courage and endurance were needed to maintain Mass during the reign of Elizabeth. The family had kept a private chapel in medieval times, and for centuries they had been connected with the Whalley Abbey.
An extraordinary fascinating document on the ancient hiding places at Towneley was published for the first time in 1923 when Lord Abington had forwarded it to the Mayor of Burnley. It had been copied by one of Lord Abington’s ancestors, a Towneley. The document is probably a unique specimen of penal times, showing how an English gentleman of the seventeenth century was forced to behave like a smuggler and to fill his home with secret dens in order to practise the Catholic faith. The original was copied about 1800s by Mrs Towneley and was eventually found in the pocket- book of her grandson.
The eeriest story of the chapel, is probably that of Francis Towneley. A small cupboard tucked out of sight in the family chapel hides an unusual secret. For nearly 200 years it contained “Uncle Frank’s” head, separated from his body as a punishment for his part in the Jacobite rebellion of the mid-18th Century.
On a tour or Towneley today the guides can point out the many secret doors and hiding places around the hall, including the replica of the head of Francis.