The magnificent East Window at St Aubyn’s Church, Devonport is truly one of the most beautiful in the City.
It stands in memory of the men of the Parish who served in the Great War, and as a thank offering for peace.
An account of the dedication of the window appears in the Western Morning News of Friday 14 May 1926 –
DEVONPORT WAR MEMORIAL – WINDOW UNVEILED AT ST AUBYN CHURCH
“Love is the only thing that will solve the present industrial problem” said the Bishop of Exeter in his address at the unveiling of a war memorial east window at St Aubyn Church, Devonport, by Lady Florence Cecil. Love alone could strive against the powers of darkness, fear and cruelty. Right through the ages people had been misled into thinking that force would win the day, but they always discovered that Christianity was triumphant in the end. Rev. Dr. J. Trelawny-Ross assisted in the service.
THE MEMORIAL WINDOW
The subject of the window is “The Church of Christ Triumphant”. The main figure, the Crowned Christ, is depicted in robes of deep rubies. On either side stand the figures of St Gabriel and St Michael in robes of white and gold. Behind the figures and the throne are Cherubim and Seraphim. A great emerald rainbow, on which the throne stands, runs through the three lights, binding them together. Above this is an angel choir, with harps and lutes. The bottom half of the window shows the saints in adoration, standing on clouds with the earth seen far below.
Except fof the figure of the Christ the top part of the window is kept light in its colour scheme, being depicted in whites, pale blues and yellows. In contrast to this the bottom and part of the window if full of deep rich colours.
The inscription on the memorial brass is –
In faith of Jesus Christ and in memory of all our fellow countrymen who served in the Great War, and as a thank-offering for peace, the East Window was dedicated on Ascension-day, 1926.
Te Deum Laudamus
Among those present at the ceremony were the Mayor of Plymouth, Mr. R. J. Mitchell, Admiral Sir Richard Phillimore, and Major-General Sir Edward Northey.
Following the ceremony Last Post and Reveille were sounded.
The architect is Mr C. Cheverton, of Devonport.
© Graham Naylor
I’ve been lucky enough to be have had associations with St Aubyn’s Church for a number of years and to know it in two quite different incarnations.
I was first became associated with the building when it became clear in 2009 that it would become the new Devonport Library. I was fortunate to see the building during its transformation and now I spend time working at this fantastic facility offered to the people of Devonport and Plymouth.
In my view this building forms a perfection – a combination of church and library!
Prior to the opening of the new Library in 2011 I researched something of the history of the Church. What follows is taken from my notes of that time.
St Aubyn’s Church was erected as a Proprietary Chapel under the authority of an Act of Parliament passed in 1768. The costs of passing the Act and completing the chapel were to be raised from “the sale and disposition of the pews or seats to be erected and set up in the said chapel” – the final building cost amounted to £7000.
St Aubyn’s Chapel was consecrated by the Lord Bishop of Exeter on 17 September 1771. The sermon given in the Chapel at its consecration was delivered by the Vicar of Stoke Damerel, the Rev. Edward Bridges Blackett
The affairs of St Aubyn’s Chapel were overseen by a board of trustees. The trustees were responsible for the day to day running of the Chapel and are named amongst the subscribers to the first organ placed therein in August 1772. The names of the first trustees were Sir John St Aubyn, Rev. Edward Bridges Blackett, Thomas Mangles, Dionysius Williams, George Wills, Richard Nelson, William Billing, John Croad, John Spurril, Nicholas May, Timothy Bayley, William Stephens, Benjamin Parham, Thomas Thorn. The curate of St Aubyn’s Chapel was Rev. Amos Crimes.
The earliest accurate description of St Aubyn’s Chapel is found in Hoxland’s ‘Plymouth Dock Guide’ published at Plymouth Dock [the pre-1824 name for Devonport] in 1799.
This Chapel was built under the authority of an Act of Parliament about the year of 1771, as appears from the date on its front. It has a gallery on the north side, and part of the south with the west end, where there is a small Organ. It has Divine Service regularly twice every Sunday, except Easter Day, when its Minister pays homage of duty to and at the Parish Church. Every Wednesday evening also there is a Sermon and prayers on Friday evenings. Christenings, burials and all other occasional duties its Minister is excluded from; which are entirely in the province of the Parish Church, and performed by the Minister or his Curate. The exterior of the Chapel is in the style of modern architecture on which we shall not enlarge. It has a dial plate to the west to show the time to the inhabitants; and on its small square tower which contains but one bell, a neat and plain octagonal spire is erected, surmounted by a vane to discover the current of the wind. It is surrounded by a wall and balustrades; and has three entrances all at the west end, to the several Iles [aisles] and to the galleries. The present Curate is the Rev. Jonathan Williams.
The Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport Directory of 1830 records further information
St Aubyn’s Chapel is a building of substantial and plain appearance, with an octagonal spire, rising above a Doric portico. This chapel was erected by subscription in 1771, an Act of Parliament having been obtained for the purpose. The interior is neatly fitted with galleries on both sides and at the western end, supported by stone columns. It contains a good organ, has a choir of singers, and is attended by a highly respectable congregation. A very handsome pew is set apart for strangers. Incumbent – Rev. J. Jacob, LLD; Clerk – T. Badge; Organist – T. Birkhead – Chapel Wardens – John Gilbert, Richard Snow.
On 10 June 1840 James Davidson, author of “Church notes on the South of Devon” visited St Aubyn’s Chapel and recorded the following
A large stone building consisting of a nave and side aisles with Doric columns and sashed windows with a spire at the western end – erected in 1771 – no baptisms or burials take place here and there are no monumental inscriptions.
A new and improved Organ was “erected by the offerings of the trustees, proprietors and congregation” in 1866. This refers to the organ still in place in the Church in 2009. After the restoration and transformation of the Church the Organ was moved to its original home – the west gallery – however the inner workings of the Organ were removed – leaving the Organ Case we see today.
The tower contains one bell, cast in 1873, and inscribed: CAST BY JOHN WARNER & SONS LONDON 1873. It is in the note of F# and weighs 12 1/2 cwt. It is unclear whether or not this replacedan earlier bell, although this would seem logical.
There is a full description of St Aubyn’s Chapel available in the 1878 Devon Directory as follows
St Aubyn’s Chapel, in Chapel Street, is a large and handsome building, which was erected under the powers of an Act of Parliament in 1771 at the cost of £7000, raised by subscription. It forms an oblong square, and contains three aisles, with galleries at the sides and west end. The entrance is beneath a well designed portico, above which rises an octagonal spire. The interior is neatly fitted up, and most of the pews are private property. Various improvements have been effected during the last 25 years, including the building of a new organ, the addition of a new vestry and the insertion of stained glass windows, the whole at a cost of £1200, raised by subscription. The benefice is a perpetual curacy, valued at £200 in the patronage of the rector of Stoke Damerel, and incumbency of the Rev. Pitt Johnson, B.A.
St Aubyn’s Chapel was assigned its own parish on 5 December 1882 and became known as St Aubyn’s Parish Church. The parish had been formed out of the parishes of Stoke Damerel and St Paul’s, Devonport.
On 17 December 1884 the foundation stone for a new chancel was laid by the Rev. W. St Aubyn, the Rector of Stoke Damerel. The land upon which the chancel was to be built belonged to Raglan Barracks and therefore permission needed to be granted from the War Office to use part of their land. A Western Morning News article of 18 December 1884 reported that
The War office authorities have kindly allowed the chancel to be built protruding into the barrack ground, the space occupied being 27ft by 40ft. It is proposed to take out the present east end of the church and rebuilt it 22ft eastward. The side walls and the roof will, of course, have to be entirely new work. The chancel will be built from plans prepared by J. Piers St Aubyn of London, and will be carried out under the direction of Mr H Luff, the manor office architect. The builder is Mr Westaway of Cumberland Lawn.
The completed chancel was consecrated by the Lord Bishop of Exeter on the 18 July 1885. The total cost for the chancel was £863.
Alongside the erection of the chancel, part of the north gallery was removed to make way for the organ which had formerly stood in the west gallery.
The portico outside the western entrance of St Aubyn’s Church was removed in 1896 to enable Chapel Street to be widened for the placing of tramlines. The outline of this portico can still be seen on the facade of the building.
In February 1926 a faculty was granted by the Diocese of Exeter to erect a stained glass window in the east window of the chancel to act as a war memorial.
The faculty recorded that the window was to have the following inscription
The East Window is erected by the members of this Church to perpetuate the Signing of Armistice, and in grateful recognition of the sacrifices made by all ranks for the peace of Europe.
The window was paid for from the Free Will Offering Scheme with donations and cost over £600. The window was unveiled on Ascension Day, 1926.
On 13 November 1930 a newly erected Vestry was consecrated by the Bishop of Exeter.
The church was damaged by enemy action during the Blitz in 1941 and was temporarily closed.
After the demolition of St Mary’s Church on James Street, Devonport in 1959 St Aubyn’s Church was the only remaining Parish Church in Devonport. It had been deemed by the mid 1950s that St Aubyn’s Church was capable of serving the whole community and its religious needs. This was in stark contrast to pre-war church accommodation in Devonport which was then served by a total of six Church of England churches; St Aubyn’s, St James the Great, St John’s, St Mary’s, St Paul’s and St Stephen’s. All of these churches had been either been destroyed during the bombing raids of World War Two or had been demolished by 1960.
In 2001 the spire of St Aubyn’s Church was restored and was dedicated by the Bishop of Plymouth. The spire had been damaged during the Blitz in 1941 and by the 1960s it had become so dangerous that it was reduced in height on safety grounds. The Devon Historic Churches Trust and English Heritage provided £6000 for the restoration work.
Due to a dwindling congregation alternative uses for St Aubyn’s Church needed to be found to preserve the building for future generations of Devonport residents.
In July 2008 architects Gilmore Hankey Kirke unveiled proposals for the future use of St Aubyn’s Church. An article in The Herald of 15 July 2008 reported that
following repairs to the church, GHK proposes to move Devonport Library – which is located in the Devonport Guildhall at the moment – to the ground floor of St Aubyn’s.
On 3 June 2009 St Aubyn’s Church celebrated its last service before closing to begin the transformation into the new Devonport Library. The final prayer was especially poignant:
God of our beginnings and endings, we celebrate all our memories of St Aubyn’s Church and its long history in Devonport; we ask your blessing on its new life to come with Devonport Library. May the love which is in our hearts be a bond to unite us forever, and may the power of your presence bless all our hopes, and calm all our fears; this we ask for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
An article in The Herald for 4 February 2011 reported that
St Aubyns Church was falling into disrepair before undergoing a £2.2 million transformation, funded by the Devonport Regeneration Community (DRC) Partnership. The Grade II listed Georgian building is now a state of the art library and a worship area for church services.
The newly refurbished and restored Church and St Aubyn Library opened on the 21 January 2011 and was formally opened on 11 February 2011.
It seems that this excerpt from an article reporting the laying of the Foundation Stone for the chancel and printed in the Western Morning News on the 18 December 1884 is as true now as it was then
The building of 1771, however fit it might have been for the wants of worshippers at that time, was not adapted for modern wants. Things had changed since then, and, amongst other things a great change had come over the modes of religious worship…
These days I’m very fortunate to work within the building to manage the outstanding Naval History collection owned by Plymouth Libraries. The collection is in its natural home – Devonport – and represents many aspects of the Royal Navy over the last 400 years. It’s a goldmine for naval, local and family history researchers alike and I’d be delighted to see you there!
© Graham Naylor
Plympton St Mary Church stands like a Cathedral in the ancient Stannary Town of Plympton; nowadays a highly populated suburb of modern Plymouth.
St Mary’s Church is truly beautiful. Its scale is Cathedral like and surely rivals any church in the locality – its lofty scale reminding me of St Andrew’s Church in Plymouth (although that Church is bigger) as well as St Eustachius at Tavistock.
With Tavistock, Plympton St Mary has a common connection in that they are both ancient religious sites – that of an Abbey at Tavistock – and in Plympton’s case, the magnificent Pre-Reformation Priory. Although the Priory was swept away in the Reformation parts of the foundations survive as well as many stone artefacts. It’s often said that many houses in Plympton were built, at least in part, with stone robbed from the old Priory.
Returning to St Mary’s Church we find ourselves at a building of great interest. It was certainly embellished and restored during the C19, but unlike some restorations, this Church was clearly beautified – as the stained glass windows in the very least will testify. Indeed the stained glass here is particularly fine and varied. My dream!
Of all the windows, I find the East Window particularly stunning. It was installed in the mid-1860s in memory of one of the Lords Morley or Borringdon… more research to follow.
In 2011 St Mary’s Church celebrated her 700th birthday – with historical records informing us that the Church was dedicated on 29 October 1311. The Church was built upon grounds of the Priory burial ground and came about due to the need for a new Church (through increased population, or the pressure of the Community at the Priory).
John Stabb in his Some Old Devon Churches series talks about Plympton St Mary:
PLYMPTON ST MARY (Station on G.W.R)
The Church consists of chancel with priest’s door, nave, north and south aisles, north and south chapels opening out of the aisles, south porch, and west tower with eight bells.
In the chancel is a trefoil headed piscina with drain and shelf, and triple sedilia with trefoil heads. The east end of the sanctuary is panelled with marble, the modern carved reredos has panels representing the Adoration of the Shepherds and the Entombment.
The east window is filled with modern stained glass.
There is a hagioscope in the chapel at the east end of the south aisle, and in the south wall is an ancient monument with recumbent figure, it is in memory of Philip Courtenay of Loughtor (now Newnham Park). The figure, much mutilated, is arrayed in plate armour. The front base of the monument has canopied niches with figures, they are in a very bad state of preservation, the monument dates from about 1514. There are some small remains of ancient glass in the upper portion of the east window. The walled-up doorway in the south wall conceals the staircase which led to the rood-screen, this, and the marks on the pillars for the attachment of a screen, prove its former existence, but there is nothing remaining now.
There are the remains of a piscina placed rather high in the south wall. On the east wall is a marble tablet in memory of the Snelling family, sometime of Chaddlewood, with dates from 1622 to 1673.
The east window of the north aisle chapel contains in the top lights some remains of ancient glass, bearing the arms of Hill of Shilston on the left, and Hill of Hill’s Court, on the right.
On the north side of this chapel is a very fine tomb erected in memory of Richard Strode, of Newnham, in this parish, who died in 1464. Beneath a canopy rests a male figure arrayed in plate armour, the hands in the attitude of prayer, the head with long hair rests on a helmet. The front of the tomb has eleven niches with figures of monks holding their rosaries. The centre niche has a representation of the Holy Trinity. The Father with His Hand raised in blessing and holding a crucifix between His knees and a dove at the top of the cross. Mrs Jameson says in her “History of Our Lord” that this device, known by the name of the Italian Trinity, obtained a strange popularity from the 12th to the 17th century, exhibiting little variety of composition during all those ages. With the exception of a carving on a tomb in Ashwater Church, this is the only carved representation of this device I have met with in a Devonshire Church. Other niches contain figures of St Paul, St Katherine, the Blessed Virgin and Child, and St John. At each end of the tomb are pinnacles, each with two niches, these niches contain figures of St Matthew, St Mark, St Luke and St John, with their usual emblems.
On the north wall of the chapel is the monument of William Strode. In the centre is a kneeling male figure in armour with his hand on his sword; on either side of the centre figure are effigies of females kneeling at a desk; on a panel beneath the left hand figure are the half figures of the seven daughters and three sons of Sir William. The two female figures at the desk represent Mary the first wife, who died in 1617, and Dyonisia the second Lady Strode. Underneath the right hand figure is a representation of Death cutting a flower with a sickle, the flower is held by a hand appearing out of a cloud.
On the third pier from the east end of the north aisle is an image niche, and on a line with this pier, in the north wall, a filled-in doorway.
The south porch with parvise is worthy of notice. Above the doorway are three canopied niches. The highest of these, above the parvise window, has a representation of the Holy Trinity; the Father is seated with the cross in front, the dove is missing. The lower niches have figures of the Blessed Virgin, and the Angel Gabriel; in the centre between the niches are the remains of a tree with helmet and wreath, the crest of the Strode family.
The roof of the porch has carved bosses, the centre one bearing a representation of the Crucifixion. There are three niches over the inner doorway, but the images are missing. In the south-east corner is a holy water stoup, and the eastern wall has a window which has been filled in.
Another historian, this time the Rev. Mercer Cox, of Plympton, wrote a detailed history of the Parish in the early part of the C20. It takes the religious history of Plympton through the days of the Priory and the creation of the Parish Church.
His work proves very interesting as it fills in much that Stabb doesn’t include. For example the Rev. Mercer Cox says:
The massive tower at the western end of the church rises to a height of 91 feet measured from the ground to the battlements, and the turrets with their pinnacles are 20 feet in height.
The tower contains a remarkably fine peal of eight bells, two of which bear the date 1614. These probably were two bells in use previously. Down to the time of the Reformation we believe even cathedrals were restricted to five or seven bells, and parish churches to three or two. Four bells were added to our tower in the eighteenth century, and two more in the nineteenth, thus completing the peal of eight.
With regards to the chancel, the Rev. Mercer Cox completes more history for us:
Passing into the chancel, the choir seats and side screens should be noticed. They are beautiful examples of carving by the Misses Pinwill from the designs of Mr E. H. Sedding. The former were given by the late Earl of Morley as a memorial of his mother, the Dowager Countess of Morley. The latter were erected by the present Earl in memory of his father.
The organ is a fine instrument by Messrs Lewis of London, completed by Messrs Hele of Plymouth. It was given at the cost of nearly a thousand pounds by the late Mr W. H. Osmond, who amassed a large fortune in Australia. He ever retained a strong affection for Plympton, and before his death left directions that his remains should be buried in St Mary’s Churchyard. His body now lies in a vault near the churchyard cross. A kneeling angel on a pedestal forms the monument over the vault.
Happily also, the Rev. Mercer Cox says much of interest about the altar and reredos:
The altar consists of a fine slab of Devonshire marble mounted on a plain wooden substructure which contains part of the wood work of the communion table before existing.
The reredos is of Mansfield red stone with panels of Caen stone representing in relief the Adoration of the Shepherds and the Entombment. On the left hand side are angels bearing musical instruments mentioned in the Bible; and on the right hand side, angels with instruments of the Passion. The whole stands above a panelling of Devonshire marble. It was erected by faculty in 1885 by the family of the Rev. Merton Smith in memory of their brother, who for eleven years was the respected vicar of the parish. It was designed by the late Mr J. D. Sedding and executed by Mr Seale of Brixton.
[The brass cross in the centre of the reredos is said to have been presented to the Rev. Merton Smith by some parishioners prior to his death.]
The reredos previously existing was given by the late Colonel Symons, of Chaddlewood, and a portion of it now stands against the east wall of the exterior north aisle. When this was erected in the chancel in 1845, two aumbreys were discovered on the south side in the east wall. The larger of these was about three feet high and four feet in width. Both are now concealed by the panelling.
© Graham Naylor
This weekend England celebrates the annual Heritage Open Days festival which sees buildings and places of historic interest opened to the public. Although my visit to St Peter’s Church at Ugborough is ordinarily open to the public of course, I took the chance in the spirit of the HODs to visit this lovely church.
St Peter’s Church stands high above the village of Ugborough and is a very impressive edifice. Indeed, one can easily see how this, like many of our medieval parish churches benefitted from increased prosperity during the 14/15 centuries.
The Church guidebook records that St Peter’s has been in existence since at least 1121 and originally came under the control of Plympton Priory. Little of this early building remains however it is suggested that parts of the nave remain from this early church – as well as the much mutilated Norman font.
Pevsner says that Ugborough Church and Churchyard stands within a small prehistoric earthwork. This of course takes the occupation of this site back much further than 1121!
Externally, the tower is probably the most striking architectural feature, standing as it does 94 feet high. It truly towers over the village and can be seen standing proud on the approach to Ugborough. It is built of granite ashar and is a solid construction. This tower is likely to have replaced, or have developed upon an earlier tower, and we know it was certainly in existence in some form by the time of an Inventory taken during King Edward VI’s reign in 1553. At this time the church possessed four bells.
My church historian hero, John Stabb in his Some Old Devon Churches, volume 1, (1908) says much of interest relating to Ugborough:
The Church consists of nave, chancel, north and south aisles, transepts, north and south porches and embattled west tower with clock and eight bells.
The nave and aisles were erected in 1323, and the Church was reconstructed in that year. The chancel was erected in 1420, and the tower in 1520.
The rood screen dates from the 15th century, but the chancel portion has been cut down to the sill level; the aisle portions having had all the groining removed and pieces of the cornice fastened on the spandrels between the bays. There is a fine series of thirty-two painted panels representing the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Magi, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, the martyrdom of St Sebastian, the beheading of St John the Baptist, and a series of female figures which have been described by Mr Baring-Gould and Mr Bligh Bond as Sibyls; this is, I believe, incorrect, a careful inspection will show that each of these figures carries some emblem of the Passion. The martyrdom of St Sebastian is curious, it was most probably repainted in the time of Elizabeth, as the archers are depicted in trunk-hose, an article of wearing apparel not likely to be in use when the panels were first painted.
The font is Norman and is remarkable for being carved on one side only; this is accounted for by the fact that the font at one time stood against a pillar, and when in former times the carving was ruthlessly destroyed, the despoilers were unable to get at the part thus protected. The font has been moved from its original position and placed at the west end of the nave, and the present vicar has cleaned out the plaster from the carved portion and the carving is as fresh as if just done.
The south parclose screen is a fine piece of carving of later date than the rood screen, there is also a north parclose of inferior workmanship.
In his work Devon Church Antiquities of 1909, John Stabb elaborates a little further about Ugborough’s font and rood screen:
The Norman font in this church has rather a peculiar feature, the carving is only on one portion of the bowl, the remainder being plain. This is accounted for by the fact that the font, which now stands at the west end of the nave, at one time stood against a pillar, so that the carved part was protected from the hands of the despoilers who ruthlessly destroyed all they could reach : when the font was removed the plaster was cleared out of the carved portion remaining, and it is now as fresh as if it had just left the workman’s hands. When one sees so much destruction of beautiful objects in our churches, one is at a loss to find a reason for it. One could understand, while not approving, the destruction of a crucifix or an image of the Blessed Virgin, from the point of view of those who committed the destruction, but in a case like this, where there are no figures or religious symbols of any kind in the carving, there is no excuse to be found for such wanton damage.
There is a good series of paintings on the thirty-two panels of the screen. Mr Keyser gives the following list: –
North:- S. Apollonia, S. Margaret, the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Magi, the Blessed Virgin, two angels, S. John the Baptist, S. Sebastian, and a doubtful subject.
South: – Twelve female figures bearing the emblems of the Passion (? Sybils), S. Agnes, S. Agatha, an executioner and the daughter of Herodias, part of the martydom of S. John the Baptist. The martyrdom of S. Sebastian is curious; the archers are arrayed in trunk hose, and the painting was probably done about the time of Elizabeth.
Of further interest at St Peter’s Church are items not referenced by Stabb. These items include a Brass of a Lady from the early C16. This was found in the North Transept of the Church in 1862.
In the Chancel there is a stone coffin lid set into the floor. This is of an ancient date, probably C13-C14 and probably marked the burial place of a former Priest of the Church. It was found in the Churchyard and placed in its current position at some stage in the early-mid C20.
The stone Pulpit stands rather oddly in the nave. It’s likely to be of medieval date but is painted white which somehow doesn’t do it any justice.
The much mutilated font, discussed by Stabb, today carries an unusual and beautifully painted font cover which appears to date from the mid-C20. It’s a really pretty piece of work and it carries the line from scripture: “Suffer little children…” [Matthew 19:14].
The Church guidebook says little of the stained glass within the Church today. Most of it dates to the early 1860s and probably dates from one of those infamous C19 ‘restorations’! That said, the glass is pretty, being filled in the main with lots of geometric patterns and limited imagery. Oddly enough I’m not a fan of so much patterned glass… and I found the clear window in the South Transept the most beautiful as it allowed the late afternoon sunshine to pervade the building most beautifully!
The Church guidebook records that there was a great deal of reordering in the Church during 2009. This work created a community space with kitchen and a disabled toilet. The work saw the removal of several pews from the west end which were later reused to create a lovely screen across the South Transept. It is in this cleared space that one can fully appreciate the lofty scale of the nave.
In all, this is a magnificent Devon Church. The Rood Screen and its paintings are outstanding and reveal something of the interior of a Pre-Reformation Church. The surrounding Churchyard is peaceful and large and filled with many finely carved C19 tombstones – the family historians dream.
My favourite feature of the building however is something not recorded in any of the guidebooks, or by Pevsner: namely the four angels which survey the parish from each corner of the church tower, about 3/4 of the way up. Of early C16 date these angels have witnessed much change in during the last 500 years. They are perhaps little noticed by passers-by. Next time you’re there take a look!
© Graham Naylor
Of all Bristol’s City Churches I find I have the closest affinity with the Church of St John the Baptist, also known as St John on the Wall. It was hard to explain this affinity until I discovered I have family history connections with this church taking me back into the late C17.*
St John the Baptist Church is known as St John on the Wall for a good reason; namely, that it is the only structure left in Bristol which is built on and into the remains of the old Town Wall.
A church guide book says:
St John is the only survivor of four such churches in Bristol which were built on the Saxon inner town wall in the 12th century. St Leonard and St Nicholas stood over the West and South gates respectively and St John and St Lawrence, sharing the same tower, on either side of the North gate. The latter was deconsecrated and sold in c.1580 and had been demolished by 1824.
This makes for an incredibly historic and unique structure in Bristol.
Records suggest there was certainly a church in existence on the site of St John the Baptist since 1174. The present structure however dates from circa 1350 to 1500 with other alterations made during the notorious C19.
The embattled late C14 tower is spectacular and a real feature in Bristol’s City Centre. It stands over the arched city gate which was made pedestrian friendly in 1828 with the addition of side arches!
On the south side of the tower, that of the Broad Street side, are two statues which date probably from the C17. These depict Brennus and Bellinus, characters who in legend are the founders of Bristol.
The interior of the church however is where the real splendour lies.
The church is comprised of a six-bay aisleless nave – logically as such due to the nature of being built into the Town Wall. This creates a long nave with a short chancel area – much shorter than the original nave as this appears to have been divided at some later stage to create a vestry.
The chancel arch is graceful and enables one for a brief moment to ponder and consider how the church must have looked when it possessed its pre-reformation Rood Screen and attendant figures.
The pews are particularly splendid, remaining as a set of early C17 pews with some C19 alterations. Among other notable items of furniture mention must be made of the superb Communion Table – far removed from pre-reformation stone altars. The Communion Table dates to 1635 and carries in its central panel a caryatid with chalice.
The other item of furniture deserving more than usual interest is the lovely and unusual cruciform Font, dated 1624, with scrolled legs and clawed feet. A visit to the church to look at this item is worth it in itself.
The church doesn’t possess much in the way of stained glass, but what is there is well worth studying. The north chancel window of Christ with St John the Baptist and St Lawrence is the work of Joseph Bell and dates to 1957. This window replaces medieval glass blown out from a bomb blast during WW2.
Happily however, the church does possess some remnants of medieval stained glass. These fragments are sited high on the north side of the church, forming something of a clerestory window. Although located high up the fragments appear beautiful and are a special remnant of the ancient fabric of the church. Whether or not this window is made up of fragments dislodged during the bombing of WW2 isn’t clear.
There are some interesting monuments inside the church which include a tomb chest to the church’s patron, Walter Frampton who died in 1388 and a Brass to Thomas Rowley and his wife which dates to circa 1478. A wall tablet to Andrew Innys who died in 1723 is by Rysbrack.
Of great interest at this church is the Crypt, spanning almost the whole length of the church on the ‘ground floor’. Of the Crypt the church guide book says:
The crypt was dedicated to the Holy Cross and had close associations with the guild of that name instituted in 1465: indeed William Worcester calls it the Chapel of the Holy Cross and his description of the building is (curiously) of the crypt alone. The crypt was evidently a prestigious place for burial and certain lands and tenements listed in the churchwardens’ books were definitely allocated ‘for the sustenation of a priest to pray for all the Britheren and Sisteren and Benefactors of the Crowde’ (crypt), as distinct from the church above. Further evidence for a degree of independence is a legacy in 1541 for the restoration of the pews in the crypt and the probability of there having been a screen and piscina.
Since 1985 the Church of St John the Baptist has been vested in the care of The Churches Conservation Trust. This is wonderful indeed. Not only does it mean the church is preserved, but unlike some of Bristol’s other redundant churches (which have found other uses) this church remains open for visitors.
Personally, I find this church a wonderful sacred space in the heart of the City. It’s a chance to step back in time, to appreciate the ambience and special nature of the space. It’s also a chance to pause and thank God for the centuries of witness the building has given to the people of Bristol. I for one, make this place a must-see on any visit to the City!
*And what of my family history? Well, if you’re interested…:
My 7th Great Grandfather, Richard MITCHELL was baptised in the cruciform Font here on 22 Sepember 1697; the son of Richard and Susanna MITCHELL.
Richard was a mariner who appears to have died at sea, or outside of Bristol at any rate, by about 1748.
© Graham Naylor