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