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Amphitheatre XII

A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

9. The Church of St. John the Baptist

St. John's Church II

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Beyond the sorry remains of the amphitheatre, through a screen of trees, you can see what is, at first glance, a rather unprepossessing, Victorian-style sandstone church. In fact, this is the ancient and unique Church of St. John the Baptist- a surviving portion of what was once a much grander building which served for a time as Chester's first cathedral at a period when our present cathedral was still a Benedictine abbey.

This beautiful painting by an unknown artist illustrates how the church appeared in the middle of the 19th century and its dramatic location on a sandstone plateau high above the waters of the River Dee.

In the foreground is the 14th century (but standing on the site of several predecessors and a Roman original) Old Dee Bridge looking much as we know it today and the land where cattle are grazing, known as Edgar's Field, is now a charming public park in the suburb of Handbridge.

The venerable church's appearance is now very different; as we shall discover, as that tall Gothic tower collapsed on Good Friday 1881 and later buildings and tall trees in the churchyard and by the river now obscure the lower parts.

Nothing is certain regarding the origins of buildings of such antiquity but it is recorded that the Saxon church that first stood on this site was founded by King Aethelred of Mercia in about the year 689. Did the site follow the common practice of being previously revered by people of an earlier time? Did our Roman founders, influenced by their equally-Pagan predecessors, erect one of their temples on this spot overlooking the sacred waters of Deva? We may never know. Legend, however, tells how Aethelred had a dream, in which he was instructed by God to build a church "at the place where he sees a white hind" (a beast symbolic of Christ and his presence on earth). When later out hunting- the forest then approached close to the City Walls, indeed, Foregate Street outside the Eastgate was once known as Forest Street- the etherial creature was indeed seen by the King at this spot and his church duly built.

The Chester monk Henry Bradshaw (d.1513) in his Lyfe and History of St. Werburghe wrote as follows regarding the church's founding:

The yere of Grace syxe hundreth foure score and nyen,
As sheweth myne auctour a Bryton Giraldus, Kynge Ethelred,
myndynge most the blysse of Heven,
Edyfyed a College Church notable and famous,
In the suburbs of chester, pleasant and beautious,
In the honour of God, and the Baptyste Saynte John,
With help of bysshop Wulprye, and good exortacions.

A later Aethelred- Earl of Mercia and husband of Aethelflaed, 'Lady of the Mercians' and daughter of Alfred the Great- rebuilt and enlarged the church in the early 10th century, as part of their restoration of the (possibly) abandoned Roman fortress, the radical enlagement of its walls and establishing it as the centre of a long line of burghs to protect the northern frontier of Mercia from the Danes- the true founding of the City of Chester.

They rededicated St. Peter and Paul's Church, on the site of the present Cathedral, to St. Werburgh. (To keep them safe from the invaders, Werburgh's bones had been carried by the nuns from Hanbury to the safety of the stronghold of Chester where they were buried in 875). They transferred the old dedication to a new church in the town, today still known as St. Peter's, at the High Cross.

south side of st.john'sIn 1066, St. John's had formed part of the Saxon manor of Radeclive (Redcliff) after the colour of the local sandstone which was quarried to the south of the church.

In 1862, fourty Saxon coins of the reign of Edward the Elder (ruled 899-925) were found buried deep beneath the church and some fine Saxon crosses from the same period unearthed here are displayed within.

Within a decade of the arrival of the Normans (Chester was the last city in England to fall to them, in 1069, a full three years after the Battle of Hastings) Peter de Leia, Bishop of Lichfield- head of a vast diocese, extending from the Trent to the Solway and comprising most of the former Saxon Kingdom of Mercia- transferred his see from Lichfield, "then a sordid and desert place" to Chester, "a city of reknown". This was the result of an order that Bishops should reside in the cities of greatest importance within their respective dioceses.

In 1075, he proceeded to erect a great cathedral on the site occupied by Aethelred's humble church. Why the Bishop chose, in those warlike and unruly times, a site outside the safety of the City Walls we do not know. Perhaps it was the centuries-old sanctity of the place that attracted him- or it may be that he was unable to secure a site large enough for his grand plan within the walls. The undoubtedly hostile attitude of the citizens towards their new masters may have had a bearing upon his choice also.

From the red sandstone cliffs upon which St. John's was to stand, the forests extended unbroken to Delamere and Peckforton and the tidal waves of the then-great River Dee, unconfined by artificial barriers, broke against the base of these cliffs- from which the stone for the new church was quarried- and of the City Walls. The old Saxon building was swept away, a platform cleared and the church was laid out on the classic plan of Norman cathedrals, with its nave, its side aisles- terminating in two low towers- its central lantern tower, transepts and choir, round which, in later years, were to spring up the chauntry chapels, of which mere ruins remain today.

old st. john's interiorFor a few years the work proceeded rapidly; the choir was built, the great tower arches were turned and the nave arcading erected. Then, in 1082, the good Bishop died and was laid to rest in the unfinished choir of the great church he would never with earthly eyes see completed.

Peter's successor was Robert de Limesey. He was less enthusiastic about the project- and about the situation of Chester in general. Perhaps this was because of the dangers inherent in the city's location on the 'front line' of the Welsh border, or it may have been, as Sir Peter Leycester wrote, "Robert-de-Limesie in order to possess himself of the riches of the Monastery of Coventry, one of the richest in the land, having been amply endowed by Earl Leofric, removed his seat to Coventry".

Nevertheless, for several centuries after, the bishops continued to occasionally style themselves Bishop of Chester and a palace was maintained near the unfinished church, immediately to the south of the present Bishop's Palace.

After the move, work on the great church was largely abandoned, the nave laying open to the sky for nearly a century until around 1190, when later, unknown, hands resumed the work- and did not approach a state of completion until sometime in the late 13th century.

Nearly four and a half centuries were to pass before the Norman Benedictine Abbey of St.Werburgh would become Chester's Cathedral instead.

St.John's ruinsWhether some of the materials used in its construction were inferior, or long exposure to the elements had weakened the structure, but so it was that the Dean and Canons of what had by now become a Collegiate Church ("a church served by a body of canons or prebendaries; not housing the throne of a bishop and therefore not a cathedral; served by secular canons rather than monks") became engaged in a continual struggle to maintain the building. In 1348, it was described as a "comely and sumptuous fabric constructed of stone and wood of great breadth and length, but the same being ancient and decayed, repair was necessary or it would fall into irrevocable ruin".

Five hundred years later, in 1860, a report on the building's condition stated, "the exterior of the church, in spite of its horrible mutilation, its decaying stone-work and barbarous modern repairs has a very remarkable, even stately, appearance, to which the grand and lofty tower, the picturesque ruins and the beautiful situation not a little contribute. The condition of the church was in every respect so bad that the inhabitants of Chester began some time ago to entertain the question of a restoration and laudable attempts were made to raise subscriptions to that purpose, but it was only within the last year that sufficient funds were obtained to justify actual operations. To effect the complete resoration of such a church would require a sum so large that the prospect of raising it may at once be considered hopeless... there is little chance of the repair of the fine tower, which is now in a very shattered and decayed state..."

Over the centuries, St. John's had suffered many disasters- the Central Tower fell down twice: in 1468 and 1572, to be followed in 1574 by the collapse of the West Tower, which also destroyed four full bays of the Norman Nave. Then the rebuilt 16th century West Tower fell again, as recently as Good Friday 1881- after many warnings and excuses about lack of money- also obliterating the Early English porch. The rector, the Rev S. Cooper Scott- who wrote a definitive and lively history of St. John's- described "a rumbling noise, which was succeeded by a terribly and indescribably drawn out crash, or rather rattle, as though a troop of horse artillery was galloping over an iron road; this was mingled with a clash of bells, and when it had increased to a horrible and almost unbearable degree, it suddenly ceased, and was succeeded by perfect stillness".

chester guided walksThe first editor of The Cheshire Sheaf, Thomas Hughes, described the event almost immediately after it had taken place: “The night of the 14th and 15th of April, 1881, will be a melancholy one, and a memorable, in the history of the great Church of St. John's. On that night and a little after daybreak next morning, a calamity befel the church and the city, for which no amount of personal money sacrifice on the part of the citizens, or of their generous friends elsewhere, can ever adequately provide a remedy.

The grand old Perpendicular Tower, and even more grand and graceful Early English Porch, have both in one night virtually become things of the past, for they lie today heaped together in one sad, solemn, undistinguishahle pile of ruin. Two sides only, it is true, of the steeple have as yet actually fallen; but it is almost morally certain that the two remaining ones, the southern and western faces, must one day follow the fate of the rest. Six or seven bells only, it was at first thought, out of the once melodious peal of eight, remain hanging, as it were almost literally, in mid-air: the other two, it was feared were in all probability lying shattered beneath the mass of fallen masonry- a wilderness of danger and desolation which will probably not be removable for some weeks to come.

I was sitting alone in my room, and actually reading Ormerod’s description of St. John’s, at the very instant, 10 o'clock, when the crash of masonry, mingled with the sound of tinkling bells, fell upon my ear! The conviction at once seized me that the great Tower had succumbed; for the imminence of its fall had been for some days past manifest to all who, like myself, had watched the widening cracks in the eastern and northern faces of the structure. I was on the spot in a few moments, and realized at once all my worst fears ; for there, palpable in the moonlight to every eye, ran a fearful chasm up the northern wall of the steeple; the belfry being exposed, but the bells still all, as it now turns out, standing, though awaiting as it then seemed to every one, an all but certain destiny ere a few hours should pass by! It was a sight to daze the head, and well nigh disorder the brain, of one who reverences and revels in the treasures of the past!

Exactly three centuries ago this very year, viz., in 1581, the parishioners, having their old church, with the western end in ruins, through the fall seven years previously of the eastern and southern sides of the tower, handed over to them by Queen Elizabeth, began at great cost and labour to close up again the stunted nave. Apparently also, at least two other extremities of the cruciform church were reduced and closed in at the same date, and divine service was thenceforward celebrated, on the Reformed basis, in the still handsome parish church. The steeple, too, was rebuilt as far as needful at the same period: and the work our zealous forefathers then bequeathed us has borne the wear and tear of three hundred years gallantly, till hard fate has re-enacted, now, the fearful havoc the previous fall did for the sacred fabric in 1574!

But it has done more than this; for that one night's wreck has deprived us of the chaste and beautiful Early English Porch, which had become, as time grew on more precious and beautiful still after its nearly three centuries' accumulation of mould and decay. There it lies now, crushed and mangled beyond, it is sadly to be feared, the possibility of restoration; and thus has one more milestone, marking the city's life journey, perished before our very eyes!

The fragment remaining of the steeple, for a second fall occurred at four next morning, is probably doomed to immediate destruction. If so, old Chester will be shorn of another grand feature in its sky-line for, viewed from whatever point the city may, the massive tower of St. John's has been long a landmark familiar to the eye and dear to the sympathies of the thoughtful Cestrian, and to every intelligent visitor to our venerable city”.

25 years before its fall, Hughes had written of the ill-fated West Tower, "The steeple enjoys a set of eight peerless bells, by far the most melodious of their kind in the city. Six were cast in 1710 and the other two in 1734, having replaced an earlier peal, which existed here at least as early as the reign of Henry VII. Doubtless, therefore, during the great Civil War, when the news of a Royalist victory reached the ears of the loyal citizens,

Merrily, merrily rang the bells,
The bells of St. John's Church tower.

And "merrily, merrily" still they ring, as the bridal procession issues from the porch, as well as on days of public rejoicing- whenever, in fact, loyalty, love or patriotism need their witching strains".

During the middle of the seventeenth century, those citzens must have often been greeted by sounds very different to the 'merry ringing of church bells' as this tower was used as a gun emplacement by Parliamentary forces during the bitter Siege of Chester- an excellent vantage point from where they inflicted terrible damage upon the walls, buildings and citzens of the town. (It is said that a bullet fired from here narrowly missed King Charles I as he stood on the Cathedral tower, but killed the officer standing next to him- a remarkable shot!)

st. john's from the riverThe commander of the Royalist defending forces, John, First Baron Byron (an ancestor of the poet Lord Byron) in the early days of the conflict, among other precautions, ordered the deliberate destruction of many buildings lying outside the walls in order to deny cover to the attackers. The areas outside the Northgate, Spital Boughton and the suburb of Handbridge, on the other side of the Old Dee Bridge were accorded such drastic treatment. As part of this policy, he "left order for the pulling down of St. John's steeple, which (in case the enemy should possess the suburbs) would be very prejudicial to the city as overlooking it all, and from whence (in the ensuing siege) was received our greatest annoyance. All these things the Mayor promised to see done, but performed none of them".

Could it have been the people's sentimental affection for the ancient church that prevented its destruction? Whatever the reason, you can read Randle Holme's melancholy description of the desolation wrought upon the city by the years of warfare here.

The besiegers occupied the church for a period of twenty weeks and "used it as a common place", virtually turning it into a fort. The Rev Scott wrote of the time when the parishioners were at last permitted to re-visit it, "Bitter indeed must have been the feelings of the people when they once more entered within its sacred walls, and they must have regarded with dismay the desolation.What a cruel sight met their eyes! The memorials of the dead defaced and scattered about the floors; coats of arms and figures on the tombs used perhaps as targets for the soldier's muskets; the pavement broken up, the windows and the furniture of the church destroyed".

warburton memorialThe weight of the Parliamentary guns and the shock of the explosions no doubt contributed greatly to the old tower's weakening. Here is a beautiful photograph of it from the River Dee, taken not long before its eventual collapse. The huge tower, standing aloof from the body of the church, was a familiar sight to many generations of Cestrians. Notice also the elegant steam launch in the river below.

Another fine old photograph of St. John's tower from the river may be seen here- and the remarkable aerial view below, a detail from John McGahey's famous View of Chester from a Balloon, magnificently portrays the old church and its surroundings as they appeared around the year 1855. (you can see more of it here).

In common with with so many places in Chester, St. John's Church is reputed to have its ghost- the cowled, silent figure of a monk which, it is said, emerges from a lost underground passage by the Dee, passes beneath the Anchorite Cell known as The Hermitage, through the ruins of the church and finishes his walk in the ruined West Tower, where he sits brooding. He is tall and his hood is pulled up, hiding his face. According to those who have heard him, he speaks in a foreign tongue. Could it, in fact, be Saxon English?

Right: this memorial in the Warburton Chapel is by a contemporary and collaborator of Sir Christopher Wren and features a standing skeleton beneath a shroud.

anchorite's cellIn the centre of this photograph may be seen a curious, ivy-clad house sitting high up on an outcrop of sandstone- all that remains of the quarry that for long existed there. It is know today as the Anchorite's Cell or the Hermitage- seen here in a charming old handcoloured postcard- and has a curious legend associated with it. It is said that King Harold Godwinson (1022-1066) didn't die at Hastings with an arrow in the eye, and it was another who was buried under the cairn of stones on the cliff edge where he was said to have fallen. Instead, he was smuggled, badly injured, to Chester by his Queen, Aldgyth, and lived out his days as an Anchorite monk in a cell in the rock. Fact or legend? It was certainly the case that Harold's Queen became a nun in Chester and when she died, she was said to have been buried in the grounds of St. John's.

As the Norman/Welsh chronicler Geraldus Cambrensis put it, "Harolde had many woundes, and lost hys left eye wyth the strooke of an arrowe, and was overcome; and escaped to the countrye of Chester, and lived holylie, as men troweth, an Anker's life, in Sayne Jame's cell, fast by Saynte John's church, and made a good end, as yt was knowen by hys last confession".

Actually, Harold had lived happily for over twenty years with Edith of the Swan Neck without actually being married to her, and they had three or four sons and two daughters together. When the king's mother and nephew were unable to do so, it was she who was reportedly brought to the battlefield to identify his body. The official story is that Harold's body was said, many years later, to have been moved from its rude grave on the Hastings clifftop and re-interred in a plain grey marble tomb at Waltham Abbey in Essex but was, tellingly, "lost for ever" when Henry VIII destroyed the building as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It was only for political reasons that Harold married Aldgyth, a few months before the great events at Hastings.

The son of the Conqueror, King Henry I (1068-1135) visited the hermitage in Chester and found an ancient, one-eyed man there. Did his hood hide the disfigured features of the doomed Saxon King? We will never know- all we have today is a tale of the dark, silent figure of the monk, restlessly prowling...

The anonymous author of the early 19th century A Walk Round the Walls and City of Chester, recorded that "some few years ago, while altering this cell, the workmen discovered two human skeletons, deposited in coffin-shaped cavities, cut in the live rock".

painting of Christ in St John's churchThe Anchorite's Cell still exists today, sitting picturesquely atop its rocky mount below St. John's, and is now a unique and attractive private residence.

Before moving on to learn more about the beautiful church, I will tell you a little about an earlier bloody conflict which took place here.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the area around St. John's enjoyed a somewhat elegant seclusion from the rest of the city and a number of grand and fashionable mansions with extensive gardens were built here. Of these, three survive today- St. John's Vicarage, the former Bishop's Palace and Dee House- currently rotting away atop the unexcavated part of the Roman Amphitheatre. Several others, including St. John's House, have been demolished.

This 13th century painting- rich with detail despite its decayed condition- on one of the nave pillars was rediscovered when whitewash from Puritan days was removed in the 19th century.

Sir Hugh Cholmondeley, who owned a very large amount of property in various parts of Cheshire, had been one of the commissioners who conducted the dissolution of the collegiate church of St. John and dispersal of its property, including one of the old mansions which became known, under his ownership, as Cholmondeley House.

The family already owned a grand town house which faced what is now the Market Square and formed the centre section of the buildings between Princess Street and Hunter Street. It was here around 1608 that the Puritan Divine John Ball (1585-1640) came to serve as a tutor to the Cholmondeley children.

(This house was in the occupation of the Chamberlaine family in the early years of the 19th century and later in that century the premises were occupied by William Hewitt, a coach builder. About the year 1900 they were taken over by a similar firm and re-built. They were rebuilt once again on a grander scale in 1913 to a design by Philip Lockwood for the Westminster Coach and Motor Car Works and this remains with us today as the facade of Chester Library.

The older house of the Cholmondeleys, however, was on a site now included in the Grosvenor Park and opposite to the ruined east end of St. John's Church, being only separated from it by the path which still connects Vicar's Lane with the steps leading to the River Dee, "between Barker's Lane (the old name for Union Street) and Black Walk (by Grosvenor Park)". Some of the houses of the petty canons attached to the collegiate church and the hospital, a larger building adjoining them but more to the north, had been acquired by the Cholmondeleys and, at some date after 1605, they were probably incorporated into one grand mansion.

During the Civil War this part of Chester suffered heavily and in a record of the devastation it was related that "the Lord Cholmondeley's house in St. John's Churchyard had been pluck'd downe and burnt by the Parliament partie as they lay in siege about Chester".

The Cholmondeleys, unlike many of the better-off families, remained in Chester during the siege and, until the suburbs were taken by the Parliamentary forces, may be assumed to have been residing in the old house.

As part of the Irish rising of 1641, a conspiracy was attempted by Lord Cholmondeley and some of his fellow Cheshire Papists. It had been ordered by Parliament that all Papists should be disarmed, but those in Cheshire refused to obey so the Trained Bands (the local militia) were employed to search for the culprits with instructions to destroy the houses of any who declined to yield.

On 20 November, the Papists, having obtained news of this intention, gathered themselves together at the Cholmondeley mansion, and in the night sallied out and commenced to batter down the walls of the city. Unsurprisingly, this made "a very great noise" and soon drew the attention of the City Watch, who were "very much amazed" but, being mostly elderly men, retreated to the city gate where they loudly cried out "treason, treason, against the city!"

By the time the Trained Bands were alerted, most of the party had escaped, but two stragglers who were captured said that the rest were running to Lord Cholmondeley's house. They were pursued and taken at the gate as the guard on duty at it had thought the fugitives belonged to the Trained Band and would not allow them to pass through to safety.

The fugitives were arrested and a strong guard left at the house so that none of the Papists there might leave. After the prisoners had been "lay'd fast" the Train Bands returned to the house and demanded admittance which was refused. Muskets were discharged at the house and when part of it had been battered down, Lord Cholmondeley escaped by a postern door which opened on to the fields.

Most of the Train Band then went into the house and searched it, and coming into a private wood-house there, to their horror came face to face with 50 Papists with charged muskets. These were discharged and 25 of them were killed. The Papists retreated through a back door out of the wood-house but were met by the remainder of the Trained Band and a battle ensued. At length the Papists were routed and "trusted to the swiftness of their feet", but 19 of them, including their leader, Henry Starkey, were nontheless shot in the back. These unfortunates were later "buried in the highway together".

An archaeological investigation of the area in 2007 recovered, among much else, a number of musket balls that were probably used during this conflict.

How he got away with such mischief is unknown, but, by 1645 Lord Cholmondeley, whose household numbered 22, was back comfortably residing in the Northgate Street house mentioned earlier to which he had retired when the one in St. John's Churchyard had been brought to ruin. Curiously, rumours of its total destruction seem to have been exaggerated as it was mentioned a century later on De Lavaux's map of 1745 and also on several other maps of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

We see the old mansion still standing proud, albeit in deep shadow, a further century on, in 1855 at the bottom of the above detail from John McGahey's remarkable aerial view of Chester, where it looks to be in excellent condition. A mere twelve years after the view was published, the last traces of the once-grand buildings had vanished and Grosvenor Park was formed and presented to the City of Chester by the Marquess of Westminster in 1867.

Now go on to part II of our exploration of St. John's Church or view some of the pictures in our new gallery...

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