St. John's Church, Chester 2

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St. John's I

A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

9. The Church of St. John the Baptist part II

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Aruins of st.john's tower 1881fter the disastrous fall of the great West Tower of St. John's Church, little time was lost in making good the damage to the fabric of the building, and the porch was restored by John Douglas in 1881-2, wherever possible utilising the old stones, as an exact reproduction of the Early English original.

(Chester-born Douglas was the favourite architect of the Grosvenor family, who owned- and continue to own- much land in the city, and many of his works are still to be seen today, including the beautiful east side of St. Werburgh Street, the City Baths in Union Street, the lodge in Grosvenor Park, the fine houses in Bath Street and, possibly most famous of all, the Eastgate Clock. He is buried in a humble grave in the Overleigh Cemetery.)

This splendid, but anonymous, painting (the original hangs in the Grosvenor Museum) records the scene following the fateful event, showing both ends of the church lying in ruins. The necessary money and will, however, were not forthcoming to rebuild the tower itself and only a picturesque stump of the 12th century lower portion- albeit still standing to over twenty feet high- survives today. But how very remarkable that, despite such a string of disasters, the venerable chuch remained- and continues to remain- in daily use.

In 1886-7, Douglas also built the bell tower on the NE corner and restored the north side of the church, at the expense of the 1st Duke of Westminister.

The small statue of the abbot king Ethelred you can see high up on the reconstructed porch originally decorated the Central Tower, but being found "miraculously unhurt" amonst the rubble when that tower fell, for the second time, in 1572, was transferred by the parishioners to the West Tower, from whose ruins it was once again rescued in 1881 and restored in its present location- surely a symbol of the enduring nature of this very special building.

In 1547, Henry VIII demoted St. John's from the status of Collegiate to that of a mere Parish Church and in 1548, commissioners acting for the boy king, Edward VI stripped the lead from the roofs of the Tower and Choir, and removed most of the bells, glass and anything else deemed 'unnecessary' to the building's reduced role. The east end duly fell out of use and a curtain wall was subsequently erected to seal it off from the rest of the building. The ruins of the 14th century Chancel, Lady Chapel and Choir, seen in the illustrations, still stand picturesquely next to the church. For many years they could only be admired from the other side of stout railings, but recently, with the formation of the St. John's Trail, the gates have been thrown open and visitors are now welcome to wander around beneath romantic ivy-covered arches and study the helpful information plaques which have been erected there.

While exploring these splendid ruins and looking up, one may be surprised to see an ancient oak coffin set into the stones high up on a wall, within which is inscribed, in antique lettering, the apt motto "Dust to Dust". The following article, by one 'G.T.", which appeared in the Cheshire Sheaf in November 1878, told its story- together with some entertaining digs in the direction of the city guides of his day...

"The perambulating Chester Guides, a race not yet quite extinct, have from time to time made up many a foolish story about this solid oak coffin for the delectation of their Lancashire dupes, who usually pay more court to that ghastly old shell than to the beautiful architectural ruins and church that adjoin it.

One story is that it was the coffin of a monk who murdered one of his brethren at St. John's, and at his own death was refused the ordinary Christian burial, whether within the church or beneath the green sod of the churchyard.

Another is that a dignitary of the church was at his own request 'buried' up there in a standing position, so that, when the last trumpet should sound, he might be ready at once to answer the call.

Another is that a wicked old parishioner of past days was unable to rest in his grave, and that Satan himself had helped to place him in the lofty position so that he might look down, in perpetual penance, on the fair world he had defiled by his sins. I have overheard during the last dozen years every one of these stories recounted in sober earnest by Mr. Guide to his morbid listeners.

The real story of the coffin is soon told. Forty years ago, when a boy at school, I remember old John Carter, the then sexton of the Cathedral, going with me at my request into St. John's Ruins (at that time enveloped within a brick wall, and portion of the of the old Priory House), to show me the relic and then fresh-looking inscription. He assured me on the spot that his father, who was sexton of St. John's a great number of years, had in his younger days come upon the coffin while digging a grave in a long disused part of the churchyard; and had, by the Rector's (Mr. Richardson's) orders, stuck it up in the recess where it still stands, so that it might be out of the way of passers by!

Thus has a very matter of fact in incident given rise in superstitious minds to no end of mystery. The date of the coffin is probably of the latter half of the 15th century and the relic has this one element of real interest in it, that it is composed of a single block of oak which has been hollowed out to receive the body".

The sexton's father may have merely "stuck the coffin up in the recess", but our photograph would seem to indicate that some forgotten mason took considerable trouble to ensure that it stayed there!

george marsh memorialOn the wall just to the left of the High Altar may be seen a memorial plaque to the clergyman and martyr George Marsh who was burned at the stake for heresy at Boughton, just down the road from St. John's, on 24th April 1555. His brief stay in the dreadful Northgate Prison after his trial in the Lady Chapel of the Cathedral was recorded thus in Foxe's Book of Martyrs (1563):

"After this the Bishop delivered him unto the Sheriffs of the city (then his late keeper bade him: Fare well, good George!- with weeping), which caused the officers to carry him to a prison at the Northgate where he was very straightly kept until the time he went to his death. During which time he had small comfort or relief of any worldly creature, for being in the dungeon none that willed him good could speak with him, or at least durst enterprise so to do for fear of accusation. And some of the citizens which loved him in God for the gospel's sake (whereof there were but a few), although they were never acquainted with him, would sometimes in the evening (at a hole upon the wall that went into the said prison) call to him and ask him how he did. He would answer them most cheerfully that he did well, and thanked God most highly that He would vouchsafe of His mercy to appoint him to be witness unto His truth and to suffer for the same. Once or twice he had money cast him in at the same hole, about ten pence at one time, and two shillings at another time, for which he gave God thanks and used the same to his necessity".

You can read an account of, and reasons for, the poor man's trial and execution here. The place where Marsh (and countless others) died, at the top of Barrel Well Hill in Boughton is today marked by a commemorative obelisk which bears the inscription, "George Marsh born Dean Co. Lancaster. To the memory of George Marsh martyr who was burned to death near this spot for the truth sake April 24th 1555. Also John Plessington 19th July 1679. Canonised Saint 25th October 1970."

Around 1798, the mother of Thomas De Quincey, the 'English Opium Eater', purchased The Priory House, built upon the old crypt adjoining the ruins and standing in the south east corner of of St. John's churchyard. The Rev S. Cooper Scott described it as "A snug little batchelor cottage, shut out from the world by the ruins, which were at the time enclosed by a high wall, and stood in the private garden of the house".

Thomas Hughes, the first editor of The Cheshire Sheaf, wrote upon the subject in the January 1882 edition of that publication,
"Mrs De Quincey for several years resided in a house known as "The Priory," in St. John’s Church-yard, Chester, the kitchens and cellaring of which formed portions of the chapter-house and crypt of the Norman and Early-English Cathedral. When St John's ceased to be collegiate, and the massive nave became transformed into a Parish Church, the chapter house and offices along with the eastern chapels all passed rapidly into decay, and were in utter ruin when the Priory was erected, a short while before Mrs. De Quincey became the tenant.

A more picturesque home for the mother of the "Opium Eater” could scarcely have been found, within her means, in this part of England: there she and her household lived in retirement and at ease, within the walls occupied two or three centuries previously by the collegiate authorities. There she was visited frequently, from his Manchester home, by her distinguished son: there she saw one of her children taken away by death, and laid in his solitary grave just outside the Priory door, as the inscription on his gravestone still remains to tell.

Mrs De Quincey’s kitchen was the chapter-house itself; the door of her entrance-hall was a beautiful Norman window, still existing in the most perfect state, through having been so long covered over by the modern dwelling; and it used to be said by those who knew him well at that period, that, during those filial and frequent visits, the son would seclude himself for hours together in the ruins, and under the noble trees that then flourished there; nor is it unreasonable to believe that he drew some of his brilliant inspiration from those sacred shades.

How long Mrs. De Quincey remained tenant of the Priory, I have no certain knowledge; but among those who occupied the place after her were the first Marquis of Westminster, who dispensed his private hospitalities there while serving the Mayoralty of Chester. The late Sir Watkin Williams Wynn also for a time rented that prettily placed abode; as did Captain Clemison; the Rev, W. B. Marsden, late vicar of St. John's; the Rev. Francis Grosvenor, a former curate, and others.

This is perhaps an appropriate time to record that this very Priory House was made the scene and centre of a not much known, but from a local point of view interesting, novel called "Kate Vernon”, the authorship of which I have been unable to trace, but perhaps my mention of the book here may be the means of solving the enigma;—any way, he or she was very well acquainted with the Priory and its choicely laid out grounds."

Exactly how old the house was when she acquired it is unknown but, sixteen years earlier, the Adam's Weekly Courant of May 7th 1782 contained the following advertisment, "To be let or sold, with or without furniture, a small, well-finish'd house, situate in St. John's Churchyard, called the Rock-House and consisting of a Hall, Dining Room and Bed Chamber, a large room below with a Servants' Room; also an excellent Kitchen, Coal-House and other Conveniences, a few yards remov'd from the house. The situation is in every respect desirable, commanding a delighful and extensive prospect of the River Dee and the adjacent country".

st. john's gravesMrs De Quincey paid £500 for it, spent another £1000 restoring and enlarging it, adding a "drawing-room and seven or eight bedrooms"and moved in with her younger children and her brother, a retired East Indian officer- the "bronzed Bengal uncle" as De Quincey called him. In his great Confessions of 1821, he provided the following observations upon these "little ruins in the Priory garden"...

"St. John's Priory had been part of the monastic foundation attached to the very ancient church of St. John, standing beyond the walls of Chester. Early in the 17th century, this Priory, or so much of as remained, was occupied as a dwelling-house by Sir Robert Cotton, the antiquary. And there, according to tradition, he had been visited by Ben Jonson.

Right: much damaged but still fascinating: an early colur photograph showing the great west tower of St. John's still standing proud and the churchyard still thickly populated with gravestones, most of which have long since been swept away. Notice the gent in the stovepipe hat in the foreground.

All that remained of the Priory when used as a domestic residence by Cotton was upon a miniature scale, except only the kitchen- a noble room, with a groined roof of stone, exactly as it had been fitted to the uses of the monastic establishment.
The little hall of entrance, the dining-room, and principal bedroom were in a modest style of elegance... pretty much as Cotton had left them two centuries before.

But the miniature character of the Priory, which had dwindled by successive abridgements from a Royal quarto into a pretty duodecimo, was seen chiefly in the beautiful ruins which adorned the little lawn, across which access was gained to to house through the hall. These ruins amounted at the most to three arches- which, because round and not pointed, were then usually called Saxon, as contradistinguished from Gothic. What might be the exact classification I do not know. Certainly the very ancient church of St. John, to which at one time the Priory must have been an appendage, wore a character of harsh and naked simplicity that was repulsive. But the little ruins were really beautiful, and drew continual visits from artists and sketchers through every successive summer. Whether they had any architectural enrichments I do not remember, but they interested all people- first by their miniature scale (the lower portions of the ruins we see today were then hidden beneath six or seven feet of earth)- which would have qualified them, if portable, for a direct introduction into the 'properties' and dramatis personae on our London opera boards; and secondly by the exquisite beauty of the shrubs, wildflowers and ferns that surmounted the arches with natural coronets of the richest composition. In this condition of attractiveness my mother saw this little Priory, which was then for sale.

As a residence it had the great advantage of standing somewhat aloof of the city of Chester, which, however (like all cathedral cities) was quiet and respectable in the composition of its population. My mother bought it, added a drawing-room, eight or nine bedrooms, dressing-rooms etc, all on the miniature scale corresponding to the original plan; and thus formed a very pretty residence, with the grace of monastic antiquity hanging over the whole little retreat".

old tombstone at St. John'sOne of the most perplexing yet decisive incidents in De Quincey's life was his flight, not from school at the age of 17- for that truancy was condoned by his family, who then gave him a pound a week on which to wander fancy-free in Wales- but, subsequently, from all further support. Why did he spend months of miserable vagabondage in Wales, earning a few pence by writing love-letters for rustics: with winter coming on too, sleeping out, going hungry, rather than inform his family of his whereabouts? Why did he at length borrow £10 from a chance acquaintance, hurry desperately to London, there to come near dying of starvation while waiting in vain to borrow money on his expectations? In spite of making the utmost allowance for innate vagueness, the motive behind this crucial episode, out of which the opium habit sprang (alleviation for ulcerated stomach), has always been incomprehensible. Why, too, did De Quincey, when he looked back, write of his behaviour then in terms, not of regret at folly, but of bitter, bitter remorse?

Left: one of the mouldering tombstones still to be found in St. John's churchyard.

When he was on the point of absconding to the Lakes, a letter addressed to Monsieur De Quincey was forwarded to him from Chester Post Office. It contained a draft for £40 intended for a French emigree of that name. Only in the second edition of The Confessions is this mentioned, and then wrapped about with digression on the illegibility of the letter accompanying it, and his dread of handing the draft over to the Manchester Post Office. He changed his plans and walked, a two days' tramp, to Chester to deliver it at the place from which it came, and to see at least his sister, who was living with his mother there. He never delivered the draft. He says he gave it to a woman whom he met while watching the bore come up the river Dee to deliver. It has been suggested that he kept it. Whether he subsequently tried to cash it, or kept it to use in some last resort, or flourished it as a credit-producing talisman on occasions, cannot, of course, be determined.

But that he kept it, or even destroyed it, would at least account for that terrified flight, which was the beginning of all his disasters. One can imagine how fearfully the shadow of the law would hang over the imagination of De Quincey as a boy. Perhaps when inquiries had been set on foot by the Post Office, he received a letter from his dominating, unsympathetic mother; that alone would have been enough to send him distracted.

The De Quincey residence, together with all the other buildings and walls that once hemmed in the church, are long gone and even the tombstones in the ancient churchyard have been removed. Thomas himself, together with his wife Margaret, is buried in the cemetery attached to the church of St Cuthbert's ("the Kirk below the Castle", found at the western extremity of Princes Street Gardens) in Edinburgh but, as was recorded by Hughes above, his brother is buried in St. John's churchyard; his gravestone was formerly to be found "just outside the Priory door", on the north side of the present belfry until most of the stones were 'tidied away'.

After 1400 years as a centre of Christianity, how many thousands more must lie beneath these green lawns? One sorry example, recorded in the Cheshire Sheaf, read,

"Under this stone lieth the broken remains of Stephen Jones,
who had his leg cut off without the consent of wife or friends on
22nd October 1842, on which day he died, aged 31 years"

The stone of one Robert Powell was inscribed,

"Farewell Facetious Bob, Adeiu,
Thy Follies and Thy Vices too"

And that of a long-departed sportsman, whose name is now sadly lost, said,

"Here lies the swift racer, so famed for his running,
In spite of his boasting, his swiftness and cunning,
In leaping o'er ditches and skipping o'er fields,
Death soon o'ertook him and tripp'd up his heels"

Many of the old gravestones were utilised as paving around the church precincts. Our new St. John's Gallery features an image of memorials to a Welsh iron master and a Liverpool 'ostrich feather manufacturer' lying side by side on one such footpath...

st. john's interiorThe appearance of the exterior of modern St. John's is largely the result of the necessary heavy restoration carried out by R. C. Hussey -who also worked on the Cathedral- between 1860 and 1866 and by the later addition of John Douglas's northeast belfry tower of 1886.

But do not be deceived by appearances- the interior is unique and quite wonderful, as you will discover if you take the short walk from the Newgate or amphitheatre and go inside. I promise you will not be disappointed- unlike author and guide Thomas Hughes, who, in 1856 wrote that the interior was "enough to disgust even an out-and-out Puritan. Hideous galleries of giant build, through which the light of heaven can scarcely find its way, curtains of green exclusiveness, separating the rich from their brethren the poor... with such incentives to drowsiness, no wonder the parishioners are so sleepy about their church, and so painfully apathetic about its much-needed restoration".

A few years after these words appeared in print, as we heard earlier, Hussey's ill-funded partial restoration did indeed take place, which at least resulted in the consolidation of the church's stonework and the sweeping away of those 'hideous' galleries to produce a light and uncluttered interior much as we are privileged to see it today. He must have set about these early on in the work as a report in 1860 noted, "it is certainly refreshing to see the interior as it is now, with its grand arcades free and unobstructed and wholly cleared of the heavy galleries, the dingy, baize-lined pews and the three-decker pulpit and desk, which so much shocked all right-minded persons".

The mighty columns of the four surviving bays of the nave are pure Norman, dating from around 1095- with round piers, scalloped capitals and double-stepped arches. Above them, the triforium of around a hundred years later- 'transitional'- has four pointed arches on ringed shafts in each bay. Above that again, the clerestory- also with four arches per bay, shafts with leaf capitals and windows alternating with blank arches- is Early English, and dates from the 13th century. This remarkable combination of the pure architectural features of three separate centuries is known to exist nowhere else.

The church also boasts a superb Norman crossing- also shown in this picture- which supported, and remarkably outlasted, two collapsed central towers. The first bay of the Chancel and the one surviving bay of each transept are also of this period.

In 1837, Queen Victoria came to the throne of England. The organ used at her Coronation in June 1838, built by Hill and Davidson, was later acquired second-hand from Westminster Abbey, transported to Chester by barge and installed in St. John's Church, where it remains in use to this day. Its procurement came about in the following interesting manner; early in the nineteenth century the Lay Rector of St. John's was a lady by the name of Dolly Adams, deriving from the Rev. Lawrence Adams who served as vicar during the years 1742-77. She afterwards sold her right to Lord Grosvenor, whereby the Duke of Westminster became the Lay Rector. At that time the Rev. W. Richardson was the vicar, who would never allow an organ to be erected in the church; but on his death it was found he had left several hundred pounds for the purchase of just such an instrument, with which sum the present fine organ was acquired.

The great West Window (left) was unvieiled on Easter Eve, April 5th 1890, "in the presence of the Bishop of Chester and a large congregation". It shows numerous important episodes in the long history of Chester and St. John's- you can follow the illustrations on an explananatory plaque in the church- and there is also an interesting exhibition of old drawings, photographs and documents pertaining to the long history of this unique building.

A visit to St. John's should be considered an essential part of your visit to Chester. It is open daily and, unlike the Cathedral, there are no admission charges (your contributions towards the ongoing restoration fund, which we will discuss next, are always very welcome however).

In common with historic churches everywhere, St. John's is currently suffering a serious funding crisis and consequently, in Spring 2008, an appeal was launched, not only for financial help, but also for volunteers to to take on various roles within the church such as manning the building during the daytime to greet visitors and help keep it secure. Proposals are also being explored to open a church shop and a museum to better exhibit and interpret St. John's unique history and remarkable collection of antiquities. An expansion of cultural events is also on the cards. The church already hosts performances from its own orchestra and it is hoped that, in the future, other musical and theatrical events can be held there with increasing frequency. (This writer will never forget a performance there of medieval choral music by candelight he attended a few years ago.) If you feel you could contribute a little of your time, money and enthusiasm to these exciting proposals, please contact the Rector, Rev David Chesters on 01244 403634.

sign to st. john'sA year later, with the grim realisation that at least £10 million would need to be found to repair the historic building's rotten roof and decaying stonework, the appeal process moved up a gear with the launch of the St. John's Project. Visit the project's website and get involved!

By September 2010, the work was in hand and much had been achieved. Rotten trees and excess shrubbery has been removed, opening up views of the church, and the place had been encased in scaffolding for some time. At the time of this most recent update- June 2014- all is complete and the wonderful old building is looking better than it has for years. Come and see for yourselves!

Also in June 2014, the author photographed the interior of the rarely-opened Chapter House...

Some links to further reading...

• The Parish of Chester's own fine new website, containing histories, galleries and lots of information both about St. John's and St. Peter's churches.
• Here is English Heritage's lengthy description of the architecture of St. John's.
• That by the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland is here.
• A garishly laid out- but nontheless interesting- collection of photographs of the church are on this page of Chester's website.
• A brief feature on the ancient cross heads preserved in the church is on the Megalithic Portal.
Wikipedia's St. John's page.
• St. John's Church on the excellent, recently-relaunched Chester Wiki
The St. Johns Project

runesRunes in the style of the last phase of Scandinavian animal art from the 11th century and early 12th century, recently found low down on the north wall at St John`s Church.

Time now to bid adieu to this venerable survivor of ancient Chester and blow the cobwebs away in the fresh air of the River Dee, via the Roman Garden ...

Curiosities from Chester's History no. 14

  • chester guided walks1556 Extensive repairs were undertaken to the City Walls- much of the work was done by female labourers.
  • 1557 A monetary collection was made in all the City Churches for the construction of the 'New Haven'.
  • 1558 Dr Henry Cole, Dean of St. Paul's, was charged by Queen Mary with a commission to the council of Ireland, instigating the persecution of the English Protestants. The doctor stopped one night in Chester en route for Dublin, staying at the 'Blue Posts' in Bridge Street- then kept by a Mrs Mottershead. While here, he was visited by the Mayor, to whom he he related his errand. Pointing to the leather box containing the commission, the good doctor exclaimed "Here is what will lash the heretics of Ireland!" The Landlady overhearing this- and having a brother in Ireland- when the room was empty removed the documents and replaced them with a pack of cards, the Knave of Clubs uppermost. The deception was not discovered until the doctor arrived in the presence of the Lord Deputy and privy council at Dublin Castle. The surprise of the whole assembly upon opening the box may be more easily imagined than described. Doctor Cole was immediately sent back to London for a more satisfactory authority, but before he could return, Queen Mary had breathed her last. The ingenuity of the Landlady was rewarded by Elizabeth I (1533-1603), who came to the throne this year, with a pension of £40 per year- a very considerable sum at the time. The Port of Chester brought into the national customs system
  • 1559 King Henry II of France killed in a tournament and is succeeded by his son Francis II, whose wife, Mary, Queen of Scots, assumes the title Queen of England. Tobacco plant first imprted to Europe by Jean Nicot
  • 1561 The modern technique of chess playing was developed in Spain by Ruy Lópes. Hand grenades made for the first time
  • 1563 'The history of Eneas and Queen Dido' played on the Roodee, on which occasion there were "two forts made, and shipping in the water, beside horsemen well appointed".
  • 1564 A severe frost this Winter; the River Dee was frozen over "so that they played at footbal thereon". Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare born
  • 1565 Northgate Street, Whitefriars Lane, Parson's Lane (Princess Street) and Castle Lane were paved for the first time.
  • 1568 The first modern Eisteddfod for Welsh music and literature held at Caerwys
  • 1569 William Massey and Peter Lickerband, the Sheriffs "fought and broke their wands on each other"; they were committed to the Northgate and fined £10 toward mending the walls. Tobacco introduced into England by Sir John Hawkins
  • 1572 The central tower of St. John's Church (see above) fell for the second time, and was not rebuilt as the parishioners were too poor to raise the necessary money. The Archbishop of York forbade the performance of the Mystery Plays- which order was disregarded.
  • 1574 A conduit made at The Cross, neatly ornamented with carved work.
  • 1575 The Bubonic Plague- the 'Black Death'- returned to Chester, mainly confined to the 'Crofts'- only a few persons died. No goods were allowed to enter the city until they had been inspected and 'aired' outside the walls. The Privy Council expressed disapproval of the Mystery Plays, and they ceased to be performed...

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