Parish of Chester St Peter with St John the Baptist by maclaren1


                               (from our new guide book)

The history of the Parish Church of St John the Baptist is a fascinating study into
the progress of Christianity in these Islands and our history as a Nation, but more
particularly, that of the City of Chester. From Walled City of the Legions through to
its Medieval, Tudor and later Georgian splendour, still to be seen in its famous
Rows; touched greatly by the Civil War when Chester remained loyal to the King, St
John’s was badly used by the occupying Parliamentary forces; through a period of
decline as the River Dee silted-up and the ‘port’ moved first to Parkgate then
Neston and thence to Liverpool on the River Mersey. Today Chester is a thriving
commercial and heritage City that attracts business and visitors from all over the

As you read our history and walk round both our Churches, because you should
also visit St Peter’s at the Cross, the Guild Church of Chester, where our Parish and
Ecumenical Offices are situated, you will see the dedication of many people over at
least thirteen centuries to the preservation and enhancement, not just of the
Church buildings but more importantly of the ‘faith’ that underpins the
buildings… That is faith in the One God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Church buildings are nothing if there is no faith, they become just quaint archaic
reminders of the past… Well neither St John’s or St Peter’s are in that category;
they are both living Churches and one of the things most frequently written in our
Visitors Books is the thanks of so many people for the peace and tranquillity that
can be found, particularly at St John’s. As Rector I often just sit with people either
in the main body of the Nave, or in the Lady Chapel and we talk; people will open
their hearts to the willing listener and so often, we can give them reassurance and
For a Priest one of the most moving and humbling things I do is to read out the
simple prayers that people write out in the Lady Chapel for us to remember and
commend to God at our mid week Eucharist… If people know that they can come
in off the street and sit and pray and feel that they are in the presence of God, then
we are fulfilling a vital Christian need…. We are making ourselves available, we are
making our Churches relevant.
Sometimes we come across people in Church who have never experienced God, yet
have felt a real desire to come and think out their problems, their hopes and their
fears in such a place as St John’s. We as Christians must remember that in Jesus
Christ there are no barriers of race, colour, class, creed, age or intellect, all are
welcome to sit at His table and to all is extended the promise of eternal life
through the sacrifice of the Cross. If you want to know more about Christianity
and the Church please get in touch with me, my details are on the Notice Board
and in the Parish Magazine.
In addition to its importance as a Church we also want St John’s to become a focus
for community activity; to become a first rate concert centre… Our acoustics are
amongst the finest of any building in the UK, we want to stage plays, meetings and
exhibitions; in effect to become a real community hub, one that Chester can be
proud to have in its midst.
                                                    God Bless
                                                    David Chesters Rector
                             The History of St John’s
    Foundation and early history: putting St John’s into context and perspective
      dclxxxix Anno Domini d.c. octogesimo ix Rex Merciorum Ethelredus, avunculus beate Werburge,
      ope Wilfrici episcopi Cestriensis, ut reffert Giraldus, fundavit ecclesiam collegiatam in suburbio
                            civitatis Cestrie in honorem Sancti Johannis Baptiste.

        689 In the year of our lord six hundred and eighty-nine Ethelred1, king of the Mercians, the
      uncle of S. Werburg, with the assistance of Wilfric, bishop of Chester, as Giraldus [Cambrensis]
      relates, founded a collegiate church in the suburbs of Chester in honour of S. John the Baptist .

                      Annales Cestrienses - Chronicle of the Abbey of S. Werburg, at Chester

When my predecessor Canon Samuel Cooper Scott wrote the definitive history of St
John’s, based on a series of lectures that he gave towards the end of the nineteenth
century,2 the dates of foundation of the Church were set between AD 689 and 907.
The generally accepted date today, based on archaeological evidence that was not
totally available to Cooper Scott is that St John’s was founded by King Æthelred of
Mercia in 689, which was in fact, the date he favoured, and enhanced in 907 by
Æthelred, Lord of Mercia and the Lady Æthelfleda the daughter of King Alfred the
Great, who history tells us was a formidable woman, and who also founded our
Chapel of Ease, St Peter’s at the Cross, the Guild Church of Chester.

What however puzzled Cooper Scott was, why this Church was built in what was a
forest, outside the defensive walls of Chester; the Roman walls still remained and
were in a reasonably good condition; and why, did a later Æthelred and his royal
wife enhance it? I wasn’t so much puzzled, as intrigued and could see Cooper
Scott’s dilemma, even accepting the legend that Æthelread was told in a vision to
build a church where he saw a white hart 3…the area was not populated and would
indeed have been subject to incursions by the native British who had fled into what
is now Clwyd, Powys and Gwynedd after the Saxon invasions and that in itself
provides us with a clue.

As an archaeologist rather than a priest I examined the evidence. The site of St
John’s is so close to the partially excavated Roman Amphitheatre that it is certainly
possible, indeed more that likely, that Æthelred built his church on a site that
already had Christian connections, perhaps connected to martyrdoms in the
Amphitheatre. The Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English
people talks about the persecutions in the reign of Diocletian (245 - 312AD) and
the martyrdom of St Alban, but also of others and he goes on to say that: ‘when the
storm of persecution had ceased, the faithful Christians who in time of
danger had hidden themselves in woods and deserts and secret caverns
came out of hiding. They rebuilt the churches which had been razed to
the ground; they endowed and built shrines to the holy martyrs.’ 4
Bede gives us much food for thought!

  Except for this quote the King’s name is spelled throughout using the Anglo-Saxon idiom
  Lectures on the History of St. John Baptist Church and Parish in the City of Chester. Rev S Cooper
Scott Ma. Phillipson and Goulder, Chester, 1892.
  Legends of the White Hart abound in British mythology and Arthurian legend. The Abbey of
Holyrood was said to be similarly founded
  The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede. p.14 Oxford World Classics. OUP, Oxford.
Another possibility is that an early Christian building was
constructed over a Temple dedicated to the ‘Persian’ Sun God
Mithras. It is known that the early Christians had no problems
using pagan sites and it is very likely that Chester had a Mithraic
Cult following, which was open only to men, and very popular
with the Army. No evidence has yet come to light of a Mithraeum
                                                                    (Iranian Statue)
in Chester, but it is inconceivable that one did not exist…but
where? Under St John’s? We may find out one day when sufficient funds are
available to support a further and specific scientific evaluation of this important
site. Additionally we should also take into consideration that during the reign of
Constantine it was common to build Christian Churches outside the walls of
Cities…. St Peter’s in Rome and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are of course
classic examples.

When Christianity came to these Islands is not known, but again by recourse to
Bede we learn that in 156 AD Lucius a king of Britain sent a request to Pope
Eleutherius that he might be made a Christian ‘His pious request was quickly
granted and the Britons preserved the faith which they had received, inviolate and
entire, in peace and quiet, until the time of the Emperor Diocletian.’ 5 The problem
with accepting this is that there seems very conflicting evidence about Bede’s
sources. Of course, we have the legend that inspired William Blake to write
Jerusalem; that our Lord, as a boy, came to England with the merchant Joseph of
Arimathea and is commemorated both by ‘And did those feet in ancient times’ but
also by the Glastonbury thorn said to have sprouted from the staff of Joseph. We
can however get into the realms of fantasy here and there are all sorts of legends
that Jesus spent the years before his ministry began, in England, India and even

There are also legends that Joseph brought our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary to
live at Glastonbury following the Crucifixion, but the stress must be on legend.
Nevertheless there has always been a particular devotion in these Islands to the
Mother of our Lord…So you never know!

Certainly by the end of the Roman Occupation, Christianity had been firmly
established in the British Isles. The Romans had brought peace and protected the
Britons against Anglo Saxon and Irish marauders. It has been suggested that St
Germanus may have founded the Church at Wallasey in the early fifth century.
Evidence can be cited that he was in both what is now England and North Wales
and led the Briton’s against the Saxon or Irish invaders in AD 430 at Maes-y-Gamon
near Mold (Y Wyddgrug). St Patrick (387- 461), of a Romano-British family worked
among the Irish and brought them to a knowledge of Christ. A Legend that keeps
re-surfacing is that Arthur was crowned King of the Britons on this site; certainly
the story is that he was crowned in St John’s. A fascinating and convincing theory
was propounded by Robert Stoker in his book The Legacy of Arthur's Chester
(1963), who pointed out that there were actually two cities bearing the name
Caerleon, and, after the departure of the Legions, it was here, Caerleon-upon-Dee
that became the ecclesiastical and civil capital of the Kings of Britain, Capital of
Wales, GHQ of the centuries-long campaigns against the Saxons and the city of the
coronation, in the early seventh century, of a not-so-legendary King Arthur, not
Caerleon-on-Usk (Roman Isca) in South Wales.6

    ibid. p.19 .
    An Introduction to Chester
What is very clear; is that what became Celtic Christianity was well established in
Britain at the end of the fourth century and in all probability came to Britain and
the Roman Port of Chester following not long after the death of Jesus. It is
circumstantial, but more than highly probable that in this City of Chester, a major
Roman City, Christians met and worshipped and that being the case, it is likely, as
recorded by Bede that the Diocletian persecutions, were felt in Chester and one of
the shrines or early Church mentioned by Bede gave Æthelred cause to erect an
important Church in 689. Here Æthelred built his great Saxon Minster, the first
Christian Church of new order in the Roman model and as defined by St Augustine
of Canterbury in the Sixth Century, as the pattern of Christian belief and worship
was re-establishing itself following the initial trauma of the pagan Saxon invasions.

The Saxon Minster and the homage of the ‘kings’ to Ædgar the Peaceful in 973
after his Coronation at Bath

We have no idea at all what sort of a Church was built by Æthelred 7, nor how
Æthelfleda, Lady of Mercia8, daughter of King Alfred the Great, and protector of
Chester, enhanced St John’s in 907. The year of enhancement was a very special
year for Chester as the relics of St Werburgh which had been translated from
Hanbury in Staffordshire, where in 680 AD, the Saxon princess, Werburgh, became
abbess of a nunnery founded by her brother Æthelred, King of Mercia, the Royal
founder of this Church. Their mother was St. Ærmenilda, daughter of Ærcombert,
King of Kent, and St. Sexburga, and their father, Wulfhere, son of Penda the fiercest
of the Mercian kings. The relics of St Werburgh were re-interred in the new and
tiny Abbey dedicated to the Saint on the site of the Church
of St Peter and St Paul; Æethelfleda built a new Church of
St Peter at the Cross on the site of the Roman Principium.
Nevertheless it is clear that the most important Church in
Chester in Saxon times was St John’s; it was a ‘secular’
Minster Church and not a monastic foundation, hence the
building of an Abbey dedicated to St Werburgh and it was
to St John’s that King Ædgar came after his great Coronation
at Bath and in St John’s, the ‘kings’ who had rowed Ædgar
on the River Dee did their homage to him as King of the English. King Ædgar being rowed
                                                                                    to St John’s (detail from
                                                                                    the Great West Window)
Minster Churches are basically churches that were established
in the Anglo Saxon period as missionary teaching churches. 9 The Saxon system of
mission was based on the Minster, the central mother church with a group of
resident clergy who served not only in the mother church itself but also in smaller
daughter churches in the towns and villages in the surrounding area. That St
John’s was the Saxon Minster Church of West Mercia speaks of its great importance
as a centre of Christianity not only for the City but also the surrounding area.


Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews in the review on his Web Site says that ‘St John’s
Church became an important ecclesiastical centre in the City. By the time of the
Domesday Book, the area (around St John’s) was known as ‘Bishop’s Borough’ as

    See Appendix for brief details of the Mercian Kingdom and its Kings ) Not included with this paper
    See Appendix for a short biography of Æthelfleda                    )         “         “
    York Minster Educational Web Page
the church and its Parish were the Manorial property of the Bishops of Lichfield.
This in fact was a later development as in 1075 King William and his Archbishop
Lanfranc ordered Bishops of the English Dioceses to not only reside in the
principal cities of their Sees but to set up the seats, their ‘Cathedra’ in those Cities
and so Bishop Peter de Leya did precisely that, and moved from Lichfield which at
that time (1075) was called a rather dirty place and not worthy of the seat of a
Bishop. (with apologies to one of its most famous sons, the formidable Dr Johnson ) Even
before the Norman conquest the title "Bishop of Chester" is found in documents
applied to prelates who would be more correctly described as Bishops of Mercia.
After the Council of London in 1075 decreed the transfer of all Episcopal chairs to
cities, Peter, Bishop of Mercia, duly removed his seat from Lichfield to Chester, and
became known as Bishop of Chester.

Here he chose the great Saxon Minster Church of St. John the Baptist as his
cathedral. Bishop Peter pulled down the Minster, which we are told in the reign of
Edward the Confessor, was enriched with 'precious ornaments' by Earl Leofric (d.
1057)10. and began to build in massive Norman style. The next bishop, Robert de
Limesey however, transferred the site of the See to Coventry, the monastic
foundation there being considerably richer than Chester, although he retained the
Episcopal palace at Chester. The Diocese of Coventry and Lichfield was extremely
large, and it was convenient to have something akin to a cathedral at Chester, even
though the cathedra itself were elsewhere; we therefore find that the church of St.
John ranked as a cathedral for a considerable time, and later when the Collegiate
Church was founded, it had its own dean and chapter of secular canons and vicars
that remained until its dissolution under Edward VI.

Even though the Bishops were no longer resident here for the most part, the
bishop and archdeacon retained residences within the precincts of St. John's. By
the time of Bishop Stavensby (1224–38) the chapter of St. John's had abandoned
any rights it had in Episcopal elections, but, St. John's remained the headquarters
of the local ecclesiastical administration. Ordinations were held in St. Johns, and
one of the canons was usually the archdeacon. In the 16th century wills were
usually proved at the church before the archdeacon's officials.11 During the reign of
Henry V (1413 – 1422) we see one of the secular canons Thomas Walton, translated
from the clerical obscurity of the Collegiate Church of St John to co ntrol the Royal
revenues of Wales.12 In the period from the establishing of St John’s as first a
Cathedral and then a Collegiate Church until the Henrican and Edwardian reforms
took hold, Abbots of St Werburgh would come in procession to St John’s to receive
the Blessing of either Bishop or Dean. A further indication of the early importance
of St. John's is its possession of burial rights within the city and its environs. 13

We also know that Llewelyn ap Iorwerth commonly described by his title Llewelyn
Fawr (Llewelyn the Great) married Joan or Joanna (in Welsh - Siwan) at Chester in
May 1206 when Joan was 15. We are however unsure whether the marriage took
place at St John’s or the Abbey, but given the considerable antipathy that existed
between Llewelyn and Ranulf de Blundeville the 6th Earl of Chester, it is possible
that the marriage took place at St John’s outside the walls of the City. A fascinating
fictional account of the marriage and Joan’s life with Llewelyn with frequent

     A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 part 2 2005. A T Thacker and C P Lewis (editors),

     Agincourt (The King, The Campaign, The Battle) Juliet Barker. p32 Abacus, London 2007.
     A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 part 2 2005
references to the City and the Earls is contained in Sharon Penman’s historical
novel ‘Here be dragons’ published by Penguin in 1982 and republished recently.

Additionally we are reminded each year by the Mid-Summer Watch Festival in
Chester that these modern festivities stem as a direct result of the great Medieval
Fair of St John held on the Patronal Feast. From the early 1100s The Cheshire
Minstrels were required as a condition of their Licences to come to St John’s each
year on St John’s Day, to approach the Church on their knees and to hear Mass;
their Licences were then renewed or granted in the presence of the assembled
Ecclesiastical Dignitaries by the Dutton Family as agents of the Earl and Constable
of Chester. This continued even after the Reformation, but lapsed in 1756.

In 2008 the Minstrels appearing in St John’s was restored as a part of the St John’s
Midsummer Fair. It is hoped that the Minstrels will become an integral part of the
Fair for many years to come. Additionally the first meeting of the Court of Chivalry
that decided the Grosvenor/Scrope armorial problem convened in St Johns in 1385.
This was the case that decided that the simple Armorial bearings of ‘A bend Or’
should be borne by the Scrope family and not the Grosvenor’s.

There are many legends attached to St. John’s; that of Æthelred and his white hart
of course, but also that referred to earlier, of King Arthur being crowned on the
site of the Church; that King Harold escaped the field of Senlac Hill in 1066 and
came to Chester living out his life in the Anchorite Cell below the Church. We are
said to be one of the most haunted sites in Chester and in the walls of the
medieval ruins is sited a coffin reminding us of our mortality; all in all as the
Department of History at Manchester University wrote two years ago: ‘St John’s is
one of the most important Churches in this country.’

                                  The Church
And so to the Church itself: The great columns of the four surviving bays of the
nave are pure Norman, dating from Bishop Peter’s building in 1075; with round
piers, scalloped or dog toothed capitals and double-stepped arches. Above them,
the Triforium is around a hundred years later and is called 'transitional' having
four pointed arches on ringed shafts in each bay. Above the Triforium is the
clerestory; also with four arches per bay, shafts with leaf capitals and windows
alternating with blank arches; these are Early English, and date from the 13th
century. This remarkable combination of architectural features of three separate
centuries is known to exist nowhere else in this country. St . John’s also boasts a
superb Norman crossing which supported, and has outlasted the central tower
which collapsed twice and after the final collapse was never replaced. The first bay
of what is now the Chancel and the one surviving bay of each transept are also

Both the history and architecture of St John’s are indeed remarkable and it
contains one of the finest examples in Europe of the transition from the heavy
Norman/Romanesque of Bishop Peter in the Nave pillars to the slender Gothic of
the Triforium and Clerestory. One of the great pillars at the crossing that originally
supported the central tower has a fine medieval painting of John the Baptist. Sir
Nikolaus Pevsner, the famous architectural and art historian said that entering St
John’s it is like walking back into the 11th century. English Heritage have called it

‘the gem of Chester’. Even the organ is famous having originally been sited in
Westminster Abbey and played at the Coronation of Queen Victoria in 1838, it was
transported to Chester by Barge and installed in St. John’s. The Great west Window
donated by the 1st Duke of Westminster is a history of the Church in stained glass
and was installed during the Victorian restoration of the Church towards the end
of the nineteenth century. With the exception of the monstrosity of the pulpit
which is completely out of place and is far too large, the ‘Victorian restoration’ was
to the benefit of the Church rather than a detraction.

To gain a proper impression of this ‘Cathedral Church’ the visitor needs to walk
through both the present Church and the ruins at the east end.

                                  St John’s today

Whilst St John’s is a Grade I Listed Building attached to and part of a Scheduled
Ancient Monument it is not a quaint relic of the past but a living and working
Church within at what might be termed the lower end to the middle of the ‘Anglo
Catholic Tradition’. Matins is said daily, there is a popular mid-week Eucharist and
the full range of Services on Sundays and Holy Days. Additionally it is very popular
as a Concert venue as its acoustics are amongst the finest of any Church in the
United Kingdom; from May to September the ‘Wednesday at One’ series of recitals
are very popular as are the Concerts given by the St John’s Festival Orchestra and
the Bach Singers. However there is no point in pretending that we do not have
problems, we do…. The upkeep of a Grade I Listed Building that is open to the
public 365 days of the year without any outside funding at all, is a considerable
drain on the resources of the Parish. It has to be said that St John’s has not had the
publicity it so richly deserves; it has suffered from long interregna and it is to the
worshipping community of the Church that ALL credit must go for keeping it open
to the general public to the detriment of Parish finances. St John’s possesses
committed Officers in the Wardens, Secretary and Treasurer and a dedicated and
far sighted Parochial Church Council.

We have therefore decided as the Custodians for this generation, of this priceless
building, which is both a Church and an important historic asset not only to
Chester but to the Nation, to launch an Appeal so that we can embark on a very
ambitious project of restoration and enhancement; the restoration is essential and
at Appendix I (not included with this paper) is a summary of the Architect’s
Quiquennial report.


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