Church of St John Baptist, Cirencester

Cirencester Parish Church is the largest parish church in Gloucestershire, funded by the thriving wool trade of the 13th century.

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History of the Church of St John Baptist

Christianity has a long history in Cirencester, which was once the Roman town of Corinium. The first church is believed to have been established here in about 300 AD. In 577, the church and the town were destroyed by Saxons.

A Saxon church was built in Cirencester in about 700, but in 1117 this was demolished and replaced with a Norman church. The new building coincided with the founding of the adjacent Abbey of St. Mary by King Henry I. The Norman church underwent an Early English makeover in 1235-50, when the nave was rebuilt, the chancel was extended and the Lady Chapel was added.

There are very few documents pertaining to the church's history and it is not certain who paid for the church or why it was built to such grand dimensions in a town of only 2,500 people. But there are indications it was funded in part by wool merchants, like other fine "wool churches" in this area. The monastic community also made generous contributions to the building.

Construction on the great tower began in 1400, funded by politics following the Wars of the Roses. Two half-brothers of the deposed Yorkist king Richard II were arrested and executed in Circencester's market place. The new king, Henry IV of Lancaster, approved this action and the resulting funds allowed the building of the tower.

Another flurry of activity occured in the late medieval era: the grand south porch was added in 1500, and the nave was rebuilt in the Perpendicular Gothic style 1515-30. This was funded by Cirencester's wealthy wool merchants, whose crests adorn the pillars.

The golden age of Cirencester's great church came to a halt with the Reformation and subsequent Dissolution of the Monasteries. The adjacent abbey was destroyed (1540), enthusiasm for the church waned, and the town grew poorer. A wall was built across the nave and the new space was used as a meeting space. The town's fire engine was stored under the tower!

In the English Civil War, Cirencester took the side of Cromwell and Parliament. After a 1642 battle with Royalists ended in defeat, over 1,000 townspeople were imprisoned overnight in Cirencester church. The following morning they were marched to Oxford to seek pardon from Charles I.

The church's medieval stained glass had perished by this time, but not through Puritan violence. Instead, the leadwork that held the pieces together was neglected and the windows simply fell apart.

The fortunes of Cirencester and its church improved after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. The wall across the nave was removed (as was the fire engine) and galleries were added to the nave in order to accommodate congregations of more than 1,200 people.

Sir George Gilbert Scott led a full restoration in 1865-67, which focused especially on strengthening the structure of the church. The number of burials in the nave had seriously weakened the foundations, so the deceased were reinterred in the crypt under the Lady Chapel and the nave was reinforced. Another major restoration was undertaken in 1965-87.

What to See at the Church of St John Baptist

The exterior of Cirencester Parish Church is dominated by its great west tower, begun in 1400, and the south porch known as "Town Hall." The tower's huge spur buttresses were an emergency measure taken in 1405, when it was discovered the foundations were built over a filled-in Roman ditch and were sinking.

The three-story Perpendicular south porch was built in 1490 as a meeting place for the abbey to conduct business with the Royal Commissioners. After the Dissolution, it took on various other functions including Town Hall, and that name has stuck. In 1671, the Bishop of Gloucester granted it to Cirencester Church for parish use.

The plan of Cirencester Church is rather unique, with a shape like a rectangle rather than the usual cross formed of nave and transepts. The Perpendicular nave (built 1515-30) is almost square in shape. It is 17m (57ft) high and well-lit by many large windows in the side aisles and high clerestory.

The pews are Victorian, made of oak and carved with designs copied from medieval originals. The font dates from the 14th century. It was removed from the church in the 18th century and rediscovered in the abbey grounds in 1865. The church's pulpit dates from c.1440 and is notable for its unique open stonework and fragments of decorative painting.

The greatest treasure held by the church is the Boleyn Cup, made of silver gilt for Anne Boleyn in 1535, the year before her execution. Her daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, gave it to her physician, Richard Master, who in turn presented it to Cirencester Church.

The chancel was built in 1115 but has been much altered since. It was widened to the south in 1180 and extended to the east in 1240. The eastern column of the south side is Roman in origin. The stone reredos was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott's son in the 19th century.

To improve the lighting of the chancel, the east window was enlarged from three to five lights in 1300. The glass dates from the 15th and 16th centuries and was positioned in the 20th century.

St Catherine's Chapel occupies the north aisle of the chancel and is set apart for private prayer. It is actually dedicated to four saints: Catherine, Christopher, Nicholas and Anthony. The north wall has a mural of St. Christopher, a giant bearded man with the boy Christ on his shoulder. The fine fan vaulting of the chapel was given to the church after the Dissolution, probably from Cirencester Abbey.

The Lady Chapel dates from 1240, when the cult of the Virgin Mary was especially popular and such chapels were added to churches around the country. The statue of the Virgin next to the altar was donated in thanksgiving for the end of World War II. Over the small Norman arch from St Catherine's Chapel is a faded muralof the Last Judgment, showing a load of souls being pitchforked into hell by the devil. Another historic treasure displayed here is a very ancient Saxon crucifix of unknown origin. It is made of stone and repeats the crucifxion scene on four sides, creating a cross-shape on the top and bottom as well.

The Lady Chapel is dominated by the Bridges Monument, the magnificent tomb of the early 17th-century lawyer Humphrey Bridges, his wife, and eleven children. The couple's effigies lie flat with their hands clasped in prayer; Humphrey looks sober and reverent while his wife looks warm and loving. Across the way is the luxurious, reclining effigy tomb of John Master, a late-17th-century gentleman.

Off the north nave aisle is the Trinity Chapel, built in the 15th century as a chantry chapel. It was founded by Sir Richard Dixton and Sir William Prelatte of the house of the Duke of York, who played a big part in starting the Wars of the Roses in 1455. A medieval stained glass bust of him has is preserved in the chapel's east window.

The area behind the altar in the Trinity Chapel displays brasses collected from around the church, including those of Sir Richard Dixton and of the chantry priest Ralph Parsons (d.1478).

Quick Facts on the Church of St John Baptist

Site Information
Names:Church of St John Baptist · Church of St John the Baptist · Church of St John the Baptist and Attached Railings and Gates · Cirencester Church
Country:England
Categories:parish churches; Grade I listed buildings; England's Thousand Best Churches: Five Stars; wool churches
Faiths:Anglicanism
Styles:Gothic
Dedication: St. John the Baptist
Dates:12th-13th C
Status: active
Visitor and Contact Information
Coordinates:51.717546° N, 1.967897° W
Address:Cirencester, England
Lodging:View hotels near the Church of St John Baptist
Note: This information was accurate when first published and we do our best to keep it updated, but details such as opening hours and prices can change without notice. To avoid disappointment, please check with the site directly before making a special trip.

References

  1. Personal visit (March 19, 2006).
  2. Cirencester Parish Church (Pitkin Guide, 1997).

More Information

© Holly Hayes
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Map of the Church of St John Baptist, Cirencester

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