09 July 2023
Saint John the Baptist Church in
Coventry is ‘one of the most
beautiful churches in England’
The Collegiate and Parish Church of Saint John the Baptist is in the Spon Street area in the centre of Coventry. The church is at the entrance to Spon Street, an enclave of mediaeval architecture in Coventry’s mostly post-war city centre.
Because Saint John’s is on the fringe of city’s heart, it seems to get less attention than it deserves. Yet, Sir George Gilbert Scott, who restored the church in 1875-1877, considered it ‘one of the most beautiful churches in England.’
The church is a Grade I listed building and stands on a relatively small site. But what it lacks in length and width it gains in height. Its tapering and unusually narrow clerestory windows and central tower give the impression of a cathedral in miniature. The tower has oddly corbelled-out turrets at its corners, an over-exaggeration of the original design by Scott.
The church consists of a nave, aisles, central tower, chancel, and north and south chapels. There is a clerestory to nave and chancel. Scott added flying buttresses and battlemented parapets, a new pulpit and a reredos.
Inside, the church is a delight, filled with stained glass, carvings, altarpieces, green men and grotesques, and it has been described as the ‘jewel in Coventry’s mediaeval crown.’
The church was founded in 1344 following the death of Edward II by his widow, Queen Isabella. She had been exiled from public life by her son, Edward III, and when she settled at Cheylesmore Manor in Coventry she began to involve herself in local affairs. She granted the Guild of Saint John a piece of land called Babbelak (Bablake) for building a chapel in honour of God and Saint John the Baptist.
The chapel was used for the guild’s own services, and included a chantry of two priests to sing daily Mass for the royal family. The east part of the church was ready for consecration on 2 May 1350 and it was dedicated on 6 May 1350.
Edward, the Black Prince, Isabella’s grandson, continued the royal patronage of Saint John’s, and the church was enlarged as Coventry flourished in the late mediaeval period. In 1393 the college of priests was increased to nine members, and in the early 16th century this was raised to 12.
With various enlargements and endowments, the chapel became a collegiate church. It remained a guild chapel until the religious guilds were dissolved during the Tudor Reformation. The college was dissolved in 1548 and the priests were pensioned with sums varying from £5 6s. 8d. to £2 13s. 4d. Five of these pensioners were still living in 1555.
The church ceased to be used for worship around 1590, but was restored in 1608. However, during the English Civil War, the church was desecrated in 1648 and used as a prison for royalist Scots soldiers captured at the Battle of Preston. The people of Coventry were Parliamentarians and treated the soldiers coldly, giving rise to the saying ‘sent to Coventry’.
Later, the church was used as stables, then as a dyer’s stretch yard and a market place.
The church was finally restored as a place of worship in 1734 and was created a parish church on 24 July 1734.
The second, Victorian restoration by Scott was instigated by the Irish-born Revd George Cuffe, Rector of Saint John’s in 1874-1896, who worked closely with Scott during the restoration.
The foundation of a wall running north and south through the middle of the chancel was discovered in 1875. Scott thought this was the east wall of the first guild chapel, and that the bases of two piers near the east tower belonged to that earlier chapel.
Almost all the furnishings are Victorian or early 20th century, although most are in the mediaeval style, heavily influence by the Anglo-Catholic Movement. They include a carved rood screen in late mediaeval style.
The reredos above the High Altar was given after the restoration in 1875-1877 by the children of the Revd Thomas Sheepshanks (1796-1875), who had been the rector for 50 years. His children included John Sheepshanks (1834-1912), Bishop of Norwich in 1893-1910.
This late Victorian reredos is an alabaster bas relief with an unusual central figure of Christ in Gethsemane flanked by panels of apostles and angels. It was originally plain and copied from a fresco in Florence under the direction of Scott’s son, John Oldred Scott.
The introduction of rich colourings and gilding in 1908 came with a bequest from Miss EM Powles. Each figure is individually crafted, with many of the apostles identified by their traditional motifs on their garments.
In 2011 the then rector, Father Paul Such, challenged the origin of the work, claiming that the reredos was based on the Ascension fresco by Giotto in the Arena Chapel in Padua.
The north chapel or Lady Chapel has a triptych with panels copied from works by Raphael, including the Madonna and Christ Child with Saint John the Baptist, known as the ‘Madonna of the Goldfinch,’ now in the Uffizi in Florence.
The south chapel has a fine and very characteristic reredos by Sir Ninian Comper with a central Crucifixion group. He also gave the chapel a reliquary for a relic of Saint Valentine, which gained the admiration of Sir John Betjeman. The reliquary with the saint’s finger has been displayed on the altar during Mass on Saint Valentine’s Day, 14 February.
The carved oak lectern designed by Sir Gilbert Scott was given in 1887 in memory of the Revd Algernon Courie Child, a former curate, who died in 1886 at the age of 23. The brass inscription is by a prominent Coventry based brass metalworker, Francis Alfred Skidmore, who worked closely with Scott on many projects.
A profusion of 14th-century carved figures decorates the nave and aisle pillars and the arcade arches. Some are grotesque, grinning beasts, others are human figures.
A piece of alabaster carving set on a north aisle pillar shows the Three Wise Men. It was carved at Nottingham in the first half of the 15th century, and originally formed part of a screen, or reredos.
A brass plate under the west window recalls the depth to which the church was flooded on 31 December 1900. Rapidly thawing snow and heavy rain caused the River Sherbourne and the Swanswell Pool to overflow their banks. Hales Street took the brunt of the floods.
The rector, the Revd Augustus Gossage Robinson, started work immediately as the floods subsided, but the fittings and furnishings and the organ were damaged beyond repair. The church was closed for seven weeks and services were held in double shifts at the new Mission Church of Saint Saviour’s.
It is an irony that PCC pressed for the church to be raised 4 ft during the 1870s restoration, but Scott advised them to save their money as the chances of a flood, in his view, were minimal.
Saint John’s has an interesting mixture of stained glass, from Victorian and Edwardian pieces that survived the Blitz, to more prominent and colourful windows installed in the 1950s.
The post-war glass predates the windows in nearby Coventry Cathedral by only a few years, but is highly figurative and traditional in approach, and a far cry from the revolutionary new works for which Coventry Cathedral became famous within a decade.
The east window, with its vibrant hues, is the one of the last works of Margaret Aldrich Rope, the younger member of a celebrated pair of artists who were cousins, both named Margaret Rope. It depicts the Annunciation above, flanked by Saint John and Saint Luke, balanced by the Expulsion of Adam and Eve below, flanked by Isaiah and Saint John the Baptist.
The War Memorial window on the south wall is by Burlison and Grylls (1922) and lists 98 men of the parish who died in World War I. The window depicts the four nation patron saints, Saint George of England, Saint Patrick of Ireland, Saint David of Wales and Saint Andrew of Scotland.
At the top of the window is a depiction of the Crucifixion; the four figures beneath represent Faith, Hope, Justice and Fortitude. The positioning of the saints is explained by the fact that Lord Montgomery of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment was Irish-born.
The window survived the Coventry Blitz, but was damaged in a fire in 1945; it was restored after World War II.
A window by Burlison and Grylls (1910) in the north aisle commemorates Queen Isabella, the Black Prince, and of the founders of the church, with her coats of arms flanked by banners representing the Guild of the Assumption and the Guild of Saint Catherine.
A paired window by Burlison and Grylls (1910) commemorates Edward the Black Prince, with his coat of arms flanked by banners representing the Guild of Saint John and the Guild of the Holy Trinity.
The Cuffe Window by Charles Eamer Kempe depicts Saint John the Baptist pointing to the arrival of Christ at the River Jordan. It was given in 1897 as a parish memorial to the Revd George Cuffe (1843-1896), who was Rector for 22 years from 1874 to 1895. It survived the Blitz, but had to be repaired in 1988 having been vandalised.
The Robinson Window by George Cooper Abbs of Exeter in the North Chapel was installed in 1959 in memory of the Revd Augustus Gossage Robinson, Rector in 1896-1918, who died in 1956 aged 92.
The window depicts the five Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary: the Annunciation and the Visitation (left), the Nativity (centre), and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and Finding Christ in the Temple (right).
The Madelaine Rollinson Window is dated 1961 and is by the Harry Clarke Studios of Dublin, over 20 years after the death of Harry Clarke.
The window depicts Christ the High Priest superimposed on the Tree of Life whose branches are the Seven Sacraments: Baptism, Penance, Confirmation, Ordination, Holy Matrimony, Holy Unction and Holy Communion. The Hand of God is seen above pointing to the Risen Christ, while an image based on a photograph of Madelaine Rollinson is placed discreetly in the bottom left-hand corner.
The east window in the south chapel depicting Saint John the Baptist is by Arthur E Buss of Goddard & Gibbs (1951). It is in memory of Barbara Ann Weaver, a parishioner.
Saint John the Baptist Church escaped major damage in the November 1940 Blitz that destroyed much of Coventry, beyond the loss of much – but not all – of its Victorian stained glass.
Saint John’s is in the Anglo-Catholic tradition and has passed a resolution to receive alternative episcopal oversight, which it receives from Bishop Paul Thomas of Oswestry. The Rector of Saint John’s, Father Dexter Bracey, who is also the Bishop’s representative of The Society in the Diocese of Coventry.
Saint John the Baptist Church is open from 10 am to 12 noon every Saturday, and on occasion during exhibitions. The Eucharist is celebrated on Sundays at 11 am and 6 pm.