16 August 2019

Saint John’s Church:
the parish church that
moved in Peterborough

The Church of Saint John the Baptist is officially the parish church of Peterborough (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

It would be easy to excuse visitors to Peterborough Cathedral who miss the city’s parish church, Saint John the Baptist Church, which is only a few steps away but is hidden from the cathedral by the Guildhall in Cathedral Square.

The seemingly strange state of Peterborough having both a cathedral and a parish church within a stone’s throw of each other is due to the fact that the cathedral was for the monks, the church for the townspeople, and the former Benedictine abbey did not become a cathedral until 1540 with the formation of the new Diocese of Peterborough at the Tudor Reformation.

The Church of Saint John the Baptist is officially designated as Peterborough’s parish church and its vicar is the Vicar of Peterborough. There are several other Anglican churches throughout the city.

The original parish church, dating from the 11th century, was some distance to the east of the current location, on a site now occupied by Bishop Creighton Academy.

But the site of the church in the Bond or Boongate area was subject to flooding. When the centre of Peterborough moved west, the church was relocated stone by stone. The present church was built in 1402, using material from the original church and some material from the nave of the chapel of Saint Thomas Becket by the abbey west gate nearby.

The completed church was dedicated to Saint John the Baptist on 26 June 1407.

When two royal funerals took place in the cathedral in the following century – Katharine of Aragon in 1536 and Mary Queen of Scots in 1587 – the two queens were buried by the same sexton of Saint John’s, Robert Scarlett, and the bells of Saint John’s Church rang for both funerals.

Following the English Civil War, the Puritan Parliament made an order in 1651 to demolish the church and to use it as building materials. Thankfully, the plan was never carried out.

A restoration programme in 1819 ‘brutally swept away’ old features and added the clerestory and galleries.

A later, Victorian restoration was commissioned by the Revd Henry Syers in 1880. The architect John Loughborough Pearson (1817-1897), designer of Truro Cathedral, designed new roofs, a new clerestory, aisle parapets and tracery in 1882-1883. The galleries were removed, the east window unblocked and raised, the floors were lowered and a new pulpit was added. John Thompson was the builder, and the cost was £11,000.

Saint John the Baptist received a Grade I heritage listing in 1952 as a prominent and ‘architecturally ambitious parish church ... exemplifying Perpendicular town church design.’

The early 15th century, two-storey South Porch at the Church of Saint John the Baptist (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The south porch, 15th century font, 20th century screens, the monuments and tombs are interesting features of the church.

The church has an aisled nave and chancel, with the chancel projecting one bay beyond the ends of the aisles. The west tower is set over the west bay of the nave with the aisles extending past it.

The exterior is largely Perpendicular in appearance, although this is partly due to extensive 19th century restoration. The tall west tower has large, four-light, transomed bell openings and corner turrets with pinnacles.

The west door has a west window above.

The nave and chancel are roofed as one, with an embattled parapet and three-light clerestory windows with square heads.

The aisles and chancel chapels are also roofed continuously, and have plain parapets. The aisle and chapel windows have mainly 19th and 20th Perpendicular style tracery in a range of patterns, including the fine, large East Window of 1881-1883.

Two windows towards the west ends of both aisles retain very good intersecting Y-tracery of 1819 with the leading for the clear glazing following the pattern of the tracery.

The lower part of the 15th century South Porch is open and vaulted (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The early 15th century south porch is two storeys high. The lower part is open and vaulted with good bosses, the upper part has two-light early 15th century windows. It has a plain parapet with pinnacles and a heraldic beast said to be an antelope. There is a stained-glass window in the open, lower section.

The shallow, embattled north porch dates from 1473 and has carved waterspouts.

The church has a very large and spacious interior, also entirely Perpendicular in style. The nave arcades are tall, and have complex moulded arches on quatrefoil piers with moulded capitals and high, polygonal bases.

The arches at the north and south chancel chapels are similar, but simpler, and the chancel arch dies into the wall at a high level.

A stained glass window of the Baptism of Christ by Saint John the Baptist in the South Porch (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The tower has north, south and east arches in a Perpendicular style, and there are further arches dividing the second last and final west bays of each aisle, replacing early 19th century blocking inserted to stabilise the tower.

A new stained-glass window, designed by Brian Thomas and installed in 1968, depicts notable people connected to Peterborough: Symon Gunton, vicar of the parish during the plague in 1665-1667; Nurse Edith Cavell, who was executed in Belgium in 1915; Captain Thomas Mellows, who died in 1944, fighting in the French Resistance; and the nonjuror and spiritual writer William Law (1686-1761).

The late Georgian iron railings around the church probably date from 1819. They have twisted posts and slender, spiked intermediate shafts.

The church was refurnished in the High Anglican style in 1938, including a rood and reredos. In recent years, the west end was reordered at the west end, with the removal of some pews and screens, to create meeting and service areas.

The tall west tower has large, four-light, transomed bell openings and corner turrets with pinnacles (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Between Saint John’s and Peterborough Cathedral, the Old Guild Hall in Cathedral Square dates from 1671, and was built by John Lovin, who also restored the Bishop’s Palace after the restoration of Charles II.

The Guildhall, which was restored 1929, has two storeys and attics, and two gabled dormers with leaded windows. It is built of stone, has a hipped stone slate roof, coved eaves, and cornice.

The ground floor is open with round-headed arches and shield-shaped keystones. There are four-light mullion and transom windows, casements with leaded lights in moulded frames, and the centre window is flanked by narrow pilasters. The able at the east side has Royal Arms on a panel.

The Church of Saint John the Baptist seen from the ground floor of the Guildhall in Cathedral Square (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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