09 February 2023

A mediaeval church, a chapel
and a former hospital survive
on the streets of Northampton

Saint John’s, on the corner of Bridge Street and Saint John’s Street, is one of the oldest surviving buildings in Northampton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023; click on images for full-screen viewing)

Patrick Comerford

During my self-guided tour and walk around Northampton, I went in search of churches and chapel, cathedrals and castle ruins, and also found the site of a mediaeval synagogue, and the present modern synagogue.

The former chapel of Saint John’s Hospital and the closed Saint Peter’s Churches are two mediaeval church buildings that caught by attention during the day.

The Church Northampton is the name of a wedding and events venue in the town centre of Northampton. This one-of-a-kind venue in England, has more than eight centuries of history behind it and is brimming with character.

Saint John’s Hospital was opened in 1138 and in the 885 years since then it has been a hospital, hostel and hospice, a soldiers’ burial ground, part of Northampton’s first railway station, and a Roman Catholic church, before its present use as a modern restaurant.

Saint John’s, on the corner of Bridge Street and Saint John’s Street, stands like an isolated but eye-caching complex in the middle of a traffic island. Yet, this one of the oldest surviving buildings in Northampton.

Saint John’s was built in 1138, close to one the main gates of the walled town of Northampton, in a time when hospitals were hostels and guesthouses for pilgrims on their way to Rome or Canterbury, and places of rest for the poor, the sick and for orphans.

The buildings consisted originally of a chapel and infirmary, and a master’s house that was demolished in the 19th century. The site was dedicated to Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist, an unusual double dedication, and was run by a religious community consisting of the Master and Brothers.

Saint John’s Hospital, Northampton, was built in 1138 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Henry II granted Saint John’s Hospital a Royal Charter in 1154-1162, acknowledging its position and purpose. One of the witnesses to this charter was ‘Thomas the Chancellor’, Thomas Becket, later to become Archbishop of Canterbury. The community was sustained by the rents from gifts of land donated by wealthy local people.

During the Wars of the Roses, a large Lancastrian army swarmed south overwhelming the Earl of Warwick and his Yorkist force at Northampton. The Battle of Northampton between Lancastrians and Yorkists was fought in 1460 on the fields of Delapre and many of the 10,000 troops were killed. Some of the bodies were buried in the grounds of Saint John’s, while many others were swept away down the river.

Saint John’s was initially under the immediate patronage of the Bishop of Lincoln. In pre-Reformation days, there were grave charges of mismanagement and the monopolisation of the funds by non-resident masters. These problems materially increased with the formation of the Diocese of Peterborough at the Reformation in 1541, when Northampton ceased to have any connection with Lincoln.

From that time on, the position of Master of Saint John’s, Northampton, came to be regarded as a lucrative sinecure in the gift of the Bishop of Lincoln. The problem first came to a head in 1573, when Bishop Thomas Cooper presented Arthur Wake as Master of Saint John’s.

Wake became a Canon of Christ Church, Oxford in 1567, and Rector of Billing, Northamptonshire, in 1569. But he was deprived of these positions nonconformity in 1573 and retired to Jersey.

However, Wake apparently managed to retain or recover the position of Master of Saint John’s. He continued to live on the Channel Islands, and refused to return to England, despite vigorous protests by leading figures. In a petition to the Privy Council in 1584, they said less than one-twentieth of the hospital revenues were given to ‘the reliefe of any impotent aged or feeble persons.’

Wake died in July 1596 and is buried on the north side of the choir at Christ Church, Oxford.

The post-Reformation abuses of the foundation continued, despite constant litigation, until the death of Canon Richard Tomline Pretyman, who was the Master from 1814 until he died in 1866. Pretyman, who regarded the post as a sinecure, was also the Precentor of Lincoln, where another brother, Canon George Thomas Tomline Pretyman, was the Canon Chancellor; their father, George Pretyman Tomline (1750-1827), was Bishop of Lincoln and Dean of Saint Paul’s (1787-1820) and Bishop of Winchester (1820-1827).

Pretyman died in 1866 and his successor, Nathaniel Thomas Hughes, was appointed in 1871.The master’s house and garden along with with the chapel were sold in 1870 to the Bedford and Northampton Railway Company, which demolished the master’s house and built Saint John’s Street Railway Station.

The hospital itself was refounded in 1876 at Weston Favell, and the hospital and the adjacent chapel were sold to Henry Mulliner.

After 67 years, Saint John’s station was demolished in 1939 and the charitable foundation that still owned the site sold much of the land to fund Saint John’s Convalescence home in Weston Favell.

The chapel re-opened as a Catholic Church in 1955. However, dwindling congregations, a lack of money, a fire and several attacks by vandals led it to close again in October 1990. The Richardsons Group bought the site in 1997. Saint John’s was refurbished completely in 2004-2005, and the building was restored and equipped as a modern restaurant.

Saint Peter’s Church stands on a site between the former Anglo-Saxon palace and Northampton Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Saint Peter’s Church on Marefair is one of the finest examples of Norman architecture in the town. The church stands in a pretty churchyard in the town centre, beside the buried remains of a Saxon palace. Inside, I understand, this 900-year-old Norman church is filled with glorious carved treasures.

The church stands on a site between the sites of a former Anglo-Saxon palace and Northampton Castle. Two previous churches have been on the site, one built in wood, the other in stone. The present church was probably built between 1130 and 1140 by Simon de Senlis, who also built All Hallows’ Church, on the site of the later All Saints’ Church, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Anna Palmer was living as an anchoress next to Saint Peter’s Church in the 1390s. She was summoned before John Buckingham, Bishop of Lincoln, on several charges of heresy and one of incontinence. She was accused of being a leader of the Lollards, and was imprisoned in Banbury after calling the bishop an anti-Christ.

The west tower of Saint Peter’s had fallen by 1607 and was rebuilt later in the 17th century, moving it 3.7 metres (12 ft) to the east.

The church was restored by George Gilbert Scott in the 1850s. His work included reroofing the church, rebuilding the east end and lowering the floor of the nave. Scott also reconstructed the clerestory but left the Norman carvings untouched. His son, John Oldrid Scott, carried out a scheme of decoration using stencils on the interior of the east wall in 1878-1879.

Outside, strange half-human faces glare out from under the eaves of the church, together with cruder, timeworn figures. There is a 14th century font, a 12th century grave slab with clear relief carving and some fine Victorian stained glass.

Inside, great Norman arches of plain and banded stone rise and flow with zig-zag waves. They are supported by beautiful carved capitals, each overflowing with foliage, scrollwork, birds and beasts.

These carvings were plastered over in the 17th century but were carefully unpicked with a bone knife in the early 19th century by a local antiquarian, Anne Elizabeth Baker, in a labour of love lasting 11 years. Other highlights include a handsome brass lectern and carved wooden pews and monuments, including the bust of William Smith, the father of British geology.

The church closed in 1995 and was vested in the Churches Conservation Trust in 1998. In 2002 the internal fabric of the church was being damaged by the growth of mould due to excessive condensation. Oldrid Scott’s decorative scheme had been overpainted, but this paint was also removed, revealing the original decoration.

Saint Peter’s Church is now used as a community asset, with concerts, educational, social events and occasional services.

The west tower of Saint Peter’s Church was rebuilt in the 17th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

1 comment:

AliceT said...

Patrick: Really enjoyed reading this today. But, I have a couple of notes and questions.....I think I will post them into the Facebook messenger so that only you see them. Hope you are having a great week. Alice Reville Tomlin