06 February 2023

All Saints’ Church, a church
that rose from the ashes
of the fire of Northampton

All Saints’ Church is the parish church in the centre of Northampton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

All Saints’ Church, Northampton, is the parish church in the centre of Northampton. The church was largely built after a fire and was consecrated in 1680 and is a Grade I listed building. Outside London, this is one of the foremost examples of 17th century church architecture in England.

The church was one of the many churches I visited when I was in Northampton last week. From the earliest times, the church on this site has been associated with the life of the borough and of the county.

There has been a church on the site since the Church of All Hallows was built in Northampton by Simon de Senlis or Simon de St Liz, the first Norman Earl of Northampton, who had built Northampton Castle and the town walls in 1080s and 1090s.

Simon de Senlis joined the First Crusade to the Holy Land in 1094, and it is likely that after his return to Northampton, he built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Northampton ca 1100, and the Church of All Hallows.

Inside All Saints’ Church, Northampton, facing the east end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

All Hallows’ Church lasted with mediaeval alterations until 20 September 1675, when the collegiate church and much of the old town were destroyed by the Great Fire of Northampton.

The fire began in Saint Mary’s Street, near the castle. The inhabitants fled to the Market Square, but were then forced to evacuate, leaving the buildings to burn, including All Hallows’ Church.

The Parliamentarian leanings of Northampton had resulted in the razing of the castle by King Charles II after his invitation to reclaim the throne in 1660. Despite this, the Earl of Northampton, a friend and confidant of the King, persuaded Charles II to contribute 1,000 tons of timber from the royal forests of Salcey and Rockingham. This gesture, along with the repeal of the ‘chimney tax’ endeared the king to the people of Northamptonshire.

One tenth of the money collected for rebuilding the town was allocated to rebuilding All Hallows’ Church, under the architect Henry Bell from King’s Lynn and Edward Edwards. Bell was living in Northampton at the time, and he set to rebuild the church in a manner similar to Sir Christopher Wren’s designs.

Inside All Saints’ Church, Northampton, facing the west end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The central mediaeval tower and the crypt survived the fire. The new church of All Saints was built east of the tower in an almost square plan, with a chancel to the east and a north and south narthex flanking the tower.

The church was built in the style of the churches rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London, and it has in the past been mistakenly attributed to him. The rebuilding of city churches in London was financed through the Rebuilding of London Act 1670. Wren, as Surveyor General of the King’s Works, undertook the operation, and one of his first London churches was Saint Mary-at-Hill.

The interior space of Saint Mary-at-Hill is roughly square in plan, and of a similar size to All Saints’ Church. To the west is the tower, again flanked by a north and south narthex. Wren spanned the square space by a barrel vault in a Greek-cross plan, with a dome at the centre, supported on four columns. If Henry Bell drew his inspiration from any one of Wren’s churches, Saint Mary-at-Hill is the one.

The barrel-vaulting though in All Saints’ is much flatter than in Saint Mary-at-Hill, which has semi-circular vaulting. The dome in All Saints’ is more hemi-spherical, and the columns at Saint Mary-at-Hill are Corinthian with fluting.

The large portico was added to the west end of the church in 1701, in front of the narthex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

All Saints’ Church is entered through the tower into a barrel vaulted nave. At the centre is a dome, supported on four Ionic columns, which is lit by a lantern above. The barrel vault extends into the aisles from the dome in a Greek-cross form, leaving four flat ceilings in the corners of the church. The church is well lit by plain glass windows in the aisles and originally there was a large east window in the chancel, that is now covered by the reredos.

The plasterwork ceiling is finely decorated, and the barrel vaults are lit by elliptical windows. The rich plasterwork was carried out by Edward Goudge whose work is also to be found in the adjacent Session House.

The rebuilt All Saints’ Church was consecrated and opened in 1680. A large portico was added to the west end in 1701, in front of the narthex, very much in the style of the Inigo Jones portico added to Old Saint Paul’s Cathedral in the 1630s. The portico was added as a memorial to Charles II’s contribution to the rebuilding of the church after the fire, and a statue of him was erected above the portico, dressed in a Roman tunic.

The Mayoral Seat dominates the pews on the south side of the church.

The Memorial or Lady Chapel was the last substantial addition to the church, added in the 1920s in memory of those who lost their lives in the World War I. A recently carved statue of Our Lady of Walsingham adorns the chapel.

The altar and chancel in All Saints’ Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

All Saints’ is one of the few parish churches in England to have a Consistory Court. The court is located on the north side of the church, having previously been located in the space now occupied by the coffee shop.

Today, the principal role of Consistory Courts is dispensing faculties dealing with churchyards and church property. They also hear the trial of clergy accused of immoral acts or misconduct (under the Clergy Discipline Act 1892).

The church underwent some restoration in the 1970s under the direction of the then Vicar, the Revd Victor Mallan.

Icons of Saint Peter and Saint Katharine are at the east end before the steps to the Quire. These were painted for the church in 2001 to reflect the parish boundaries, which include the site of Saint Katharine’s Church (demolished) and Saint Peter’s Church.

The narthex, sacristy and lavatories were refurbished in 2008. All Saints’ Bistro, a privately leased coffee shop, operates from its north and south areas, and on the space under the portico. The north end of the coffee shop is named after John Clare, the poet who sat outside this space writing his poems.

The dome is supported on four Ionic columns and is lit by a lantern above (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

At 12 noon on Oak Apple Day (29 May) each year, the choir sings a Latin hymn to Charles II from the roof as the statue is wreathed in oak leaves by the Mayor of Northampton. A similar ceremony takes place on Ascension Day at 7 am.

The choir of All Saints’ Church was formed in the 1100s. There are three groups that make up the choirs: the Boys’ Choir, the Girls’ Choir and the Choral Scholars and Lay Clerks. The boys choir ranges in age from 7 to 15, and the girls from 8 to 18. These choirs sing at five choral services a week, including Sunday Mass and Evensong throughout the week.

The church has three pipe organs and three pianos: The west organ was built by JW Walker in 1982-1983, using pipes and other parts from previous organs. The chancel organ was built by Alfred Monk and rebuilt by Hill, Norman and Beard in 1939 for Saint Andrew’s ‘Scotch’ Church, Bournemouth, and was installed in 2006. The Memorial Chapel organ was built by JW Walker in 1983.

A new ring of 10 bells in the key of E, replacing a heavier ring of eight bells that dated from 1782.

All Saints’ Church is one of the few parish churches in England to have a Consistory Court (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Previous vicars include Dr Edward Reynolds (1627-1628), who wrote the General Thanksgiving in the Book of Common Prayer and later became Bishop of Norwich (1660-1676). The Revd John Conant was incumbent at the time of the Great Fire in 1675. He later became Archdeacon of Norwich.

John Bales is thought to have lived through three centuries until 1706 when he died at the age of 127. His epitaph is on a tablet at the west end: ‘John Bales, born in this town. He was above 126 years old & had his hearing, sight & memory to ye last. He lived in 3 centuries & was buried ye 14th of Apr 1706.’

The town’s war memorials are behind the church, at the east end. The Cenotaph was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, who also designed the Cenotaphs in Whitehall, Manchester, Glasgow, Delhi, Johannesburg, Toronto, Hong Kong and Auckland, and the War Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge in Dublin.

The Patrons of All Saints are the Bishop of Peterborough and the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine in Radcliffe.

Father Oliver Coss SSC has been the Rector of All Saints’ Church, with Saint Peter and Saint Katharine since 2016. All Saints’ Church is in the Catholic tradition of the Church of England. The parochial church council passed Resolutions A, B and C in 1993. The parish rejects the ordination of women and receives alternative episcopal oversight from Bishop Norman Banks of Richborough.

The Sunday services are Said Eucharist (Book of Common Prayer) at 8 am and Choral Eucharist (Common Worship) at 10:30 am. The Eucharist is also celebrate at 12:30 on Weekdays. The choirs sing Choral Evensong on Wednesdays and Thursdays. All Saints’ Church is open from 9 am to 5 pm throughout the year, with extended opening on days with choral services.

The Cenotaph behind the east end of the church was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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