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)

Praying in Ordinary Time
with USPG: 9 February 2023

‘The Martyrdom of Saint Apollonia’ by Jacopo Zucchi, in the Julius S. Held Collection, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund

Patrick Comerford

Before today becomes a busy day I am taking some time for prayer and reflection early this morning.

These weeks, between the end of Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, are known as Ordinary Time. We are in a time of preparation for Lent, which in turn is a preparation for Holy Week and Easter.

In these days of Ordinary Time before Ash Wednesday later this month (22 February), I am reflecting in these ways each morning:

1, reflecting on a saint or interesting person in the life of the Church;

2, one of the lectionary readings of the day;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

Saint Apollonia, who is commemorated with the Martyrs of Alexandria on 9 February, was an elderly virgin and deaconess of Alexandria, whose martyrdom was described by Saint Dionysius, Patriarch of Alexandria (247-265), in one of his letters.

When Decius became emperor in 249, he launched the greatest attack upon Christians up to that time, becoming the first emperor to call for Christianity’s total extermination. Saint Dionysius wrote that the persecution started at Alexandria a year before other places, incited by a certain ‘prophet and poet of evil,’ who stirred up the people against the Christians.

Backed by the power of the government, the people of the city massacred Christians, believing that they were serving false gods. The ‘aged and excellent virgin Apollonia’ was seized and struck in the face until all her teeth were knocked out. The mob built a fire outside the city and threatened to burn her alive unless she agreed to worship the idols and sacrifice to the emperor’s genius.

Saint Apollonia asked her tormentors to let go of her for a moment so that she could pray. As soon as they did, she leapt into the flames and was consumed, receiving a double crown of martyrdom and virginity.

Because of the details of her torture, she is sometimes depicted with a golden tooth hanging from a necklace, or holding a tooth in a pair of pincers. She is invoked by those suffering from toothache.

Apollonia belongs to a class of early Christian martyrs who when confronted with the choice between renouncing their faith or suffering death, voluntarily embraced death.

The feminist activist and writer Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, chose to write about Saint Apollonia in the Catholic Herald (27 September 2020), to illustrate how people respond violently and with hatred when stirred up an angry, paranoid mob, how those who are articulate can whip up a mob against people because of perceived differences, and how crowd violence escalates quickly.

Renaming Cavafy Street in Alexandria in February 2011

‘The god abandons Antony’

The story of Apollonia and the martyrs of Alexandria brought me back to the poem ‘The god abandons Antony’ (also known as ‘The god forsakes Antony’) first published in 1911 by the Greek poet CP Cavafy, who was born in Alexandria. The poem draws on Plutarch’s story of how Mark Antony, as he is besieged in Alexandria by Octavian, hears the sounds of instruments and voices of a procession making their way through the city and then passing out. Mark Antony realises that night that his protector, the god Bacchus (Dionysos), is deserting him.

Απολείπειν ο θεός Aντώνιον Αναγνωρισμένα

Σαν έξαφνα, ώρα μεσάνυχτ’, ακουσθεί
αόρατος θίασος να περνά
με μουσικές εξαίσιες, με φωνές—
την τύχη σου που ενδίδει πια, τα έργα σου
που απέτυχαν, τα σχέδια της ζωής σου
που βγήκαν όλα πλάνες, μη ανωφέλετα θρηνήσεις.
Σαν έτοιμος από καιρό, σα θαρραλέος,
αποχαιρέτα την, την Aλεξάνδρεια που φεύγει.
Προ πάντων να μη γελασθείς, μην πεις πως ήταν
ένα όνειρο, πως απατήθηκεν η ακοή σου•
μάταιες ελπίδες τέτοιες μην καταδεχθείς.
Σαν έτοιμος από καιρό, σα θαρραλέος,
σαν που ταιριάζει σε που αξιώθηκες μια τέτοια πόλι,
πλησίασε σταθερά προς το παράθυρο,
κι άκουσε με συγκίνησιν, αλλ’ όχι
με των δειλών τα παρακάλια και παράπονα,
ως τελευταία απόλαυσι τους ήχους,
τα εξαίσια όργανα του μυστικού θιάσου,
κι αποχαιρέτα την, την Aλεξάνδρεια που χάνεις.

(Από τα Ποιήματα 1897-1933, Ίκαρος 1984)

The poem was translated by John Mavrogordatos and included in The poems of CP Cavafy (London: Hogarth Press, 1951, p. 26). But the best-known translation into English is by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard:

At midnight, when suddenly you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive – don’t mourn them uselessly:
as one long prepared, and full of courage,
say goodbye to her, to Alexandria who is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and full of courage,
as is right for you who were given this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion,
but not with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen – your final pleasure – to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

The story behind the poem

In ‘The god abandons Antony,’ Cavafy draws on Plutarch’s Life of Anthony and, to a lesser degree, on Shakespeare’s play, Anthony and Cleopatra, to describe a deep sense of loss through the fictional voice of the unknown person who addresses Mark Antony.

The Antony is Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), Cleopatra’s lover. Plutarch’s story tells of how Mark Antony is besieged in Alexandria by Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus. On the night before the city falls into the hands of his enemies, Antony hears an invisible troupe leaving the city, and he hears the sounds of instruments and voices making their way through the city.

Seeing his fortunes turn around, seeing his glory vanish, seeing love turn to hatred, seeing a god’s favour turn to irony and sarcasm, Mark Antony faints, having realised the tragedy that is befalling him and that his protector, the god Bacchus (Dionysos) is deserting him and leaving the city of Alexandria, in effect telling Antony that he no longer had any divine support in his struggle against Octavian.

The speaker in Cavafy’s poem is simply a voice telling Antony not to mourn but to accept his fate without fear and without regret:

As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as it right for you who were given this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen – your final delectation – to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

Inside Cavafy’s apartment in Alexandria

Cavafy’s poem has many layers of meaning. But we can also read it as a poem about the way we can face great loss.

Cavafy’s beloved Alexandria serves as a symbol not only for lost battles, but also for lost hopes, lost glory and lost love – even for the loss of life itself. It is a lesson not just on how to get to heaven but a lesson about how to live. It may even be a lesson in how to face death itself.

Some years ago, while I was teaching a course in Byzantine studies at the NUI Maynooth campus in Saint Kieran’s College, Kilkenny, I played a recording of the Greek actors Vasilis Panayi and John Ioannou reading Cavafy’s poem in Greek and English, and then played a recording of Leonard Cohen singing his song ‘Alexandra Leaving.’

Leonard Cohen reportedly wrote this poem about love and loss in the 1960s while in Greece, but it took him almost four decades to perfect it in its lyrical form. In this song, which he included on his album, Ten New Songs (2001), he freely adapts Cavafy’s poem for his song ‘Alexandra Leaving.’

But, while Cavafy’s theme is based around the city of Alexandria, Cavafy’s beloved Alexandria becomes a beloved woman, and Cohen reinterprets the poem to tell of the end of an affair with this woman, Alexandra, and to tell of how to cope with lost love:

Suddenly the night has grown colder.
The God of love preparing to depart.
Alexandra hoisted on his shoulder,
They slip between the sentries of the heart.

Upheld by the simplicities of pleasure,
They gain the light, they formlessly entwine;
And radiant beyond your widest measure
They fall among the voices and the wine.

It’s not a trick, your senses all deceiving,
A fitful dream, the morning will exhaust.
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.

Even though she sleeps upon your satin;
Even though she wakes you with a kiss.
Do not say the moment was imagined;
Do not stoop to strategies like this.

As someone long prepared for this to happen,
Go firmly to the window, drink it in.
Exquisite music. Alexandra laughing.
Your firm commitments tangible again.

And you who had the honour of her evening,
And by the honour had your own restored.
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving;
Alexandra leaving with her lord.

Even though she sleeps upon your satin;
Even though she wakes you with a kiss.
Do not say the moment was imagined;
Do not stoop to strategies like this.

As someone long prepared for the occasion;
In full command of every plan you wrecked.
Do not choose a coward’s explanation
That hides behind the cause and the effect.

And you who were bewildered by a meaning;
Whose code was broken, crucifix uncrossed.
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.

Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.

The Syro-Phoenician Woman ... a modern icon by Brother Robert Lentz, OFM

Mark 7: 24-30 (NRSVA):

24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 28 But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ 29 Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

USPG Prayer Diary:

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is ‘Christianity in Pakistan.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by Nathan Olsen.

The USPG Prayer Diary today invites us to pray in these words:

Let us pray for Christians who are marginalised because of their faith. May they find courage and resilience as they shape their life in the face of denied opportunities and restricted employment.

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

CP Cavafy ... a portrait by David Hockney

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org