St John the Evangelist in Leeds is a seventeenth century church built between 1632-34. To put that in context this is during the later part of the twelve years when Charles I ruled without Parliament. In 1638 John Hampden was sent to trial for refusing to pay ship tax (traditionally paid in coastal communities but not by the whole country) and John Lilburne was flogged for selling un-licensed Puritan books. Between the Elizabethan religious settlement of 1559 and the onset of the English Civil War there were an increasing number of strands of protestant belief. Many of these branches of Puritanism did not want to be part of the Church of England because they saw it as too ritualistic and too hierarchical. In 1639 Charles I went to war with his Scottish subjects in the so-called Bishops War about the prescriptive content of the prayer book. During this period of increasing religious turbulence, just prior to the English Civil War, very few new churches were built in England. During the Commonwealth period new churches harked back to the past – the Crown and to superstitious times. To build a new church would have been an act of defiance against Parliament. Prior to the Commonwealth Period there were new chapels built during the reign of Charles I, notably by Inigo Jones in 1627 – the Queen’s Chapel at St James. However, the queen in question was Henrietta Maria who was, of course, a Catholic. Consequentially if you had enough money for a new-fangled architect designed place of worship you ran the risk of being associated with European ideas, the Court, Laudianism and at worst Catholicism. In 1636 a new chapel was built in Somerset House – it was a Catholic Chapel.
Of course, that’s not to say that existing medieval churches didn’t have the occasional interior overhaul or extension in an era before the advent of the need for church faculties or conformity to planning regulations.
Yesterday’s post about Staunton Harold Church built during the Commonwealth period was a statement of Robert Shirley’s political and religious affiliations. John Harrison, who paid for St John’s building, was not a baron. He was a wealthy wool merchant and local politician. He was also one of Leeds’ benefactors. The building of St John’s was more about doing good for the people of Leeds as were Harrison’s other building ventures. He helped pay for the Moot Hall and the market cross, a row of almshouses and the grammar school. Unfortunately the Jacobean architecture for which the church is famous (and yes I know the church was built ten years after the death of James I) is beautifully decorated with angels and all sorts of other embellishments which are very decorative and thus not at all what Puritans approved. Nor would they have been very happy about the fact that the altar is against the East wall of the church and that there were screens to separate the congregation from the most Holy place within the church.
The heavily carved pulpit makes the link to the importance of sermons for Puritans. To hear and understand what the preacher had to say was an essential part of Puritan belief. Most pulpits dating from this time are plain, often of unpainted oak and usually octagonal. This was the period of the triple-decker pulpit. If you’re curious about the tester or “roof” over some pulpits from this period it was so that the sound of the preacher’s voice didn’t disappear into the rafters of the church but so that it improved the acoustics for the congregation.
Parliament believed that Harrison was a Royalist and there is a tale that when the king was in Leeds as a prisoner that Harrison took him a lidded tankard of ale, except rather than ale the contents of the pot were gold coins – whether this was to support the king during his captivity or facilitate his escape is a matter for speculation. The moment is commemorated in the Harrison Memorial Window but this was not created until the nineteenth century. And it would have to be said that Harrison didn’t get on with all of Leeds’ inhabitants. There were a number of scurrilous songs about him – we know about this because there was a court case with Harrison taking twenty-two people to court for libel.
The problem for Harrison was that he lived in difficult times and despite his generosity he was insufficiently Puritan for some tastes. In time he found himself being fined by Parliament – which must have been somewhat irritating given that he had loaned them money in 1642. As a result of his ultimate loyalty to Charles I and also as a result of his religious faith which although not described as Laudian was not as austere as Puritan taste demanded much of his wealth was confiscated and his is, described by an article from the Yorkshire Evening Post (29 Oct 2005), as spending his final years in comparative poverty.
St John’s looks from the outside like a typically Gothic medieval church but the woodwork inside – the panelling, the pulpit and the screens inside are decidedly Jacobean. The coat of arms are those of James I (he died in 1625) before the church was built so it may have been that Harrison was trying not to make too public a statement in regard to his loyalty to the Crown. The royal coat-of-arms are a feature of churches dating from the Act of Supremacy in 1534 which made the monarch the head of the Church of England. These days the coats of arms can turn up any where within a church but during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries they tended to be placed where the rood screen would have once stood. There is nothing subtle about Harrison’s screen.
It is a remarkable survival not least because there were some Victorian “improvements” which included the removal of the screen. It was only by chance that it was rediscovered and returned to its correct location. The south porch actually was demolished and the tower rebuilt.
At this point, you may like me, be wondering what other churches were built during this period. The seventeenth century is not exactly knee deep in new churches excluding all those Sir Christopher Wren creations in London built to replace medieval buildings destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666. So here goes – the church at Berwick-Upon-Tweed was rebuilt in 1641 with money given by Charles I. I think it was finished after the First English Civil War – though of course it wasn’t brand new – it was replacing a medieval church that had been rather badly knocked about. There is a church in Hargrave in Cheshire built by a former Lord Mayor of London – essentially a “local boy done good story” who then returned to his native Cheshire to create a church and school. There may be others but I have not yet stumbled across them. St Charles the Martyr in Tonbridge Wells is Baroque and built during the 1670s but that is clearly post-Restoration as are the Wren builds and, like the Wren churches, the architecture has moved on from Jacobean to Baroque which is definitely a heavily ornamented period.
Price’s Church Primer
Victoria County History