St John the Evangelist, Leeds.

DSCF0371St 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.

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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.

DSCF0380Parliament 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.

 

DSCF0384The 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.

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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.

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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.

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Price’s Church Primer

Victoria County History

Jacobean Rood Screens – Wooden Wonders.

croscombestmaryThe parish church of St Mary in Croscombe Somerset is rather splendid. It is filled from floor to ceiling with Jacobean carving dating to 1616. The pews are still boxed. There are even two desks for the parish clerks as well as a pulpit complete with its canopy. Amongst St Mary’s pleasures is the scent of wax polish and the diversity of patterning that can be found on the pew doors (I feel a blackwork band sampler coming on.)  However, the furniture that dominates the church of St Mary is the rood screen.

 

A rood screen is the partition between chancel and nave.  There is often also a step at this point in the church.  Rood is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning a cross.  In earlier times the rood screen was usually surmounted by a cross.

 

Rood screens were removed during the Reformation by order of KingIMG_4793 - Version 2 Edward VI in 1547. After all, they served to separate officiating clerics from the laity. During the reformation altars were replaced with communion tables and the rood screen was removed.  Some were returned into position during the reign of Queen Mary only to be removed once more during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.  The Word of God became much more important than the Sacrament under protestant rulers.  The idea that the congregation and the act of worship should be separated from one another also became an alien idea along with the concept that a priest or monk was required to intercede on behalf of an individual.  These ideas  go some way to explaining the rather impressive pulpit in St Mary’s as well as the introduction of pews to listen to the lengthy sermons preached from the pulpit.

During the reign of King James I rood screens made a comeback – not to separate the congregation from all things Holy but to remind them that the monarch was in charge! Laud’s Book of Common Prayer also required communicants to have a separate space to the rest of the congregation.  This means that many churches replaced their rood screens.  As Jenkins observes the debate between factions regarding the importance of the Word and the Sacrament was ultimately a significant contributor to the English Civil War. In the meantime church interior designers may well have been hedging their bets – rood screens and pulpits to satisfy both contingents.

Leeds, St John contains a similarly ornate testament to the skills of Jacobean woodworkers. John Harrison, a local cloth merchant, built it in the mid 1630s just in time for the English Civil War. Leeds is very fortunate to have St John because it was due to be demolished during the 1860s. The churchwardens described the interior as ‘debased’ (Jenkins 924). Gothic architecture was the pinnacle of church architecture for the Victorians so no matter how fine the carvings the wooden paneling of the seventeenth century was bound to be met with some derision. Fortunately it was preserved – and the rood screen that had Leeds St Johnbeen taken out returned.

Both rood screens are fascinating because of the detail they contain from lions to monsters and grotesques to naked ladies and cornucopia. Then of course there are the royal coat of arms.  In Leeds the royal arms are on the left hand side of the screen while the right hand side sports the three feather crest of the Prince of Wales.

 

The Lion and the Unicorn

stcuthbert'scoatofarmsThe lion and the unicorn are the heraldic supporters of the royal coat of arms.  The lion represents England, while the unicorn stands for Scotland.  This current combination of supporters dates back to 1603 and the accession of James I of England or James VI of Scotland depending upon your viewpoint.  There is a fine example of James’ coat of arms in the church of St John the Evangelist, Leeds.

Earlier kings used different supporters.  Tudor kings used a Welsh dragon and sometimes a greyhound.  Richard II used a white hart.  In addition, the arms  have changed over the centuries as Ireland, Scotland and Wales were added.

The royal coat of arms in its various guises, usually supported by a lion and a unicorn, began to appear in English churches and cathedrals in the aftermath of the English Reformation – a reminder to congregations that the monarchy was in charge of matters spiritual as well as temporal. There was never a law, although the “great council” issued an “injunction” in 1660 (Records of Buckinghamshire, p386) to say that churches required coats of arms, they tended to be put on display during times when it was sensible to demonstrate loyalty to the crown– after the restoration of Charles II; in the aftermath of the Jacobite uprisings and upon the accession of a new monarch for example.

This means that the coats of arms on display are not always the same. The arms on display in Halifax date from the reign of Queen Ann, while in Woodkirk near Morley the arms are those of King George I.

Not every church and cathedral has a royal coat of arms. The Victorians got rid of many of them or consigned them to less prominent positions. Apparently there are even one or two arms where thrifty churchwardens turned the board around and painted ones on the back.

The Churches Conservation Trust provides an interesting summary of the way in which the royal arms changed over the centuries with examples. Double click on the image of the fairly rare King Charles I coat of arms that was added to St Cuthbert’s in Wells in 1631 to open the page.