The Romanesque church was a cruciform building with an aisled nave with triforium and clerestorey; N and S transepts and an aisled eastern arm with a gallery rather than a triforium. Of the nave, the four eastern bays and the beginning of a fifth survive. In the fifth bay was a 13thc. north doorway under a porch, and west of the sixth stood the façade. There is no evidence for the original form of this beyond the ruinous lower part of a NW tower. This tower collapsed partially in 1572 and more drastically in 1574, destroying the western bays of the nave, and was rebuilt on a magnificent scale. Until 1881 it was reportedly the glory of the exterior and a notable Chester landmark, but in that year, while long-overdue repairs were taking place, it collapsed again, destroying the Early English north porch, which was rebuilt by J. Douglas in 1881-82. The eastern arm of the church was originally aisled and of five straight bays, but now the entire north aisle has been removed (except for its eastern chapel; see below). Of the main vessel and south aisle only a single bay survives within the building, which terminates in a straight wall. The remainder of the eastern arm was abandoned in 1547, when the King's Commissioners decided that the nave alone was sufficient for the parish, and that the lead on the choir roof along with the metal of four of the church's five bells should be removed and sold. To the east, outside the building, parts of the S choir aisle wall still stand, along with what remains of the east chapels. Originally the main vessel terminated in a deep apsidal chapel, and the aisles in shallower ones. All three chapels were remodelled and enlarged in the later middle ages, but the 12thc. wall containing their entrance arches still stands. This is in a disastrously eroded condition, which should be borne in mind while reading the descriptions of its elements in this site report.
The central tower of the church collapsed in 1468, and again in 1572, and at some point, presumably after 1547, the transepts were removed. The only other medieval part of the church is the enigmatic two-storey structure of c.1300 built in the angle between the south transept and the choir and accessed through a doorway in the S choir aisle. Its undercroft is square and vaulted in four bays with a central pier: the upper storey has lost its roof. Locally it is known as the Chapter House, but neither its form nor its position make this very likely, and it is here suggested that it was a two-storey treasury. In the early 19thc. it was incorporated as a kitchen in a house (now demolished) which became the residence of Thomas de Quincey's mother. What remained of the treasury was renovated in 1937 and the undercroft taken over in 1939 as a public air-raid shelter. It now serves as a stone store.
There was apparently a thorough repair to the chancel in 1813, but the external appearance of the church today is of a 19thc. building in Early English style, and this is largely due to the restorations of J. C. Hussey who rebuilt the south side in 1859-60 and the north in 1886-87. Included in the latter restoration was the construction of a modest bell-tower in the angle of the north transept and the choir. No firm dates are available for the Romanesque fabric. The present church was traditionally begun by Bishop Peter de Lea, who moved the see to Chester from Lichfield in 1075, but judging from the sculpture, none of the fabric is this early.
Collegiate church (c.1057-75), cathedral (1075-1541), parish church from 1547.
St John's is an Anglo-Saxon foundation, traditionally first founded by King Aethelred of Mercia c.689, and rebuilt and enlarged by another Aethelred, the Earl of Mercia and husband of Aethelflaeda, daughter of Alfred the Great in the early 10c. In 1075 Peter de Leia, Bishop of Lichfield, moved the see to Chester and began to build a new church. At his death in 1082 he was succeeded by Robert de Limesey who promptly transferred the see to Coventry. It has usually been assumed that the earliest parts of the present building date from Bishop Peter's time, and that the time lapse between this campaign and the late-12thc. work in the upper levels of the nave reflect Bishop Robert's lack of interest in the building. Gem (2000), however, has observed that after Robert moved the see to Coventry he is recorded using part of its revenues to fund rebuilding work at Lichfield, and suggests that he saw the increased revenue available as an opportunity to enhance all three of his cathedrals. At some time before 1540 St John's had been demoted from cathedral to collegiate status, and in 1547 it became a parish church.
The exterior of the window was rebuilt in the 19thc. as a single-order, continuous window with a chamfer. The interior is partly blocked by the tomb of Diana Warburton (d.1693) by Edward Pearce. The window is round-headed with two orders; the first is continuous with an angle roll. The second on detached nook-shafts with carved capitals and imposts and an angle roll and face hollow in the arch. The east capital is a double scallop with recessed shields, each with a single raised pellet, triangular wedges between the cones, and a cable necking. The impost is hollow chamfered with a tall face. At the bottom of this are parallel grooves defining three low horizontal rolls, and at the top a row of chip-carved saltires in squares. The west capital is also a double scallop. The shields are depressed, with a deep groove outlining their lower edges. There are triangular wedges between the cones. The necking is worn and may originally have been decorated. The impost is hollow chamfered as before, with the low rolls in the lower part of the face but no sign of chip-carving above. Its angle is broken off.
This time the original exterior survives, having been protected for a long period by the upper storey of the 13thc. treasury. The interior, in contrast, has been exposed to the elements since the Reformation and is badly worn. The exterior is round headed and of two orders. The 1st is plain and continuous with a chamfer. The 2nd is carried on coursed angle shafts with tall, worn bases. Only the west capital and both imposts survive. The west capital has a single scallop to the south face and two on the east face. All shields are recessed and there is a row of cable defining their upper edges. The cones are plain and the necking is a row of cable. Both imposts have the same design as the interior east impost of the window in bay 1 (see III.2.(i) above). The arch is carved on the face with lateral, centrifugal chevron; two quirked rolls with a hollow between them. It is very unevenly eroded. Outside this is a course carved with a design of nested saltires with pellets in the lozenges, similar to the design of one of the loose stones (see VI.a.4 below). The interior of this window is disastrously worn, but enough survives to say that it was of two orders, the first continuous with an angle roll, and the second on nook-shafts with capitals supporting impost blocks. In other words the design was more or less as the interior of the window in bay 1.
Round headed, three orders to W, two to E.
1st order (shared): Half-column responds in the embrasures. The E half of the N capital is lost, but it was apparently a broad block capital with a plain roll necking, carved with a design of interlacing foliage stems still visible on the surviving W section of the capital. The N impost block is chamfered with a row of fan-shaped leaves on face and chamfer. This design survives only on the W section of the block. The S capital was apparently of similar form but no details of its decoration nor that of the S impost survive. The arch has a square profile with angle rolls and face hollows to E and W.
2nd order W face: Traces of coursed nook shafts survive, with extremely worn capitals on either side, perhaps cushions (see S capital). These are carved from the same block as the 3rd order capitals. Imposts were apparently chamfered but are very worn now. The arch has an angle roll and face hollow.
3rd order W face: Coursed half columns on the wall face support worn capitals, the S better preserved and apparently square in plan. As has been said, these are carved from the same block as the second order capitals. The imposts are again chamfered but worn, and the arch has an angle roll and face hollow terminating at the extrados in a lip to act as a label.
Pointed and of two chamfered orders to E and W. This must belong to a remodelling sometime after c.1250. Only the embrasures are 12thc., and the north offers the best evidence for the original design. It has a single order on an attached half-column, supporting a completely eroded cushion capital. The necking is lost, and the impost is hollow chamfered with a regular design of loosely looping cable surviving. The south embrasure is completely worn away. The form of the half-column respond can be discerned, and the blocks which were the capital and impost identified, but all sense of their form is lost. On the wall face to the S of the S embrasure are the remains of an inserted nook-shaft and capital, but the form of the capital is lost and a date cannot be guessed at. Inside the chapel the late-medieval remodelling begins at a respond immediately alongside the N embrasure capital.
The original arch has been blocked and a much narrower pointed arch takes its place. What survives is on the W face only, and consists of the capitals of two orders of the N embrasure, along with short sections of nook shaft, imposts and part of the arch face of the outer capital. Then there is a section of an arch face occupying approximately the two-o'clock position. This is likely to be the outermost order since it has an angle roll and face hollow and terminates in a lip similar to the outer order of the main apse arch.
Inner N embrasure capital: only the W face is visible, inside a hole in the wall. It is block shaped and elaborately carved with foliage stems with a large Byzantine blossom on the angle, all in low relief. It has a plain roll necking shaped to fit a nook-shaft, but none of its shaft is visible. The W face of the impost also survives, and is hollow chamfered, the chamfer carved with the same design of loosely looping cable as on the N apse arch impost; the face apparently carved with loops of foliage enclosing elaborate flowers.
Outer N embrasure capital: carving survives only on the S face. The capital is a cushion with a roll necking. The shield is defined by a stem and filled with foliage stems in a tangled design. The bell is carved with loosely looped thick stems, some with traces of beading, and the one on the lower angle enclosing a further loop of stem, triple reeded and tangled with thinner single stems. Part of the nook shaftsurvives below the capital, and a there is short section of carving on the inner end of the chamfered impost block. Again the design consists of loosely tangled stems. A single voussoir above the impost is carved on its face with an angle roll and face roll, but it may not be in its original setting.
Round-headed. As W arch except for details of capitals. Those on the N are plain multi-scallops with acute tucks at the outer angles of the outer capitals only. Those on the S are triple sheathed scallops. Neither set is convincingly original.
Round-headed. As S arch except for details of capitals. These are:
1st order: plain multi-scallops to E and W.
2nd order N face: plain triple scallops.
Round-headed. The arch has three unmoulded orders to N and S, and there are two orders in the embrasures. 1st order (shared). Paired half-columns with multi-scallop capitals, plain roll neckings and quirked hollow chamfered impost blocks. The west capitals have four plain scallops on the main faces and three on the side faces; the east capitals have three sheathed scallops on the main faces and two on the sides. There is some replacement work on the imposts but the capitals appear to be largely original.
2nd order, S face: Coursed, attached nook-shafts supporting scallop capitals with plain roll neckings and imposts as first order. The E capital is a plain triple scallop; the W is a triple scallop with dished shields and sheathed scallops. Both are either replaced or heavily retooled.
2nd order, N face: As S face right down to details of the capitals.
Round-headed. The arch has three unmoulded orders to E and W, but there is only a single order in the embrasures, with three attached (coursed) half-columns supporting multi-scallop capitals with wedges between the scallops. The capitals are either replaced or heavily retooled, as are the roll neckings. Sections of the quirked hollow-chamfered imposts are original, but they are largely replacements.
Originally the arch into the choir aisle, but now a rebuilt blind arch containing the doorway into the 19thc. NE tower. Only the W face of the round-headed arch remains. Three plain orders in arch, two in embrasures, as (i) above. The 1st order capitals are scalloped with three scallops of the main face and two on the side face. There are wedges between the scallops. The 2nd order capitals are double scallops with wedges between. All neckings are plain and imposts are quirked hollow chamfered.
Round-headed. Three plain orders in arch, two in embrasures. The arch rebuilt. 1st order on paired half-columns with paired plain multi-scallop capitals with plain roll neckings and quirked hollow chamfered imposts. 2nd order on attached, coursed, nook-shafts with plain triple scallop capitals and neckings and imposts as 1st order. Some replacement stone in imposts.
Different in structure to the other three, and apparently the only one of the aisle arches not to have been entirely rebuilt in the 19thc. Round-headed, 2 orders to E and W.
1st order (shared): Paired half-columns with scallop capitals - three scallops on each main face and two on the side faces. The scallops have single or double wedges between them. Neckings are plain and imposts quirked chamfered. The capitals are original, but the west sections of both imposts have been replaced. The arch has paired fat rolls on the soffit, and slender angle rolls and face hollows to E and W.
2nd order, W face: Coursed, attached nook-shafts supporting scallop capitals with plain roll neckings. The N capital is a double scallop with double wedges between the scallops. Only the outer half of the W face is original, the remainder being a 19thc replacement. The impost is also a replacement. The S capital, its impost and necking are entirely 19thc. The arch has a slender angle roll and face hollow.
2nd order, E face: Embrasures as W face, but again only the N capital is original. It is a double scallop with a groove-outlined triangle between the scallops, plain roll necking and chamfered impost. The arch on this face is unmoulded.
Round-headed, the arch rebuilt. As (i) above except for details of the capitals, which are described below. Neckings are chamfered and all imposts quirked hollow chamfered.
S side 1st order capitals: as N side but all original except for an insert in the centre of the main face.
Stilted round-headed. Bay 1 survives, now blocked and forming the lower part of the S wall of the 1886-87 NE tower. Only the S face is visible. The arch is of three similar orders, each with an angle roll and face hollow. The supports are alternately compound and cylindrical.
W respond, two orders: 1st order carried by a coursed half-column with a multi-scallop capital of two scallops on the short face and three visible on the main face. There are double wedges between the scallops of the short face, and between the second and third scallop of the main face. The 2nd order is on a coursed nook shaft, and the capital is a double scallop with wedges between the scallops. Neckings are plain rolls, and the imposts plain quirked chamfered, and either recut or replaced.
Pier 1: A quadrant of the cylindrical pier is still visible, with a circular multi-scallop capital with wedges between the scallops, roll necking and a circular quirked chamfered impost, original but for a short section towards the inside of the embrasure.
Stilted round-headed. Again bay 1 only survives, but it is not blocked, the aisle remaining on this side. The arch to the main vessel is of three similar orders, each with an angle roll and face hollow as in the N arcade; but to the aisle there are only two unmoulded orders. The supports are alternately compound and cylindrical.
W respond, two orders to N and S, as on the N side except for capitals as follows: 1st order: Multi-scallop with six scallops on the main face and two on each side face, and wedges between the scallops. 2nd order N face: Double scallop with double wedges between the scallops. 2nd order S face: Double scallop with wedges between the scallops.
Pier 1. Half of the cylindrical pier is visible, with a circular multi-scallop capital with wedges between the scallops, roll necking and a circular quirked chamfered impost, just as on the N side. It appears original although the impost may be retooled.
Four bays, round headed. The arcade is carried on cylindrical piers with attic bases and capitals and imposts that are circular in plan. Neckings are chamfered and imposts quirked hollow chamfered. The arches have three unmoulded orders to each face.
Four bays, each with an arcade of four pointed arches carried on en-delit shafts applied to either side and the front face of a square core. The shafts have triple-roll annulets at their midpoints and are carried on attic bases. The E capitals of Bay 1 have palm-like flat leaves at the angles, with a beaded upper rim to the bell. All other capitals in bays 1, 2 and 3 are of flat-leaf form with crockets at the tips. In bay 4, the capitals of the E respond are also of this form, those of shaft 1 are a more developed stiff-leaf with thin roll abaci and no imposts, and the rest are moulded without imposts. Imposts are chamfered. The arches are of two orders, each with a keeled angle roll and a face hollow except in bay 4, where the angle rolls are filleted rather than keeled.
As N triforium except as noted. The capitals of the fourth support of bay 1 and the third of bay 2 are waterleaf. Bay 4 has the same sequence of crocket, stiff leaf and moulded capitals as on the N side. The moulded capitals of the fourth support in bay 4 have nailhead decoration on the abaci. The arch profiles follow the same sequence as on the N side.
Round headed, blocked. Only the W bay survives. The arch is of three unmoulded orders to the S. Only the W embrasure remains, and this has a short, half-column respond with a circular capital with two rows of decoration: plain multi-scallop at the top, with below this a band of flat leaves with scalloped upper edge, each leaf outlined by a groove. The necking is a plain roll and the impost has a quirked chamfer.
Four bays, each with an arcade of four pointed arches carried on clustered en-delit shafts, two shafts at either end of each arcade and three for the intermediate supports, except in bay 4, where the shafts are multiplied, with three for the end supports and five for the intermediates. Shafts stand on tall cylindrical plinths with attic bases. The capitals are all fleshy stiff-leaf except in bay 4, where supports 2 and 4 have moulded capitals. The arches in bays 1-3 are of two orders, each with a filleted angle roll and the inner only with a face hollow. In bay 4 there are three orders in each arch, each with a filleted angle roll and face hollow, and between the second and third orders is a row of nailhead.
As N clerestorey except as noted. In bay 1, the E respond capitals are moulded with fluting on the concave bells. In bay 4 there is no multiplication of supports, but there is a change in the arch profile, which has two orders, each with a heavy keeled roll, and a deep hollow between them. There is a row of nailhead outside the outer roll. Of the bay 4 capitals, those of the 1st support (E respond) and the 4th are stiff-leaf, while the 2nd, 3rd and 5th (W respond) are moulded.
The nave has shafting for a wooden roof consisting of a single shaft between each bay of the N and S elevations, starting at the bottom of the triforium and continuing to the present roof level. On the N side the shafts have annulets at the level of the triforium arcade annulets. A chamfered string course passes over the shafts at triforium impost level, and another at the foot of the clerestorey. There are pseudo-neckings which pass over the shafts at the level of the clerestorey base neckings, and the shafts themselves are filleted at clerestorey level. They terminate in capitals at roof level, but these are later additions. Thus for the entire N elevation except the westernmost shaft between bay 4 and the start of bay 5, which survives for part of an arch at clerestorey and triforium level before it is cut off by the W wall. This shaft has a stiff leaf capital at the level of the clerestorey capitals. On the S side the design of the westernmost N shaft is repeated throughout.
A single worn respond survives on the S choir aisle wall between bays 2 and 3. In form a dosseret bearing a half column, carrying a broad capital, eroded but broadly tectonic in form, with a quirked chamfered impost block above. The capital is approximately halfway up the adjoining aisle window, and the wall above shows signs of the removal of a vault.
To either side of the main apse arch is a round-headed blind niche of one order. The arch is carried on detached multilith nook-shafts, of which the S shaft of each niches survives. These carry tall engaged capitals of indeterminate form, the best preserved (S niche, S capital) with signs of a roll necking. Above this capital is a hollow chamfered impost with a row of chip-carved saltires on the face. This is the only impost to retain any of its decoration. The N arch is eroded past the stage of interpretation, but the S has a quirked angle roll and a low face roll, as on the S choir aisle wall (5.a.(i) above).
Two bays survive, and part of a third; the first bay inside the building and the remainder outside, to the E of the 16thc. E wall of the aisle. Each bay had three round arches carried on en-delit shafts of which only the W nook shaft of bay 1 survives.
Bay 1: This is dominated by the spectacular tomb of Diana Warburton (d.1693) by Edward Pearce. To install it the central arch of the blind arcading with its shafts and capitals and parts of the arches to either side have been removed. The monument also rides well above the sill of the 12thc. window above, blocking out most of the light from this part of the church. What remains of the blind arcade are the E part of the W arch and the W part of the E, together with their nook-shaft capitals and the W shaft on a worn roll hollow base. The W capital is worn but has two rows of volutes, the upper in low relief, the lower projecting. Its impost block is tall and chamfered, decorated overall with three or four rows of billet. The E capital has four hooked leaves on each face, all curving towards the main angle of the capital which is scooped out and decorated with a large boss. Again the impost is tall and chamfered, but this one is decorated with a worn beast, walking R with its head turned back. The arches where they survive have an angle roll quirked at the extrados, and a low roll on the face.
Bay 2: The wall has been pierced for the treasury undercroft doorway, and the W nook-shaft and its capital removed for the building of the E aisle wall, so what remains are the two west arches, lacking the springer, capital and shaft between them, and the capitals between arches 1 and 2 and at the E end of the bay. The arches are badly worn owing to exposure, but the same arch design as in bay 1 can be seen in the two western arches. The W capital is a simple volute design with a tall chamfered impost block decorated with a rhythmic design of foliage interlace, much eroded. The entire carved surface of the E capital has been broken away, apparently recently, and the impost is too worn now to describe.
Bay 3: What survives is most of the W arch, its profile eroded away, and the W nook-shaft capital, worn and broken at the top but with signs of scalloping above the necking. The impost has been cut back on both faces, removing any decoration.
Bay 1: At the W end of the bay, two lengths each carved with three regularly spaced bosses, each surrounded by an irregular tangle of hooked leaves rising from the lower edge of the block. At the E end of the bay, one length and part of a second. The complete length has four regularly spaced bosses, each clasped by an annular stem, open at the top. A stem running along the lower edge rises in sharp vees between each of these units. Above them is a row of cable. The incomplete length has the same design but is only half as long.
A second stone store was established in the ruinous NW tower. According to report, shelving was erected for the stones, but no covering was provided to protect them. Access to this area could not be gained, although it was seen from a ladder set up against the ruined west wall of the tower. The area is entirely overgrown with vegetation, including well-established bushes and trees, so that not even the shelving was visible. Two photographs in the Conway library taken by F.H. Crossley early in the 20thc. show stacks of loose stones at St John's. One (B51/892) includes examples of the same types as 2 and 4 above, and the other (B51/891) an intriguing and apparently very early double engaged capital. It seems likely that these are among the stones now stored in the NW tower.
1. Nook-shaft capital carved with oxen. A double-scallop capital, carve on two faces. The shields are recessed, each carved with a fanned multi-lobed leaf radiating from top centre. The bell is not scalloped, but each face has a semicircular field bounded by a grooved roll, and containing an ox standing in profile with head frontal, as if grazing. The two beasts are confronted. Between them, on the angle, is a large palmette with fluted lobes. The necking is a roll where it survives.
4. Curved red sandstone voussoir with chamfered face. The face is carved in low relief with a design of nested lozenges, parts of three units in all.
5. Stiff-leaf nook-shaft capital of red sandstone. The capital has a broken roll necking and abacus, and a bell, slender at the bottom, flaring out towards the top. It is generally eroded, but signs of stems and leaves suggest a stiff-leaf design.
6. Annulet or double cushion capital, red sandstone. In form two small square cushion capitals, each carved on two faces only, with one inverted on top of the other, but carved from a single block. As photographed the upper has vertical rolls at each angle and in the centre of each face of the bell, while the lower is plain. Each has a roll necking. It seems an unlikely method of carving capitals, and may have served as an annulet.
|h of block||0.27 m|
|max w||0.18 m x 0.19 m|
|dimensions at top||0.22 m x 0.22 m|
|h of block||0.18 m|
|capital dimensions at top||0.38 m x 0.25 m|
|h of block||0.29 m|
|d of block||0.25 m|
|h of block||0.14 m|
|w at extrados||0.42 m|
|w at intrados||0.385 m|
|d of block||0.48 m|
|h of block||0.20 m|
|w of block||0.59 m|
|h of block||0.185 m|
|max w (L face)||0.19 m|
|max w (R face)||0.18 m|
|capital dimensions at top||0.64 m x 0.42 m|
|h of block||0.31 m|
A. W. Clapham, English Romanesque Architecture, II, After the Conquest. Oxford 1934, 46.
C. Hiatt, The Cathedral Church of Chester. London (Bell's Cathedral Series) 1898, 83-90.
N. Pevsner and E. Hubbard, The Buildings of England. Cheshire. Harmondsworth 1971 (repr. 1978), 148-50.
J. H. Parker, 'The Collegiate Church of St John the Baptist, Chester', Journal of the Architectural, Archaeological and Historic Society of Chester. 1st series, 2, 1855-62, 329-46.
R. Gem, 'Romanesque Architecture in Chester, c.1075-1117', A. Thacker (ed), Medieval Archaeology, Art and Architecture at Chester (British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions 22), Leeds 2000, 31-44.
S. Cooper Scott, Lectures on the History of S. John Baptist Church and Parish in the City of Chester. Chester 1892.