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St John, Devizes, Wiltshire

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Feature Sets (3)

Description

This church has a very important 12th century east end, and probably originally had an aisleless 12th century nave which was replaced in the 15th century. The east end consists of a two bay, vaulted chancel with small transepts and a tall tower which is rectangular in plan. The openings on the central tower were altered in the 15th century. In the 15th century the Lamb Chapel was added to the north side of the chancel and the larger Beauchamp Chapel to the south. The western bay of the nave and the west façade was replaced in 1863. Some of the stones of the former west door were apparently reused in the grounds of the castle. 

Romanesque sculpture survives in former windows in the north wall of the north transept and south wall of the south transept and the upper part of the west wall of the south transept. Also in cobels to the north wall of the north transept and north, east and south walls of the choir, east and west walls of the south transept and in part of the arches, vaults and elsewhere as described in the feature sets below. 

History

The church stands in what was originally the inner bailey of the nearby castle and therefore probably began as a chapel serving the castle. The date of the church is not recorded but its ambition and the quality of its architecture and sculpture point to its construction during the period when Bishop Roger of Salisbury controlled the castle. It was probably built following the reconstruction of the castle after a fire in 1113 and probably around 1125-39. 

Features

Exterior Features

Windows

East Window of Chancel

The east window of the chancel dates from the 19th century. In an 1824 engraving, the chancel’s east wall is shown with a small Perpendicular window. Above the current east window there is a small opening that lit/ventilated the roof space above the chancel vault

North Wall of the North Transept

The north wall of the north transept has a large Perpendicular window in it but there are traces of the original fenestration just above it. Two fragments of arches decorated with an embattled pattern were separated with a narrow central buttress. There was a band of cylindrical billet beneath the windows. Above the two original openings there is a single window with chevron around its arch and detached shafts with small, volute capitals on its jambs. 

South Wall of the South Transept

A large Perpendicular window has also been inserted into the south wall of the south transept but there are remnants of the original fenestration pattern. The remains of two moulded arches with beaded hoodmoulds and scalloped capitals, with a band of cylindrical billet beneath indicate that the fenestration was similar though not identical to the north transept. On the inside the surviving arches are decorated with chevron and a roll moulding, with a beaded hoodmould.

West Wall of the South Transept

In the upper part of the west wall of the south transept is the south side of the arch of a window, with similar detailing to the windows in the south wall.

Exterior Decoration

Corbel tables, corbels

Choir

East Wall of Choir

On this wall there is an eroded head which is set in the block that is a continuation of the top, chevron-decorated course of the corbel table on the north wall of the choir.

South Wall of Choir

1        Easternmost Corbel - plain

2        A bundle of sticks with a rope holding them together.

3        Moulded

4        Crude head with sticking up ears, and vertical eyes.

5        Head with a large mouth, floppy lower lip and bulbous eyes.

6        Two heads; the eastern one an animal head with pointed ears and oval eyes; the western head turns to the side with wide mouth and oval eyes.

7        Crude, round faced smiling face with spherical eyes.

8        A damaged corbel with the outline of an animal’s head

9        Smiling head with wide mouth and almond-shaped eyes.

10      Two heads; the eastern one is an animal like a monkey and the western a more human face but very crude.

11      A lion pointing westwards, with its back facing the viewer. The tail curves up over the body.

12      A bundle of sticks with a rope holding them together.

13      Westernmost corbel – A crude cat’s head with wide mouth and oval eyes.

North Wall of Choir

The eastern six corbels are visible on the exterior of the church and the western six inside. Along the top of the corbel table there is a simple chevron pattern.

1        Easternmost corbel – a wide head with large eyes and hands held up to the edges of the mouth.

2        Two seated or squatting figures with arms and legs.

3        These two crude heads have large oval eyes and rather lumpy faces.

4        A pair of heads, the left one with pointed ears. Both have oval, bulbous eyes. Some form of strange foliage or cloth runs along the bottom of the two heads.

5        Head with pointed ears, oval, bulbous eyes, wide mouth with hands held up to it.

6        Westernmost corbel on exterior– head with huge, bulbous eyes and mouth surrounded by teeth. Inside the mouth there are two figures. Is this a depiction of the mouth of hell?

7        A sad face with droopy eyes being pulled down by the figure’s hands.

8        An odd shape, apparently a circular disc with beading on a square stand!

9        This corbel is crude and damaged. It is decorated with two small heads, the left one more human, the right following the standard animal form.

10      This corbel is partially hidden by the 15th century roof corbel. It is decorated with an animal’s head, with pointed ears, almond-shaped eyes, a wide mouth with teeth and a moustache.

11      Head with a scared expression, round eyes, large mouth with sticking out tongue, arms beside head with hands on forehead.

12      Damaged head with large eyes, long twisted moustache and small hands beneath the head.

North Wall of North Transept

Along the top of the corbel table there is a simple chevron pattern.

1        Northernmost corbel – A head with pointed ears, oval, bulbous eyes and a wide mouth with teeth around it.

2        A head with pointed ears, oval, bulbous eyes, triangular snout/moustache with its hands held up to its mouth.

3        Southernmost corbel – A head treated like a pig with lines of hair, prominent, damaged ears and small trotters.

Transept

East wall of South Transept

One corbel and a short section of the simple chevron decoration above survive on the exterior of the south transept. The rest of the corbels are now inside due to the addition of a large chapel in the south-east corner of the church in the 15th century.

1        Northernmost corbel - A bundle of sticks with rope holding them together.

2        Animal head with pointed ears, almond eyes and a large mouth with teeth.

3        Moulded.

4        Animal head, pointed ears, almond eyes, large mouth with teeth.

5        Two heads, bulbous eyes, large mouths, northern one has open mouth.

6        A bundle of sticks with rope holding them together.

7        Crude, wide head with striations on the face and a large mouth with teeth.

8        Moulded.

9        Southernmost corbel on exterior of building. This head has huge, bulbous eyes and a mouth full of teeth.

West Wall of South Transept

There would have originally been more corbels on this wall, but with the reconstruction of the nave and its widening in the 15th century, the rest of the corbel table was removed.

1        Northern corbel – A bundle of sticks with a piece of rope around it.

2        Southern corbel – An animal’s head with large mouth with teeth, a square nose, narrow eyes and the whole head is covered with shallow, narrow grooves.

Miscellaneous

Central Tower

The central tower of the church is rectangular in plan and is decorated with two bands of decoration. The longer eastern and western faces of the lower tier are decorated with two blind openings, while the shorter faces have single arches. The arches have roll mouldings and a chevron decorated hoodmould. These arches now have Perpendicular tracery inside them. Beneath this band of arches there is a line of billet.

The upper tier has openings flanked by similar blind arches. The longer sides of the tower have five bays of decoration, three blind and two open. On the shorter faces there are three arches, two blind with one opening between.  Beneath this band of arches there is a band of geometric decoration, some of which is treated as rope moulding.

The blind arches have a vertical chevron pattern inside them. The arches are square in section and are decorated with a variety of motifs including roundels and beading. The abaci of the arches are treated as a continuous band. Inside these the openings have an inner order with rope moulded arches and inside them there are pairs of openings. The capitals of this band are a variety of scallops with occasional volute capitals.

East Wall of the Chancel

Above the east window of the chancel there is an eroded head, probably a reset corbel. It has a large mouth with teeth and prominent, bulbous eyes.

North Wall of the North Transept

Above the window in the north wall of the north transept there is another eroded head, probably a reset corbel. It has a large mouth with teeth and large eyes.

Interior Features

Arches

Tower/Transept arches

Central Tower

The central tower of the church is rectangular in plan, the eastern and western arches being wider than the other two faces. This is a result of the choir and nave having been markedly wider than the transepts. Therefore, the wider arches are circular in section and the north and south ones are pointed.

Eastern and Western Arches – these have two, wide, roll mouldings on its soffit and a chevron-decorated, western order.

Northern and Southern Arches – these pointed arches have a single roll on the soffit of the middle order and a roll moulded southern order. Around the arches there is a narrow band of chevron.

Vaulting/Roof Supports

Chancel

Chancel Vaulting

The chancel has two rib-vaulted bays. The eastern responds are a single large shaft (diameter 0.18m) with scalloped capitals and abaci decorated with two bands of zig zag.

North-East Corner Vault Capital

This simple scallop capital has a chevron decorated neck. On the flat face of the abacus there is a strapwork pattern consisting of diamond-shaped motifs with drilled central holes and between each of these motifs there is a little buckle. Beneath there is two bands of zig zag. The sharpness of the carving suggests a 19th century date. Beneath the base the plinth is decorated with what seems to be the remains of a beaded pattern.

South-East Corner Vault Capital

This shaft has a scalloped capital and beneath the base the plinth is decorated with a zig zag pattern.

Central Respond North Side

The central respond consists of four shafts, one each for the diagonal ribs of the east and west bays of vaulting (diameter 0.18m) and a pair of shafts (0.27m wide, projecting 0.19m) for the transverse rib. It has abaci decorated with two rows of simple zig zag on the sloping surface. On the flat top face there is a strapwork pattern consisting of diamond-shaped motifs with drilled central holes and between each of these motifs there is a little buckle.

1        East capital – A simple scallop. Abacus 0.14m high, capital 0.19m high.

2        Central pair of capitals – Scalloped forms, decorated with acanthus-like leaf forms applied to the surfaces and between the scallops. Abacus 0.74m wide and 0.14m high, capital 0.60m wide and 0.19m high.

3        West capital – A simple scallop. Abacus 0.14m high, capital 0.19m high.

The plinth beneath the base of the western shaft has a little chevron motif on it.

Central Respond South Side

The central respond consists of four shafts, one each for the diagonal ribs of the east and west bays of vaulting and a pair of shafts for the transverse rib. The base of the western shaft has chevron around it and another band of chevron along the plinth. This respond has abaci decorated with two rows of simple zigzag on the sloping surface. On the flat top face there is a strapwork pattern consisting of diamond-shaped motifs with drilled central holes and between each of these motifs there is a little buckle. The necks are treated as two bands of rope moulding. The dimensions are similar to the respond on the north side of the chancel.

1        East capital – A simple scallop. 

2        Central pair of capitals – These are treated with a variety of foliate forms and beaded semicircles. On the east side of the east capital there is a small face with a mouth from which the stems flow.

3        West capital – A simple scallop

The north-west crossing pier has capitals with smooth faces, a result of the restoration of the 19th century. The abaci are decorated with rows of simple diaper which may date from the 12th century.

 The diagonal ribs of the chancel vaulting are heavy and decorated with a large roll moulding. The transverse rib has a simple rectangular form.

Interior Decoration

Blind arcades

Central Tower

Originally the central tower was open to the crossing beneath. From the ground floor the bases of the arcading of the lantern can be seen. The first floor of the tower is adorned with intersecting arcading decorated with a simple chevron. The arcading survives on the north and east walls with small parts on the west and south walls.

North Wall

 1        Western capital - a simple scallop capital.

2        Removed.

3        Very mutilated.

4        No capital but the underside of the arch has a crude face carved in it.

5        Volute capital.

6        Scalloped capital.

7        Eastern capital - volute capital.

East Wall

1        Northern capitalvolute capital.

2        Cut away.

3        Removed.     

4        Volute capital.

5        Volute capital.

6        No capital but a face set into the underside of the arch.

7        Volute capital.

8        Volute capital.

9        Volute capital.

10      Volute capital with flat leaves behind.

11      Southern capital – removed.

South Wall

1        Volute capital.

2        Volute capital.

West Wall

1        Small volute capital.

Second Floor of Tower

The inside of this floor of the tower has two openings on the east and west walls and one on each of the other two. The inside faces of the openings are decorated with roll mouldings carried on engaged shafts with small capitals. Around the arches there was a narrow band of chevron decoration, most of which has been removed.

North Wall – A single opening

West capital – A small capital with no obvious abacus. The capital is decorated with triangular-topped vertical leaves.

East capital – A scalloped capital.

East Wall – Two openings

North opening north capital – A scalloped capital.

North opening south capital – A scalloped capital.

South opening north capital - A scalloped capital.

South opening south capital - A small volute capital with a vertical stem in the middle of each face of the capital.

South Wall – A single opening

East capital – A scalloped capital.

West capital – A scalloped capital.

West Wall – Two openings

North Opening – north capital – A blank stone.

North Opening – south capital – A small volute capital with a vertical stem in the middle of each face of the capital.

South Opening – north capital – A scalloped capital.

South Opening – south capital – A scalloped capital.

Chancel

The north, east and south walls of the eastern bay of the chancel have blind arcading which was restored in the 19th century. Originally there would have been similar arcading in the western bay of the chancel but this disappeared when the chapels were added on either side of the chancel. The intersecting arches are decorated with chevron and above the arches is a band of imbrication. The capitals are 0.16 – 0.17m high and 0.20m wide at the top. The abaci are 0.14 – 0.15m high. Similar arcading existed at St Mary’s church at Devizes and at Melksham.

East Bay of Chancel North Arcade

1        Western shaft – This has a scallop capital with acanthus-type leaves between and a line of beads at the corner. The mouths of the scallops are linked by a beaded band. The abacus has an intersecting arched pattern on its vertical surface.

2        A plain scallop capital with triangular, concave sections between and a moulded abacus.

3        This capital is decorated with acanthus-like leaves at the corners and the abacus is decorated with chevron.

4        This shaft has a scallop capital with very eroded foliate forms along the top of it and a moulded abacus.

5        Eastern shaft – The capital is decorated with simple foliate motifs, inexpertly carved. The abacus is also crude, with a band of chevron on its vertical surface.

 East Bay of Chancel East Arcade

 1        North shaft - A plain scallop capital with triangular, concave sections between and the abacus has an intersecting arched pattern on its vertical surface (19th century?).

2        A 19th century capital with a moulded abacus.

3        This capital has a cushion shape and its surfaces are decorated with acanthus-type leaf forms. The neck is decorated with two bands of rope moulding. The abacus has an intersecting arched pattern on its vertical surface.

4        This capital has a cushion shape and is decorated with various leaf forms, stems treated as straps and bunches of grapes at the corners. The front face has three semicircles decorated with beads and chevron, and these enclose small multi-lobed leaves. The abacus is decorated with chevron and seems to date from the 19th century.

5        This capital is very similar to number 4 though the side faces have a different pattern of foliage. On the south face there is a small face with a mouth from which the stems flow. The neck is decorated with two bands of rope moulding and the abacus is moulded.

6        A 19th century capital with moulded abacus.

7        South shaft – A simple scallop capital with an abacus with a band of zig zag on its vertical face (19th century?).

 East Bay of Chancel South Arcade

 1        Eastern shaft – This has a scallop capital with acanthus-like leaves between and a beaded band along the top of the scallops. The abacus has a pattern of intersecting arches with occasional beads along the top.

2        A 19th-century scallop capital with moulded abacus.

3        A crude capital with debased, classical-style foliage. The abacus which is decorated with chevron dates from the 19th century.

4        This shaft has a 19th century capital and abacus.

5        Western shaft – A simple scallop capital with moulded capital with a band of chevron on it.

Miscellaneous

West Tower

On the west face of the west tower, above the north side of the western arch of the crossing, there is a patch of incised diamond decoration. Probably 12th century in date, it is reminiscent of the type of decoration found on the nave piers at Durham Cathedral.

At the base of the vice up into the tower there is a piece of diaper and another piece of chevron. The shaft at the centre of the vice, near its base, is decorated with elaborate beaded strapwork.

Comments/Opinions

Extensive survival of Romanesque sculpture. 

Bibliography

  • E. Bradby, The Book of Devizes. Buckingham 1985

  • DCMS Listing Description

  • Guidebook

  • N. Pevsner, Buildings of England: Wiltshire. Penguin 1985

  • Victoria County History of Wiltshire Volume X.

General view from NW. Photo: Derek Parker.
General view from SW. Photo: Derek Parker.
Chancel from SE. Photo: Derek Parker.
Chancel from NE. Photo: Derek Parker.
Chancel, general view. Photo: Derek Parker.
Chancel, general view.
Chancel, general view. Photo: Derek Parker.
DEVIZES, groundplan of St John's.

Location

Site Location
Devizes
National Grid Reference
SU 005 612 
Boundaries
now: Wiltshire
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales): Wiltshire
Diocese
medieval: Old Sarum
now: Salisbury
Dedication
medieval: St John the Baptist
now: St John
Type of building/monument
Parish church  
Report authors
Allan Brodie 
Visit Date
12 April 1991