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.
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.
|capital dimensions at top||0.64 m x 0.42 m|
|h of block||0.31 m|
|capital dimensions at top||0.38 m x 0.25 m|
|h of block||0.29 m|
|h of block||0.27 m|
|max w||0.18 m x 0.19 m|
|h of block||0.185 m|
|max w (L face)||0.19 m|
|max w (R face)||0.18 m|
|dimensions at top||0.22 m x 0.22 m|
|h of block||0.18 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|
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.