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St John the Baptist, Armitage, Staffordshire

(52°44′45″N, 1°53′14″W)
SK 077 165
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Staffordshire
now Staffordshire
  • Ron Baxter

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Armitage is in central south Staffordshire, to the E of Cannock Chase and 2 miles SE of Rugeley. The village is built along the A513 road from Rugeley to Handsacre, and the latter and Armitage now form a continuous conurbation. This road follows the line of the River Trent, and St John's is built on a sandstone outcrop overlooking the river.

Except for its W tower, St John's was pulled down and rebuilt between 1844 and 1847 by Henry Ward of Stafford. The nave has very wide aisles, with the windows, the four-bay arcades and the S doorway executed in a lavish Romanesque style with a good deal of chevron and scallop capitals of varied forms. The S doorway is said to be a copy of the 12thc. original, pieces of which have been used in the construction of a churchyard cross to the S of the church. In fact the doorway itself contains some original stones, heavily restored, while the churchyard cross is entirely 19thc. work. The chancel arch is neo-Romanesque, and the chancel has a N chapel with a three-bay arcade in a 13thc. style (although the arch from the nave aisle is neo-Romanesque). The tower arch is Ward's work - neo-Romanesque to match the nave - but the tower is of 1632 and is all that remains of the old church. There is an 1823 view by Buckler from the SE in the William Salt Library (SV 1 74a) showing the old church without a S aisle or an imposing N chapel, but with a S porch, and one of 1844 showing the same building with no porch (SV 1 73). Two views of 1845 show the new building under construction (SV 1 76 and 77). There are also views of the S doorway by Buckler (SV 1 74b and 80). The font is a savagely magnificent example of early Romanesque figure carving; perhaps the finest and certainly the most alien-looking piece of medieval sculpture in the county.


Armitage is not listed in the Domesday Survey. Its name is a corruption of Hermitage, and the parish in which the hermitage stood was Handsacre. In 1086 Handsacre was held by Robert from the Bishop of Chester, and there was land for five ploughs. According to VCH, a hermitage chapel existed here, probably on the site of the present church, as early as the 12thc. It was still known as the Hermitage of Handsacre in the 13thc., although the chapel was no longer a hermitage at that date.


Exterior Features





The author knows of no other sculpture by the author of the font. Dating is difficult on account of the idiosyncratic style, but the developed fictive architecture and the rich repertoire of decorative forms on crowns and clothing, suggest a date well into the 12thc., perhaps as late as 1130. Pevsner calls it 'an important Norman piece'; the church website reports that it 'is reckoned to be 10thc.' Drake's comments on it are worth paraphrasing here. He noted that all the figures are male except one, and all are standing except one who sits on a stool (bay 5R), and he is the most grotesque and dynamic of all. Half of the figures are clean shaven; the other males have large moustaches. Some are bare-headed while others wear crowns or early bishops' caps. The dress is consistently depicted, with close parallel vertical pleats on the robes. There is no clue to their identities, other than that four may be bishops, several may be minor clerics, and two, including the woman, wear dress indicative of high social standing.

S. A. Jeavons, 'Armitage Font and Cross Shaft', Transactions and Proceedings of the Birmingham and Midlands Archaeological Society. LXI (1941-42), 137-40.
Anon, St John the Baptist Church, Armitage with Handsacre (website). http://www.churches.lichfield.anglican.org/rugeley/stjohn/church.htm
C. S. Drake, The Romanesque Fonts of Northern Europe and Scandinavia. London, 2002, 15.
N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Staffordshire. Harmondsworth 1974, 61-62, pl.7.
Staffordshire County Council, Staffordshire Views Collection nos SV I 73, 74a, 74b, 76, 77 and 80). Available online at http://www.staffordshire.gov.uk/portal/page?_pageid=47,71124and_dad=portaland_schema=PORTAL