St John Parish Church

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St John Parish Church

This article by R G Warton was first published in the 1918 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise


This church is unconventional. So is nature. After all, there is a charm in unconventionality – whether of persons or things. We don’t want always to be contained within the four sides of a square or even of a ‘Latin Cross’.

Be this as it may, a visit to St John's means a pleasant drive, with something worth seeing at the end. Its existence and growth has been dictated by the people’s needs, tempered by their pockets.

Notwithstanding short shrift from sundry guide books and casual observers, the writer is of the opinion that St John’s possesses much to engage the attention of a visitor with patience and half an hour to spare.

Like other Jersey churches the inevitable chantry chapel was its origin. Probably two of them, and possibly even three, aided in its evolution. By a flight of imagination one might conceive that it developed on something like the following lines.

St John's Parish Church

Date incorrect

Let us assume that a single chantry stood on the site of the north-east section of the present building (now its chancel aisle) a theory which is generally accepted. It is quite likely that when a nave was added (constituting the first enlargement) a second chantry may have been absorbed. Such an incident would probably account for the guide books date of consecration, 1204 AD, which is manifestly incorrect.

The building would then consist of a sanctuary and nave. This plan was frequently adopted in early days for small churches. The Rev Charles Cox, in his comprehensive work on the English Parish Church writes as follows: “A nave and sanctuary was the type from which the more complex plan of later times has evolved – the latter square ended, or with an apse, either without a tower, or with a chancel carried up as a middle tower”.

In the case of St John’s these chantries would probably have been of 9th or 19th century date. No trace remains. They are represented now by its chance and nave aisles, which are typical of 11th or 12th century work, that "no man's land" between late Norman and the dawn of Earl English, termed "transition".

Next, comes the present nave. It’s somewhat awkward position in relation to those portions of the church which preceded it may have been due to the facility for making use of material on the spot, and possibly the opportunity for enclosing a third chantry. This surmise is not unreasonable in light of a yet later development to be described hereafter. At any rate it affords food for thought to the speculative archaeologist.

The pulpit

A chancel?

Supposing then that he present nave was added to meet a need for extra accommodation, as doubtless it was, what about a chancel?

The building would then have taken the shape of a workman's square, with the chantry (now the chancel aisle) at the northeast, the first addition west of that to provide a nave (the present nave aisle) the second addition in the southwest which is the present nave, and to the east of that the third addition, the present chancel.

From the old nave the congregation could neither see nor be seen, if the sanctuary remained in its original position. It is therefore suggested that, simultaneously with the erection of the present nave, a small addition was thrown out from its east end, which fulfilled tbe combined object of providing a basement for a future tower and space for a small chancel beyond. Such an arrangement would account for the present tower being flush with the south facade. The spire, of course, followed later.

Tower and spire still remain, whilst the little sanctuary we imagined has in the course of years been replaced by the chancel, added in 1853, which completes the rectangular plan of the building we see today.

By some such design priest, and congregation would have been again brought face to face during the celebration of divine service. It is quite possible that a fourth chantry may have been utilized in carrying out this plan, as it appears that formerly a lean-to building of two stories occupied a portion of the southeast, providing a school and vestry.

That several chantries in close proximity was by no means unusual in mediaeval days is well known. St Saviour's Church furnishes an example, since it occupies the site of no fewer than five chantries, four of which have actually been incorporated in the main building.

Upon this subject Parker writes as follows: "A chantry constituted an ecclesiastical benefice or endowment to provide for be chanting of masses. It was very commonly a testamentary bequest, the testator also directing a chapel to be built over the spot where he was buried - hence the term has come to be applied to the chapel itself. Many of the aisles to our churches are chantry chapels, one chapel after another having been added.”

The above would appear to favour the idea suggested as to the evolution of St John’s. Its possibility (or probability, as the writer thinks) is presented to the reader for what it may be worth. Someone, some day, may perchance succeed in proving it to be fact or fallacy.

Passing from the consideration of what may have been to what is, a few preliminary words concerning the early history of St John’s may be of interest.

An inside view

St Sauveur-Le-Vicomte

The patron was the Abbot of St Sauveur-le-Vicomte, in the Department of La Manche, who possessed the whole tythe.

In 1155 Guillaume de Vauville granted the church of St John to the Abbey of St Sauveur-Le-Vicomte.

In 1309 in the pleas of Quo Warranto we find the Attorney-General claiming on behalf of the Crown against the Abbot of St Sauveur-le-Vicomte the advowson of tbe Church of St John. The Abbot claims that the advowson wa granted to him by Henry II, and produces the charter in support of his contention. This charter, amongst other things, states that the king grants and confirms all the Churches which the aforesaid Abbey holds in the island of Jersey, to wit (among others) the whole of the Church of St John de Qnercubus with the Chapel of St Mary of Bonne Nuit and the lands and alms of the church and chapel belonging thereto and in the same parish one ploughland of the gift of Eudo de Sottevast.

In 1154 one William Suen or Soin gave the whole of his land in the parish of St John to the Abbey of St Sauveur-le-Vicomte and this gift was afterwards confirmed by a charter of Henry II.

Sanctuary right

The right of sanctuary of course existed, in connection with which a perquage of roughly half a mile led to Bonne Nuit Bay, Every Easter the Rector paid to thc Bishop of Coutances an annual sum of 12s 6d for church expenses, candles, sacramentel wine, etc.

From the foregoing it will be gathered that the plan of the church is now rectangular. A fairly lofty tower and spire occupies the centre of the south side. Its foundations are eight feet in thickness - its lantern groined, but without ribs. On its north side the colours of the old North Regiment have found a resting place.

Flush with the tower to the east is tbe main entrance; a rather ordinary gabled porch, which marks approximately the line of division between chancel and nave. Taken as it whole the southern facade conveys the idea of something wanting or somethiug out of place. Quaint gargoyles project from, and huge buttresses support the walls.

These last, no doubt, were at one time of the light Norman type, intended more for ornament than use, their bulk being increased at a later date to meet the extra strain, when stone replaced the ancient roof of wood or thatch.

The lancet windows are transition or early English, and by no means ungraceful. On the north side of the nave there are two groups with three lights and one with two. The heads are pierced with quatrefoils. Some of the sills are out of level owing to settlement.

On the south side there are four pairs of similar type, their heads pierced with various geometrical designs – otherwise they are plain.

Lightning strikes

The tower, which may at first have been of lower elevation, is massive. It now supports a quadrilateral broach spire, a predecessor of which was struck by lightning on 16 December 1733, during Divine Service. It has been struck twice since that date. This addition would be more effective, were it not clothed in a hideous coat of stucco.

So satisfied, however, were the surveillants of the time that hey had their initials stamped on its southern face. Their names are buried in the parish register where we leave them. It also bears the arms of the St John branch of the Lempriere famity (nine billets of wood) and displays marks of a vanished sundial. A string course and the usual spire lights complete its adornment.

Near the tower will be found the tomb of a former Seigneur of the neighbouring manor, La Hougue Boete . It bear the following inscription :






DE MARS 1651

The church and neighbouring hotel

Priest's door

Perhaps the most interesting portion of St John’s is its northeast corner, of 13th century date. Here will be found a low doorway which has been described as the charming priest’s door.

It bears the date 1622. It is more likely, however, that this exit was actually the "Porte des morts", (a feature common to several Jersey churches) conducting via the perquage to Bonne Nuit bay, whence those who had claimed sanctuary in the church finally quitted the island.

A flattened ogival arch with fleur-de-lis filial and dripstone surmounts the doorway. On the dripstone may be traced forms of animals, similar to some that appear over one of the north windows of St Ouen's Church, and also on a doorway of Mont Orgueil Castle. This form of embellishment was a good deal favoured in mediaeval days, the subjects being rudely sculptured in bas relief. Some much-weathered initials, "J L B", appear above the finial, probably those of John Le Bailly, a member of one of the leading families of this parish in the 17th century.

The west front presents two galbles, upon one of which the Lempriere arms again appear. Each includes a doorway. The northern, of ancient Norman type, with dripstone, is blocked, the other, a modern porch, forms a projection to the original entrance which was flush with the main wall.

Stained glass

The east windows of both aisle and chancel are good in design, and supply perhaps the best specimen of art in St John's. That of the former is flamboyant, its tracery and sills of Jersey granite, but little affected by the wear and tear of centuries. The chancel window is perpendicular, of Caen stone, and embraces three lights, pierced with geometrical designs, characteristic of the dawn of the style. It already shows signs of weathering. In the southeast corner of the chancel the only example of stained glass is placed.

It represents St Michael and St Gabriel, was presented by J P Vaudin, and artistically carried out by the Jersey-born artist Bosdet.

The interior of St John's presents certain feiltures which at first sight are rather startling. The altar now occupies its usual eastern position which was not always the case.

A simple triptych serves as reredos. It is related that an impulsive rector of the time undertook personally to paint it himself but found there were so many letters in the Lord’s preayer, and each took so long to paint, that he had to resign the ten Commandments to a more expert hand.

The pulpit stands in a decidedly unusual position – at the centre of the north wall of the north aisle. It is possible that this position may have been selected when the present nave was added, with the object of bringing a larger portion of the congregation under the priest’s eye.

It is of considerable height, of dark wood, and has been described as “not remarkable for its carving but its sounding board” – the only one remaining now in a Jersey parish church.

Below it are two diminutive triangular receptacles, one for the priest to read the prayers, the other for the clerk. Between them a small flap table hangs, whereon the baptismal dish was placed, when Puritan piety destroyed the font.

St John's Parish Church

Seigneurs' pew

A large square pew, formerly upholstered in crimson, and possibly provided with a fireplace, proclaims the seat of the Seigneurs of La Hougue Boete. It is dominated by a white marble slab recording the names and virtues of former parish magnates.

Immediately in front of the preacher, and not many feet away, rises a massive Norman pillar, with pointed arches springing right and left, apropos of which a humorous bishop remarked that the pulpit possessed one great advantage, in that “it saved the parson from seeing his congregation pulling out their watches or yawning in his face”.

A new font of Mont Mado granite now replaces the flap table, and baptismal dish; in the absence of a baptistery it stands half-way down the chancel. Near it, on a granite column, gift of the present rector, an antique alms pot stands, bearing date 1672 with the initial A de C, being those of Abraham de Carteret, (1650- ) seigneur of the neighbouring manor. The delicate tracery with which it is engraved might be arabesque.

At the west end of the aisle is a gallery, very likely utilised by fumeurs, to which access is obtained by an interior stone staircase. A fair sized pointed window, partially screened by the gilded pipes of a defunct organ, supplies light. Meanwhile the west end of the nave is illuminated by a small circular splayed window of curious design.


The arcading, which divides nave and chancel from their respective aisles, consists of heavy cylindrical columns carrying early English arches, of similar design, but nearly all varying in detail. The columns rest on octagonal bases, a somewhat unusual feature.

The usual method of piercing the original south wall of the church has been adopted in construction. This combination of pointed arch, supported by Norman pillar, offers an excellent example of the transition stage from one style to another, and hence affords a clue as to approximate age. A further link will be found in the fact that the mouldings in some parts are identical with those of the principal and oldest front of St Ouen's Manor, so much alike are they, indeed, that they might have been executed by the same hand.

Thus we arrive at a conclusion as to its 15th century date. The arcading of St John's was once the innocent cause of a quaint incident that occurred during the rectorate of the Rev S Wright. lt appears that certain members of the congregation were unable to obtain a satisfactory view of the preacher, owing to the position of one of its bulky pillars. They petitioned the rector to have this obstruction removed, but the Revd gentleman failed to comply with their request.

The malcontents, not to be defeated, resolved to take matters into their own hands. During the rector's temporary absence from Jersey, they arranged with some French masons to remove the offending pillar, and to construct a double span arch in its place. The arch still remains, minus a keystone. It cannot be said to add to the beauty or stability of the church. The pillar adorns the Rector's garden, where it was taken after removal. The conspirators worked by night.

Second cemetery

The present churchyard is of fair size, as the result of recent enlargement. In early times congestion was avoided by the fact that a second cemetery was available, belonging to the Priory of Bonne Nuit. About the middle of the last century, however, things appear to have been in an unsatisfactory state, since an order was issued that the sexton should be provided with "a wooden pump, to be used at burials". Gravestones are numerous.

Many consist of small granite blocks, or of water-worn pebbles, bearing simply the initials of the deceased. Some of these were so close to the walls of the church, that they had to be removed fur he construction of a pathway round it. In 1852 they were built into a wall which now forms the western boundary of the churchyard, all being carefully numbered and most of them identified.

A curious old time custom is still observed in connection with interment. On the morning of a funeral the bell is tolled to warn the family of the deceased to come and select a site for the grave.

A curios fact may also be noted regarding certain monuments representing a recumbent cross, viz that in the case of a layman the foot of the cross is directed eastward, whereas in the case of a priest it points to the west.

In the year 1842 an order was issued forbidding the practice of announcing in the church or cemetery notices of secular events, such as parish meetings, public elections, etc, or referring to either civil or criminal matters, which had been customary from time immemorial.

The bricked-up west door

Archery practice

On a ground known as "Le Butte", in close proximity to the church, there is reason to believe that archery, with the long bow, was practised after morning service, and the militia drilled on Sunday afternoon.

The 24th June (St John the Baptist's Day) was observed as a fete. A fair was held in the vicinity of the parish church, booths and stalls lining the roadway.

Such practices, however, by no means implied impiety, or disrespect towards the church or its services. The position is well described by the Rev Charles Cox in his English Parish Church. He says:

"In olden times the holding of fairs, the sale of merchandise, and even dancing were common practices, and bore no taint of profanity. Under the west end of the church it was usual to find a plough, which was blessed on the Monday after Epiphany, known as "Plough Monday", being the usual period when rustic toil began . Such proceedings were not considered then as in any way contravening that respect and reverence due to the parish church and its precincts. As a matter of fact, in those days when there was but one common faith, the Holy day of the church was the holiday of the people. Religious and secular life were closely interwoven. People, then, would have been far more scandalised and amazed at the parish church being locked up from week's end to week's end, or only occasionally opened, than at anything done within its walls, Not in accordance with modern ideas of decorum ".

Bells seized

It would seem that the ancient bells of St John's, like those of all the other Jersey churches, were seized during the reign of Edward VI. Tradition says that having been shipped to St Malo for sale, the vessel foundered and they were lost. One bell (the last of a peal) was left, but was not rung for some years, being out of the level. Ultimately the parishioners subscribed £50 to have it put right.

Major Curtis, of Guernsey, in his contribution to the 42nd annual Bulletin of the Société, describes in detail the communion plate of St John's. Briefly it consists of six cups, all 17th century, two of them gifts of the Trinity branch of the de Carteret family - a fine 17th century dish, highly ornamented, (peculiar to Jersey) and a modern flagon. It includes also some pewter vessels of the description in use during the 18th century, viz two jugs and four dishes.

Curious epitaph

Mural tablets are scarce. In addition to those previously mentioned the following epitaph is rather curious:-

In loving memory of Dumaresq Valpy
Son of Edward Valpy of the Parish,
who was killed by a wave on the 20th
of May 1890, during a storm at sea,
on board the SS Circassian, on which
he had taken passage from Liverpool
to Canada
Aged 42 years
”My time is in thy hand”
This memorial is erected by his sorroing widow”

A stone slab in the floor of tho chancel, dated 1788, bears the inscription

Lesbirel – age 23

The pews at different periods have been of all sizes, shapes and colours. They are now uniform. One was known as Le petit banc des pauvres. Beneath several there are still vaults.

Famous rectors

Amongst famous rectors of the parish the name of Clement Le Couteur stands prominently. He was Dean of Jersey. He married Jeanne de Carteret, daughter of Joshua de Carteret, who, by right of hisw wife (a daughter of Jean Le Febvre) was Seigneur of St Jean la Hougue Boete.

Daniel Brevint, rector from 1604 to 1651, may also be mentioned. His son Daniel Brevint, afterwards Dean of Lincoln, was Rector of Grouville from 1648 to 1652 and married a daughter of Sir Philip de Carteret.

Of late years the living has changed hands frequently, no fewer than ten rectors having been appointed during last century.

It is hoped that enough has been said to relieve this church of the crude criticism bestowed upon it. That there is room for improvement cannot be denied, whilst the splendid example of restoration work, so successfully carried out in many other parishes, should prove a stimulant to all connected with it.

Rectors come and go. Parishioners are always on the spot. There are potentialities which might well attraqct their earnest and active attention.

A good start, however modest, and the recollection that where there’s a will there’s a way, may yet result in St John’s becoming one of the island churches regarded with pleasure by visitors, and pride by the parishioners.

According to tradition the Bishop of Coutances held an ordination in St John’s during the 16th century, when three candidates were presented. He declared the church to be “well ordered and replete with every requisite for the proper performance of the ritual”.

May the time come when some Bishop of its present diocese will be constrained to re-echo his words.

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