St Peter

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St Peters is most often viewed from Bridge Street.
Roman Chester showing the location of the "Headquarters Building" which stood at the intersection of the four main streets in the midst of The Rows: (Northgate Street, Bridge Street, Eastgate Street and Watergate Street) which formed the original principal roads within Roman Chester. Modern day St Peter's occupies the site today.

The church stands by the High Cross on the site of part of the Roman Praetorium and some of its fabric probably dates from that time. A church is said to have been built on this site by Æthelflæd in 907 when the Roman city was refortified by the Mercians. The event is recorded in the Chronicle (although versions vary) and a cryptic note from 907 that "Chester was restored" suggests more fighting in that year :

  • A.D. 907. This year died Alfred, who was governor of Bath. The same year was concluded the peace at Hitchingford, as King Edward decreed, both with the Danes of East-Anglia, and those of Northumberland; and Chester was rebuilt.

In 1583 the corporation established a weekly Friday lecture at St Peter's, which became a centre of puritan preaching. After Goodman associated himself with St Bridget's it too displayed puritan leanings, and in other parishes, Holy Trinity for example, there were complaints about incumbents who failed to preach regularly. The growing attachment to puritan teachings was both reflected in, and encouraged by, the Corporation's eventual concern with personal behaviour. It repeatedly attempted to curb excessive drinking and vice, attacking "church ales", "Welsh weddings", unlawful games, bowling, football, and bull and bear baiting.

The church clock was at one time provided with "Jacks", animated wooden figures who rang the bell. These were paid for by Robert Amerye, who is otherwish noted for putting on the play "Chester's Prince" in 1610. The present clock may be that of 1813, and is not particularly reliable (although it is right twice a day).

The present church dates from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, with modifications in the following three centuries. Formerly the tower had a spire which was removed and rebuilt in the 16th century, taken down in the 17th century, then rebuilt and finally removed "having been much injured by lightning" about 1780.

In 1849–50 the church was repaired by James Harrison, and 1886 it was restored by John Douglas, which included the addition of the present, rather short, pyramidal spire. The presence or absence of the spire is useful in dating some of the watercolours of Louise Rayner who often features the church in her works.

St Peter has a ring of 6 bells, but they are in such a state of disrepair, they are considered unringable. St Peter's have not been rung full circle since before the second world war at least. All 6 bells are still in the tower, and all swing freely. Some clappers are missing, and the wheels that remain are apparently rotting away.

The "Pentice" was a wooden structure on the south wall of St Peter as shown here by Randle Holme (Harl Man 2073) shortly after the end of the Civil War. The Pentice was taken down in 1803. The remains of the High Cross, destroyed in the Civil War, can be seen in front of the door. The two figures either side of the clock are the "jacks".

The underside of the cover of the fomt bears an inscription in Greek. This is remarkable in that it is a palindrome - one of the very few known Greek ones - having the same letters backwards as forwards. It reads: "Νίψον ανομήματα μη μόναν όψιν" (Nipson anomēmata mē monan opsin - cleanse (our) sins not only (our) face). The inscription is said to have been first used in Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and is attributed to Saint Gregory of Nazianzus. Technically, the Romanization is not a palindrome because the Greek letter ψ (psi) is transcribed by the digraph "ps": the modern diacritics, which are not symmetrical, are usually omitted from inscriptions of the sentence.

Earliest History

Hemingway writes:

  • There is a tradition that this church was dedicated to St Peter and St Paul and that it was erected when the patrons of the monastery which occupied the site of the cathedral were changed from the saints before mentioned to the Holy Trinity. This tradition has been given by Webb in his description of Chester in the following terms: "It appeareth that the christian faith and baptism came into Chester in Lucius's time a king of the Britons which is within less than one hundred and forty years of the sufferings of our saviour Christ and that then a church was here built and at that time called by the name of St Peter and Paul and this church saith Bradshaw in the life of St Werburgh (book 2 chap 3) was the mother church and burial place to all Chester and seven miles about Chester and so continued for the space of 300 years and more But then after as appeareth in the same author. Elfleda that noble lady, daughter to king Alfred, sister to king Edward senior, wife to Ethelred king of the Mercians altered the name of this church from Peter and Paul to Trinity and St Oswald and this alteration was by the general consent of the duke and spiritualty yet so as no loss should be either to the memory of those patrons so they called the saints of whom churches in their foundations were appointed to receive their names or to the upholding of devotion for another church was soon built in the midst of the city called by the same name of Peter and Paul."

Norman Conquest

St Peter's is described as a "temple" in the Domesday book (folio 262v)

Hemingway records:

  • At the period of the conquest it bore its present name as appears from the following curious entry in Domesday of which a translation is also subjoined: "Terra in qua est templum sancti Petri quam Robertus de Rodeland clamabat at Teinland (sicut diracion comitatus) nunquam pertinuit ad manerium extra civitatem, sed ad burgum pertinet, et semper fuit in consuetu dine regis et comitis sicut aliorum burgensium" (the ground on which is the church of St Peter which Robert de Rodeland claims as Thaneland (as the court of the earl proves) never belonged to the manor without the city but it belongs to the borough and also was always subject to the payment of customary rent to the king and earl as (the land) of other burgesses).
If the Principia were still there....

Hemingway misses-out on the curious fact that this is one of the very few times that Domesday refers to a church as "Templum", implying that this should enjoy some higher status.

  • 1489: This year St Peter's steeple was pointed when a goose was eaten by the parson and others upon the top thereof and part cast into the four streets.

Fletcher writes:

The plaques on the walls are often overlooked.
  • St Peter The situation of this church is in the center of the city and had till lately a lofty spire steeple the want of which at present exhibits so naked and dilapidated an appearance that the church;- pardon the allusion, gives us the idea of a lady on a windy day having lost her high crowned hat. Several briefs have been read, subscriptions proposed and some liberal offerings from individuals made to restore this ornamental object, bur alas if the inhabitants at large do not throw in their mite we fear, to use the words of a certain author, Poor St Peter must go to bed many winters without his night cap.

Seacome writes:

  • This church stands exactly in the centre of the city where the four principal streets meet and close to the ancient site of the High Cross. It consists of a nave and side aisles with a square tower on the south west side. In this tower are eight bells cast in 1709 whereof six are a peal: on the treble is engraved "When you ring I'll sing". The interior of the church is handsomely and commodiously pewed and there is some very rich carved work in oak over the communion table and a finely toned organ in the west gallery. St Peter's is capable of containing 1000 sitters. Tradition says that St Peter was built by Etheltleda...
  • ... In 1081 it was given by Robert de Rodeland to the Monks of St Ehrulf in Nor mandy by whom it was shortly afterwards resigned to the Abbot of St Werburgh. In 1479 the steeple was rebuilt on which occasion the parson and other inhabitants ate a goose on the top of it and flung the bones into the four principal streets beneath. At the dissolution the patronage of St Peter's was vested in the Dean and Chapter of Chester it afterwards revcrted to the Crown but is now solely in the gift of the Bishop. The spire of this church having been injured by lightning was taken down in 1780 and in 1787 the south side of the church was recased with stone. The steeple was rebuilt and a new clock was placed in it in 18l3.

The Chester Courant recorded (on 25th June 1902) that:

  • "The shopkeepers and residents in Bridge- street have this week been quite in a fog as to the time, the reason being that St. Peter's clock has been undergoing repair. The clocks of St. Peter's Church are of historic interest. We gather from the "Parish Magazine" that "The repairs of St. Peter's, as the principal city church, were in the Tudor period undertaken by the civic authorities. Reference is made more than once to the maintenance of the chimes, and in 27 Elizabeth a certain clockmaker, William Sampson, obtained his freedom in return for providing a suitable clock and chimes. In 1598, however, the leavelookers, Christopher Conway and John Ratcliffe, were presented for not maintaining "le chimes S. Petre" in sufficient repair and permitting them to be very ruinous ("valde ruinos ad nocumentum tot inhabitant") to the nuisance of all the inhabitants." In 1612, through, the generosity of a parisioner (Mr. Robert Amery) St. Peter's clock was made to stnke every quarter of an hour. The present clock has the following inscriptions upon it: Bowers, Fecit, 1813. Rector, Rev. John Baldwin. Churchwardens, Charles Colton, Joseph Johnson. "This clock was illuminated 1835. Rev. J. Halton. Churchwardens, J. E. Podmore, J. Oakes. T. Moreland, contractor."This clock was altered and repaired A.D. 1865 Rector, Frederick Forde, M.A. Churchwardens, John Higgms, Thomas Miller Wilcock."
The "dog leg" at the High Cross (with Watergate Street behind the Cross), with the corner of St Peter in the middle and Northgate Street on the right.

On the northeast pier supporting the tower, just within the church is a niche (which formerly contained a "Virgin and Child" statue), and surrounding it is the best preserved medieval wall painting in Cheshire (N.B. this should not be photographed using "flash", so as to prevent damage). There are other surviving medieval wall paintings at Chester Castle and St Johns.

Related Pages

Sources and links

A Medieval wall painting at St Peters - please do not use flash to photograph this - this photo was taken with a special low-light camera.
Æthelflæd likes links!