St Peter

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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.

History

The site of the church was the location of several important events in the history of Chester which are often forgotten today. This was the administrative and religious center of Roman Chester and was the most important building in any Roman fort. It was situated at the center of the fort where the Via Praetoria and the Via Principalis crossed. The existence of this building is the reason that modern day Northgate Street and Bridge Street do not line-up.

If the Roman Principia were still there today then the view up Bridge Street might look something like this!

Roman

The church stands by the High Cross on the site of part of the Roman Principia and some of its fabric,such as the foundations, probably dates from that time. It was commonplace for Roman stonework to be re-used by the Anglo-Saxons, especially by "robbing-out" to build churches. It is probably no co-incidence that St Michael, St Bridget and Holy Trinity were all built near the sites of former Roman gates of Chester.

The building probably followed the standard plan and comprised an open colonnaded courtyard enclosed on three sides by offices and/or stores. At the rear of the courtyard stood a roofed cross-hall or "basilica". At the rear of the cross-hall were a number of smaller rooms (usually five). The central one of these was the legionary shrine ("aedes/sacellum"), probably the most important room in the city.

The courtyard would probably have contained a platform were sacrifices were made and the omens read. In Roman times it would have been the place where guard details were assembled and changed. Small parades and ceremonies would also have been held here. Behind St Peter's, there is still an open space (St Peter's Churchyard) where a part of the courtyard stood. If you stand there today, you may well be standing close to the spot where the sacrificial platform was located. St Peter's itself is mostly located where the entrance to the Principia was.

"Chester in 1700. From a drawing in the possession of the Revd. M. Prescott" - This is an aquatint engraving by F. Ross (c1800). That must be St Peters in the distance, still with its spire and the "jacks" either side of the clock.

There is no evidence as to what happened to the building after the Romans departed, although it may have become an early religious establishment. Henry Bradshaw gives a date of establishment of the church prior to the year 200 but this seems unlikely. The first archaeological evidence and credible records from anywhere in Britain showing a community large enough to maintain churches and bishops dates to the 3rd and 4th centuries.

Saxon

A church is said to have been established 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.
Æthelflæd Lady of the Mercians

Chester was already a noted ecclesiatical site prior to Æthelflæd as it was seen as a safe place to become the home of the relics of St Werburgh and is also associated with Plegmund. It is not clear from the historical record where the relics of Werburgh were housed when first brought to Chester. It is also not clear quite when they were brought. The problem with the re-location of Werburgh is that while it is mentioned by Bradshaw, it is not mentioned in either the brief biography written by Florence of Worcester (died 1118) nor by Goscelin, her hagiographer (who was alive in 1106). This was not Werbergh's first post-mortem journey. She died at Trentham (3 February, 699 or 700) and, according to some, was originally buried there. Existence of this nunnery is disputed and a connection with Saint Werburgh is also disputed. As for a later Chester connection Trentham became an Augustinians monastery house from the 1150s, under the patronage of Ranulph De Gernon, Earl of Chester. According to the most common version, the shrine of St Werbergh remained at Hanbury until the threat from Danish Viking raids in the late 9th century prompted their relocation to within the walled city of Chester. As recorded in the Annales Cestriensis for the year 874:

  • In the same year, when the Danes made their winter quarters at Repton after the flight of Burgred, king of the Mercians, the men of Hanbury, fearing for themselves, fled to Chester as to a place which was very safe from the butchery of the barbarians, taking with them in a litter the body of S Werburgh, which then for the first time was resolved into dust.

The men of Hanbury may not only have feared the violence of the Vikings at Repton in 874 but may also have been concerned about the fact that the Vikings were dropping like flies from what may well have been a plague in their winter quarters. There are several contenders for Werburgh's initial resting place in Chester: she could have been taken to St Johns, to an early St Peter which later became the Abbey, or to whatever St Peter was called before the refoundation by Æthelflæd. 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."

William Webb, as quoted by Hemingway, seems to be suggesting that the Abbey was not named for St Werburgh at the time of Æthelflæd. Webb was one of the authors of "The Vale Royall of England, or the County Palatine of Chester Illustrated" as published by Daniel King.

The parish of St Peter, always entirely intramural, had complex boundaries, possibly reflecting the holdings of an early burgess.

Norman Conquest

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

Soon after the Norman Conquest the church was given to Robert of Rhuddlan, who in 1086 unsuccessfully claimed that it stood on thegnland dependent on an extramural manor and was exempt from borough dues. 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).

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. By 1081 Robert of Rhuddlan had granted the church to the Norman abbey of Saint-Evroul (Orne), a gift confirmed in the 1120s by Ranulf de Meschines and King Henry I. Later in the 12th century the Normandy abbey transferred St Peter to St. Werburgh's, whose position was consolidated when Simon fitz Osbern of Pulford and South Ormsby (Lincs.) and the rector, Alexander, also surrendered their interests.

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".

Pentice

The subsequent history of St Peter is closely intertwined with the city politics of Chester. In 1300, Edward I's charter granted the citizens of Chester the right to try pleas of the Crown before the mayor and sheriffs of the City - the first time any city in England obtained this privilege. Hemingway writes:

  • "There is a document amongst the corporation records which purports to be a return to a quo warranto under the statute of the 6th Edw I, in which the constitution of the city is thus stated:- The Maior and citizens of the citty of Chester clayme to have liberties under written, that is to say that the citty of Chester be a free citty and that the citizens may chuse to them a maior of themselves, from year to year, the Friday next after the feast of St Denyce which shall make his oath to keep the laws of our sovereign lord the prince and the liberties and laws of the citty aforesaid. And also that they may chuse to them two sheriffs of themselves the day aforesaid which in manner aforesaid the execution and commandments of the said Earl of Chester and of the maior and citizens of Chester truly shall do by their oaths and to have Gildam Mercalem in the citty aforesaid and to have free court of port mote in the city aforesaid of all quarrels growing within the citty aforesaid to be tried that is to say to have pleas of lands and tenements and of repleven growing by plaint in the port mote or writ and pleas of dower in a writ of right which in the aforesaid port mote by writ originally ought to be served. And all other pleas to be holden in the pentice of the citty aforesaid afore the sheriff."

This can be taken as evidence that the Pentice was in existence in 1300. The court, named from the structure in which it was held, a lean-to built against St Peter's church, actually appears to have been well established by 1288. Its earliest surviving records date from 1297. On petition, a case could be transferred to the Portmote (held at the Commonhall). The Pentice was particularly concerned with the regulation of the markets, and also heard all pleas during the fairs, when the Portmote was suspended. Perhaps unsurprisingly St Peter was (and is still) the "guild church". Relations between St Peter and the Abbey were complicated. As the greatest landowner in the city, with extensive jurisdictional privileges and exemptions from toll, the abbey's relations with the citizens were never easy. The abbey's rights, especially its trading monopoly during St. Werburgh's fair, became a source of friction. For two centuries from the late 13th century few if any chose to be buried or commemorated in the abbey. Relations with the other religious houses in Chester was also often poor: the Benedictines of the Abbey were not the only religious house in the city. The Dominicans (Blackfriars) and Franciscans (Greyfriars) arrived in the early 13th century, they were soon joined by the Carmelites (Whitefriars) and each had their own friary within the Saxon walls to the west of the city. It would appear that these other religious houses were all attracted to Chester by its wealth. Much of the drama which accompanied the conflict between the High and Low church would, quite literally, be played out at the door of St Peter.

Richard II

Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel and Surrey (1346-1397), and of Holt Castle (in long blue coat), nailed details of De Vere's downfall to the door of St Peter. Richard II later had him executed.

Boy king Richard II assumed full control of the government on 3 May 1389. Previously, in 1388, as a result of the political and military actions of the magnates known as the Lords Appellant, some of Richard's closest friends and advisors were executed or sent into exile. By installing Robert de Vere as Justice of Chester (see: Courts), he began the work of creating a loyal military power base in Cheshire. De Vere's relationship with King Richard was very close and rumored by chronicler Thomas Walsingham to be homosexual, although Walsingham was clearly biased against Richard. The Lord's Appellant had their revenge on the king's favourites in the "Merciless Parliament" (1388). The nominal governor of Ireland, de Vere, and Richard's Lord Chancellor, Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, who had fled abroad, were sentenced to death in their absence. Alexander Neville, Archbishop of York, had all his worldly goods confiscated. The Lord Chief Justice, Sir Robert Tresilian, was executed, as were Sir Nicholas Brembre, Lord Mayor of London, John Beauchamp of Holt (who by 1384 he had been made Receiver of the Chamber and Keeper of the King's Jewels), Sir James Berners, and Sir John Salisbury. Sir Simon Burley was found guilty of exercising undue influence over the king and was sentenced to death. Derby and Nottingham, together with the Duke of York, tried to win a reprieve for him, but he was executed on 5 May. The purge continued deep into the administration, dozens of retainers, clerks, chaplains, and secretaries to Richard were summarily condemned and executed. De Vere's fall was celebrated locally by his enemy Richard FitzAlan, 4th Earl of Arundel, who from his base at Holt Castle caused a copy of the appeal against the royal favourite to be nailed to the door of St Peter's church, something which Richard may of heard of and which he was unlikely to forget. Later he would sieze Holt and make it into the home of his Royal Treasure.

In 1397, Richard II created the title "Prince of Cheshire", which he awarded to himself. On 13 July 1397, he ordered the sheriff of the county of Chester to collect 2,000 archers for royal service. These troops were used to overawe the parliament which met in September - sometimes known as the "Revenge Partiament". Arundel had been arrested on the 12th July 1397 and was executed on 21 September. In 1399 Richard would depart for Ireland in a campaign which would end with his ursurpation by the later Henry IV. Events in Chester at the time included a riot at the Corpus Christi procession (possibly after Richard had taken his men to Ireland) - a record of 1399 describes a terrible brawl which broke out between the members of the guilds of the Weavers, Shearmen, Challoners (blanket-makers) and the Walkers (fullers) against their apprentices, outside of the guild church of St Peter:

  • " ..and many other master weavers came with force and arms, with pole-axes, staves, daggers, and other diverse armaments, by a premeditated plan on Thursday, the feast of Corpus Christi, in the twenty-second year of the reign of King Richard the second, opposite the church of Blessed Peter of Chester. Also, those gathered together insulted William de Wybunbure, junior, Thomas del Dame, and very many others, their servants, called journeymen, in a great affray of the whole population of the city, against the peace of the lord king"

St George

One consequence of the division between the Abbey and the freemen appears to have been the establishment of semi-independent chantries. Theses were "trusts" established during the pre-Reformation medieval era in England for the purpose of employing one or more priests to sing a stipulated number of services for the benefit of the soul of a specified deceased person, usually the donor who had established the chantry in his will. The history of the Cistercian house of Bordesley (Worcestershire), a royal abbey, demonstrates this: in the mid-12th century, it offered the services of two priest monks, presumably to say mass, for the soul of Robert de Stafford; between 1162 and 1173, it offered the services of an additional six monks for the souls of Hugh of Avranches, 1st earl of Chester and his family.

Signage at St Peter's in Chester.

The "Fraternity of St George" originated at the beginning of the 15th century and the "guild church" of the Fraternity was St Peter. First mentioned in 1462, when it was governed by four masters or wardens, it was open to both men and women, with two chaplains apparently required to pray for the souls of benefactors at St. George's altar. Its property within the city, which included shops in Watergate Street near the church, was sufficient to require two rent collectors. In 1489 Nicholas Southworth, son of a former mayor and clerk to the kitchen of Edward IV, gave it the large sum of £40 for ornaments. In the 1530s the guild's chaplain occupied a chamber "over the door" of St. Peter's, and in 1548 it had property bringing in annually some £12. St George became hugely popular in Cheshire in the 1490's and is mentioned by Humphrey Newton (1466-1536) of Newton (Prestbury) as a spirit leading the souls of the departed through purgatory. There is a curious connection of George with Chester: according to Orderic Vitalis, writing around 1200, Hugh of Avranches, had a clerk (chaplain) named Gerold d’Avranches who would recite edifying tales about George and other martial saints to the men and boys of the household during the 1070s. Gerold's aim appears to have been to encourage the household members to become monks, and it is reputed (with a notable lack of evidence) that Hugh became a monk at St Werburgh in Chester, four days before he died (1101). St George would continue to play a part in the Cheshire mummers plays performed around November 2nd, All Souls Day. The plays usually included a fight between St George and his adversaries and featured a "mock resurrection".

A record from the 15th Century states:

  • 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.

The fraternity, like the church which housed it, had close links with the city government, and in the early 16th century its stewards were listed in the Mayor's Books after the civic dignitaries. The fraternity was still receiving bequests from aldermen in 1535, but was surpressed as part of the Reformation in 1547. The reason given for supression was that it was a "superstitious usage", but like the monasteries it was also a source of money that could be apprehended by the king.

A building known as the rectory house still stood over the south door of the church by 1555. It was rebuilt in 1584, and demolished with the Pentice in 1803, though it had ceased to be occupied by the incumbent before the 1690s, when it was used to house the city records.

In Chamber's Book of days is found a description of how, in 1608, a Chester pageant was given in honour of Henry Frederic Stuart, the eldest son of James the First, on his creation as Prince of Wales. He was also Earl of Chester. The proceedings were opened by a man in a "grotesque dress" climbing to the top of what can only have been St Peter, and fixing "upon a bar of iron an 'Ancient,' or flag of the colours of St. George". To the Prince, the "Fraternity of St George" would have meant the company of archers now known as the Honourable Artillery Company. To the audience of the Chester pageant it would have had a much more nuanced meaning.

The space in front of St Peter was also one of the traditional stopping points for the movable performances which made up the Chester Mystery Plays before these were discontinued after 1575.

Puritans

Puritan Nicholas Byfield was preaching at St Peter (c1600-1615) when the "Chester's Triumph" was performed. There is still a copy of a "Breeches Bible" from around 1579 at St Peter. Byfield was an influence on the iconoclast John Bruen.

The advowson was kept by St. Werburgh's until the Dissolution, when it passed to the dean and chapter of Chester. By 1593 it was held by the Crown, which continued to present until 1624 and perhaps until 1627.

Following the English Reformation "enthusiastic" protestantism developed only slowly in Chester. The City at first contained no notable protestant laymen, and overseas trade was not with ports where protestantism was entrenched. However, grow it did. Cheshire at the time still retained many of the institutions, social structures and traditions of the Palatinate and was largely used to a high degree of local independence. This contributed to an intellectual and spiritual space in which extremism could develop.

In the later 16th century repairs were made by the city authorities, and in 1579–80 over 50 ft. of the spire was rebuilt. Between 1637 and 1640 further major rebuilding took place. The east end and the south side were reconstructed, the aisles were flagged, and work was done on the roof and battlements. It was then too that galleries, the first in Chester, were introduced; by 1651 there was a gallery under the clock loft, a 'long gallery', and two others

During the 1560s and 1570s there were attempts to promote "good behaviour" in church and some agitation against the Chester Mystery Plays, but the turning point came only in the 1580s, when Bishop William Chadderton (1579-95) established monthly exercises, dominated by puritans, and encouraged clergy to attend. Among the participants was the Revd. Christopher Goodman, who had returned to Chester in 1571 and soon gathered influential support among the laity. Goodman was to be the driving force behind the banning of the Chester Mystery Plays in 1575. Active at the Cathedral at the same time were Prebendary John Nutter as a preacher (who's religious views swung from one extreme to the other depending on the best way to make money and whose family would later provide one of the Pendle "witches", Alice Nutter) and Thomas Hitchens as a lecturer.

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 authorities banned Sunday trading and exhorted Cestrians to attend church whenever sermons were preached and twice on Sundays and holy days; the Corporation set an example by attending services with due formality - mostly at St Peter's. Clerical support for puritanism in Chester is not easy to measure. William Barlow, dean at the Cathedral in 1603-5, was a prominent and strongly anti-puritan member of the Hampton Court conference in 1604, but Bishop Richard Vaughan (1597-1604) sympathized with many puritan opinions. The next bishop, George Lloyd (1604-15), a former divinity lecturer at the Cathedral, was an active preacher and apparently a moderate who tolerated puritan clergy in Chester. Lloyd's portrain hangs in the "Puritan Room" at the Grosvenor Museum and his supposed residence, Bishop Lloyd's House, still exists in Watergate Street, but has been much altered over the years. His successor, Thomas Morton (1616-19), however, was of firmly Anglican views and pressed the puritans to conform. His task was made more difficult by the ministrations of Nicholas Byfield, a Calvinist polemicist and a powerful preacher, who was rector of St. Peter's 1608-15, where his congregation included puritan John Bruen of Bruen Stapleford.

The board listing the curates at St Peter's includes Nicholas Byfield, although formally he was without cure. It is not clear why his name is offset or whether something in front of his name has been deleted.

Public Highway

1630 saw the start of a quite amusing dispute concerning three doors of the church on the north side, which led to "St Peter's Churchyard", which still exists as a somewhat seculded coutyard. Evidently these "private doors" were frequently used by those who wished to access "tippling houses". The parishioners unanimously decided that these doors should be shut. Attempts to have the doors closed went on for six years with little success. Evidently efforts to have then closed off would result in the doors being broken dowm. In 1636 a special meeting resolved:

  • "That by reason of three private doors (all of them belonging to tippling houses), great abuse and annoyance is done to the Church and Churchyard; which latter is so abused as to become loathsome, so that no person will allow a friend to be buried there, which is to be deplored, as formerly the yard was grown over with grass and was decent and fit for burial. This churchyard in the parish is greatly needed, for the church itself is not large enough for a place of burial for all the parishioners. Not only so, but the way is used through the church and churchyard to the said three houses, to drink wine, beer, and ale on Sundays, holy days, and holidays, and divers persons go through these sacred places to drink at these tap bouses. And whereas upon a former occasion these doors were made up by the Churchwarden, and have been violently opened by owners and the tenants of the tippling houses. It is agreed that this vestry empower the Churchwardens to insist upon their resolution."

The resolution is followed by 37 signatures, including several who would end up on opposite sides in the forthcoming Civil War. Today, St Peter's Churchyard and the "tippling houses" can be reached by rather obvious alleyways which run around the back and side of the church.

Civil War

Locally important events in the run-up to the Civil War took place at the High Cross outside of the doors of St Peter. In 1637 the Puritan William Prynne was taken through Chester on his way to the isolated prision at Caernarvon Castle. Prynne seems to have enjoyed a remarkable freedom during his passage through Chester, having shopping trips and visits to various households. The event caused a certain amount of friction between the High Church and the Puritans and is indicative of the tensions which would eventually become one of many causes of the Civil War. Portraits of Prynne were commissioned at the time by Calvin Bruen who seems to have been one of the leaders of the Puritans and these were later destroyed with even the frames being burned outside St Peter.

During his Mayorality of Thomas Cowper a drum was beaten at the High Cross for the Parliament at the instigation of Sir William Brereton (the grenade-throwing MP). According to Frank Simpson, Cowper ordered the constables to arrest the leaders of this "treasonable" gathering, but they failed to do so. At this point Cowper stepped-in and seized one of the leaders by the collar, delivering him to the civil officers. He also wrested a broadsword from another of the party, which which he cut the drum to pieces.

"Breeches Bible" c1579-1610 at St Peter. In the Breeches Bible, Genesis Chapter III Verse 7 reads: "Then the eies of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed figge tree leaves together, and made themselves breeches". The availiability of the Bible in English was an important factor in the belief that laymen did not need latin-speaking clerics to interpret religion for them - even though such clerics needed to make the translations in the first instance.

During the Civil War, the High Cross had served as a rallying point for the Royalist citizens, but after their eventual surrender to Parliamentary forces at the end of the siege in 1646, it was feared they would destroy it, an iconoclastic ordinance of 1643 having called for the "utter demolishing of all monuments of superstition and idolatry". After their surrender, the citizens had received reassurances that "no church within the city, evidences or writings belonging to the same shall be defaced" and assumed this also applied to the Cross. They were wrong, and it was demolished in 1646. The High Cross was supposedly "hidden under the steps of nearby St Peter's Church, and stayed there forgotten until it was rediscovered in 1820, during the course of repairs.", however some historical records vary as to the date of rediscovery (see: further details).

Restoration and After

After the Restoration the bishop of Chester became patron.

St. Peter's retained its importance among the city churches in the later 17th century: it was the location of a monthly lecture for the reformation of manners established by Bishop Stratford and Dean Fogge in 1689, and the corporation retained seats there, rebuilt in 1701. By the 1720s the newly refurbished church contained seating for all the city officers and prayers were said daily. In 1669 the spire was again rebuilt, at the parishioners' expense. With the aid of a brief, further repairs were made to the south side and east end between 1713 and 1717, when new fittings were also installed. The spire was taken down in 1780 after being struck by lightning, and in 1803 the south side of the church was rebuilt after the removal of the Pentice. A north gallery inserted in 1769 was enlarged during restoration in 1848–9, when a south gallery was added at private expense. Plans by the vestry to demolish the church were rejected by the corporation in 1879, and in 1886 a thoroughgoing restoration was effected, during which new tracery was inserted in the windows of the south aisle, the west gallery was removed, and new fittings were provided. Further restoration work was carried out in 1909 and 1957.

St Peter's distinctive tradition helped to maintain congregations until after 1918 even as the population of the parish declined, by attracting worshippers from a wider area, (fn. 464) but from the 1920s financial problems led to a succession of brief incumbencies and the Low Church tradition was diluted. From 1959 to 1972 the benefice was held in plurality with that of St Michael's with St Olave's. In the 1990s, as part of the united parish of Chester, the church was in use as an ecumenical Christian centre and the base for the Anglican chaplaincy to Chester businesses.

Main Features

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.

The church building as seen today has its origins during the Decorated period of architectural style (1280-1380): the second phase of Gothic architecture in England, which came at a time of growing prosperity in England. To this core a later, and Perpendicular, northern aisle was added. By 1280 Chester was a prosperous trading center. This period of history is marked by successive favors being granted on Chester by successive monarchs, who had now taken the Earldom as a royal possession (see Earls of Chester). War with wales continued bringing wealth to the city which acted both a staging point for supplies and a winter retreat for workers building the castles of North Wales (one of whom, Richard the Engineer, was to become major). Undoubtedly the presence of many masons in Chester during the winter months had consequences for local building work and it may have been at this time that The Rows became an established feature of the city layout.

The Town Hall clock and that of St Peter. Both were centers of administrative power and control and each adopted a clock, or at least tried to.

Church Clock

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). St Peter has a ring of 6 bells, but they are in such a state of disrepair, they are considered unringable. Five of these bells which are dated 1709 are by Rudhall of Gloucester and the other, dated 1921, is by John Taylor and Company. St Peter's bells 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 public mechanical clock and the movable type printing press were two of the most important and complex "general purpose" technologies of the late medieval period. The argument has been made that public clocks helped regulate economic activity and therefore improve efficiency, see: Clockmaker. For example parties could agree to meet at a specific time. Both time-keeping and the duplication of knowledge may well have been mainly the province of monks and friars prior to the Reformation, which moved these functions into secular hands. It may be no coincidence that that the Reformation was followed by growth in both the number of public clocks and printing presses. For more on the history of printing in Chester, see Bookseller. In Chester the first public clock appears to have been at St Peter: at the very heart of the city, on the site of the Roman center of control and administration and next to what was effectively the mayors office. Clocks may have contributed to the spread of Reformation and Puritan thought - they served as a coordinating device which created a sense for time, punctuality, and discipline that was key to the ideas of the Calvinist movements and later forms of non-conformist activity.

External Appearance

The present church dates from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, with modifications in the following three centuries. The church is built of red sandstone and is approximately square in plan. Its floor is at the level of the adjacent Watergate Row and the church is entered by a flight of seven stone steps on the south face.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.

St Peters is most often viewed from Bridge Street.

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 Art of Louise Rayner who often features the church in her works.

Some early illustrations of the church show a "hand" hanging from a bracket near the roof on the corner of Nothgate Street. The following statement was made in July 1858 by Samuel Brown, herald painter of Chester:

  • The old wooden glove was suspended from the outer wall of the south spout (near Northgate street) of St. Peter's Church, Chester the origin of which was, tradition says, that when fairs were first held in Chester in July and October, the glove was hung out fourteen days before each fair, to represent the hand of friendship, and to invite the neighboring towns to send their merchandise to Chester, particularly the Irish weavers of linen, great quantities of which were disposed of at these fairs. The Corporation allowed the sexton of St. Peter's 5s. per annum for taking care of and hanging out the glove, but of late years they reduced the salary to 2s., and at last to 1s. 6d., when in 1836 Peter Catheral, the sexton, received orders to discontinue the hanging out, and was told he might do what he liked with it. Then he gave it to the then clerk, Edward Sidall, gun-maker, and in 1837 Sidall gave it to a man by the name of Joseph Huxley, an upholsterer, whose father-in-law (a Sergeant Wilkinson begged it from Huxley, his son-in-law, and in 1837 Wilkinson sent it to Liverpool. Nothing has been heard of it since. The writer of this knew all the parties well July, 1858. Samuel Brown, herald painter.

A little more can be added to this. Local folk-law holds that the Mayor refused to pay for "such a foolish old custom" and that Catheral sold it or gave it to a Mr Wilkinson who sold it for two pints of ale at "The Boot Inn". According to this version, by 27th December 1836 it passed into the hands of a Joseph Butler. After that it somehow ended up in a museum at Liverpool where it was apparently destroyed in WW2 bombing raids. For more on this see Gloverstone.

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.

Internally

Inside the church is a continuous nave and chancel with four aisles. The west end is attached to and extends behind the backs of the adjacent buildings. Over the outer aisles and at the west end are galleries. On the south wall under the gallery are three corbels with medieval carvings of an angel, a woman and an old man. There are many other monuments in the church and they are discussed in the paper by Isaac Ewen which can be accessed by the link below.

Roof

Beswick (a noted Chester architect) writes of this:

  • "The roof is formed of strong framed and moulded beams, with smaller beams framed in between to form panels, and the whole covered with boarding to receive lead. The roof is supported at intervals by framed principals having arched soffits, the spandrels being filled in with tracery and carved panels, and the oentre of the arch ornamented with a carved boss. These principals at one time appear to have been longer, as one end has been cut off to make them fit the span of the roof, thus showing that they were originally intended to be fixed in some other position; but where, remains a matter for conjecture"

Beswick's comments about whether the roof was initially in this position is interesting. Given that there is at least one other instance in Chester of a church roof having come from elsewhere. The roof at St Mary on the Hill is said to have come from elsewhere.

The wall-painting from an early illustration.

Medieval Wall-painting

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. The "fresco" (technically, it does not appear to have been executed on wet plaster) at St Peter was only discovered in 1849 when the church was being refurbished after the installation of a new gallery. It is difficult to make out the details, but a sketch from soon after its discovery shows more detail and therefore helps with interpretation. The lettering on the scroll can now hardly be made out but apparently clearly read "Gloria in excelsis Deo".

Font

The underside of the cover of one of the two fonts 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 variously attributed to Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, a 4th-century Archbishop of Constantinople, or in the alternative to the Byzantine Emperor Leo the Philosopher. It also can still be seen today at Hagia Sopia on a fountain in the courtyard. According to tradition, palindromes were invented by Sotades a 3rd-century BC Alexandrian poet. His "palindromes" were often obscene or derogatory when read backwards and this got him into some difficulties. Sotades was imprisoned, but he escaped to the island of Kaudos (Καῦδος), where he was afterwards captured by the admiral Patroclus, shut up in a leaden chest, and thrown into the sea.

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. When the sentence is rendered in Greek capital letters, as would be usual for an inscription (ΝΙΨΟΝ ΑΝΟΜΗΜΑΤΑ ΜΗ ΜΟΝΑΝ ΟΨΙΝ), all the letters are vertically symmetrical except for the Ν. As a result, if the N is stylized Ͷ in the right half (as it is in many cases), the sentence is not only a palindrome but also a mirror ambigram. The version at St Peter is the "Romanised" version and so does not have the double symmetry.

Breeches Bible

The Geneva Bible is one of the most historically significant translations of the Bible into English, preceding the King James Version by 51 years. It was the primary Bible of 16th-century English Protestantism and was used by William Shakespeare, Oliver Cromwell, John Knox, John Donne, and John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim's Progress (1678). It was one of the Bibles taken to America on the Mayflower. Many of these early bibles have differing texts. One interesting variation of the Geneva Bible is the so-called "Breeches Bible", the first of which appeared in 1579. There is an example of this on display in St Peter. In the Breeches Bible, Genesis Chapter III Verse 7 reads: "Then the eies of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed figge tree leaves together, and made themselves breeches." In the King James Version of 1611, "breeches" was changed to "aprons". Geneva Bibles with the "breeches" passage continued to be printed well into the time of the King James Bible of 1611.

A funerary memorial board in the former vestry of St Peter. This relates to the Cowper family and bears the arms granted by Charles I.

Heraldic Memorials

St Peter contains an example of a heraldic funeral monument in what was once the vestry. The family of Randle Holme found gainful employment in the organisation of funerals and the production of funerary hatchments or memorial boards. A funerary hatchment is a depiction, often within a black lozenge-shaped frame, generally on a black (sable) background, of a deceased's heraldic achievement, that is to say the escutcheon showing the arms, together with the crest and supporters of his family or person. The funerary hatchment was usually placed over the entrance door of the deceased's residence at the level of the second floor, and remained in situ for six to twelve months, after which it was removed to the parish church. The practice developed in the early 17th century from the custom of carrying a heraldic shield before the coffin of the deceased, then leaving it for display in the church.

The example in the former vestry shows the arms of two families: the Cowpers and the Thorpe/Thropp family. Both families played significant parts in the history of Chester. The Cowpers provided the Royalist mayor of Chester at the time of the Civil War. The Thorpe/Thropp family have a rather mysterious link to William Shakespeare, as Richard Thorpe/Thropp stationer, of Chester was a relative of the Thomas Thorpe who published Shakespeare's sonnets. The wording on the panel reads:

  • "Here lyeth the bodyes of THOMAS COWPER, of y’s citty, esquier, alderman and justice of peace, maior 1641. He died 19th day of July, 1671, aged 76 yeares; and alsoe of Catherine, his wife, daughter of Thomas Throppe, of the saide citty of Chester, alderman and justice of peace. She died 29th of May, 1672, aged 72 yeares. They had issue five son’es and two daughters, of which three sons and oue daughter survived them"

Thrope/Thropp is not the only connection between St Peter's and Shakespeare. A new (perhaps the first) mechanical clock was made for St Peter in about 1585 by William Sampson, who appears to have also been a blacksmith and was awarded the freedom of the ciry in recompence. Curiously, there was a William Sampson clockmaker of Stratford-on-Avon, who got into some kind of legal trouble at St Brides, London and needed surety for bail before the Queens Bench. The bail (£19) was apparently provided, in 1597, by one Gilbert Shakespeare (haberdasher), who is believed to have been the brother of the somewhat better-known William.

In Written Works

John Fletcher's guidebook informs us:

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."

Sources and Links

The interior of the roof at St Peter.

The best reference is Frank Simpson's book: "A History of the Church of St. Peter in Chester: Including Quaint and Interesting Extracts from Its Old Registers, and a Brief Reference to Its Former Surroundings" (1909). This is out of print, and copies are both scarce and expensive.

There is also a fairly long article: Ewen, I. England., (1885). Gleanings from an old city church, being a short history of the parish of St Peter's, Chester, its charities, official documents, & church monuments. Journal of the Chester Archaeological Society 3. Vol 3, pp. 365-390.

Related Pages

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