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CIRENCESTER, St. John the Baptist  (SP 023 021),

GLOUCESTERSHIRE. 

(Bedrock:  Middle Jurassic, Cornbrash Formation.)

 

One of the largest and most important Perpendicular churches in England.

This is a huge and magnificent building and it is surprising to discover that the nave appears to have been almost as long when the church was first built in the middle of the twelfth century.  It was then probably cruciform in plan (or, more precisely, pseudo-cruciform, which is to say it had transepts but no true crossing), with transepts that would later determine the width of the nave aisles.  Remnants of twelfth, thirteenth and early fourteenth century work are still to be found at the east end if the church, where they include the two-bay Norman-Transitional arcade between the chancel and S. chapel, formed of semicircular responds and a round central pier with a primitive stiff leaf capital supporting triple-flat-chamfered arches that may or may not be precisely contemporary.  The untraceried east windows to the chancel and S. chapel (seen above in the view of the church from the east) are composed of stepped trefoiled lights in the style of c.1300, but the dogtooth moulding around the dripstone of the former suggests this window at least may be an earlier one remodelled.  The arcade between the chancel and St. Catherine's Chapel to the north comprises two double-flat-chamfered arches rising from a central octagonal pier and semi-octagonal responds, which would fit any date from the thirteenth century to the fifteenth.

 

Be that as it may, however, what is clear is that St. John the Baptist's church today appears almost totally mid-to-late Perpendicular, with a visual emphasis laid firmly on its width rather than its length (as illustrated by the interior photograph above, looking northeast from the southwest corner of the S. aisle) and its extraordinary S. porch.  The building plan needs to be carefully set out, especially to the east, where three chapels run parallel with the chancel:  the wide but short S. chapel opening from the chancel's two western bays; St. Catherine's Chapel, running the full length of the chancel to the north; and the Lady Chapel, aligned further to the north alongside St. Catherine's Chapel, with which it now communicates through an arcade formed of three narrow bays but which once stood largely apart from the chancel during an earlier period when St. Catherine's chapel was only a single bay in length.  The aisled nave is six bays long and flanked alongside the four eastern bays of the N. aisle, by a fourth chapel, known as the Trinity Chapel, which is divided from the aisle internally by an elaborate stone screen (illustrated right). Immediately west of the Trinity Chapel, a porch leads into the penultimate aisle bay to the west, while the tower adjoins the west end of the nave in the usual manner and soars up to a height of 162' (49 m.) (Simon Smith & Derek Barnard, The Parish Church of St. John the Baptist, Cirencester, Much Wenlock, R.J.L. Smith & Associates, undated, inside cover), making it visible above the roof-tops from all the surrounding parts of the town.  However, the exceptional S. porch (photographed below left) is, if anything, even more striking and scarcely capable of being described as a porch at all, since it assumes more the character of an entirely separate building which just happens to be linked to the church's S. doorway.  Indeed, it consists of two discrete parts: (i) a relatively narrow 'linking' section at the back, sandwiched between two octagonal stair turrets at the point where it abuts the aisle but splaying out to the south to cover an open east/west passageway;  and (ii) the incredible southern section in front, dated c. 1500 by a series of bequests and reaching up and out to three storeys high and three asymmetrical bays wide.  Entirely covered in blank tracery and surmounted by pinnacles and elaborate openwork battlements, it is nevertheless distinguished most especially by its beautifully proportioned, canted oriel windows lighting the two upper storeys in each bay.  Moreover, lest such a wealth of display should still be insufficient to demonstrate the intrinsic independence of the structure, this is given further stress by the east/west pitch of the roof, where any mere porch would have its roof pitched north/south.  Its side walls are decorated with six bays of blank tracery, arranged in three tiers, and the entrance passageway inside, which of necessity runs north/south, is covered by a fan vault, of which the third bay continues beneath the inner section of the porch, described above, leading up to the S. aisle door.  The passageway side walls are decorated with more blank tracery and doorways lead west and east from the outer bay into the main body of the structure, the former, narrow, four-centred and part of the original build, and the latter, much larger and either an eighteenth or late seventeenth century insertion,  with a round arch and a keystone.

 

The W. tower was erected about a hundred years before the porch, around 1400.  It rises in three stages to traceried battlements and crocketed pinnacles, supported by angle buttresses to the southwest and northwest, and flying buttresses to the southeast and northeast, which leap down and out to cross the west walls of the aisles.  The tower W. window is five-light, with supermullioned tracery, subarcuation of the outer lights in pairs, and strong mullions either side of a central light featuring two tiers of reticulation units separated by a latticed supertransom.  (See the glossary for an explanation of these terms.) Internally, the lower stage is covered by a fan vault.  The second stage is very tall and decorated on all four sides by blank arcading in two tiers, while the bell-stage - which, being of more usual height, appears almost squat by comparison - has three-light, two-centred bell-openings, with supermullioned tracery above the springing and Somerset tracery below.

 

The nave, aisles, Trinity Chapel and Lady Chapel are embattled, with blank tracery decorating the battlements everywhere except over the nave, which has openwork battlements, and pinnacles  between the bays, which create a veritable forest when the building is viewed from the north or northeast.  The clerestory windows, and the north and south aisle windows (albeit there is only room for one such window in the N. aisle, to the west of the porch), are wide and four-light, with supermullioned tracery and transoms at two levels beneath exceptionally depressed four-centred arches.  The more conventional Trinity Chapel windows are two-centred.  The Lady Chapel has two-centred, three-light windows to the north, and a less satisfying five-light, four-centred window to the east, with supermullioned tracery and supertransoms  St. Catharine's Chapel has a four-light E. window with exceptionally deep, dropped supermullioned tracery, which extends halfway down the height of the window. 

 

Inside the church again, the nave arcades are composed of very tall piers formed of eight shafts separated by deep notches with very narrow bowtells in the re-entrants (see the photograph below left), supporting arches of complex profile arranged in two orders.  Narrow shafts emerging from behind large carved angels at the base of the arcade spandrels, rise to separate the three-light clerestory windows, each formed of a glazed upper section and a lower stone section decorated with blank arcading, while more blank arcading decorates the spandrels of the very tall chancel arch, upon whose apex is balanced a seven-light, segmental-pointed window with supermullioned tracery, which looks out through the east gable, above the chancel roof.  The piers between the bays in the stone screen dividing the N. aisle from the Trinity Chapel are each formed of four shafts separated by casements (wide, shallow, hollow chamfers), and the screen itself has openwork tracery and an ogee entrance arch leading into the second bay of the chapel from the west.  Inside the Trinity Chapel, the E. wall is decorated with crocketed canopied niches supported by angels beneath the pedestals, of which four are now empty and the central one holds a statue of the Risen Christ.

 

St. Catherine's Chapel and the Lady Chapel are each entered through  arches set in the E. wall of the N. aisle.   The former (seen on the right in the photograph below right), as previously mentioned, largely comprises an infilling of the earlier gap between the chancel and Lady Chapel, with all the concomitant problems in illumination that brought with it, and is covered by another attractive fan vault which David Verey nevertheless described as 'an uncomfortable fit for, in truth, it does appear somewhat squashed in this decidedly narrow space (David Verey & Alan Brooks, The Buildings of England: Gloucestershire Cotswolds, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2002, p. 249).  The Lady Chapel has an exceptionally low-pitched roof and a large monument against the N. wall of its sanctuary, commemorating a certain Humfry Bridges (d. 1598), and Elizabeth, his wife (d. 1620),  featuring two reclining figures beneath a round coffered arch, supported beneath by what appear to be their six daughters (three facing east and three west), while on either side, a son kneels at a prayer desk beneath a flat-roofed 'extension' surmounted by an obelisk.  Equally striking, however, is the large monument at the west end of the S. aisle, showing two figures holding hands over another prayer desk, this time set between two Corinthian columns and supported below by two only slightly smaller figures, presumably the couple's daughters, which notes in the church ascribe to the memory of George Monox (d. 1638) and his wife, and suggest may be the work of the sculptor, Samuel Baldwin of Stroud (d. 1645).  Finally, six later (and smaller) monuments in the church which can definitely be ascribed to their makers are three by Joseph Franklin (fl. 1789-1850), commemorating Jonathan Skinn (d. 1791), William Hewer (d. 1792) and John Cripps (d. 1793), two by John Charles Felix Rossi (1762-1839), dedicated to Maria Master (d. 1819) and Thomas Master (d. 1823), and one featuring two busts by Joseph Nollekens (1737-1823), dedicated to the Earl (d. 1775) and Countess Bathurst (Rupert Gunnis, Dictionary of British Sculptors: 1660-1851, London, The Abbey Library, 1951, p. 277) and unfortunately cut down.