St John's, the oldest parish church in Winchester, lies on the slopes of Magdalen Hill. This area is known as The Soke, meaning the suburb. In mediaeval times it was outside the city's jurisdiction, subject only to the authority of the Bishop. The church building was certainly in existence in 1142, though its exact age remains elusive. Parts of the building may have been significantly older, since the church stands in the middle of an important fourth century Romano-British cemetery.The tower is a later addition in the fifteenth century. Eventually, the Soke became a quite prosperous area of Winchester, partly due to the growth of the St Giles Fair on the hill above the church. The first scholars at Winchester College lodged in the area and attended St John's whilst the college was being built by William of Wykeham. This was also one of the last churches pilgrims would attend before setting out for Canterbury. St John's was built on an early drovers' way into the city from the downs, and indeed was once known as St John's Upperdoune. The street follows a Roman road, and Roman coffins have been found here. Since it is set on a steep ridge above the then walled city, with the Cathedral and Castle over the river, the church was also knownat one time as St John de Montebus.
Layout and Principal Features of the Church
The arrangement of the church is unusual, partly explained by the restrictions of the site.Its irregular shape, for instance, results from it being bounded by the angle of St John's Street on the east. On the outside of the south wall is to be found one of the most unusual, and extremely rare, features of the church, which is the exterior entrance to the now missing rood loft. This used to sit on top of the rood screen, which spans the full width of the church. Perpendicular in style, it dates from around 1450. The parclose screens behind, which separate the chancel from the side chapels, probably date from the middle of the fourteenth century. Perhaps the greatest treasures of St John's are the wall paintings in the window recesses on the north wall. These were covered up during the Victorian "restoration" of the church, but those which survived were uncovered in 1958. The paintings are believed to date from around 1280. The recent re-opening of the original north doorway to the church has also revealed further decorations within the door frame.
This is the oldest part of the church, which would have consisted originally of a nave with narrow aisles either side. The round Norman pillars date from this early period. In the late 12th century the aisles were widened to their present position, and the transitional arches included. Evidence of this extension can be seen in the remains of a small Norman window in the west wall. The roof dates from the 15th century. The nave also contains an impressive 18th century chandelier which has been repaired and cleaned as part of the recent restoration work.
The Chandelier has the inscription: "EX DONO JACOBI MINGAY ARMIGERI DOMINO REGI E CONSILIARIIS. ANNO DOMINI 1791." However, contrary to expectation, the chandelier does not date from 1791, nor was St John the Baptist's church the recipient of the gift. The date of manufacture may be conjectured by reference to chandeliers at Uffington, Lincs (1685), Egerton, Kent (1699). Totnes. Devon (1701), and Walpole St Peter, Norfolk (1702). The suspension-ring at St John's is like those at Egerton, Totnes and Walpole St Peter, whilst the flower ornaments between the upper branches are like those at Uffington. The tier of scrolls is repeated at Totnes and Walpole St Peter, and the two sections above the globe are repeated at Egerton and Walpole St Peter. The St John chandelier may, therefore, be supposed to date from about 1700. The maker was possibly Robert Rowland of London, or his son of the same name. The chandelier is in good condition apart from the absence of a finial. From the height of the corresponding empty space it may be deduced that the finial was a dove, identical with those at Totnes and Walpole St Peter. The original recipient of the gift of this chandelier was St Peter's, Thetford. A memorandum in the handwriting of James Masters, one of the wardens, records that 'the Brass Chandelier was bought second hand of the Church wardens of …in Norfolk' and that it was put up as part of a restoration which culminated in the re-opening of the church on 19 February, 1854. The payment for the chandelier was £10 8s, of which £2 was met by subscriptions. The payment for carriage was 3s. 6d. The name of the church in Norfolk was never added, as though Masters did not know it, or was not permitted to reveal it. A history of Thetford does, however, name the church, and quotes the chandelier's inscription. James Mingay, the donor, was a bencher of the Inner Temple, and, in 1791, was living in Bedford Row, Holborn. The original setting of the chandelier has not been identified, but would still have been a church. Circumstances that caused a large chandelier, dating from about 1700, to be redundant in 1791 and made Mingay aware of its availability are clues that strongly point in the direction of one of the more important London churches. Because the chandelier was not inscribed originally it was probably paid for out of the rate. Even since 1854 the chandelier has had a chequered history. In 1879 it was moved again, and this time to St John's School on the opposite side of the street. On 17 April the vestry resolved tha the offer of the School Committee to purchase the chandelier for £5 be accepted. On 9 April 1885 the decision was reversed, and it was resolved that the chandelier be purchased back from the School Managers for £5. The churchwardens for 1885-6 duly paid that sum. There is photographic evidence showing the chandelier still in position in 1942. After a period of being stored in the tower, the chandelier was restored at his own expense, by Jack Schrier, metal-worker of 12 Magdalen Hill, Winchester. It was re-hung in 1954. The chandelier is suspended, as it was in 1942, from the single tie-beam of the nave.
The Rood Screen, Pulpit and Chancel
The fifteenth century oak rood screen is surmounted by the rood (the cross with the figure of Christ). The mortices are still visible in the roof where the original rood was attached. At one time the screen would have had a rood loft, or gallery, above it. These were impressive structures, about six feet deep, made to accommodate the rood, and perhaps singers and an organ. The priest would also have read the Gospel from up here. Rood lofts were ordered to be destroyed by an Elizabethan Act of 1561, but part of the rood loft passage can still be seen through the walls on both sides. It is the external access to the rood loft in St John's which makes it so unusual. On the north side of the entrance to the chancel is the 15th century pulpit. Bishop Thomas Ken (1637-1711) the famous hymn writer, when he was a prebendary at the cathedral, frequently preached from here. Just beyond, there are small openings cut low down in the solid part of the screen. These are 'elevation squints', cut so that children could see the uplifted Host during Mass. They are very rare, and in Hampshire unique.
The east wall of the chancel contains an early 15th century window, to the left of which is a small niche in which a figure would have stood. In the south wall of the sanctuary are a stone piscina (basin) and the remains of a sedilla (recessed seat) for the priest. At one time there were three altars, one in each aisle. Squints set into the walls of either side of the central altar allowed the three celebrating priests to synchronise their movements.
The Lady Chapel
To the south of the chancel is the Lady Chapel, which contains a beautiful later 13th century window in its south wall. Its four lights with three bar-tracery circles is also unique in Hampshire. Unfortunately, the original glass was replaced in the 19th century, and only fragments survive in the 15th century east window. The reredos on the east wall, featuring Jesus as the Good Shepherd was installed in the 19th century, initially behind the central altar, moving to its present position in the 1960s. The surround is believed to be mediaeval (although not original to this church); the figures are Victorian.
The North Chapel
This used to contain the organ, which was removed during the recent restoration. However, the removal has exposed the 15th century window, similar in date and style to that at the west end. There are several niches in this chapel, but the tomb in the north wall may have been an Easter sepulchre. It has emblems of the Passion carved into its stone, and prior to the Reformation, this would have played a significant part in Holy Week and Easter Celebrations.
On the north wall of the body of the church are the wall paintings executed in around 1280. Sadly, only a fragment of the magnificent paintings remain, the rest, which would have covered all of the north wall, being removed during Victorian "restorations" in 1853. Those visible today survived only because they were hidden until about 50 years ago. The easterly wall painting shows, on the left, St John the Evangelist and on the right, St Peter. On the right splay of the westerly window is a bishop with his right hand raised in blessing. The left splay shows what may be St Christopher, or is more likely to be St Anthony. (Descriptions of the church before 1853 place St Christopher by the door on the south wall.) Rare yellow colour has been used on the sleeves and neckband. The devil appears in the apex of the arch. There was a mediaeval custom of including the devil in carvings, paintings and other church decoration - if you knew where he was, you could keep your eye on him and avoid trouble!
The West End
In the north west corner of the church can be seen the remains of a small Norman window, with black, 12th century decoration close by. The oak refectory was added as part of the 2004-2006 restoration. The central section of the west wall contains the modern baptistry beneath the west window. The font dates from the 15th century and is still in regular use as the place of Christian initiation. At the south west corner is the arch leading to the 15th century tower. Above the archway is a small window, possibly used by the sacristan as he sat in the clock chamber watching the Mass, ready to ring the sanctus bell. The clock chamber contained a 16th century clock, which is now in the City Museum. To the right of the tower the vestry, sacristy and toilets were added in the recent restoration.
The Exterior of the Church
The east end of the church is not parallel to the west, but is angled to follow the line of the street, once the main road into Winchester from London, and on the Pilgrim's Way between Winchester and Canterbury. A scallop shell in the gatepost of the south churchyard gate commemorates a pilgrimage along this route undertaken at the recent Millennium. St John's was either the first or the last church visited by mediaeval pilgrims, depending on their direction of travel. Beggars would line the street hoping for alms from the pilgrims - hence the name Beggar's Lane for the street which continues north from St John's Street.
Thomas Ken was a famous hymn writer and also rector of St John's in the late seventeenth century. You can download a fascinating lecture given on his life and times by Elizabeth Proudman here.
The Cunninghame-Graham Family
One of the most notable families associated with St Johns Church, in the 19th and 20th century were the Cunninghame- Graham family. A detailed biography may be downloaded here.