The Church of St John the Baptist was the Cathedral and Collegiate Church of this City of Chester from 1075 until the Reformation in 1541 when the College was dissolved and the Bishops Seat (Cathedra) first set up here after the Reformation was transferred to the dissolved Abbey of St Werburgh, which was in better condition and had not suffered quite the same rigorous attention of the King’s Commissioners.
It is a popular misconception that St John’s ceased to be a Cathedral when the second Norman Bishop (Roger de Limsey) took himself off to Coventry in 1102, but it is very clear that Bishops from the Norman Conquest until the Reformation retained St John’s as the northern centre of ecclesiastical jurisdiction, retained their seat here, although they resided principally at Lichfield, and described themselves as Bishops of Chester when appropriate.
The date of foundation in 689AD by Æthelred King of Mercia is likely to be set aside and the date taken further back, possibly to the third or fourth centuries AD as recent scholarship is revealing much about St John’s that was hitherto unknown; and it is possible that we may find that this beautiful Church is one of the oldest in Europe still used for the worship of Almighty God.
That said it is fairly clear that Æthelred did build, but on a site already in use as a Christian Centre, quite possibly by the remnants of the Celtic Church so derided by the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum).
Evidence has come to light that the Saxon Minster was built of stone and it was to this great Minster Church that King Edgar came in 973 to receive the homage of his ‘Vassal’ kings as Rex Anglorum – King of the English. In 1075 Bishop Peter de Leya the first Norman Bishop removed himself from Lichfield, pulled down the Saxon Minster and commenced the building of his great Cathedral, a process that took some hundreds of years.
Sir Nikolaus Pevsner said on entering St John’s gave the then equivalent of ‘WOW” and said “That it was like taking a walk back into the twelfth century” and he was especially taken with its fine Norman and Early English Architecture. Pevsner took the view that the Nave displays the finest example in Europe of the transition from the Romanesque to the Gothic.
St John’s predates Durham Cathedral by some thirteen years and one of our tasks in the years ahead is to see if we can find whether the same masons worked on both Cathedrals.
In the Middle Ages St John’s was known as the Cathedral and Collegiate Church of the Holy Cross and St John the Baptist; it was supposed to own a relic of the true Cross brought back from the Crusades. It became a place of pilgrimage not only for the English and many from Gascony, but principally for the Welsh, as Edward I required the Nobility of Gwynedd to swear on the Holy Rood in St John’s that they would not be in rebellion against the King and this forged a link between the Welsh and the Church. Indeed there is more Welsh Poetry written about St John’s than any other Church in England notably by Gruffudd ap Maredudd ap Dafydd. Gruffudd was an Anglesey poet of the late fourteenth century, and one of the ‘later Gogynfeirdd ’ (poets who continued the metrical and stylistic traditions of the court poets of the Welsh princes after the English conquest of 1282).
In 1383 the Court of Chivalry sat in St John’s to decide on the vexed question of which family should bear the Arms of, Azure a Bend Or – The Grosvenors or the Scropes; the Scropes won and it is perhaps ironical that the modern-day head of the Grosvenor family, HG The Duke of Westminster is, with the Lord Bishop of Chester, the Patron of St John’s.
King Richard II enhanced the Cathedral Church in memory of his late Father, The Black Prince and this was not the last Royal connection as Henry VIII and Edward VI despoiled it and Elizabeth saved it; at a price – the lead from the roof. King Charles I was shot at by a sniper from the roof of the West Tower as he stood on the tower of the new cathedral to watch the battle of Rowton Moor.
In 1838 the Organ being built in London for St John’s was ‘borrowed’ by the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey for the Coronation of Queen Victoria and later in the Queen’s Reign St John’s, this hidden architectural gem was hidden behind a new Victorian ‘skin’. The Great West Tower collapsed in 1881 and together with the ruins at the East end is now part of the Scheduled Ancient Monument and Grade I Listed building that is the Church of St John the Baptist, Chester.