St John Baptist Church
Cirencester GL7 2BQ
Gloucestershire GL7 2BQ
The skyline of the Cotswold market town of Cirencester is dominated by the magnificent Early English tower of its parish church. The medieval ‘wool church’ of St John Baptist takes centre stage in the Market Place and it is well worth visiting.
Sometimes known as the ‘Cathedral of the Cotswolds’ this church is famous for its unique 3-storied south porch. The superb Perpendicular Gothic architecture and fan vaulting is indeed reminiscent of some of the most famous cathedrals in England.
St John’s is a testament to the incredible wealth of the Cotswolds created during the Middle Ages through the raising of sheep for wool and manufacture of cloth. Wealth meant power not only for the manors and merchants but also for the King and The Church. The church was the recipient of generous endowments which were used to extend and embellish the building.
St John’s is enormous. Some statistics - External length: 180ft (55m); Maximum width: 104ft (32m); Nave height: 57ft (17m) and Tower height: 162ft (49m). It is rectangular in shape rather than the normal cruciform with north and south aisles and four side chapels.
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What to See
- Anne Boleyn Cup
Not only is the church full of beautiful architecture, medieval stained glass, ancient memorial brasses, elaborate monuments and rare furnishings, it is the proud owner of a very rare treasure - Queen Anne Boleyn’s Cup.
This exquisite silver-gilt chased goblet is on display in a small recess at the east end of the south aisle. It was made for the second wife of King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and given to her the year before her execution for ‘adultery’. The cover bears Anne’s personal crest of a falcon on a tree stump and is hallmarked 1535-36. The cup was apparently given to her daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I, after Anne’s death.
In 1563 Elizabeth presented this treasured relic of her mother to her personal physician, Richard Master who in turn eventually presented it to Cirencester’s parish church.
- Three-storey Porch
The extraordinary 3-storey Perpendicular south porch fronting the Market Place is a unique structure. Built in 1490 at the expense of Alice Avening, it is not really a porch but a substantial, splendidly ornamented, building with glazed windows. About 24 feet (7.3m) long, it has an elaborate stone roof, the vaulting spreading out in light delicate fans with carved centrepieces.
The inside walls are arcaded and have 5 doorways; one door leads to two rooms, one above the other, where once the keeper of the bells lived. By one of the doors in the porch stands a stone table built onto the wall probably an ancient dole table where alms were distributed.
Over the centuries the upstairs rooms were used for conducting business. Firstly, it was a meeting place for the Abbey to conduct business with the Royal Commissioners until the Dissolution. When St John’s was given to the people of Cirencester the porch was used for Guild business and acted as the Town Hall until the 19th century.
- The Tower
The superb Perpendicular Gothic tower, built in 1400, was funded by assets seized from the Earls of Kent and Salisbury who were executed in the Market Place for rebellion.
Unfortunately the tower was constructed on a filled in Roman ditch and started to subside. By 1405 it had started to separate from its junction with the nave but two enormous flying buttresses saved the day and the tower is now quite safe to ascend.
The tower is covered with sculptures in niches. Looking out over Black Jack Street is John the Baptist, his face blackened with… is it smoke or is it time? Local legend has it that it is smoke from the metalworkers who worked in the area. It is said that the heat from the furnaces discoloured the statue to such a degree that it was called 'black jack' - this irreverent name has stuck.
At the base of the tower are two crosses, the oldest is the ancient market cross. A climb up the tower rewards the visitor with fabulous views of the town and surrounding countryside.
- The Pulpit
The rare ‘wineglass’ pulpit dates from c.1440 and very few of them have survived the Reformation. It is of ornate carved open stonework and still bears fragments of red, blue and gold decorative painting. The pulpit is attached to a nearby pier on which can be found the hourglass for timing the sermon.
- The Font
The font is over 700 years old. It was removed from the church in the 18th century and rediscovered in the abbey grounds in 1865.
- Memorial Brasses
The church is renowned for its many fine memorial brasses, including those to the wealthy wool merchants responsible for funding much of this beautiful building. These fascinating memorials tell us so much about what was important to people – status, fashion and piety.
There is a very fine 1438 brass of Sir Richard Dixton, clad in armour, lying beneath a large canopy.
Wool merchant Robert Page with his wife lies under a double canopy. Dated 1440 and of fine quality, we know Robert was a wool merchant because his feet are on a woolsack. We also know he was highly regarded from the brass inscription which reads:
‘A beloved merchant, he was pleasant to his neighbours. With full hands he helped those in need. He adorned both churches and highways.’
Some of the brasses depict the deceased’s tools of trade: one from1587 shows a man in civilian dress with a pair of wool shears; another from 1400 shows wine merchant John Gunter with his wife resting on wine casks beneath a canopy. Chantry priest Ralph Parsons (d.1478) is shown holding a chalice.
These medieval brasses remind us of the dangers of childbirth for women. Reginald Spicer (1442), a merchant, had 4 wives, and it is quite common to find a man has had two wives, both dutifully lying beside him.
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History & Church Guide
St John Baptist church is renowned for its superb Gothic architecture and beautiful fan vaulting but there has been a church on the site since 300 AD. The fabric of the building reflects the part played by Cirencester in the power struggle between Crown, Commerce and Church. As mentioned previously, wealth was power.
When the Romans left Britain in the 5th century Cirencester became a Saxon settlement and stone from the roman buildings was used to construct the new town. The oldest object in St John Baptist church is the eastern pier on the south side of the chancel. It has a Roman base and a 13th century top. Over 1000 years of history lies between the top and bottom of this column!
The Saxon building was demolished and replaced by a Norman one in 1117. The new building coincided with the founding of the adjacent Abbey of St. Mary by King Henry I. The only visible remains of the Norman building are on the north side in St Catherine’s Chapel.
The glorious church we see today is a result of three centuries of remodelling starting in 1235-50. This coincided with the glory days of the Cotswold wool trade and it is believed that most of this beautiful medieval church was paid for by wealthy wool merchants. Their numerous, tombs and memorials are one of the reasons to visit St John’s. They provide a wonderful record of changing fashions and social mores.
- The Chancel
The oldest part of the church. Construction started around 1115 and it was widened in about 1180. The East window dates from around 1300 when it was enlarged to improve illumination in the church. Some of the glazing dates from the 5th and 16th centuries.
- St Catherine's Chapel
Occupies the north aisle of the chancel and dates from c. 1150. The chapel roof was raised to accommodate the richly carved roof. The vaulting was brought from the old Abbey of St Mary and has the date of 1508. The chapel was dedicated to four saints and on the wall can be seen wall paintings of St Christopher carrying the Christ Child.
- The Lady Chapel
Built in 1240 when worshipping the Virgin Mary was especially popular. The 15th century roof rests on oak angels and is decorated with carved bosses. Look out for the cat behind a stook of corn watching for a mouse, a cat with a rat, and a pike swallowing a pike.
Entry to the Lady Chapel is through a small Norman arch in the north of St Catherine’s Chapel. Over the archway is a faded mural of the Last Judgment, showing a load of souls being pitch forked into Hell by the Devil.
Displayed in the Lady Chapel beside the altar is an ancient Saxon crucifix of unknown origin. It is made of stone and repeats the crucifixion scene on four sides, creating a cross-shape on the top and bottom as well. On the other side of the altar is a statue of the Virgin Mary donated in thanksgiving for the end of World War II. The 15th century stained glass features three big figures set among angels, the crowned one is thought to be the Queen of Sheba!
Two stunning tombs dominate the chapel – The Bridges Monument and the tomb of Sir William Master, who helped bring back Charles II to the throne.
Early 17th century lawyer, Humphrey Bridges and his wife in a Puritan hat, lie flat on their tomb beneath a canopy of roses, their hands clasped in prayer. In front of the tomb are two rows of three children kneeling with three smaller children standing between columns, and at the end of the tomb kneels a grown up son. Humphrey looks sober and reverent while his wife looks warm and loving!
- The Nave
A triumph of Perpendicular Gothic architecture. Built in1515-30, it was funded by Cirencester's wealthy wool merchants, whose crests adorn the soaring columns.
The nave is almost square in shape and well-lit by many large windows in the side aisles and a high clerestory. Six great arches on each side divide the nave form the north and south aisles. Delicate columns soar uninterrupted to the panelled roof 57 feet (17 metres) above.
- The Great West Window
Glows with approximately 150 stained glass saints and figures painted over 500 years ago. See if you can spot a man in scarlet wearing a big hat, a bishop in blue, women at prayer, and crowned heads. The oldest piece of glass in this rare window is thought to be that of the father of King Edward IV, wearing a jewelled coronet, done about 1430.
- Trinity Chapel
Leads off the north nave aisle. It was built in 1403-1460 as a chantry chapel for masses to be said for the souls of the monarchs. The chapel has a large slotted squint enabling the priest to see through to the main altar, in order to synchronise mass. It was founded by Sir Richard Dixton and Sir William Prelatte of the house of the Duke of York, who played a big part in starting the Wars of the Roses in 1455.
The stone screen surrounding the chapel is very interesting. It has a row of jousting shields and little rests for spears which were in use when the screen was carved over 500 years ago.
The church’s fine collection of memorial brasses have been lifted and placed in a special area behind the altar of the Trinity Chapel. Here we come face to face with the medieval men and women who lavished their wealth on this beautiful church. Proud of their success these wool merchants are depicted resting on woolpacks, their wool shears by their side.
In the south aisle of the nave is the chapel of St.John the Baptist which now houses the organ and the vestry. Look for the traces of a wall painting over the arch leading into the chapel, and the oak screen with angels playing on the lute, the cymbal and the flute.
- The South Aisle
Contains a series of memorial plaques, including that of Hodgkinson Paine, one of the first soldiers to die in the Civil War. Paine was a clothier and Parliamentarian Standard Bearer, killed during Prince Rupert’s taking of Cirencester in February 1642.
Plan Your Visit
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All year except Sunday mornings.
Free. However donations are always welcome.
Shop; Volunteer stewards in attendance; Information leaflets.
There is a small charge for Guided Tours which last, on average one hour. Tours can be arranged by telephone or email.
Cornerstone Store & Coffee Shop
The bookstore and coffee shop at the corner of Coxwell Street and 3 Dollar Street is run by the church The 350 year old building is only a short walk from the church and serves delicious tea, coffee and homemade cakes.
Mon - Sat 09:30 – 17:00 hours
Tel: +44 (0)1285 644 599
There are magnificent views over the town and surrounding countryside from the top.
Contact & Further Information
+44 (0)1285 659 317
St John Baptish Church External Link
The following link has numerous images of the interior and exterior of the parish church Web: St John Baptist Church photos link External Link
Google Map - St John Baptist, Cirencester