Saturday, 22 September 2012

St Ouen's Church - Part 1

I've been round St Ouen's Church twice recently with friends, and there are many good guide books. Channel Island Churches by John McCormack is excellent for giving architectural development and features. But years and years ago, probably forgotten, G.R. Balleine wrote up a piece on the history of St Ouen's Church, the first part of which is transcribed below. Balleine had a wonderful grasp of how to make historical narrative interesting, and peppers his history with interesting anecdotes.

Frank Falle quite rightly says that the original "History of Jersey" by Balleine is better than the revised version with Joan Stevens, and it is true. The latter is good on details (although its details on witch trials is years out of date), but it reads in a very dry manner, whereas Balleine was a master weaver of words.

History of St Ouen's Church by G.R. Balleine (Part 1)

THE architecture of our ancient churches is full of traps for the unwary, The amateur architect sees a window full of interwinding tracery, and he says at once, `Fourteenth century,' whereas it is really a Victorian restoration; and he is apt to forget that modern builders as well as Normans can construct round-topped arches. The story the stones seem to tell must be tested wherever possible by contemporary documents. A church like St Ouen's has been in constant use for more than nine-hundred years, and each generation has chopped and changed it to suit its own convenience. To take a modern example. In 1829 two doors in the south were walled up and transferred to the west. Next year two north windows were enlarged and a new one added on the south. In 1851 the west window was blocked up and replaced by two, the north door was closed, and two new windows made. Fifteen years later a big restoration of the church began.

Thus the process went on century after century. Nevertheless in rough outline the architectural history of the church is clear. It began as a little thatched chantry-chapel on the site of the present chancel, and, it was probably founded by an early Seigneur. Its date is quite uncertain, but a charter, which William the Conqueror signed some years before he invaded England, shows that by then it was already considered a parish church. Probably by this time a short nave had been added to the west of the chapel.

We can picture the consecration. Three times the Bishop of Coutances and his attendant clergy marched round the little building sprinkling it with holy water. Then he entered and traced with his pastoral staff in ashes sprinkled on the floor the Greek and Latin alphabets, as a sign that every word spoken in the building should be consecrated to God. Then he went to the stone altar and walked round it seven times sprinkling holy water. Then, while the people chanted psalms, he left the chapel to fetch the sacred relic (in this case no doubt a tiny splinter of one of St Ouen's bones, bought at a high price from some church in Normandy), and placed it in a cavity prepared for it in the altar, and sealed it up for ever. He then placed tapers and incense on five crosses cut in the stone and set them alight. Finally he celebrated, Mass on the altar, and by that celebration the whole Church was consecrated.


In 1156 Robert of Torigny, the famous Abbot of the Abbey of Mont St Michel in Normandy, visited his kinsman Philippe De Carteret at St Ouen's Manor, and Philippe presented St Ouen's Church to the Abbey, and in return he received a promise that, whenever a De Carteret wished to be a monk, he would always be admitted to the Abbey. His son Renaud, "moved by the counsel of evil men", tried to recall this gift, but eventually, "humbly repented of this evil thought", and confirmed it. When the church became the property of this wealthy Abbey, it was gradually enlarged and beautified.

The south wall of the chapel was pulled down and a second chapel added, divided from the present chancel by solid Norman arches. Then a third chapel was built, where the vestries are now. The pointed arches show that this was later work. Next the parish coveted a peal of bells; so the little nave was pulled down, and a tower erected to contain them. A new nave, the present one, was then constructed towards the west; and, as the population of the parish increased, the broad north and south aisles, each as large as the nave itself, were added. Two shields over one of the windows with the three leopards and the Tudor portcullis probably show that the north aisle dates from the reign of Henry VII.

When the population kept growing, an immense gallery was erected in the seventeenth century  over the south aisle; and in 1813 a west gallery was added.


The church on the eve of the Reformation must have been a blaze of colour. The windows were filled with stained glass, the plastered walls covered with paintings representing legends of the Saints. The altars under the east windows were resplendent with costly hangings, as were other altars along the walls, belonging to parish fraternities. The staircase, which now leads to the belfry, led then to the rood loft with its towering crucifix which always had a lamp burning before it, and coloured figures of St Mary and St John, one on either side. (there were, of course, no pews. In church you either stood or knelt, or if you were infirm you obeyed the saying, `The weakest go to the wall,' where you found a ledge to sit on.)

So little was any change forseen that in 1542 Jurat Richard Payn endowed a Mass to be said for ever for the souls of his family. Eight years later, however, all endowments for Masses were confiscated for the crown. Jurat Payn's son Richard was then Rector. While still a theological student at Coutances he had imbibed Calvinist views, and, though he received Catholic orders, as soon as it was possible, he reorganized his church and parish on Huguenot lines. The church was purged of everything that could recall the outcast Religion, rood-loft, pictures, stained-glass, images and altars.


The old colourful ritual was replaced by a stern austerity; and the Services became like those we described in our article on St Saviour's.

Hour-long sermons now became a central feature of the service; so seats had to be provided, and this gave rise to a perfect plague of new quarrels. Your status in the parish largely depended on the position of your pew. In the best position round the pulpit four huge horse-box-like erections made their appearance, furnished apartments, where Seigneurs could snooze unobserved by the common herd.

Two belonged to St Ouen's Manor and one to each of the Vinchelez. Behind these according to rank were the pews of the lesser folk. On one occasion Jean Le Marchant's wife created "a great commotion and uproar to the disturbance of the hearing of God's Word" by seating herself in a coveted pew and refusing to leave. For the next two Sundays she had to sit in the churchyard with her feet in the stocks.

A few years later, when the owner of a certain pew arrived, it was not there. Jean Le Brun and Pierre Le Cornu had entered the church during the night, and chopped it into firewood.

A never-ceasing stream of lawsuits about pews flows through the Court records.

One incident in the Civil War lingered long in the memory of St Ouenais. While Parliament held the Island. Etienne La Cloche, the Royalist Rector, fled to St Malo, and a Puritan Minister took his place; but one Saturday night he landed after dark near Plemont, and on Sunday suddenly appeared in his pulpit and exhorted the people to return to their old allegiance. He hoped to get his parish to rise, before the Parliamentary Committee learnt what was happening, to call a meeting of the States, and with St Ouen's behind him to recover the Island for the King. But he had overestimated his influence. No one responded to his call; and he was lucky in being able to escape to Mont Orgueil.

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