Thursday, 8 November 2012

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

I've been round St Peter's Church twice recently, 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.

However, what his history does not contain are details of the Stained Glass Windows in St Peter's Church, most of which are very modern. The Church has itself produced a small booklet which illustrates these, and gives more background about who commissioned them, what they where commissioned for, and who produced them. Most of the stained glass is modern, post-war, and it is stunning. St Peter's probably has the finest modern windows, and for anyone who thinks that stained glass has to be a pastiche of Victorian styles, I would recommend seeing those. They are very different, but uplift the spirit just as much, or perhaps more, than some Victorian windows.

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


NO ONE knows when the first stone of St Peter's Church was laid, but a charter signed by William the Conqueror, when he was Duke of Normandy but not yet king of England, shows that before 1066 it had already been promoted from the rank of a little Chantry Chapel to the dignity of a Parish Church, for it was then receiving tithes, which were paid only to Parish Churches, and William transferred half of these to the Convent of the Holy Trinity at Caen.

The original Chapel must therefore be considerably older than 1066. Its walls still stand, built of rough stones from the beach, and form the Chancel of the present Church. It extended as far as the point where the pulpit now is, and you can still trace on its south wall the position of its ancient door. The existing windows were added later. The original ones were narrow slits like those at the west of the nave.

Because it stood near the edge of the sandhills that stretch down to the sea, it was known in official documents as St Pierre du Desert. By 1090 the appointment of its Rector had been entrusted to the Abbot of St Sauveur-le Vicomte in Normandy, in whose hands it remained until the Reformation.
We have no documentary evidence as to its early years; but the walls tell their own story.

The first enlargement of the church took place, probably in the twelfth century, when the west wall of the Chapel was pulled down, and a Nave and Transepts added, giving the whole building the shape of a cross. The west wall of the Nave is still almost in its original condition, except that its round window was added in 1856.

There were as yet no side aisles. The north wall, before it was pulled down to make the new aisle, had narrow lancet windows; so the same is probably true of the south wall also. At this time the Tower was built; but it had as yet no spire, only a saddle-back roof, like those at St. Brelade's and St Lawrence.

As in hundreds of churches in France and England the nave was built in such a way that the chancel seems to lean slightly to the right. Modern books tell us that this was meant to suggest the drooping of our Lord's Head upon the Cross. But against this explanation is the fact that, though medieval writers loved to give mystical meanings to everything in their Church, this particular explanation has not been found in any ancient author. It seems to be merely a nineteenth century guess. Moreover the same inclination is found in churches that have no Transepts, and so bear no resemblance to, the Cross. More probably it is purely an architectural accident. When the Nave was added, the work was begun at the west end, so as not to disturb the Services in the Chancel till the last moment, and in the absence of instruments of precision it was difficult for the architect to get his angles exactly right.

14th & 15th CENTURIES

Then, possibly the fourteenth century, two Chapels were added, one, now used as a Vestry, on the north of the Chancel, the other, now pulled down, stretching from the north transept half way down the north wall of the Nave. The east window of the surviving Chapel is the original one, and its north wall has two alcoves the purpose of which is obscure.

Toward the end of the fifteenth century the great South Aisle or Chapel was built, broader and higher than the Nave, and swallowing the South Transept. One curious feature of this work is the ruthless way in which tombstones have been used to build up the outer buttresses.

The most interesting of these is one on which is carved a cross with two horse-shoes, a hammer, and pincers. This may have been the tomb of a farrier named Le Brun, who founded the South Chapel. Many similar ones can be found in the north of France. At St Michel de Montjoie, near Avranches, for example, there is one with the sole of a shoe and a set of cobbler's tools. At Champ de Boult a hatchet, square, and hammer
mark the tomb of a carpenter. At the same time as the Aisle the Spire was built on the Tower. It is 120 feet high, the tallest in the island.

Only two later additions were made to the actual building. In 1856 part of the South Transept was rebuilt. The North Aisle is an entirely new feature added in 1886.


The Reformation did its work so thoroughly that few traces of the older worship survive; but one or two can be discovered. The High Altar was of course at the east end of the Chancel, and there a corbel that supported an image, can still be seen. Another altar stood at the east wall of the South Aisle, for its piscina remains; and before the North-West Chapel was pulled down an ambry or cupboard for the sacred vessels showed that it too had an altar. And we can assume that there was yet another in the North-East Chapel. This would agree with the fact that at the Reformation the endowments of four Fraternities were confiscated, the Fraternity of St Catherine, the Fraternity of the Crucifix, the Fraternity of Our Lady, and the Fraternity of St Nicholas. These Fraternities played a large part in the parochial life of the Middle Ages, and each Fraternity always had its own altar in its parish church.

In addition to the Church there were in the Parish the Priory of St 'Peter, in which the Abbey of St Sauveur-le Vicomte was bound to keep two monks in residence "to celebrate perpetually the Divine Service for the souls of the Kings of England, their founders." the Chapelle de St Nicolas attached to a Leper Colony (this gives its name to the Vingtaine of St Nicolas), the Chapelle de la Glouette, which stood where the Parish Hall now stands, and was only pulled down in the nineteenth century, and the Chapelle de la Vierge attached to La Hague Manor.

Under the Calvinist regime public penance was in full force. For example, in 1563 Janette Touet, who had brought a false charge against Jean Robin (we are not told what the charge was), was condemned to kneel in front of the pulpit during the Sunday Morning Service, wearing nothing but a shroud, to show that she was dead in sin; at the end of the sermon she was to stand and confess her sin to the congregation, asking them to pray that she might be forgiven. Then, if her tears led the minister to believe that she was truly contrite, he was given permission to receive her back into the peace of the Church. Penances of this kind are recorded frequently for 250 years, the last being in 1809.

In 1612, the steeple was partly destroyed by lightning as the people were going into church, and Chevalier the Diarist, remembering the text that judgement would begin at the House of God, took this as a warning that some dreadful punishment was about to fall on the island for its sins. This spire was more than once in trouble. In 1843 it was again struck by lightning, and thirty feet of it crashed through the roof of the south transept. The cost of repair was met by printing 175 one pound bank notes, which helped to pay also for a gilt weather cock which was placed on the tip. Five years later in a great storm the top of the steeple was again blown down.

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