Friday, 27 May 2016

The Parish Church of St John – Part 1

Here is part one of the forgotten piece by G.R. Balleine on the history of the Church, transcribed below. Balleine had a wonderful grasp of how to make historical narrative interesting, and peppers his history with interesting anecdotes.

The Parish Church of St John – Part 1 By G.R. Balleine

Four Chapels

In the early days there were four small chapels in the present parish of St John's, the Chapel of St Mary at Bonne Nuit, the Chapel of St Blaize on the Fief Chesnel, the Chapel attached to the Hougue Boete Manor, and the Chapel of St John.

By 1150 the last of these had been raised to the dignity of a Parish Church, for a charter belonging to the great Abbey of St Saveur le Vicomte in Normandy records that in that year a Guillaume de Vauville with the consent of his wife and his son gave to the Abbey the Church of St John in Jersey, with its tithes, and only Parish Churches received tithes. Another charter four years later confirms the fact that St John's had now a parish, for a Guillaume Suen transferred to the Abbey certain lands "in the parish of St John in Jersey".

In An Oak Wood

The Church at this time evidently stood in an oak wood, for ancient documents call it St John de Quercubus or St John de Caisnibus, which are old Latin for St John of the Oaks; but no official Register makes clear after which of the two St Johns the Church was named.

However, since in the middle ages the biggest Fair in the Island was held every year in this parish on St John the Baptist's Day, {June 24th) and since these Fairs were almost always held on the Patronal Festival of the Church, it is pretty safe to assume that this Church was dedicated in the name of the Baptist and not the Evangelist.

Early History

Like all our ancient Jersey churches St John's grew bit by bit. If you stand in the churchyard on the north side of the church, you see at once that the Chancel is a different building from the Nave; its roof is higher; its stones are rougher; and the corner buttress still remains, where the original building ended. This Chancel is the earliest little church. Stand beside the present pulpit, and look east, and you see the size of the Church as it was about 1100. Neither Nave had yet been built, nor the spire, nor the South Chancel, nor the Vestry. The broken holy-water stoup beside the entrance to the present Vestry, if it is in its original position, shows that the main door once stood there.

There is also, level with the north end of the altar, an interesting old Priest's Door, now blocked up. Over it is the date 1622 and the initials J. L. B. (possibly John Le Baily, for the Le Baillys were an important family in the parish of that period) but the door itself is obviously centuries older than that.

The inscription is only one example of the extraordinary craze that St John's officials seem to have had for carving their initials on their Church. Here we have J.L.B.; on the south-west gable is Thomas Lempriere. Two churchwardens have had their initials carved over the south door, two more have put theirs round a window, while two more have outdone all the rest by placing theirs on the church spire for all the world to see!

The XVth Century

As the population of the parish increased, the West Wall of the Chapel was pulled down, and the present Nave added. Then at the end of the fifteenth century came a great enlargement, the building of the large South Aisle and the Tower and Spire. In this case the name-carving craze helps us to date the extension, for Thomas Lempriere had his name carved with the nine millets that were his coat of arms and two tudor roses on the west gable, and he fixed another granite slab with his arms on the steeple.

Thomas became Seigneur of La Hougue Boete in 1 492 and Bailiff in 1 495, a Bailiff famous for his long controversy with Sir Hugh Vaughan, the Governor. He evidently must have played a prominent part in the enlargement of his parish church.

But from the new aisle the High Altar was invisible; so in those days, when the Mass was the Service that mattered, a second Altar must have been placed under the Tower, and the corbels which can still be seen one on each.side of the arch probably supported the beam on which stood the great Crucifix. The South Chancel was not built till the nineteenth century.

The perquage, the path by which criminals, who had taken sanctuary in the Church, were allowed to escape to the sea, is a curious one. Instead of taking a short cut directly to Bonne Nuit, it crossed the whole Island to St Aubin's Bay. A portion of it can be clearly traced in the garden of the house called Les Buttes. It then followed the course of the stream, till it joined the St Mary's perquage, near the Gigoulande Mill. Then it went on to St Peter's Valley as far as the. Tesson Mill, where the St Lawrence perquage joined it. The three united perquages then crossed the Goose Green Marsh, till they reached the sea between Beaumont and BelRoyal. This last section of the perquage has lately been beqeathed to the Societe Jersiaise to be preserved for all time as a public path.

One curious custom has survived at St John's which must have originated in pre-Reformation days, when on the morning of a funeral the Michael bell was rung to remind St Michael that his services would be required to escort the soul of the dead person to Paradise. At the present day, whenever there is a funeral in the parish, the church bell is always tolled at eight o'clock in the morning, but its purpose now is merely to remind those who mean to attend the funeral to put on their blacks.

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