A Brief History of St Peter’s Parish Church

A Brief History of St Peter’s Parish Church

There has been a church dedicated to St Peter on this site from the early 800s.  The earlier building fell into disrepair in the early 1400s and was rebuilt in the Perpendicular style between about 1452 and 1460 by the Abbot of Winchcombe and the townspeople with the encouragement and support of Ralph Boteler, Lord of Sudeley.  He arranged for his father and elder brothers to be reburied in the chapel at the east end of the new St Peter’s, and provided them with carved effigies.  They were also portrayed in the stained glass of the side windows; his sisters and presumably his mother were portrayed in the chapel on the north side.  The new church was almost certainly the first here to be provided with seating, as the clergy responded to the challenge of the radical reformist movement of the Lollards with more instructive sermons.  Embroidered panels from the new vestments acquired at that time have survived and are displayed in a cabinet in the north aisle.

Not long after this rebuilding the Church entered a period of great turbulence as part of the English Reformation in the reign of Henry VIII (1509 - 1547).  The most dramatic change was the suppression of Winchcombe Abbey in 1539, following which all of the Abbey’s (and the Abbot’s) possessions and income were transferred into lay hands.  As the Abbot was also the Rector of St Peter’s, this meant much of the income that had financed St Peter’s dried up and the church was left impoverished for centuries.  At the same time a translation of the Bible into English was introduced into all churches, followed shortly afterwards by the first version of the Book of Common Prayer.  Relics and pictures encouraging ‘idolatry’ were removed.

Change continued in the reign of Henry VIII’s son Edward VI (1547-1553): stone altars, vestments, and images were prohibited and chantry and guild chapels, including the one at the east end of the north aisle, were suppressed.  The richly carved reredos covering the east wall, together with the sedilia and the Easter sepulchre were prised off, their location now indicated by small repair blocks inserted at regular intervals in the chancel walls.  In 1552 a revised version of the Book of Common Prayer was published, but before that came into general use, Queen Mary (1533-8) set about restoring the previous  Catholic arrangements.  Traditional Latin services were restarted and the churchwardens were required to restore the earlier physical arrangements.  It seems probable that this was when the present sedilia (which date from the early 14th century and had apparently been preserved in the demolition of the Abbey) were inserted into the south wall of the chancel.  The stone altars were rebuilt, new vestments provided, and roods restored with the figures of Mary and John either side of the crucified Jesus.

Change continued with accession of Elizabeth I (1558-1603).  In 1559 the use of a revised edition of the Book of Common Prayer again replaced the Latin Mass.  In 1560 churches were ordered to provide ‘tables’ (i.e. wall mounted boards) at the east end setting out the Ten Commandments, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.  The present Communion Table dates from this re-ordering.

The reign of James I (1602 - 1625) provided some short respite from dramatic change.  His Authorized Version of the Bible was published in 1611 and soon replaced earlier versions (on which it had drawn extensively).  But grassroots movements were now springing up based on the accessibility of scripture to all who could read and there developed a tension between on the one hand, those stressing uniformity, good order and reverence and on the other, those of a more puritanical outlook determinedly against anything that they felt tainted with papist practice.  This tension showed itself in church architecture:  in 1633/4 the Archbishop of Canterbury required the holy table in every church to be placed at the east end of the chancel, raised so that everyone could see it and fenced off; but in 1641/2 Parliament demanded that sanctuaries be levelled, the Communion Table placed in the middle of the congregation and the Book of Common Prayer replaced by a Presbyterian order of service.

The English Civil War brought further problems for St Peter’s.  The Boteler effigies and tombs were destroyed, possibly by the Parliamentary garrison of Sudeley, who in 1644 had wrecked St Mary’s Sudeley.  The stained glass windows also disappeared and a series of incumbents were removed from office, being replaced in the last years of the Commonwealth with a radical ‘Minister of the Gospel’.

This layout which emerged from all of these changes persisted until the 1830s as can be seen in a photograph displayed in St Peter’s.  It seems likely that the local compromise was to consider the church to be a ‘two room’ building with the nave meeting the more puritanical style (and being the more used), whilst occasional Communion Services would have been held in the chancel.

The penultimate chapter in this turbulent period comes with the restoration of the monarchy and the Church of England in 1660.  Five foot high box pews were introduced to protect the congregation from draughts and a three-decker pulpit constructed to allow the preacher to see his congregation and they him. The font was raised so that baptisms could be witnessed, and galleries constructed at the west end and over the chancel screen.

Unfortunately this ecclesiastical peace was not followed by a return to a more prosperous church.  Maintenance of the chancel roof – a responsibility which would have transferred to whoever acquired the abbot’s possessions - had not been adequate and in 1690, the parapet above the chancel fell, bringing down the roof.  A pitched roof was erected in its place, but much of the fabric continued to decay.

Very little seems to have changed for the next 150 or so years.  A visitor noted that:

‘The parish church ... is a large dilapidated edifice, which was magnificent once.  Amongst its noble relics are a primitive lock on one of the doors, and an antique poor box ... (the) row of seats around the altar for the convenience of the communicants is a novelty, if not unique. The font is fine or rather pretentious: ... the water with which the baptism is performed is placed in a rusty battered metal dish. What with the high unpainted pews erected in the worst times of the church ... the ugly galleries and the decayed air of the whole place, the effect on the spectator is depressing.’

The visitor’s only positive words concerned the grotesques outside the church, described as ‘... exquisitely ugly and yet so graphic that they might provoke wild laughter ...’

Change came in the middle of the 19th century, when after several centuries in which the Church of England ‘s worship had been almost entirely focused on words, the visual discounted as a distraction and music viewed with suspicion, new ideas were coming into fashion.  This change was led in Winchcombe by the appointment in 1833 of John Ridout Harvey as Vicar of Winchcombe and Rector of Sudeley Manor.  Within a year of his appointment the Vestry was discussing whether to re-decorate the walls with white or colour-wash, and over the next 30 years or so the churchyard had been extended, the organ renovated, gas lighting introduced and plans drawn up for a major restoration.  Detailed proposals were submitted in September 1870 by J. Drayton Wyatt, the architect responsible for several local developments and renovations.  Unfortunately, John Ridout Harvey died unexpectedly on January 2nd 1871, aged just 63.

The plan for the Restoration was put on hold until a new Vicar was appointed. He turned out to be Harvey’s curate, Robert Noble Jackson, who supervised the implementation of the plans, bringing to fruition John Ridout Harvey’s transforming vision. The restoration began on 4th April 1872 and included:

  • restoring the chancel roof and clerestory to their original form;
  • carving ten new corbels to support the chancel roof trusses;
  • replacing all the pinnacles;
  • removing the box pews, three decker pulpit and galleries and providing new pews facing towards the high altar;
  • raising the level of the sanctuary and replacing the old furnishings;
  • removing the plaster from the walls and piers;
  • filling the vaults as required and relaying the floor;
  • providing a new heating apparatus and cellar;
  •  moving the organ to the east end of the north aisle; and
  • creating a clergy vestry behind it.

On 6th March 1873 St Peter’s was re-opened for worship in a form more or less recognisable today.

Development of the church has continued more or less continuously since the reordering.  Notable among these changes have been:

  • Women now serve in all priestly orders and play a full role at all times;
  • Improved pathways now provide level access to the church;
  • The central section of the screen has been moved to the west end of the nave to open up the chancel and to create a choir vestry.  As part of this, the font was moved to the south aisle;
  • The ringing chamber has been raised, bells recast and new ones added;
  • The number of pews has been reduced to create a flexible social space at the west end;
  • The organ has been moved, rebuilt and improved as well as serviced regularly;
  • Heating and lighting have been regularly improved;
  • Toilet, serving facilities and water have been provided; and
  • Gardens and books of remembrance provided for the burial of ashes.

Yet more change will be needed to move forward as the church continues in its mission to the people of Winchcombe and beyond, but few changes are likely to be as momentous as those already survived.

This note is based on research by the Rev John Stevinson.  He has also produced several more comprehensive studies, available from the bookstall in St Peter’s Church

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