Saturday, January 02, 2010

St John the Baptist, Chester

St John the Baptist

Situated to the South of the city of Chester, and only a few hundred feet from the North shores of the River Dee, the imposing Norman church of St John the Baptist is to be found, nestled behind the half excavated Roman amphitheatre.

The huge Western tower of the old cathedral of Chester, whilst not built as a defensive structure, was used by Parliamentarian forces during the English Civil War against the Royalist garrison confined within the city walls. Initially used as an observation post, the church was almost transformed into a garrison or fortress towards the end of September 1645. Under Colonel Michael Jones and Major James Lothian, the Parliamentarian army overran and captured the Eastern outworks of the city, along with the Eastern suburbs right up to Eastgate. A cannon battery was established in the church yard, possibly with some lighter cannon being stationed on the tower's summit. From here, the Parliamentarian besiegers were able to bring cannon fire not only onto the city walls, but also beyond and into the very city itself. A breach in the walls was finally made on the 22nd of September, near to the Newgate, but it had taken over thirty cannon shots to do the damage. The Royalist defenders however, managed to fend off the assault, blocking the breaches in the wall with anything that came to hand. Charles I arrived on the 23rd with reinforcements to aid the city's defence. His army engaged the Parliamentarian forces the next day (24th September 1645) at Rowton Moor, where it was was soundly defeated. Charles left the city immediately.

The Parliamentarian forces issued a summons for surrender on the 26th of September, but this was rejected. The battery at St Johns was re-enforced, with additional guns brought to bear on the city walls. The battery was used to destroy the defender's cannon on the North walls, and another breach was finally made. The guns at St Johns were used against the Dee Mills, Bridgegate waterworks and the South East corner of the city's walls, causing a great amount of destruction. The tower, in an old print from the early 1800, looks to be around one hundred feet tall, so would have offered the attackers an excellent view into and over the city. A few carefully stationed cannon here would have been well placed to pick and choose their targets within the city. Indeed, the commander of the Royalist defenders gave orders "for the pulling down of St John's steeple, which (in case the enemy should possess the suburbs) would be very prejudicial to the city as overlooking it all, and from whence (in the ensuing siege) was received our greatest annoyance" (thanks to How right he was to be concerned. The mayor, upon whom the responsibility for demolition was bestowed, failed to carry out his orders, no doubt under pressure from the towns folk to preserve their parish church. The five month occupation of the church proved most destructive. Some reports state that all the church furniture and all of its memorials were shot up and destroyed and were in a state of desolation when the towns folk took possession of their church again. On the 8th of October, another attempt to storm the city was made, via several more breaches in the walls. After heavy fighting the attack was thwarted.

No more attempts to take the city were made after October 1645. The Parliamentarian forces decided to sit and wait, occasionally engaging the defenders and attempting to persuade them to surrender. Packets of papers were shot over the city walls, encouraging the towns folk to surrender. When this failed, snipers were placed at the church tower's summit. From here they were able to take pot shots at anyone seen in the streets beneath them, and succeeded in shooting and killing Sheriff Randle Richardson. Finally, on the 31st of January the city of Chester surrendered, agreeing terms on the 1st of February.

The tower stood for another two hundred and thirty six years, before finally falling down on Good Friday 1881.

Above. Antique floor plan of the church, showing surviving buildings and ruins and remains. 

Above. 17th century engraving.

See the Cumbrian Churches blog for further information on the church.

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