St John, Leeds, West Yorkshire
A most interesting and in some ways a remarkable church. The population of Leeds was already rapidly expanding by the end of the 16th Century, and in the 1630s the parish of St John was created to serve the new suburbs to the north of the town. William Harrison, a wool merchant and philanthropist who was a leading citizen of Leeds, bankrolled the construction of the church, and it was consecrated in 1637. This date on its own would be enough to be of interest, of course, because here we are towards the end of the Church of England’s false dawn of Laudian piety, and on the brink of the Civil War, the Commonwealth, the suppression of the Church and the World Turned Upside Down.
But there is more to it than this, for St John was built almost entirely in the language of the late medieval church, and at first glance it would be easy to believe it is an earlier survival. And yet, a second glance tells us that something unusual is going on, for this is effectively two churches, side by side, two naves and two chancels and a double gable at the east end. There seems to be no liturgical reason for this, only fancy and a need for a large capacity. The tower sits at the west end of the northern side of the church.
An engraving of 1715 shows the church looking pretty much as it does today with the exception of the upper part of the tower, which has been rebuilt. The wide graveyard has survived, and I cannot think of another instance of such a central church in such a large city retaining so much ground space. It is only a pity that all the standing headstones have been removed. The church was declared redundant in the 1970s, and is now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.
Typically of CCT churches in cities, it seems, access to St John is not always easy. The CCT website says that it is open from 11am to 1pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, but when we turned up at midday on a Friday I was not terribly surprised to find the church locked. I rang the local CCT office, where a very patient officer explained to me that they could only open the church if there was someone available to steward it (so why not put that on the website, I wondered, though I didn’t say so). She asked me if I could make an appointment to view, but as I was catching a train back to Ipswich a few hours later this wasn’t possible. I am afraid that I may have implied I had come all the way from Ipswich specially to see this church, for she took pity on me and said she’d be along in half an hour to open up for us.
A swift visit to the nearby market (the largest indoor market in Europe, incidentally) to fuel up on Vietnamese street food, and we were back in time to meet our host. Now, you may wonder why I was so keen to see inside, and why it is impossible to leave the church open without a steward. This is because three remarkably sensitive 19th Century restorations at the hands of Norman Shaw, George Gilbert Scott Jr and Temple Moore have left the interior almost entirely as it was when the church opened in 1637. Stepping inside, the first impression is of a vast forest of Jacobean woodwork, dark pews with finials and strapwork on the sides.
They are not entirely unmutilated, since Shaw removed the doors of the box pews, some of which were reused as panelling in the east end of the south side, now known as the Harrison chapel. In Shaw’s mitigation, he had successfully campaigned for the survival of the church when the Diocese of York wanted to demolish it in the 1860s.
The star of the show is the glorious gilded screen, which runs right across the church, effectively making two screens, each topped with a large crest, one featuring the arms of James I, the other the Prince of Wales feathers of the future Charles I. Now, as Janet Douglas notes in the revised Pevsner, this presents us with a puzzle, for James I died in 1625, at which point Charles I stopped being Prince of Wales. The assumed date for furnishing the church is 1634, so is it possible it was constructed and furnished earlier? But if so, why were the arms not changed before consecration in 1637?
The screen itself is a riot of hearts, flowers, vines and grotesques, and it is extraordinary to think that the delicate upper parts are entirely carved from oak. Temple Moore removed the two sets of arms and replaced them with more sacramental symbols, a floriated cross and the eagle of St John, but in the 1970s the arms were restored to their places, and Temple Moore’s extravagant chargings set on the west wall.
As with all the central Leeds churches, the glass is not of particular interest. Everything in the windows appears to be from the second half of the 19th Century, and in any case I’m sure that any original glass from the 1630s would have been destroyed by the 17th Century iconoclasts. Perhaps the most interesting glass is in the east window of the south side, scenes from the life of the donor John Harrison interspersed with scenes from the life of St John, by Burlison and Grylls in 1885.
As the city of Leeds expanded, and non-conformism became an increasing threat, the need for capacity in the Anglican churches became more urgent. The medieval Leeds parish church of St Peter was demolished in the 1830s and replaced by the largest church to be built in England since St Paul’s Cathedral in London more than a century earlier. Because of this, St John is now the oldest church in Leeds city centre.
The 18th Century would bring Holy Trinity, the 19th Century St George and the new St Peter, but all three churches are poorly served by the urban landscape. St Peter, today Leeds Minster, was severely cut off from the city centre when the railway was put through in the 1850s. Poor shabby Holy Trinity, the only Anglican church on a main street, is dwarfed by glitzy shopping centres, while the muscularly evangelical St George sits beyond the old infirmary in a cul-de-sac at the end of Great George Street. Only St John retains its dignity, the wide churchyard opening out as you step through Norman Shaw’s lychgate from the quieter part of New Briggate.
In the 1960s, Pevsner bemoaned the fact that St John was not the parish church of Leeds rather than St Peter – this was an aesthetic response, of course, for it is hard to see how St John could ever be suitable for modern Anglican worship. But it would be nice if it was easier to see inside.
Tagged: , Leeds , Yorkshire , Yorks , CCT , TCCT , Churches Conservation Trust , RCF , redundant , fund