The evolution of the parish churches

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The evolution of the parish churches

This article by R G Warton was first published in the 1913 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise. It was followed, in the next four years, by an article on the history and architecture of each of the 12 parish churches (see links at the end of this article)

"Architecture is an art for all men to learn,

because all are concerned with it; and it is so simple that there

is no excuse for not being acquainted with its primary rules,

any more than for ignorance of grammar or of spelling,

which are both of them far more difficult sciences".

St Peter's Church

Civilisation and savagery

The struggle between civilisation and savagery has existed since the world began, in which combat the clergy, symbolised materially by their temples or churches, have ever played the leading ro1e in favour of the first named.

Savagery, during the process of its partial defeat, (for it is not even yet stamped out) has passed, through many phases, Egyptian, Roman, Mediaeval, and Modern, men and women, have played their part at varying times and under varying conditions, but in the thickest of the fight has always been he parish priest, or his prototype of bygone days.

With parish priests, needless to say, the parish churches go, fit symbol of them and all their works. These parish churches are visited by hundreds, who wandering round, admire their detail, or tout ensemble, but hardly pause to think of the story each could tell had wall the power of speech.

Whilst our cathedrals are calculated to represent our church in its national aspect, the parish church conveys a use of local pervading influence, rendering men fitter to take part in nature's struggle, and more contented with their checkered lot.

Then, by their history, how these churches fire our pride and claim our sympathies. Records of pagan raid and Norman Conquest, of fight for freedom gained at Runnymede, of York and Lancaster, of Cromwell and his iconoclasts. Later, of Wellington and Nelson, defenders of their country's honour, and later still reminders by mural tablet, or churchyard tomb, how Englishmen today retain the spirit of their forefathers, as witnessed by many a one now laid to rest in Egypt's sands, or far away South Africa.

The era we have to consider covers a period of some 2000 years. Small indeed, compared with those vast spans with which the research of archaeologists have rendered us familiar.

Hardly a tenth of even this comparatively short period is necessary, however, to cover the dates between which the oldest and youngest of Jersey's parish churches assumed approximately their present shapes and size.

St Mary's Church

Consecration dates

Historians mention certain dates for the consecration of our several churches, alleging as their authority the Livre Noir of the diocese of Coutances. On examination, however, it appears that this book contains no reference whatever to the consecration or dedication of either Jersey's churches, or of any others in that diocese.

Yet there must be no doubt some origin for the dates given, which probably have reference to consecration or re-consecration on the occasion of one of the more important enlargements, several of which have taken place during the existence of almost every church. The most ancient date alleged is that of St Brelade, 1111 AD and the most recent that of St Helier, 1341.

For the origin of our own, and in truth of all present-day ecclesiastical architecture, we must look back to Rome, that mighty power, for many centuries the mistress of the world. The unequalled grandeur of the Empire, as it endured from 50 BC to 350 AD, is most striking when we think of the so-called Pax Romana, that Roman peace which forbade war in Mediterranean lands, where war had been the rule.

Roman architecture reigned supreme. The Roman architect stood forth unchallenged. His was the apse and circle in plan; his the dome and arch in elevation. Later, whilst Eastern Europe developed Byzantine architecture, its western nations produced a style, now known as Romanesque, and not ill named, for it is quasi Roman, or Roman as near as the poor and scattered communities could make it.

St Saviour's Church

Norman style

This Romanesque is handed down to us as "Norman". It formed a link between the Classic Roman and graceful Gothic Styles, and culminated in forms of beauty utterly unknown to pagan thought, shewn by the glories of Canterbury and Lincoln.

When the long expected and dreaded Millennium of the year 1000 AD, had proved a myth, the Christian faith experienced revulsion of feeling, which gave an impetus to building for religious purposes, such as the world had never seen.

Then, nearly all the bishops’ seats and monasteries were changed for better ones. In 1017 Canute built churches on the sites of former battlefields. In 1041 Edward the Confessor founded the great historic Abbey of Westminster, whilst across the water, arose those stately Abbaies aux hommes and aux dames at Caen, in Normandy.

The Romanesque or Norman style of architecture is massive, heavy, plain, and solid. It prevailed during the 11th century, and continued well into the 12th century. The arches are semi-circular and at first square edged, but later deeply recessed, with very beautiful ornament and moulding.

Its typical ornament is the "zigzag," or "chevron." Openings of doorways are often flat, that is, with a lintel across the top. This flat lintel is surmounted by an arched recess, termed the "tympanum", generally enclosing sculpture.

Towers are low and massive, seldom rising more than their own breadth above the roof. Roofs are low pitched; the interior roof a simple archway, technically termed a barrel vault, of which the Parish Church of Grouville furnishes an example.

Groining sometimes occurs, carried by square edged ribs. Pillars are short and thick, surrounded by the characteristic "Cushion" Capital, a cubic block, rounded at base, sometimes with ornamental fillet at the top.

St Ouen's Church

Slow transition

This rough and ready Norman type passed, by a slow transition, into the Early French and English Gothic; the two (in combination) forming a leading characteristic of our Jersey parish churches, so far as architecture is concerned; though examples of the later styles, "Decorated" and "Perpendicular", may be observed, in isolated instances.

Contrasted with Norman work, Gothic shows lightness in place of apparent stability. It has been said to have no walls, but only piers dividing windows. A wall of glass, and roof of stone,

Windows are long and narrow, lancet shaped. Doorways are richly molded, and often double, divided by a single shaft, said to suggest the entrance to judgement of the righteous and the wicked. Mouldings are deeply cut hollows, producing strong effects of light and shadow, giving a mystic effect throughout the building. Piers, which take the place of Norman walls and columns, are grouped in clusters round a central one. The well known dog-tooth constitutes a characteristic ornament.

In Jersey churches this style predominates: yet, also may be seen in places, the ornate "Decorated", marked by its natural forms of foliage, its "Ball Flower" ornament ,and geometric tracery, passing into French Flamboyant; also the "Perpendicular", English in origin and development, with "Tudor Rose" for ornament; its mouldings hard, rectangular, and square.

Windows mullioned and transomed, buttresses lofty and of bold projection, often elaborately panelled and pinnacled. Its beautiful fan tracery and flying buttress reach a culminating point in architectural ornament.

Trinity Church


And now a brief reference to spires, so conspicuous and graceful an addition to our local churches. This bold and beautiful termination to a mediaeval tower is a proof of the skill of mediaeval masons. Spires are as a rule octagonal, but sometimes square. The wonder of their construction is their extreme lightness and thinness.

The apex of the spire of Salisbury Cathedral is 411 feet from the ground, and 204 feet above the tower. It is only nine inches thick at the base, diminishing upwards to seven inches at its apex. Our loftiest spire in Jersey is that of St Peter's Church, rising 124 feet above the ground. These acute spires were evolved from the low pyramidal or "battered" roof, so frequent a covering to the square towers of churches in Normandy.

Hence it appears that he trend of all church architecture has been, from the heavy to the light, from the massive to the more graceful form , from the simple to the elaborate, and from the low to the lofty elevation.

Roman basilica

The Roman basilica formed a model for the first Christian churches, in fact, the buildings erected, or adapted for Christian use, were themselves basilicas. They were flat roofed, and, of course, devoid of vaulting. Their plan a parallelogram, divided into a broad nave, and two much narrower aisles.

Thus there were formed three halls; the central one (or nave) rising much higher than the roofs on either side, and forming a clerestory, (or clear story) from which light was admitted to the interior.

This type of building lasted throughout the middle ages and has never been wholly abandoned since. Our churches closely follow it. Substituting arches for horizontal lintels, stretching from column to column, and carrying the clear-story wall, we have the very root of Romanesque. The transition is found in what are called the Saxon and Norman buildings of England, and to a great extent of Europe.

St John's Church

Earliest chapels

The earliest religious buildings in Jersey may date back as far as the 6th century, the time when Christianity first commenced to be a force in the land. At first they were merely chapels, with or without a nave, and roofed in wood. Even at the time of William the Conqueror, the Church of St Etienne, at Caen, was of this type, and it is not likely that Jersey architecture would be in advance of the Continent.

Hence we may reasonably conclude that our churches comprised a single rectangular nave, with chancel, and possibly a transept, the whole roofed in with wood. But Norman zeal for the new religion, followed by the great religious movement which occurred during the 12th century, displayed themselves , not only by the erection of new churches, but by the enlargement of those already existing.

In Jersey there arose a goodly abbey, (that of St Helier, its patron saint), four priories, (Noirmont, St Clement, Bonne Nuit and de Lecq), 12 parish churches scattered broadcast (though not without a system, throughout the land, and upwards of 50 chapels, but few of which survive.

The churches follow a not uncommon type - a long nave, with rectangular chancel and transepts. In the 13th century masonry vaulting was probably introduced and in the 15th century, aisles.

Massive construction

The size of these churches, their massive construction, their stone vaulting, their towers and spires are remarkable as being superior to the large majority of those in rural parishes elsewhere.

Their plan originally was cruciform, but it is often difficult to recognise the fact, owing to the many, and sometimes ill judged, alterations and additions effected since erection. Eight of them have spires. Their pillars are plain and heavy, with flat or rounded moulding as a capital, and a narrow ring, or "astragal" near the top and bottom of the shaft, with plain polygonal plinth below.

The boldness of the architects by whom enlargements were made is most extraordinary. In some of the churches a new aisle has been added on either side. To do this the workmen must have broken through the outside wall of the church, and scooped out arches in the apertures, raising pillars to support the super-incumbent mass. These columns were not in the original construction, hence we have sometimes the anomaly of 14th century pillars supporting 13th century upper walls and roof.

This introduction would hardly be complete without a word or two anent the growth and evolution of religious thought during the period it deals with.

Without doubt Paganism flourished vigorously in Jersey up to a certain date, as evidenced by megalithic monuments, unearthed from time to time. Then came the Christian era, largely due to the migration of bishops, priests and others, to escape from heathen persecution. Yet, as a fact, the new religion gained no firm hold, until the time of Rollo, first Duke of Normandy, who had himself embraced the faith in 912 AD.

St Martin's Church

Diocese of Coutances

Norman enthusiasm did the rest, and Christianity became a fait accompli, under the diocese of Coutances, and so continued during several centuries. King John proposed the transfer of the Channel Islands to the see of Exeter.

Henry VII obtained two Bulls from Rome, one for transference to the diocese of Salisbury, the other to Winchester, but neither took effect. Henry VIII "Defender of the Faith" and Edward, his son, were Protestants; Mary a Roman Catholic, who persecuted Protestants. She died in 1558, when Queen Elizabeth, a Protestant, succeeded her.

At this time Maitre Jean Poullet (or Pawlet) was Catholic Dean. He disappeared and Sire Louis Gybault, Rector of St Helier and St Clement, was nominated in his place as commissary, thus inaugurating all almost Presbyterian regime, which lasted till 1620, when, in the reign of James I Ecclesiastical Canons were issued and the celebrated Bandinel named Dean, by Royal Mandate.

See of Winchester

For over 50 years Jersey had been without a Dean or Liturgy. Meanwhile, in 1568, the Queen, Elizabeth, had transferred the Channel Islands to the See of Winchester, but it was not until 1823 that a Bishop of Winchester first set foot in this portion of his diocese.

The first confirmation by a Protestant Bishop in Jersey was administered by Dr Fisher, Bishop of Salisbury in 1818. In 1685 James II introduced Anglican practices, but later sought to reinstate the Roman Catholic cult. His attempt was rendered abortive, by the Revolution of 1688, when William and Mary ascended the throne of England.

The Anglican regime was thus established, in form, much as it is today. Hence, religion in Jersey may be said to have experienced the vicissitude of Paganism, Prelacy and Protestantism, since it first took root. It now enjoys a latitude permitting each and all to follow his or her peculiar bent, without the smallest let or hindrance.

It is hoped the account to follow of our parish churches, one by one, may draw attention to a subject full of interest, and affording ample scope for thoughtful research to all, for everyone must have a parish church within quite easy reach, and every parish church has its own special tale to unfold, if patiently approached.

St Lawrence's Church

The 12 parish churches


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