The finest parish church in England?
Lilian Ladle and Ken Ayres have visited Christchurch Priory
Published in April ’10
During the Local Government border changes of 1974, Bournemouth and Christchurch were ceded to Dorset. Hampshire’s loss was Dorset’s gain when it comes to Christchurch Priory, which is one of England’s most magnificent parish churches and, at 311 feet (95 metres) from west to east, certainly the longest. Its setting is spectacular – between the rivers Stour and Avon and overlooking Christchurch Harbour.
A church was established here well before the Norman Conquest and in 1086 it was known as ‘the monastery of the Holy Trinity at Toinham’. The Saxon buildings were demolished under the direction of Ranulph Flambard (a close associate of William the Conqueror and later Bishop of Durham), who envisioned a beautiful church on an ambitious scale; its completion, however, aided by pious and wealthy donors, took almost another 500 years. By 1177, both the church and the town were known as ‘Christchurch’. Legend recalls that during the building work, a roof timber was cut too short but was miraculously lengthened. The deed was attributed to a mysterious carpenter who was thought to have been Christ himself.
The first stage was completed by 1150. This consisted of a cruciform church with a central tower and spire, built with limestone from Quarr on the Isle of Wight, Portland, and Beer in Devon. A community of Augustine canons was established at this time and they used the quire for their nine services each day, the nave being the town’s parish church. A large, vaulted western porch was added in the early 13th century and was used by the Prior to conduct ecclesiastical and municipal business. Its recessed doorway framed by slender Purbeck marble columns hints at the importance and grandeur of the building within.
In the nave, seven pairs of sturdy columns support the roof. Between these are two tiers of typical round-headed Norman arches, the ‘spandrells’, or spaces between, being decorated by unusual hatched carving. A clerestory was added in 1290, raising the roof and bringing light to the interior. The 19th-century plaster vaulting conceals some original decorated roof timbers. Dividing the nave, the main area of worship, from the quire is a stone screen with central doorway, displaying delicately carved foliage and animals. It once would have supported a rood loft.
After the central tower and spire collapsed in a ‘great storm’ in the 1340s, a ‘Great Quire’, used only by the monks, was built in Perpendicular style. The soaring stone reredos of about 1330 was retained and is among the finest in England. Its lower level depicts a ‘Jesse tree’ illustrating the ancestry of Jesus, and over this is a nativity panel. Empty niches would have held statues of saints and all would have been richly painted and gilded. Above this medieval work of art is a modern mural, ‘The Ascension of Christ’ by Hans Feibush, completed in 1967. The wooden monks’ stalls are rare medieval survivors. Intricately carved brackets (misericords) on the undersides of the seats portray religious, secular, political and superstitious images ingeniously designed to fit into a small space. The monks rested on these brackets during the long services. Most date to the late 15th century but four are much older. One with simple acanthus leaf decoration is 1210, another with entwined dragons is 1220 and two dating to 1350 depict a winged lion and an angel holding a scroll, flanked by two grotesques.
The Perpendicular-style Lady Chapel built around 1390 at the extreme east end of the building constitutes a ‘third church’. Traces of colour remain on the reredos of 1450, although the statuary it once contained has long since gone. Built into the north and south walls of the chapel are tomb monuments commemorating Sir Thomas West, Constable of Christchurch Castle, and his mother, Alice, who died in 1406 and 1395 respectively.
Unusually, aisles stretch the complete length of the building. At the east end of the north quire aisle is a late 15th-century alabaster tomb chest with effigies of Sir John and Lady Katherine Chidiock. They have been badly defaced by graffiti, some of which are over 500 years old, and by the removal of chips from the alabaster; when ground and mixed with water, alabaster was thought to be a remedy for eye problems.
There are four beautiful chantry chapels, where priests prayed for the souls of the deceased. These were the last internal additions to the Priory before it was dissolved in 1539. The earliest is the Berkeley chantry, dating from the 1480s, which has remnants of original wall paintings and large red and white roses of Lancaster and York on the ceiling. Perhaps the most imposing is the Salisbury chantry of 1529, built in expensive Caen stone for Countess Margaret, who was executed for her Catholic beliefs in 1541. The fan-vaulted ceiling is exquisite, although the painted and gilded roof bosses were defaced on orders of Henry VIII in 1542. Both chantries back onto the Great Quire in the north quire aisle.
At the east end of the south quire aisle, a chantry was built for John Draper in 1529. A painting on a shield above the door depicts the Priory Church with its central tower and spire. Comfortably pensioned off, John Draper was the last Prior and died at Somerford in 1552. The Harys chantry of 1525, in the south aisle, backs onto the quire and was built for Robert Harys, a canon who was also vicar of Christchurch.
The west tower, constructed in about 1470, was the last major structural addition to the church. On top is a gilded salmon weather vane, a reminder not only that the fish was a Christian symbol but also that the first salmon of the year was always given to the Prior. The tower has a peal of 12 bells, including two dating to 1370.
Most of the medieval glass was stripped out at the Reformation, although a little survives high up in the otherwise clear Great Quire windows. Most of the stained glass is 19th-century, and the large windows of the west tower and the Lady Chapel are particularly spectacular. Modern but traditional additions in the 1990s include seven windows in the south aisle illustrating the history of the Priory and one in St Stephen’s chapel in the south transept showing the stoning of the saint. The latest window, installed in 1999 to celebrate the 900th anniversary of the building, is modern in concept with vibrantly coloured abstract shapes incorporating the chi-rho symbol of ancient Christianity.
The present vicar, Canon Hugh Williams, is leaving the parish at Easter, and there will be an interregnum during which the churchwardens and remaining clergy will administer the Priory’s affairs. A new incumbent will be installed in the autumn. There are daily services but Sunday services regularly attract 400 worshippers. In addition, a weekly bulletin and monthly newsletter keep the parish well-informed. Music is an important part of worship and outreach: the Priory has four choirs and holds regular concerts and organ recitals.
Christchurch belongs to the ‘Greater Churches Group’, which also includes Wimborne, Shaftesbury and Romsey: buildings that are larger and more complex than the usual parish church but are not of cathedral status. Not surprisingly, there are over 100,000 visitors of many nationalities each year, and leaflets in seventeen languages, including Korean, Turkish and Chinese, and a variety of booklets are available to enhance their visit.
The responsibility for maintenance and upkeep of this venerable and historic building falls on the parish, and a long-term conservation and restoration programme is in hand. Currently, approximately one-third of the exterior of the building has been cleaned and repaired; the next phase begins in the spring. Such work needs specialist craftsmen and is incredibly expensive. As in the medieval period, generous benefactors donate towards the cost. In several years time, when the work is complete, Christchurch Priory with its architectural heritage in gleaming pale cream stone will stand as a testament to its 21st-century congregation, linking it to the long line of architects, builders, clerics and worshippers at this beautiful and quite exceptional parish church.
Christchurch Priory is open Monday to Saturday from 9.30 am to 5.00 pm and on Sundays from 2.15 pm to 5.30 pm (subject to services).
There are services at 8.00, 9.45 and 11.15 am on Sundays, with Evensong at 6.30 pm. On weekdays and Saturdays there are services at 8.30 and 9.00 am and 5.00 pm.
For more information phone 01202 485804.