St John's Church

Consecrated in 1664, St John's is the city's oldest surviving church in Leeds and something of an architectural rarity: a virtually intact 17th century church which juxtaposes a late-PerpendicularGlossary Term exterior with furnishings informed by RenaissanceGlossary Term designs. The church was founded by John Harrison (1579-1656), a wealthy Leeds woollen merchant and philanthropist. Although it was widely acknowledged that the Parish Church was overcrowded, the Laudian Archbishop Neile of York was suspicious of the venture, suggesting that the proximity of the new church to St Peter's might become a cause of discord and further Puritan influences already well-established in Leeds.

By the early 19th century, St John's too was regarded as old-fashioned and inconvenient: a local historian, the Rev. T.D. Whitaker, writing in 1816, described it as 'all gloom ... without one vestige of dignity and grace', but it was not until 1861 that John Dobson, a local architect, was invited to design a new church. In 1865, Richard NormanGlossary Term Shaw, still a relatively young architect, visited Leeds and while sketching the church was appalled to learn that it would soon be demolished. Instead he argued for the church's restoration. Shaw was appointed architect for the restoration, but in his later years, even he spoke of his 'dismal failures' at St John's. Under constant pressure from the Trustees, his severe restoration was not even in accordance with the points made in his own report. Between 1866 and 1868, the walls were stripped of plaster, the important early furnishings altered, and several embellishments made in keeping with Victorian ritual. Much of this drastic work was fortunately undone or altered between 1884-98 during the incumbency of Canon John Scott, a cousin of the late Sir Gilbert Scott, who pursued a policy of 'reparation', accepting many of Shaw's misgivings and re-engaging him to supervise the work, first by George Gilbert Scott jun. and continued after 1888 by his pupil, Temple Moore.

The EXTERIOR of St John's remains true to traditions of West Yorkshire church building: square mullioned windows, strong buttresses and battlements, all features that could have been found on churches built over a hundred years before. Rectangular plan, lacking a well-defined chancelGlossary Term, and outwardly largely Perp. with W tower, naveGlossary Term and S aisleGlossary Term, chancelGlossary Term and S porch. Built of fine-grained sandstone quarried on Woodhouse Moor; Shaw's restorations are distinguished by coarse-grained sandstone peppered with quartz pebbles. The embattledGlossary Term tower is of three stages but only the baseGlossary Term, with a single window in each face, is original. Its plain upper stages with small belfryGlossary Term windows were taken down in 1810 and replaced in 1838 by John Clark. Large three-lightGlossary Term bell openings with odd traceryGlossary Term and ogeeGlossary Term hoodmoulds; twelve-foiled circular surrounds beneath them. Angle buttresses and tall corner pinnacles. The naveGlossary Term and aisleGlossary Term have straight-headed windows with cusped lights, but with odd little arch-headsGlossary Term above the middle of each window. At the E[.] end, twin gableGlossary Term ends with two Perp windows. Odd FlamboyantGlossary Term traceryGlossary Term, more Dec than Perp, probably by Shaw. He added the N vestry and the C17 pastiche S porch and gates.

Internally the most remarkable feature is that the church is of two naves rather than a naveGlossary Term and S aisleGlossary Term divided by a central arcadeGlossary Term and separated from the E end by a carved oak screenGlossary Term that runs across the entire breadth of the church. The inconvenience of this arrangement was something that 19th century critics complained was unsuited to 'modern' forms of worship. But the church was originally orientated N-S with pews facing the pulpitGlossary Term on the N wall (re-oriented to a traditional liturgical axis in 1807). The pointed arches of the central arcadeGlossary Term are supported by stone piers, octagonal at the W end but then changing to a more complex moulded form with recessed quadrants in the diagonals and classicalGlossary Term capitals with acanthusGlossary Term leaves and ball ornaments. The twin ROOF of the naveGlossary Term is of a basic trussGlossary Term construction and the lack of co-ordination between the arcadeGlossary Term and the trusses is evidence of the piecemeal approach of 17th century provincial builders. Suspended from the great oak ties are curious drop pendants, but even more curious are the carved corbels: most are angels with musical instruments, but in the corners are strange hermaphrodite figures. The pretty plaster panels of the ceiling (originally painted) contain strapworkGlossary Term and flowing naturalistic mouldings with various motifs: owls (the symbol of Leeds), Pan-like horn blowers and peacocks with serpents in their beaks (the peacock was Christian symbol of immortality). Later wooden battens, securing the panels, run straight across the central medallions, some of which were lion heads. Above the screenGlossary Term semi-circular wooden arches are in-filled with strapworkGlossary Term spandrelsGlossary Term. The arrangements of the CHANCELGlossary Term and CHAPEL are totally Victorian. Shaw was largely responsible for the present appearance of the chancelGlossary Term. Separating it from the Harrison Chapel is an oak gate of 1890 by Moore who re-organised the enclosed chapel for weekday services. For the first time, the church was given a second altar.

FURNISHINGS - NAVEGlossary Term: The great glory of St John's is its carved Jacobean woodwork, without doubt the work of Francis Gunby (1), none of it particularly ecclesiastical in character and probably modelled on the domestic interiors of the period. Probably the most important item in the church is the sumptuous oak SCREENGlossary Term. Above a solid panelled dadoGlossary Term, an arcadeGlossary Term of tapering pillars with IonicGlossary Term capitals and delicate filigree arches, over which runs a richly carved friezeGlossary Term of hearts, rosettes, tulips, vine leaves and animal grotesques. Human and lion heads support the projecting parts of the corniceGlossary Term. Above the screenGlossary Term, Royal Coats of Arms are set within elaborate crestings. These were removed from the screenGlossary Term by Shaw in 1866-8, but the crestings were brought back in 1890-1 to enclose religious symbols designed by Temple Moore (now on W wall). The Coats of Arms, re-instated in the 1970s, are curiosities. Over the N screenGlossary Term are the arms of James I, who died in 1625, nine years before the consecration of St John's. The S screenGlossary Term bears the arms of Charles I as Prince of Wales. The only explanation for this puzzling anomaly is that although consecrated in 1634, the church was constructed and furnished well before that date. PULPITGlossary Term: equally sumptuous, also dismantled 1866-8 but reconstructed in the 1880s using original fragments skilfully blended with new steps, balustrade and backboard. The baseGlossary Term comprises four tiers of panellingGlossary Term with pilasters, strapworkGlossary Term and carved heads; the eagles (the symbol of St John) to the sides of backboard are original and the canopy carries a carved friezeGlossary Term of naked figures topped with strapworkGlossary Term and pinnacles. Beneath the canopy is a sun face with rays. LECTERN: also 1880s, assembled from parts of the old reading desk. PEWS retain their original bench ends with urn-shaped finials and strapworkGlossary Term panels but the doors were removed in the 1866-8 restoration (now in the Harrison chapel, see below). MACE-HOLDER. Wrought ironGlossary Term. Harrison, as the leading town councillor, frequently acted as Alderman and was in the habit of bringing the Corporation mace into church. FONTGlossary Term to the rear of the naveGlossary Term, by Shaw, a well-detailed octagonal bowl carved by one of his favourite craftsmen, James Forsyth. It stood beneath the canopy taken from the pulpitGlossary Term in the 1860s and originally the whole ensemble was adorned with elaborate metal work, the whereabouts of which is now unknown.

HANCEL: COMMUNION TABLEGlossary Term. C17 with bulbous legs ending with IonicGlossary Term capitals and a strapworkGlossary Term friezeGlossary Term with carved heads with cavalier-type moustaches. One side is free of ornament suggesting that it once stood against the wall - an arrangement which the Puritans abhorred. REREDOSGlossary Term. A compositeGlossary Term piece: Salviati mosaics commissioned by Shaw in the 1860s in a setting by Temple Moore, re-using two angel corbels removed when the organ was rebuilt in 1885. The carved central panel was bought locally by Canon Scott. Probably the door of a tabernacleGlossary Term, it was claimed to be a medieval English piece but probably Continental. ALTAR RAILGlossary Term and ORGAN CASE by Shaw, 1866-8; the CHOIRGlossary Term STALLS were introduced as part of his 'reparation'.

HARRISON CHAPEL: John Harrison's tomb was originally below the high altar but moved to its present position in the 1860s with a new setting designed by Shaw. A large tablet without any figures. ClassicalGlossary Term forms without frills. It bears the inscription written on the original by Dr Lake, Vicar of Leeds between 1660-3. Set in the wall above is a simple brass plateGlossary Term to the Rev. Robert Todd, the first incumbent of St John's. The ALTAR RAILGlossary Term is from an old church in Kettlewell but the rest of the chapel is the work of Temple Moore, who panelled it with the pewGlossary Term doors removed in the 1860s and re-paved the floor with marble. The memorial E window to Harrison (d. 1656), is by Burlison and Grylls, 1885. Paid for by local subscription, after Canon Scott wrote to the local press complaining that there was no memorial to Harrison in Leeds. In the upper lights are scenes from the life of Christ and St John, in the lower tier the life of Harrison. He is fancifully depicted with his market cross; helping aged people into his almshouses; with Charles I; the building of the church and at prayer. The scene of Harrison with Charles I is based on a story handed down by Harrison's descendants. In 1647, the King passed through Leeds whilst a prisoner of the Scots. Harrison persuaded the guards to allow him to present a tankard of ale to the King; on lifting its lid, it was found to be brimming with gold coins! In the traceryGlossary Term of the Harrison window are the arms of the Archbishop of York, Charles I, the City of Leeds and Harrison's monogram, 'Templum pro Tumulo'.


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