St John the Baptist's Church - Tideswell

This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper on 25th January 1991, reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.


When, on the death of Henry II, the royal manor of Hope passed to his son, John, it took with it a chapel at Tideswell, attached as it was to the mother church of Hope.

Church and chapel were in due course conferred upon the Dean and Chapter of Lichfield and the Norman chapel was still in existence when Tideswell became a separate parish around 1250.

In the first half of the following century, work began on a parish church of grand proportions and delicate detail. It took an estimated thirty to sixty years to build, progressing from the Decorated period of architecture to the Perpendicular, as seen in the west window of the splendid pinnacled tower, inserted as the church was nearing completion. It is said that when the workmen reached the level of the belfry windows they were joined by an inquisitive cat, whose likeness they carved on the spot and which still peeps around the north-west angle of the tower.

During nineteenth-century alterations, a modest bell-cote on the gable between chancel and nave made way for a more imposing structure with mock gargoyles, and inside the building both an overpowering west gallery and the ‘Hucklow loft’ over the chancel screen - formerly used by parishioners from Hucklow - were removed.

Today's visitors see a Latin inscription on the doors of the south porch; ‘Quam Delecta Tabernacula’ proclaims the beauty of a church which, in spite of its dimensions, extends an air of warmth and regular use rather than of awe. Yet bygone writers once mourned its neglected condition. In the early years of the last century the font, since restored, had been used as a mighty paint pot in ‘beautifying’ the church, before being thrown out.

Tideswell is one of several peakland churches to possess rhymed bellringers' rules. One bell which may be as old as the church itself is now in retirement in the nave. Its Latin inscription refers to the words Gabriel spoke to the parents of St. John, appropriate therefore to the church's dedication.

THE SOUTH TRANSEPT Our New Year visit found holly and bright flowers in the font, a Christmas tree in the nave, and banners wishing ‘Happy Christmas’ in almost a dozen languages. In the south transept children had laid a simple nativity tableau on the altar, a poignant contrast to its sombre carvings of emblems of The Passion. In centuries past this chapel was a chantry belonging to the manor of Litton, for use of the Lytton family whose vault lay below.

Monumental brasses of Sir Robert and Isabella Lytton show them in garments trimmed with ermine, in keeping with the honourable position of Sir Robert as Under Treasurer of England under Henry VI. Many years ago, the couple's lead coffins were found to lie immediately below their monument.

A piscina dates from the Decorated period, and the sill of a tall angled niche is supported on the hands of a figure with human face but three skinny fingers on each hand.

Here too are alabaster effigies of a medieval Knight and his Lady, Sir Thomas de Bower and Lady Margaret. Their tomb was filthy and splattered with whitewash before being restored, together with the transept, by a descendant in 1873. Mr. J. Bower Brown also installed the ‘Resurrection’ window above the altar. A nearby plaque commemorates former churchwarden John Latimer Parke, a much-loved doctor in Tideswell for fifty-seven years, who frequently treated his poorest patients free of charge.

According to local tradition Thomas Statham, one time Lord of the Manor of Litton, was interred in his family vault beneath the south transept in a strange manner, having prepared his own tinned coffin with thirty-six identical locks many years previously. The sole key was cast away after his interment in accordance with his wishes. Father to a disreputable son, he had, furthermore, composed his own epitaph: ‘Under this stone there lies a knight With cares and troubles kill'd outright. His thred of life was not quite run, He died by a graceless son. Parents beware! and take this word That griefe will kill without a sword’.

In similar vein a man named Sawyer was buried in the churchyard in a coffin bound with forty-two steel bands, each with a separate lock and key. He took his valuables with him to keep them out of the clutches of Parliamentary forces during the Civil War!

THE LADY CHAPEL Several ancient documents record the history of the Lady Chapel in the north transept. During the reign of Edward III a chantry was founded by John Foljambe, re-endowed according to a detailed charter of 1392 when Richard II granted leave for the chantry to be endowed with a guild and almost two hundred acres of land, providing for two chaplains to perform divine service and a weekly Mass at the Altar of Blessed Mary in the Church of St John the Baptist. Should either chaplain neglect a service, he was to give alms of a penny for the souls of those he should have prayed for - a long roll which included monarchs living and departed, John Foljambe and his fellow founders, their wives and parents, and all faithful people deceased. Prayers were offered too for the health of the king, themselves, all Brethren and Sisters of the Guild and all its benefactors. The guild is commemorated in an inscription on the floor of the chapel.

In the east wall is an early piscina. Stone effigies of two unknown females have been resited in the chapel; of probable late fourteenth century date they are the earliest monuments in the church. Ten sturdy stalls of black oak with hinged seats were also transferred from the chancel.

In 1924 the Lady Chapel was restored in memory of those who died in the Great War and in thanksgiving for all who returned home safely.

OUTSTANDING CRAFTSMANSHIP Outstanding ecclesiastical craftsmanship has created an exceptionally beautiful chancel, over sixty feet long it is sculpted with fine sedilia, a piscina, and an embattled stone screen with canopied niches. More recent work came from the workshops of Master wood-carver, Advent Hunstone. Here, at the heart of his native town, his handiwork is seen in the vicars chair, eagle lectern, choir-stalls and screens, displaying figures from children to saints.

At the centre of the chancel stands the imposing altar tomb of Sir Sampson Meverell who died in 1492. Ornamented in brass, a riband details his path through life, which led him through ‘eleven great Battayles in France within the space of two years’. Sir Sampson thus earned his knighthood and was subsequently appointed Knight Constable. Inside alabaster tracery around his tomb lies the stone effigy of a wasted corpse wrapped in a winding sheet.

Members of the important Foljambe family were also buried in the chancel during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, apparently maintaining a practice established in the original Norman chapel, for John Foljambe, who died in 1249, wished to be buried in the chancel with his forefathers. Three Foljambe brasses disappeared long ago, but in 1875 a descendant, who also installed the east window, had an excellent replica brass of the armour-clad John Foljambe inserted in the outline of the original.

A brass of rare importance commemorates Bishop Robert Pursglove who died in 1579 and whose name lives on in Tideswell, where he founded a grammar school, retiring to the town after being deprived of his duties for refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy to Elizabeth I. Nevertheless, the brass shows him attired in full Eucharistic vestments, doubtless just as he would have wished.

A LONG HISTORY, RECENT EFFORTS Modest memorials to the less well-to-do are found in the floor, on the walls, and even around a pillar. Huge dark charity boards hang in the tower, while the walls of the nave display The Creed, Lord's Prayer and Ten Commandments. Less imposing details span a long history; aged oak tracery preserved in the nave, pews numbered with small brass plates, corbel heads of worn stone, steps hollowed out by thousands of feet, and a roll of known vicars since ‘Henry’, served Tideswell eight hundred years ago.

Recent parishioners have left their own marks. A plaque below the tower commemorates two benefactresses, Elizabeth Fletcher and Mary Chandler, in whose memories the west window was installed in 1907 by their children - a former vicar and his wife. In turn, parishioners erected a tablet detailing other generous efforts of the Reverend and Mrs. James Fletcher, extending to restoration inside the church and widespread work around the parish.

Comrades of Pioneer Sergeant Robert Hunstone of the Sherwood Foresters erected a brass upon his death in 1908, inscribed with the regimental mascot - a ram - and motto. Work carried out in memory of those who died in wartime has already been mentioned; over seventy names are inscribed on their memorial on the west wall and a nearby cupboard was given in memory of those who died in the Second War.

In 1914 the Sunday School presented a brass christening jug to ‘their dear parish church’, while of practical use too is the noticeboard given just seventy years later in memory of John Foster.

Such twentieth-century memorials and gifts are evidence that ‘The Cathedral of the Peak’, albeit an impressive architectural treasure, thrives above all as the Church of St. John the Baptist, a simple House of Prayer at the heart of the Peak.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 25th January 1991.

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