Gothic survival: St John’s Church, Briggate, Leeds

St John the Evangelist Church, Briggate, Leeds

St John the Evangelist Church, Briggate, Leeds

The term “Gothic Revival” is familiar to anyone with the remotest interest in architecture, but “Gothic Survival” is much rarer.

There’s a splendid example of a Gothic church built after the Reformation but still in the medieval tradition at the end of Leeds’ main shopping street, Briggate, opposite the Grand Theatre.

It was needed because in the early seventeenth century Leeds was expanding as a centre for the wool trade, and the parish church, St Peter’s, became overcrowded.

The church of St John the Evangelist was paid for by Alderman John Harrison (1579–1656), a cloth-merchant and much-loved philanthropist who also provided a market cross, alms-houses and land and a building for the Leeds Grammar School. Leeds’ first historian, Ralph Thoresby, notes that Harrison fitted his doors and wainscots with holes “for the free passage of cats”.

When St John’s was built, 1632-4, it was fully a hundred years since church-building had been commonplace, and the folk-memory of the old masons had faded. The window-tracery is quirky, as if improvised, and the layout is odd: what might be the south aisle is the same size as the nave.

This double nave, with a central arcade, was practical because the preacher was positioned at the centre of the north wall. An elaborate screen separates the chancel area, where communion was celebrated “as in times past”.

St John’s looks superficially like a medieval church, but the panelling, the pulpit and the screens are distinctively Jacobean, with strapwork and obelisks, and the Royal Arms are those of James I & VI, who had died in 1625.

In its layout and decoration, this was a church that followed the ritualistic principles of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud (1573–1645).

The religious turmoil of the time flared up on the consecration day, September 21st 1634. In the morning John Cosin, chaplain to Richard Neile, Archbishop of York, preached a sermon in line with Laud’s principles. The same afternoon, the Puritan first Vicar of the new church, Robert Todd, in his sermon, vehemently attacked Neile’s views and was promptly suspended by the Archbishop. It took a year for John Harrison, and Sir Arthur Ingram of Temple Newsam, to secure Todd’s reinstatement.

In the early nineteenth century there was a strong possibility St John’s would have been demolished. The south porch was in fact taken down, and the tower was rebuilt in 1838.

Its rarity was recognised by the young architect, Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912). He enlisted the great Gothic Revival architect, George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878), and between them they persuaded the Church authorities in 1865 that it would be cheaper to restore than to rebuild.

The congregation has long since disappeared, and this Grade-I listed church is now maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust.

It’s open over lunchtime from Tuesday to Saturday, and is a welcome haven of calm in the midst of the busy city centre: http://www.visitchurches.org.uk/Ourchurches/Completelistofchurches/Church-of-St-John-the-Evangelist-Leeds-West-Yorkshire.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

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