We are all familiar with Ewan Christian’s extant chancel (early-1860s), its collegiate arrangement of seating, and the polygonal apsidal termination.

Also well-known is the 1682-4 chancel, seen in the engraving found in Robert Plot’s Natural History of Stafford-shire (1640-1696) (an illustration depending, probably, on the oil painting kept in the church’s vestry), and we are very fortunate indeed to possess a photograph of that building.


The illustration from Robert Plot’s Natural History of Stafford-shire.

1  Regarding the Medieval chancel (late 13th century?), however, there is no visual record (that I know of – hopefully I am wrong). It was known as the ‘Great Chancel’ or the ‘Dean’s Chancel’, Roper tells us. 2 A written record (quoted by Mander 3) tells of its alleged ruinous state in 1665 (prompting creation of the 1680s chancel) – but nothing else about it.

Most English churches, large and small, are square-ended, even when great churches have a (square) ambulatory behind the high altar/shrine; however, some great churches have a fine polygonal chevet, in the ubiquitous French fashion (Canterbury and Norwich cathedrals, and Westminster Abbey), and a few have a more simple octagonal termination. It may just be that such a regional fashion obtained in what we now know as the West Midlands: St. Michael’s Coventry (1373-1500; 1883-90, 4); Lichfield’s eastern termination, the Lady Chapel (1310-30?); and perhaps that of St. Mary’s, Coventry, which possessed a set of three projecting chapels (15th century?), foundations of which were unearthed in 1955 5;. Aston’s Medieval parish church gained a polygonal apse in Julius Chatwin’s rebuilding (1879-90), and he may have been following Medieval precedent there (though Andy Foster suggests 6 the influence of St. Michael’s. Coventry, which, as we have seen, was being rebuilt at this time).

While Ewan Christian’s July 1860 report on St. Peter’s (Salt Library, Stafford) refers to the ruinous state of the 1680s chancel – and its utter meanness and ugliness - he gives no information about its predecessor 7. Shortly afterwards, he was building the chancel we see today, and his builders most likely discovered the foundations of the Medieval building (just as Basil Spence’s builders unearthed the foundations of St. Mary’s eastern chapels, when beginning work on Coventry’s 1962 cathedral). With St. Peter’s chancel foundations (as surely was the case at Coventry – though those foundations were not going to be built upon) it would not have been (financially) worthwhile for those who demolished the building, to dig them up and remove them. Is it possible that Christian decided to re-use the old foundations, and rear his new building upon them (the urge to avoid the unnecessary cost of setting new foundations must have been irresistible)? Perhaps he had already decided upon a polygonal apse, or, changed his plans in favour of one, when (if) the old foundations emerged; Chapter records might surely reveal discussions about such a change of plan.  Or it may be that the Medieval chancel was shorter than Christian’s (more akin to the 17th century chancel, and that that – square-ended, as the photograph shows – may have used (square-ended) Medieval foundations, so that the Medieval chancel may have been the same shape, and size, as its Seventeenth Century successor – but this is unlikely if the Medieval chancel was, as suggested, ‘great’). (Christian’s restoration, etc., of course (1852-65) involved much additional work on most parts of the building.)

Many questions remain (another one is: Just why was a building the size of the 1680s chancel, or indeed any chancel at all, needed, at that time? What went on in it?). While there has been some geophysical research done north and south of the nave 8, none has been done east of the extant termination – would such investigation reveal any foundations (perhaps the Medieval chancel was longer than Ewan Christian’s)? Certainly, until there is research at that end (that is, near the Art Gallery) we will not really know, unless further documentation comes to light. Hopefully, these matters and questions will be taken up by future studies of the church’s building history, which are badly needed.

 

1. Reproduced in John Roper, Wolverhampton As It Was, Vol. 1, Nelson, Hendon Publishing Company, 1974, the second photograph, opposite the Introduction (the book lacks page numbers).
   
2. John S. Roper, Historic Buildings of Wolverhampton. A Study of 15 Buildings in the Town Dating from Mediaeval Times to 1837, Wolverhampton, [no publisher], 1937, p. 8.
   
3. G. P. Mander, ‘Wolverhampton Antiquary’, Vol. 1, No. 11, pp. 330-341. The information comes from a letter of John Huntbach (10 April 1665) to his uncle the antiquary Sir William Dugdale. Apparently the chancel roof’s lead had been stripped off.
   
4. John Thomas, Coventry Cathedral, London, Unwin Hyman, 1987, pp. 45 (plan), 58.
   
5. Thomas, work cited note 4, p. 33 (photograph).
   
6. Andy Foster, Birmingham (Buildings of England), New Haven, Conn. ; London : Yale University Press, 2005; entry for Aston.
   
7. D1157/1/8/13, in the collection: Miscellaneous Accounts and Papers Relating to the Collegiate Church of St. Peter, Wolverhamton (collated c. 1966).
   
8. Roland Wessling, Report . Assessment  of the Potential  for Geophysical and Archaeological Investigations to Determine the Presence or Absence of Subterranean Structures Underneath and Around the Church of St. Peter, Wolverhampton, Shrivenham, Cranfield University, DASSR, 2009.

Much information regarding the history of St. Peters church was given to me by Richard Wisker.

 John Thomas      2018                                   johnalfredthomas@aol.com

 
 

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