St Brelade Parish Church

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This article by R G Warton was first published in the 1914 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

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Rector's brochure

Before dealing with the ancient Church of St Brelade, reference must be made to the excellent brochure by its Rector, the Rev J A Balleine, entitled “The Church of St Brelade, Jersey – It’s restoration (1895-1900)” published in the Bulletin of the Société Jersiaise.

This paper treats not only of the history of the church, and its archaeological treasures, but describes in detail the circumstances and work of restoration, so carefully executed under the personal supervision of the rector.

Most generously it was placed at the disposal of the writer, and coupled with personal interviews kindly accorded, furnished the foundation of the following pages. These have been penned with diffidence, and only under the impression that to have omitted St Brelade would have rendered a description of our Jersey parish churches incomplete.

"Unique" is a word that may well be applied to the ancient Church of St Brelade, the doyen of Jersey. Unique in its site, which according to tradition should have been on the northern heights overlooking the bay, where building material was said to have been collected for the purpose, but removed by an "invisible hand ", possibly that of the then Rector. The people considered it a "miraculous interposition".

Unique again, in the absence of any dominating tower or spire. Unique, in possessing some mauresque arches, a suggested echo of Spanish influence, but more probably due to the Byzantine taste of some errant crusader. Lastly, unique in its erratic "tout ensemble". It might appear to have been a sort of experimental edifice, from which its fellows of later date have sprung, a parent type.

The church tower and turret

Common features

Unlike any other of our parish churches, it yet displays features common to almost all. Pebbles from the sea shore, and hammer-dressed stones, of its walls, heavy buttresses and massive pillars, supporting its roofs, arches and doorways of Norman and transitional type, combine to prove that St Brelade’s is native born, though not without a continental strain.

It must ever prove an object of pride to parishioners, of interest to archeologists, and of curiosity to its many casual visitors. The identity of St Brelade's patron saint is somewhat obscure, but it is possible that he was one and the same with St Brendan, an Irish Missionary, born AD 483, who engaged largely in evangelistic work, and according to tradition was wrecked in St Brelade's Bay.

The Abbot of St Sauveur-Le-Vicomte nominated to the cure, whilst the abbesses of Trinity (Caen), and of Villiers-Canivet, received one third of the tythes. Its construction is massive, not unlike some of the Hague churches, and there is a remarkable dearth of ornament within and without.

Nothing in the form of a conventional tower, and no spire, but only a turret, carrying a small belfry at one of the angles. (The present Rector is of opinion that originally there was a lantern tower without any floor, which seems probable.) This turret may have originally provided access to the rood gallery. Plain buttresses, an enormous gargoyle, and a cross with fleur-de-lis finial, constitute its chief adornment.

There appear to be no written records concerning the origin of this church, but there is reason to believe that its nucleus consisted in the chantry of some ancient brotherhood, who built what is now the chancel, and subsequently added the transepts. Opinions differ as to whether this work synchronises with the date of the neighbouring Fishermen's Chapel, or whether it is earlier.

The interior arches

Norman monastery

The fact that a Norman monastery was established in the south-west of Jersey about the 9th century would seem to afford grounds for the latter conclusion. In either case it appears certain that the original chapel stood on the site of the present chancel and later included the north and south transepts. It comprised an area extending from the present east wall, to a few feet westward of the cross formed by the transepts.

It is in this portion of the building that strangely enough, mauresque, or Byzantine arches occur, the only instance of such an introduction in the Island of Jersey. Whilst the date of the above described portion of St Brelade's Church is put down by some good authorities as early 11th century, it is quite possible, and even probable, that two centuries earlier might be nearer the mark.

About the same time as the nave was added, a northern collateral, or chancel aisIe was built, as a Lady Chapel, (“ Chapelle de la Ste Vierge"). This was carried out as in the case of other Jersey churches, by piercing the north wall of the main building, and inserting pointed transitional arches to support the two stone roofs. The arches are devoid of moulding or ornament.

We now arrive at the last enlargement of the church, due probably to increase of population, and the demand for more elaborate services. This was carried out during the 16th century, (AD 1536) when the nave was lengthened some 10 feet to the westward, an outer porch constructed abutting on the west gabIe, and a north nave aisle added. Thus all trace of a cruciform plan disappeared.

The arcading between the nave and its aisle consists of massive pillars, the capitals of which are rudely carved. During these alterations a conical turret was placed in the angIe of the chancel and south transept to give access to the belfry.

A closer examination of the church (without entering into the minute analysis of it details so ably discussed by the present Rector) will disclose many points of interest to the student of church architecture. It is evident that in former times a rood screen extended across the chancel arch, the corbels upon which it rested still remaining, and the doorway of a staircase leading to it being plainly visible.

The nave

Nave

However this may be, there is no doubt that the first important enlargement took place early in the 12th century by the addition of a nave.

It was this work that probably gave rise to the traditional date of consecration, 1111 AD, when, it is more than likely that an important religious ceremony did take place, though there is no authentic record of it in the original ‘’Livre Noir’’ of Coutances.

A curious feature of the extension consists in the fact that the flooring of the nave has an eastward slope. Its length when first constructed was about 25 feet. At this period the building must have been cruciform in plan, since it comprised a chancel, north and south transepts, and a nave - notwithstanding the opinion expressed by such an authority as the Congrès Archéoloique de France, (whose representatives visited it in 1883) to the effect that ‘it appears improbable the plan of the building was ever cruciform’.

Prior to restoration a lofty pulpit, with ornate sounding board, and a gallery for the honorary police, were prominent features. A Gallerie des fumeurs was also provided for those fatigued by wearisome discourses.

Like other of the Island Churches, St Brelade's was in old times whitewashed and plastered, a curious record of the former operation, noted in pencil on the south wall of the chancel running as follows:

"Blanchie 1801", "Blanchie 1797", "Blanchie 1793", “Blanchie 1789". No traces of frescoes were discovered.
The Lady Chapel

Breaking waves

The unsightly plaster has now disappeared, revealing a rough but skilfully executed stone work, some of which consists of pebbles from the adjacent beach. By a happy inspiration, the recent flooring of the chancel, formed of different coloured Jersey granites, has been so arranged as to represent waves breaking on the shore.

A curious instance of somewhat crude adaptation occurs in connection with the eastern chancel arch. On the south side the pier of this arch has been simply cut back, whilst on the north it has been converted into an octagonal pillar, by junction with the original external buttress, which supported the main wall of the chancel, before the addition of its aisle.

The southern transept exhibits some of the oldest work of the building. Here may be noticed marks of an ancient exit, which is thought to have led, by a covered way, to the neighbouring Fishermen's Chapel.

Passing to the nave, its windows and their several transformations afford subject for speculation. Viewed from the exterior of the church hardly a sign of the originals appears. The solitary remains of one may be observed in the south wall. Beneath it is a buttress, the upper portion of which has been removed. This buttress probably belonged to the original building, but when the nave was extended, it had to be lowered so as to admit of the insertion of a lancet window. From inside, however, one can trace marks of ancient lights over the west entrances of both nave and nave aisle, as also the arches of two lancets in the north and one in the south wall.

Flamboyant style

In the 14th century French "Flamboyant" tracery was adopted, a relic of which may be seen in the north transept window. This style, however, was superseded later by the insertion of wooden sash windows, which were naturally swept away at the last restoration, and replaced by Flamboyants, their design being framed on the fragmentary remains of those belonging to the preceding 13th century.

Hence it seems that in the course of evolution, early recessed Norman slits, developed into pointed lancets, these giving way to French Flamboyant, to be ousted in turn by wooden sashes until, through survival of the fittest, the Flamboyant once more gained possession, which it is to be hoped it will retain.

A strange transfer seems to have taken place in connection with the doorways of the nave and the nave aisle. It appears that when the nave was lengthened and its porch added, a 16th century double arch was substituted for the then existing 12th century doorway. This older entrance was then utilised as a west door for the nave aisle.

It is encircled by the rope or cable moulding, a distinctive Norman ornament furnishing, perhaps, the only example in Jersey. Thus, access is obtained to the more recent portion of the church, by a door some centuries older than itself.

Excavation round the western entrance of the nave disclosed the fact that the original archway had been raised some three feet, by the introduction of granite jamb, the original tap being found in situ. Similar exploration of the old entrance to the west porch leading to a like conclusion, the whole churchyard has been reduced to its former level.

The font

Foundation stone

What is believed to be the foundation stone of the church has been found at the eastern junction of the chancel and chancel aisle. It consists of a large solid block of Chausey granite sunk some three feet below the surface which, however, could not be interfered with for structural reasons.

In days gone by St Brelade boasted a peal of five bells. The year 1550 saw a Royal Commission appointed to dispose of them. Their former position is located by hole in the vaulting, through which the bell ropes passed. At the present time a single bell does duty for the five.

In 1882, what were termed, "the oldest colours of the Jersey Militia then in existence", found a resting place in "the oldest parish church". At the same date the Rector and churchwardens were charged with the guardianship of "old Flags of the Newfoundland Fencible Regt" by Major-General Pipon, CB whose ancestor had commanded that corps. Neither were these insignia of war inappropriate, since a pitched battle was fought on the shores of the adjacent bay during the Parliamentary troubles of the 17th century, which resulted in a defeat for the islanders, and a military occupation of their church. Horses were stabled in the Lady Chapel and soldiers bivouacked in its chancel.

The church plate is interesting. Specifically worthy of notice is a paten of Mauresque design, with a representation of St Iago in the centre. It only came into possession of the church in 1676, though actually of much earlier date. Also included in the collection are three alms jugs, or offertory pots, which recall an ancient usage.

It was in 1662 that the rubric laid down that "the alms were to be collected in a decent basin, provided by the Parish '. The first Reformed Prayer Book provided that, "whyles the clerkes do syng the offertory, so many as are disposed shall offer to the poor mennes box, everyone accordynge to his habilité, and charitable mynde". The second Reformed Prayer Book ordained that "the Churche Wardens gather the devotion of the people, and put the same into the pore mens boxe ".

The Fishermen's Chapel

Church relics

Amongst many rare and valuable relics associated with St Brelade's Church, the following may be mentioned, as specially worthy of attention :-

  • A double Piscina, which narrowly escaped destruction during the recent Restoration. In the 13th century the preliminary washing of the priest's hands before the Canon of the Mass was enjoined, and hence originated the two drains and basins side by side, the second one, of course, being devoted to cleansing the Holy Vessels. As a rule, a double piscina may be assigned to the reign of Edward I.
  • A stoup (or "benitier") in the north wall of the porch. The stoup was for the use of those entering the sacred building, "as a symbol of the purity of soul with which they ought to approach it ".
  • A Chausey granite font of the Norman "chalice" type, other types being "the tub", without any base or support, and "the bowl" supported on several shafts. Subsequent to the reign of Henry III, fonts have been almost always octagonal. This font of St Brelade's, was found hidden in furze bushes near the church. It has now been replaced at the west end of the north aisle and is used for baptisms.
  • A stone platform from which parochial notices were formerly read.
  • A sundial in the gable of the south transept bearing the inscription:
L'Homme est semblable à la vanité
Ses jours sont comme une ombre qui passe

The stained glass is modern, ( thanks to the Puritans,) and mostly the work of Mr H T Bosdet, a native of Jersey, whose name is sufficient guarantee for its artistic merit and appropriateness. New Testament subjects, placed as memorials of departed friends, have been selected to fill the various lights. Many are the mural tablets supported by these ancient walls, reminiscent of families and names, familiar as household words in Jersey.

Among them, several Le Gallais and many Pipons, famous by land and sea; Sir John Le Couteur, Aide-de-camp to two Sovereigns, and his son John Halkett ,of the Goldstream Guards. Dumaresq, Janvrin, with a host of others, make up a roll of honour of which the parish and the island may well feel proud.

The church in 1859

Restoration

Lastly, a word as to the work of restoration. This has been carried out thoughtfully and conscientiousIy under the aegis of the present Rector. Much injury to the foundations, involving grave risk to the fabric, had been caused by indisriminate interment. Such trouble, however, was met, and dealt with on scientific principles, so that the church now stands a monument of patient zeal and perseverance.

Wisely and well restored, the simple dignity of centuries ago has been preserved. A stranger, standing on the rising ground behind St Brelade's, and looking seaward, might, in imagination, almost see the parish folk, wending their way towards the church their own hands helped to build, or hear the jingling clattter of Cromwell's Cavalry and distant rumble of his guns, approaching from the bay; and then, trusting such episodes are past and gone for ever, enjoy the peaceful beauty of a scene spread out before him, equal to any in the Channel Isles.

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