Some dates12th century Chancel built
15th century Remainder of the church rebuilt
16th century Altars and organs changed
17th century South porch repairs
1854 Major restorations in 1854 by Carpenter & Slater
1897-8 and 1923-4 further restorations under Sir Harold Brakspear
StatisticsNave 20m x 6.5m
Chancel 9.5m x 5.9m
The tower is 27m high
The registers date from 1569
The church was built in the 12th century to serve the new borough of Devizes, outside the castle area.
It has sometimes been thought that the first church, from which only the chancel survives, was built by Bishop Roger of Sarum (1107-42), but others consider that the style of the church belongs to a later date in the 12th century.
Nothing of the original nave remains, but it may have been rebuilt in the 13th or 14th centuries, as the south wall of the porch retains some 13th-century work and the inner order of the porch doorway is of this date, the other four orders being reset 12th-century work.
The footings of the east wall of the south aisle are thicker than those of the remainder of the nave aisles, and may also be 13th-century.
There seem to be re-used 12th-century ashlar blocks in the 14th-century construction of the aisle walls. From this period the church owned many plots of land in the town which provided a regular income.
Rebuilding of tower costs a life
There were radical alterations to the church structure in the 15th century when the walls were heightened, the south porch increased to two storeys with a stair turret and windows, buttresses and roofs replaced and renewed while the west tower was built against the nave.
An inscription on the east part of the nave roof records that during the work William Smith was killed on 1 June 1436. The work begun with the south aisle followed by the nave arcades and clerestory, then the refurbishment of both aisles with new windows, buttresses and roofs, together with the insertion of new windows into the chancel and the enlargement of the chancel arch, and finally the construction of the west tower.
During the Civil War lead was taken from the roof to manufacture bullets.
Ever changing interior
An exceptional surviving run of churchwardens' accounts provides much information about the 16th-century changes. In 1550-1 the altars were pulled down, the Ten Commandments and scriptural texts were inscribed on the walls and the organs and rood loft were removed.
In 1553-6 the high altar, a side altar and the organs were re-erected and the mural inscriptions were defaced. Two more altars were built in 1578. These restorations were again swept away under Elizabeth - the loft in 1561-2 and the organ and candlesticks in the next year. In 1575-6 the Commandments were re-inscribed.
The church remained largely unchanged until the restoration of the east chancel wall in 1852, with replica arcading in the lower part and a new window in the upper. Wall paintings revealed at this time were becoming invisible by 1878 and have now all but disappeared.
In 1854 there was a major restoration by Carpenter & Slater, when the north vestry was also added, and in 1875-6 another restoration included the removal of a west gallery and the lowering and repaving of the chancel floor. In 1897-8 the tower was underpinned, some of its battlements, pinnacles and gargoyles were removed and the chancel was re-roofed.
In 1923-4 the nave and tower roofs were repaired under the direction of Harold Brakspear, the builders being F. Rendell & Sons.
The Parochial Church Council is planning to revitalise St Mary's role for the parish and the wider community with proposals for a new cloister to the north of the church.
The new building will provide catering and office facilities whilst the nave will become a flexible space seating for a wide range of activities from conferences and exhibitions to music and drama performances accommodating audiences of up to 250 with the added benefit of raked seating. The chancel will be retained for regular worship.
The development has drawn wide public support both from those attending public meetings called to discuss the proposal as well as those prospective users contacted for advice and feedback.
Archaeological investigations are due to start in the churchyard before the end of 2011, which is necessary prior to any planning application. Three trenches will be opened to the north of the Church to identify the state of the ground and establish what lies underground. Any bones disturbed during the trenching will be re-interred.
For more information on St Mary Devizes Trust click here.
Some dates1130 Church built
1450 Nave rebuilt and ringing floor inserted
1483 Chapels erected
1844 Restoration work
1863 Nave lengthened
1901 Clock installed
1902 Beauchamp Chapel restored
1958 Nave re-roofed
Width of the nave 15.5m
The Register dates back to October 1559
St John's Church dates from 1130 when it was constructed as a chapel to the recently completed castle. It is rumoured that the altar relic at its foundation was a feather from the wing of the Angel Gabriel. The feather has yet to be discovered...
The original castle, built of wood, was destroyed by fire in 1113 and was rebuilt in 1120 by Roger, Bishop of Salisbury, who was Chancellor and Treasurer to Henry I and whose other castles were those of Old Sarum, Sherborne and Malmesbury. Henry of Huntingdon, writing of it twenty years later, describes it as "a noble castle... of good strength and beauty... the most splendid castle in Europe".
A Royal Sanctuary
In Henry III's reign St John's figured in a curious historical episode. Hubert de Burgh, the great Justinian, incurred the King's anger by opposing his unpopular favourites, and after a trial in 1233 was imprisoned in Devizes Castle.
Learning that his old foe, the Bishop of Winchester, was plotting his death he sought sanctuary in St John's Church. From there he was removed by force, but his captors were excommunicated by the Bishop of Salisbury, and de Burgh was freed. He later took refuge at Chepstow Castle and was eventually reconciled to the King.
In the 1140s England was riven by Civil War between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda, both of whom had a valid claim to the throne. Matilda's power base was in the South West of England and one of places she chose for
her court was the Castle at Devizes. Whilst the court was in Devizes Matilda and her courtiers would have come daily to Mass in St John's Church.
Reformation and Dissent
Church history in Devizes was to say the least colourful. Burning at the stake was the dire penalty for holding beliefs contrary to the Church establishment. William Prior of Devizes was burnt in Salisbury for professing Lollardy, a sect that attacked the Church for its worldliness and corruption. John Bent, a tailor, of Urchfont, was burnt to death in Devizes Market Place in 1523 for denying transubstantiation. Religious controversy dogged Devizes history from earliest times. John Maundrell of Rowde was burnt at Salisbury for Protestantism in 1557, the year that also saw the last Catholic incumbent in the Devizes living.
During the seventeenth century civil war, the Rev John Shepherd, a Presbyterian minister to the Rectorship, was dragged from the pulpit of St John's Church by one, Captain Pretty, aided by 'divers soldiers armed in a most irreverent manner' to 'the abominable disturbance of the whole congregation'. In 1661 many townspeople were committed to prison for attending Quakers' meetings.
The Wesleys in Devizes
When John Wesley visited the town in 1747, the local curate, Mr Innes, stirred up the people to mob him, but failed to stop Wesley preaching. The mob was more demonstrative a year later when Charles Wesley paid a visit. Innes and his ruffians played a water pump on the meeting. Violence followed in which a Wesleyan was maimed. Although Wesley escaped along the Bath road, two dogs were set upon him and he was 'torn badly'. Afterwards Charles wrote: 'such fierceness and diabolical malice I have not seen in human faces'.
Architecture and Furnishings
"This county (Wiltshire) of so many impressive sights and so much natural splendour has few things more beautiful than the chancel of St John's. On any day it is splendid, but at night, floodlit, it is of surpassing loveliness." Arthur Mee, 'Wiltshire - Cradle of our civilisation'.
Simon Jenkins, in his book 'England's Thousand Best Churches' numbered St John's amongst his top 100 churches.
As visitors will discover the church contains some of the finest Norman work in the county. St John's was completed by 1130, the chancel, transept, crossing and tower remaining almost intact.
The name Devizes is thought to be a corruption of the Latin "ad divisas", meaning 'at the divisions or boundaries'.
The boundaries were those of the three adjoining manors, Rowde, Cannings and Potterne, which met precisely at the point where Devizes Castle, built by Osmund, Bishop of Salisbury in about 1080, was constructed.
The Churches of Devizes St. John and St. Mary have an inextricably linked history, as it is reported that they have always been "a single cure" under a single Rector, rector ecclesiarum loci, as he was called in 1322. This however did not prevent the two churches from having separate incomes and separate parish officers.
There was a move made in 1906 by the Rector, J. G. Watson, to separate the parish of St Mary but this was not successful.
It has always been presumed that St John's was originally the castle chapel, and "in very early times the garrison may have been large enough to fill it", and that St Mary's served the growing civilian settlement. But as there was a large chapel in the castle it is probable that both St John's and St Mary's were built as a pair in the period 1120-1135 by Bishop Roger to serve the civilian populations in both parts of the town.
More information about the history of Devizes can be found at the Devizes Heritage Website.