A Light History of St Johns by Mark Harrison 2019

Some dates

1130 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

StatisticsLength 38m
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...

Devizes Castle

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.

wesleysThe 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.