Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Christchurch Priory

Christchurch Priory has a magnificent setting, in a moated precinct adjacent to Christchurch Harbour, at the end of the old town's main street. It is the longest parish church in England (over 311ft) and its cathedral-scale interior and its monuments have survived remarkably well down the centuries.


A Saxon Minster dedicated to the Holy Trinity was built in the 7th century, but was torn down and replaced by the current building, begun in 1094. Much of this Norman church survives in the nave and the transepts. the Choir (here called the Quire) and Lady chapel being rebuilt in the Perpendicular style in the 15th century, along with the west tower, built to replace a central tower which collapsed.

The Church

From the outside, the Norman work can seem rather forbidding, and the two-storey Early Gothic porch would be worthy of a castle fortification. The contrast with the later Quire and Lady Chapel, with their flying butresses and great windows, is startling. There is one gem to be noted on its exterior from the Norman period, however: the celebrated north transept stair turret, a perfect composition of vigorous blind arcading and trellis patterns.

Inside, the impressive nave of 7 bays is classic Norman work, with rounded arches in the arcade and triforium, giving way to early pointed arches in the clerestory and arcade windows. Heading east, the Quire screen dates from 1320 and leads to the Great Quire, and the magnificent High Altar screen of 1360, depicting a Tree of Jesse.

High above the Lady Chapel ambulatory is a cut-off beam; it was said the carpenters found the original too short when it was hoisted into place. Vexed at what to do, the next day they returned to find the beam now fitted, and was in place. The only explanation was a carpenter who had worked and eaten alone, but was not seen after the beam was inserted. The legend grew up that it was Christ himself, as carpenter, who had performed the miraculous deed.

The church abounds with monuments of high quality. Of particular note are the four beautifully preserved chantries, that of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury (built in 1529) being the most magnificent, with suberb fan vaulting. The Quire has an outstanding set of choir stalls and misercords, depicting themes as varied as King Richard III, a salmon, a Fox in a pulpit, and scenes from a fair. My favourites include a man sword fighting with geese, and two contortionists - one of whose feet is being bitten by a dog.

Finally, under the tower is a memorial to the poet Shelley (1792-1822), placed here, it is said, because his own parish church in Bournemouth refused to house a memorial to someone of such notorious character.

Christchurch Priory, Quay Road, Christchurch BH23 1BU

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