St Peter’s in History
St Peter’s lies between the site of the Anglo-Saxon Palace built about 800AD and the site of the Norman Castle built by Simon de Senlis I about 1100. Recent research suggests that there were two earlier churches here, first a wooden building and then one of stone. All Saints’ Church, St Giles’ Church and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre were all founded in the early 12th century and the present St Peter’s was probably built around 1130 to 1140 by Simon de Senlis II. Its unusual design with no break between the nave and the chancel suggests that St Peter’s may have had a special connection with the castle next door.
St Peter’s almost certainly housed the great shrine of St Ragener, who was nephew to St Edmund, the East Anglian king, and who was slain with his uncle by the Danes in 870. St Ragener’s burial place was discovered in St Peter’s during the reign of King Edward the Confessor and many miracles ensued. Devotion to the shrine of St Ragener continued at least until the 15th century. Northampton Castle was of national importance as the site of the confrontation between Henry II and Archbishop Thomas Beckett, the negotiations between King John and the bishops and barons, leading to the proclamation of Magna Carta, and the infamous treaty of 1328 when Edward III gave up his right to the overlordship of Scotland. In December 1380 Parliament met at Northampton and imposed the iniquitous Poll Tax that led to the Peasants’ Revolt. St Peter’s would have been visited by many of the participants in these events.
St Peter’s today
The present building retains many medieval features: the striking two-tone stonework both outside and in, the rich chevron carvings on the round arches of the chancel and nave, the individually carved capitals with their intricate, naturalistic designs, the round-arched arcading all along the exterior walls just below the roof. In the south aisle is displayed the magnificent Saxon stone burial slab, with its birds and beasts and its Green Man; it may have been associated with St Ragener’s tomb.
The west tower had fallen down by 1607 and was rebuilt later in the 17th century. It was moved about 12 feet to the east, shortening the nave. The sumptuous triple arch at the west end of the nave was carefully rebuilt and the tower retains its Norman design with external round arched arcading. The tower has a ring of 8 bells, first peeled in 1739 and still in regular use.
The recent restoration by the Churches Conservation Trust has highlighted the 19th century contribution to St Peter’s. The east end was rebuilt by Sir George Gilbert Scott in the 1850s and the whole church was re-roofed at that time. Scott lowered the floor of the nave and aisles by 1 foot in order to provide the then conventional steps up to the chancel and thereby removing one of the distinct features of St Peter’s. Scott’s second son, John Oldrid Scott, carried out a scheme of stencilled decoration to the east wall in 1878-9 and an ornate carved reredos with paintings by Burlison & Grylls was installed. There is a fine brass lectern, the font has a striking painted cover by George Gilbert Scott, and there are some pleasant stained glass windows from the second half of the 19th century.
Wiiliam Smith, an important pioneer of the science of geology, is buried in the churchyard, just west of the tower. His memorial, a bust carved by Matthew Noble, is on the west wall of the south aisle. Smith died in 1839 at nearby Hazelrigg House in Marefair, while staying with George and Ann Elizabeth Baker. Their memorial is nearby and they were leaders in the restoration of the church. It was Ann Elizabeth who unpicked the plaster from the carved capitals, which had covered them up since the Reformation, revealing some of St Peter’s finest treasures.