For this church:
St Peter’s is one of the three parishes covering the ancient town centre of Nottingham. Domesday Book refers only to St Mary’s, the pre-Conquest foundation in the old Anglian borough; St Peter’s and St Nicholas’ were established after the Conquest, quite possibly before the end of the 11th Century, in the ‘French borough’ which rapidly grew up between the old settlement and the Norman castle. The earliest reference to these two churches is in about 1108, when William Peveril gave them to the newly-founded Lenton Priory.
The first church, was built on a rock above the marsh formed by the Rowell Brook. This is now St Peter’s Square, and the marshy conditions caused problems for the parish authorities for centuries. It was presumably a simple building with a nave and a round apse. It was destroyed - perhaps twice - in the mid-12th Century. In 1140 the army of the Empress Matilda, attacking the Castle held by King Stephen, set fire to the town and massacred the parishioners of St Peter’s who had taken refuge in the church. A further fire destroyed much of the town in 1153.
The church was rebuilt between 1180 and 1220, with a south aisle; some of this building remains in use today, perhaps incorporating fragments of the earlier church. The tower and spire were added shortly before the Black Death, which reached Nottingham in 1348 and stopped further work for some years. It was another twenty years or more before the north aisle was added; curiously, the north arcade seems to have been built inside the old north wall, rather than outside as originally planned, which adds to the lopsided plan of the church.
The final addition to the mediaeval church was the clerestory, with a new oak roof to the nave. This was built about 1480, when wood was given by Nicholas de Strelley from his estate outside the town. The weight of the new stonework pushed the ancient south arcade out of true, and though collapse was prevented by new buttresses to the south aisle, the columns towards the east end of the nave are still clearly far from vertical.
Like most mediaeval churches, St Peter’s contained many chapels and chantries, often with their own chaplains or mass-priests. Six chapels are known by name, though the location of some of them within the church is not certain. They had particular devotees, and many bequests were made to them. We are fortunate to have the account-books of two Guilds - of St George and of St Mary - which operated at St Peter’s in the 15th and early 16th Centuries, again with their own chaplains. From these a picture of a lively social (and devotional) life can be gained, with feasts and processions through the streets - including St George and the Dragon, which regularly needed repair!
By then St Peter’s had become a notable place in the town. Its rectors were scholars and played a part in civic affairs. In 1483, for example, Dr William Gull was with the Mayor and other notables at St Peter’s when Richard Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III) was welcomed to Nottingham - two years before he rode out from Nottingham Castle to his death at the battle of Bosworth. Gull himself had been a university officer at Cambridge before coming to Nottingham, and his successor Master John Mayewe was a lawyer who also held public positions.
Through the Middle Ages and up to the 19th Century, the parish and the town authorities were closely linked, and the Records of the Borough of Nottingham are full of references to parochial matters, from civil or ecclesiastical misdemeanours to the repair of paved streets or ringing the bells for a naval victory. In 1624 it was carefully noted in the church register that the town-crier’s bell belonged to St Peter’s parish, which had paid for it to be cast.
The Reformation broke the link with Lenton Priory, which had appointed rectors since the 12th Century. In 1525 (ten years before the Dissolution), the last Prior of Lenton had for some reason granted John Plough the right to nominate his own successor as rector, which eased the transition when Plough died in 1538 (the same year as the Prior and eight monks were executed for treason). The new rector was his nephew John Plough the younger, who was a fierce Protestant and fled to Basle in 1553 when Queen Mary restored Roman authority. His polemical works have not survived but he may be a forerunner of the radical theology which came to St Peter’s in the next century.
It was under the younger John Plough that the washerwoman Margery Doubleday left a new bell to St Peter’s in 1544: it was to be rung at 4am every weekday to wake her fellow washerwomen - another example of the public role of the church. But after him there were signs of decline: by 1559 Queen Elizabeth’s commissioners were reporting that the curate was not using the English prayers required by the Act of Uniformity, the church was generally in a neglected state and there was no parish register. In fact St Peter’s parish registers begin in 1570 and are the oldest in Nottingham, though the rector and churchwardens were fined for not having kept the records earlier.
While little is known of the church in the later 16th Century, a fascinating snapshot survives from 1624. The account-book for the Easter Offering for the rector - a mandatory charge on the inhabitants of the parish - gives details of who lived where, what servants were paid, how many cattle they owned (and the number of cows in the town centre is quite surprising!). In 1624 St Peter’s parish had a population of 634, about a quarter of that of Nottingham as a whole: the area was well built-up, though there was still open ground to the south, towards the River Leen. An unusual benefaction was made to the church in 1631, when Luke Jackson, born in Nottingham and a prominent London merchant, left £2 for the rector to preach two sermons annually: one to commemorate the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and one to give thanks for deliverance from the Gunpowder Plot in 1605.
The rector at this time was George Cotes. He died in 1640 while giving a lengthy series of sermons on Jeremiah ch48, v13 (no doubt comparing the idolatry of Moab to what he saw in England), which was reputed to be ‘the longest sermon ever preached’. He seems to have had Puritan sympathies, but followed Archbishop Laud’s instructions to celebrate communion in the sanctuary, behind altar rails, instead of in the nave with the congregation all round. Some of his parishioners did not agree, and were called before the Archdeacon’s Court for refusing to take communion in the new style. Their protestations about the new practices provide an interesting reminder that - just as today - changes in the church’s way of doing things have often proved controversial.
Cotes’s nephew and successor John Goodall was much more strongly Puritan, and locked the church doors against the Archdeacon’s officials in 1641. A few years later, in the Civil War, he saw his church occupied by Royalist troops attacking the Castle, and in one battle the chancel was destroyed. At least St Peter’s was spared the fate of St Nicholas’, which was demolished by Colonel John Hutchinson, the governor of the Castle, to prevent its being used as a gun platform. As a result of this the parishioners of St Nicholas’ shared St Peter’s Church for more than 30 years until their own church was rebuilt; the town council provided timber to build a new gallery across the chancel arch to accommodate the enlarged congregation. Though a Puritan, John Goodall had his own problems with the Parliamentary authorities, and attacked John Hutchinson from the pulpit - though they were reconciled before his death on 1645 when Hutchinson selected him in an exchange of prisoners after he had been captured by the Royalists.
During the Commonwealth period, St Peter’s was served by two strongly Puritan ministers. Richard Whitchurch first established the Presbyterian forms of worship. John Barret, the leader of the Presbyterian “classis” or controlling body in Nottingham, continued in the same vein until 1662, when the restored Church of England required him to use the Book of Common Prayer and to wear a surplice. His conscience would not allow him to do this, and he was ejected from the living - though he lived another 50 years and was extremely active as a Dissenting minister, not least in setting up the High Pavement Chapel.
After the Restoration St Peter’s chancel was rebuilt, though on a smaller plan than before. The mediaeval chancel arch remained, though it had a gallery in front of it and was built up almost down to the level of the capitals. Thoroton, writing in 1677, refers to the square-headed east window with coats of arms; this was blocked up in 1715, when a new altar-piece was erected which obscured much of the window. The altar-piece was painted by Edward Dovey, of Bridlesmith Gate, and showed the Last Supper flanked by Moses and Aaron in priestly garments - and Queen Anne’s portrait at the top. A pamphlet published in 1715 attacked the church authorities for permitting this “image-worship”, and it seems the Queen was later replaced by a dove. Finally, in 1815, the faded representation of the Last Supper was over-painted by Thomas Barber with a scene from the Agony in the Garden (but still with Moses and Aaron); and when the chancel was rebuilt in 1877 the painting was removed. In cut-down form, it now forms the ceiling of the west porch.
The rectors in the early 18th Century were concerned with education, not only in their own parish but in Nottingham as a whole. Nathan Drake was one of those charged with inspecting the teaching at the Free School (now Nottingham High School), and in 1732 Edward Chappell was appointed Master there - but he left after three weeks “as it did not suit” and returned to St Peter’s where he stayed for 42 years. Timothy Fenton was involved in the foundation of the Bluecoat School, set up at Weekday Cross in 1707, and St Peter’s has maintained close links with the school ever since, though the children no longer attend service there every Sunday.
The gallery across the chancel was removed to the north aisle in 1732, when it was recognised as “a hindrance to the beauty and ornament of the church”; this also allowed extra pews to be inserted and a new pulpit and reading desk erected. At the same time the Archdeacon’s Consistory Court, which was held in St Peter’s until the 1830s, moved from the north aisle to the west end of the south aisle (its rostrum was much later re-used for the side altar).
Edward Chappell’s official return to Archbishop Herring in 1743 gives a snapshot of the parish a century after the Easter Book. There were 400 families, a third of them Dissenters (and a few Roman Catholics - Mrs Willoughby had a chapel and a chaplain in her house on Low Pavement), but at least there was no licensed meeting-house in the parish. There were two services every Sunday, Wednesday and Friday as well as on holy days; but the monthly communion service rarely attracted more than 70-100 communicants. This lack of enthusiasm is reflected in the rector’s complaint that “parishioners do not send their children and servants to be catechised as duly as they ought”.
A much longer view of St Peter’s, and of the rest of Nottingham, is provided by Abigail Gawthern’s diary from 1751 to 1810. Mrs Gawthern lived in Low Pavement, within St Peter’s parish, though she often attended St Mary’s as well. Her diary records events and impressions of all kinds - births, marriages and deaths, comments on sermons, the first ringing of the re-cast peal of bells in 1771, new altar cloths and so on. At this time Nottingham still had gardens close to the centre, and her description of the town makes it sound an attractive place to live, though clearly the population was beginning to grow.
She does not, however, say much about the restoration work carried out at St Peter’s from the 1790s onwards by the architect and antiquarian William Stretton, though she does mention a new gallery and pulpit in 1785. In 1801 she had to go to St Nicholas’ instead, since St Peter’s was shut for three weeks for “white washing and painting”. Stretton’s work was substantial: he rebuilt the clerestory windows in a plain round-headed style and replaced the corbels with plaster angels, he refaced much of the exterior of the church where old stone had weathered away - and he left an interesting account of the church in the “Stretton Manuscripts”.
Soon after Stretton, in 1814, the rector’s vestry was built adjoining the chancel. Perhaps because of problems in obtaining materials in war-time, this seems to have been done on the cheap: the window tracery is wood, rather than the stone used elsewhere. At this time the main entrances to the church were from the north and south doors, and the west door under the tower was partly blocked; a wide area at the west end was free of seating, but pews were placed in the first bay of the chancel, facing back into the church..
By then, the west gallery carried a new organ, erected by subscription in 1812 and placed in the gallery in 1821, where it remained until the chancel was rebuilt in 1878. The use of music in the church was changing: in 1819 the rector, Robert White Almond, published a special hymnbook for St Peter’s, to supplement the metrical psalms which were the usual fare. He had to explain, in a long preface, that hymns had a respectable place in liturgical history, and were not a dangerous innovation of the Methodists!
The tower, and particularly the spire, has been prominent in the Nottingham townscape for 600 years. Over the centuries there have been many repairs: the top part of the spire seems to need rebuilding once or twice a century. Thomas Wootton of Kegworth was a noted steeplejack who in 1789 repaired the top four feet without scaffolding, then performed acrobatics and drank a pint of ale at the top, to the alarm of the crowd below. His son Philip was commissioned in 1825 to saw off the crockets from the spire, reducing the beauty of the spire but possibly saving it from further decay. There are also several accounts of the renovation of the steeplecock, first added in 1735 (and of its being used for target practice by the militia!)
Nottingham was changing its face dramatically by the 1820s, as a flood of textile workers and a huge expansion of industry led to tenements being built over the gardens and to gross overcrowding around the town centre. The Narrow Marsh and the Broad Marsh (the latter in St Peter’s parish) became some of the worst slums in Europe, and suffered badly in the cholera epidemics of 1832 and later. Special prayers were said in the church, and Robert White Almond was noted for his ministry to the poor and sick in his parish. The enclosure of the Meadows, which also soon developed into slums, did little to ease the congestion in the Broad Marsh; but St Peter’s did benefit from the sale of part of its glebe land in the Meadows to the Midland Railway, which for some years was a good source of income for the church.
The social profile of the parish moved sharply downwards: the middle classes were moving out and though many remained loyal to their old church (as is the case today, when the congregation comes from all over Nottingham) things were never the same again. The work of the church in the later 19th Century, and well into the 20th, was largely one of ministry to a poor inner-city parish, with some of the worst deprivation in Nottingham almost on the doorstep of the church. A new burial ground opened in the Broad Marsh (the churchyard had been closed to new graves in 1856, and parts of it had been given up for road-widening), a church hall was built there and a variety of social clubs and other missionary activity was under way by the end of the century. Nonetheless, the area immediately round the church was developing a public role, for example when the new Post Office, a handsome classical building, opened immediately south of the church; the churchyard was crowded with sightseers when the Mayor formally opened it in 1848.
The church itself also underwent changes. The south door was closed about 1820, extra pews were installed and the west door was re-opened. In the 1830s Sir Stephen Glynne visited it and was not impressed: he wrote of “the barbarous hand of what is called improvement” (probably a reference to Stretton’s work), and he did not care for the “tawdry Italian style” of the chancel fittings.
But it was the major rebuilding of the chancel and north transept in 1877, and the associated re-ordering of the nave, which gave us most of the church we see today. The new chancel at first opened straight from the nave, giving a much more spacious impression than before (the present rood screen was erected only in 1898), and the great tower arch could again be appreciated once the organ gallery had been removed from the west end. New pews replaced the Georgian box-pews, which were used as an elegant wainscoting round the walls.
Victorian stained glass, some of good quality, was inserted in several windows at this time, mostly as memorials to clergy or notable families, but the church has retained enough plain glass to keep it light. The windows designed by Sir Ninian Comper in the north aisle, inserted in the 1960s, continue this tradition of filling the church with light.
Further restoration was undertaken in the 1920s, by which time a sculptured reredos of St Peter’s escape from prison (by Albert Tofts, whose statue of Queen Victoria now stands on the Trent Embankment) had replaced the painting of the Agony in the Garden. It never seems to have been a great success, and since it partly obscured the east window the top was removed in 1950 and the whole reredos covered by hangings. The main thrust of this restoration was the preservation and replacement of old stonework, notably the creation of new tracery in Perpendicular style for the clerestory windows and for the west windows of the aisles. The old plaster was stripped from the interior walls of the nave and aisles, revealing traces of mediaeval wall painting (which unfortunately soon faded). At the same time much refacing was carried out on the external walls and the south wall, weakened by deep graves having been dug too close, was further strengthened. This work did not meet with the full approval of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings, which thought that “the building will become one with little external trace of the original or later workmanship”. While that is true, the parts not restored, such as the north clerestory and parts of the north wall, still show evidence of the poor quality of some of earlier work.
A change in the fortunes of St Peter’s occurred in 1933. As part of a re-structuring of parishes in the city, St Peter’s benefice (which had been vacant for two years pending decisions of the ecclesiastical authorities) was united with St James’ Standard Hill. This had been built in 1809 outside the three ancient parishes, by wealthy evangelicals living at the west end of Nottingham, and had developed as the parish church for The Park as the estate was built up. It was a large church and by the 1930s had quite a strong congregation: for a while the fate of St Peter’s hung in the balance. But in 1936 it was St James’ that was demolished (to build a nurses’ home for the General Hospital). The Park became a new residential part of St Peter’s parish: it still provides a good proportion of the congregation, though others come to St Peter’s from all over Nottingham and beyond. From the proceeds of the merger, a new choir vestry known as the St James’s Room was built in 1936, which provided a valuable small hall for church functions.
Two strong rectors strengthened the important place of St Peter’s in the city centre. Arnold Lee (rector 1937-48) did much to make the church a centre of rest and peace, comfort and support, during the Second World War - a role which it continues to have. Angus Inglis (rector 1948-79) was also devoted to his flock and established a strong tradition of worship, continuing the choral tradition which dated back to the 19th Century. But it was his efforts in beautifying the church - new windows, a new pulpit, new lighting, redecoration of the chancel and finally a new west door with fine ironwork - and above all his acumen in negotiating with the authorities and others through the 1960s, during the redevelopment of the Broad Marsh and of St Peter’s Square, which are Inglis’ best memorial. Through promoting two private acts of Parliament he established a basis for future development around the church. The Broad Marsh Centre replaced the slums and devoured the church hall and burial ground. St Peter’s Church Side, the street south of the churchyard, disappeared under the extension of Marks & Spencer’s store; a new piazza was created, framed by the church and by the blank wall of the store (but it never succeeded as a public space and became a neglected “vacant lot”). The arched gateway on to St Peter’s Square and the steps up to the west door were replaced by a high retaining wall (necessary to prevent the collapse of the tower, which has no deep foundations), which rather cut the church off from the life of the street below. But the financial endowment from these schemes has continued to support the church’s work ever since, and they have provided a firm basis for later developments.
After Angus Inglis there was a move in the church’s life to clearer social involvement with the disadvantaged of the city, with a more all-encompassing openness and links with local and international charities. Though there was no full-scale re-ordering, a dais was created at the east end of the nave, permitting the occasional use of a nave altar, and a new internal north porch was built, linked to a small room for private consultation and freeing space in the north aisle for circulation and a small library. A coffee room in the St James’s Room began to attract visitors to the church and from the street. The traditional worship and music remained, but in a new context; the Alternative Service Book 1980 was introduced without problems in 1981 (though Prayer Book services also continue); a woman deacon(ess) joined the staff in the 1980s and women priests now minister fully. In 1989 St Peter’s became the home for a new Commercial Chaplaincy to the city.
All this expansion meant that more space was needed for clergy and staff, and for social purposes (there had been no church hall since the Broad Marsh development of the 1960s). A church office was established in rented rooms on the second floor of a building in St Peter’s Church Walk, overlooking the church but difficult of access. In 1993 an approach from Marks & Spencer to the church, to permit further development of the store towards the church, led to new negotiations. The weight of these fell on Leslie Morley (rector 1985-99), who was still able to develop the church’s philosophy of acceptance which is now its hallmark. The results have been spectacularly successful.
Thanks to Marks & Spencer’s the church now has, in the St Peter’s Centre, an elegant building a few yards from the re-opened south door, on a 999-year lease. It contains a suite of offices and an attractive seminar room on the first floor, with a spacious expansion of the old coffee room on the ground floor, designed to retain a measure of ecclesiastical flavour in a modern setting: the decoration of the roof of the restaurant is derived from the painted chancel ceiling. The newly landscaped churchyard lost no ground in this operation but is more enclosed by the large windows of the store extension - which from inside give a splendid new perspective on the church - and by fine ironwork gates. New stone steps lead up from St Peter’s Square to the west door, restoring the link with the world below. The Centre backs on to the store but has its own character and, in its prominent position overlooking the Square, offers new opportunities for ministry.
In recent years pastoral reorganisation has touched St Peter’s. In 2002 the parish was merged with that of All Saints’, Raleigh Street. In 2004 St Peter’s and All Saints’ was joined to St Mary’s to create a single City Centre ministry (alongside St Nicholas’).
St Peter’s now faces a new millennium with a major new facility. The church itself is more accessible, physically and spiritually, than it has been for many years; but it still retains a strong sense of its history and of the continuity of its ministry over 900 years.