History & FriendsA Brief History of St Paul’s

The first St Paul’s

Some evidence exists for the founding of St Paul’s Church as a new minster by King Offa (d.AD796) to serve the inhabitants of his new fortified urban burgh. The church mentioned by name in the Domesday book was a house of secular canons in the eleventh century, ruled by an abbot in 971, and the church in which Oskytel, Archbishop of York was buried in 956, indicating that St Paul’s was an important minister church from at least the tenth century onwards.

The second and third St Paul’s

From the early ninth century the priests’ mission was frequently interrupted by the invasions of the heathen Danes which continued at intervals until the arrival of the Normans in 1066. The Danes caused sporadic damage wherever they plundered or settled. They used the river to move inland to Bedford on their way westwards into the Saxon kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex, and in 1009-10 destroyed the church in the fighting. The Anglo-Saxon chronicles report that ‘forever they burnt as they went, then they turned back to the ships with their booty’. The church was soon rebuilt, however, but the second building was destroyed, or seriously damaged, in 1153 in a civil war between King Stephen and Prince Henry (Matilda’s son, who became Henry II), after a siege of Bedford Castle, and again replaced. This third building was also to be the subject of destruction and rebuilding in the more famous siege of 1224, which we shall come to below.

By this time, the early middle ages, the areas of the five original parishes in Bedford had been established, with St Paul’s significantly the largest. The Domesday survey in 1087 records that by then a more formal system for the governing and financing of the church had been introduced, in the form of a college of six secular canons based at St Paul’s, probably in succession to the Anglo-Saxon monastery. This collegiate arrangement, quite common in the early medieval period, is similar to that of the Chapter of a Cathedral, with its governing body, which consists of its Canons, under the leadership of its Dean. Each of the Canons of St Paul’s had his own residence to the west of the church, with land nearby for his maintenance known as a prebend, hence the name Prebend Street.
 

Newnham Priory

The conduct of the clergy in Bedford does not seem to have been as exemplary as it ought to have been, however, and in 1164 one of their number, Philip de Broy, killed a man, and, whatever the circumstances were, it damaged the good name of the canons of St Paul’s. This situation was not uncommon in other towns at the time, and in order to avoid such incidents several other collegiate foundations had adopted the practice of housing such clerics together in priories following the Rule of St Augustine.

This was seen as a satisfactory solution for Bedford, and the countess of Bedford Castle, Rose de Beauchamp, and her son Simon, found a suitable site just outside the town. In 1165 at a service in St Paul’s, Simon confirmed that all the canons’ prebends and possessions be transferred to a spot about a mile downstream of Bedford, which they named ‘Newenham’ – or ‘new home’ - now known as Newnham. It was formally established in that year as the ‘Prior and Convent of St Paul.’ The Archdeacon, the senior Canon, transferred to it also the care of the little school for which he had been responsible at St Paul’s, and which moved out of the church to a new position, closer to the Priory, in what soon became known as School Lane, now Mill Street. The new monks continued all the parish activity at St Paul’s, and from the twelfth century until the sixteenth St Paul’s was in effect a parish church with the feel of an Augustinian priory, whose members followed the precepts of St Augustine of Hippo.

Simon de Beauchamp, who with his mother had brought about the birth of the priory with which the town could feel a close link, died about 1208. He is buried in a place of honour by the high altar of the church. Seven years later, Simon’s son William was among the barons who forced King John to grant their demands as formulated in the Great Charter, Magna Carta, in 1215. He was soon to be one of the victims of the King’s revenge, by losing the custody of the castle, which was taken over by one of John’s mercenaries, Falkes de Breauté. But de Breauté’s ruthlessness, cruelty and growing ambition led John’s son and successor, Henry III, to become concerned about de Breauté’s increasing influence, and in 1224 Henry ordered him to surrender the castle. Instead, he began to strengthen it.
 

Siege of Bedford Castle

According to a contemporary chronicler, Ralf de Cogeshall, de Breauté provided it with ‘towers and outer defences…and munitioned it with different kinds of engines; also he overturned to the foundations the very large church of St Paul and the church of St Cuthbert and built towers and walls and outer walls from the stones of the churches.’

The church and the castle were the twin centres and symbols of power, spiritual and secular, in Bedford as they were nationally in medieval England.

De Breauté’s defiance forced Henry’s hand – he had no alternative but to act against him by taking the castle back by force. And so began the most dramatic event in the history both of the church and the borough - the siege of the castle. De Breauté himself left the town before it started, leaving his brother William in charge. It lasted for six weeks in the summer of 1224, until August 14th, when the rebels surrendered and practically the whole of the garrison were hanged. The scene is dramatically portrayed by Matthew Paris in the margin of his account of the siege (in the Chronica Maiora). Paris was a young monk at St Albans Abbey at the time of the siege, so his drawing is an authentic record. The castle mound and circular keep are surmounted by the king’s banner, with its three leopards on a red ground, while outside the castle can be seen the fate of its defenders, hanging from their gallows made of tree trunks, with de Breauté’s banner flying forlornly above them.
 

The fourth St Paul’s

The whole episode was concluded by Henry’s mandate to the Sheriff of Bedfordshire that the materials that had been ‘borrowed’ should be ‘returned’ to the churches which had unwillingly contributed them, notably St Paul’s. And so the next church – the fourth – was rebuilt in the 1230s with re-cycled stones. However, this cannot be the present church, because today’s St Paul’s contains so little thirteenth century work. The major exception is the finely moulded Early English case of the south door.
 

The fifth St Paul’s

Most of the present church – the fifth, therefore - was built or rebuilt in the fifteenth century, in the Perpendicular style of architecture, a great period in church building, during which roofs were raised, clerestories added, windows enlarged and porches built. At St Paul’s we owe to this period the two porches, the south with its second storey; the north and south windows; the oak roofs; the parclose screen; and the priest’s two storey vestry. Most significant of all, however, is the Trinity chapel. The Chapel of the Holy and Undivided Trinity was built at a time of English prosperity, at the beginning of the fifteenth century, for two of the town’s merchant guilds (the Guild of the Holy and Indivisible Trinity and of Corpus Christi). The dating is quite firm, as there is a will dated 1414 describing the chapel as ‘newe made’. It was used until the Reformation in the 1540s as a chantry chapel where Masses were sung for the souls of deceased guild members, and for many years after this it was the place where the Archdeacon's Court held its sittings.

In the late fifteenth century, the Priory began to withdraw from officiating at the church. A guild priest took over the services in the Trinity chapel, and a parish priest, Father Alexander, was appointed in 1508. The Bishop of Lincoln supported this; ‘considering that the parish church is esteemed to be famous among other parish churches in Bedford’ he declared it ‘opportune for a perpetual vicarage to be erected and ordained in the church.’ The first Vicar of St Paul’s, John Berde, was appointed in 1528, and the direct link between church and priory which had existed for almost four centuries was broken.

Newnham Priory is dissolved

The Reformation led to sweeping changes. Newnham Priory was dissolved in 1541, and its lands and the income from them (the Great Tithes) were appropriated to the crown, leaving the church very poorly endowed. It suffered neglect until in 1697 Thomas Christie, Bedford’s MP, whose family had come into the possession of some of the old church lands, generously bequeathed his tithes to St Paul’s to improve the building and the living. The school run by the canons continued, because of the support of an earlier benefactor of the town and church, William Harpur. It moved from School Lane to a site opposite the west end of St Paul’s, on land which had belonged to the Trinity guild, also now dissolved. In 1566 the corporation received from Harpur the endowment of land in Holborn which enabled Bedford Grammar School to be established.
 

St Paul’s renewed

Despite the improvement in the church finances brought about by Christie’s bequest, the church fabric continued to be neglected until the 1830s, when a lengthy programme of restoration and enlargement began. The engraving by Inigo Barlow, dated 1787, (pictured) is among the earliest images of the church we have. It is seen from outside what is now the town hall, and although the scale is extraordinary with its tiny houses surrounding the church, it appears that the artist was intending it to be an accurate record, including as it does features of the town arms - the castle and eagle - and a plan of the church. This shows a simple arrangement with a nave and a south aisle of equal width, two porches, a priest’s vestry (sacristy) and two chancels, the northern one described as ‘The Great Chancel’ and the southern one (the Trinity Chapel) as ‘The Little Chancel’.

Barlow’s engraving shows that the original tracery in the windows had been removed and replaced by vertical stone mullions – an indication of the deterioration which the church had suffered over the centuries. Indeed it was with the renewal of the windows in 1832 that the long process of restoration began. It would include as a major theme the enlargement of the building as well as the preservation and enhancement of its beauty