The Church building
St Peter's is one of the three ancient medieval churches of Nottingham. How did it come to be where it is?
The church lay immediately outside the original Anglo-Saxon settlement. An ancient road, down Pepper Street and along the former St Peter's Church Side (now part of Marks & Spencer's store) is to the south. Past the west end of the churchyard ran a stream flowing along the west side of Wheelergate and Listergate, which made St Peter's Square into a marsh as late as 250 years ago. The other two sides, St Peter's Church Walk and St Peter's Gate, arose as back access ways to buildings on the principal streets, Bridlesmith Gate and the Poultry, whose inhabitants would need a church.
The first chapel
On the piece of land so defined, St Peter's church was built at some time after 1066, in the unsettled period following the Norman Conquest. It lay in the "New Borough" or the "Land of the Earl" - the Earl being William Peverel, the illegitimate son of William the Conqueror, who was then the Lord of Nottingham. St Peter's and St Nicholas' were the two churches serving the Norman newcomers in the French part of the town, living under their own law, which differed from that of their Saxon neighbours in the English part round St Mary's. Peverel presented all three churches to the monks of Lenton Priory at some time between 1103 and 1108; this is the first surviving mention of St Peter's by name. It is most likely that the building was a stone-built aisleless chapel, occupying the same space as the present nave, possibly with an apsidal chancel.
At the height of the wars between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda in 1140, disaster struck. The Empress's army took the town of Nottingham and burnt most of it to the ground, including all three churches. It is said that the floor of St Peter's ran with the blood of the citizens, butchered as they took sanctuary, having the church burnt over them. It is known that the town was burnt twice more in these violent times, in 1153 and 1174; probably rebuilding did not take place until some years later, when the monks of Lenton would have used their considerable resources to raise a more fitting building than the old St Peter's.
A new church
The new church was in the Early English style, as the carved stiff-leaf foliage of the capitals we can see in the south aisle bears witness. This means it must have been later than the rebuilding of St Mary's in 1175, since that shows an earlier style of architecture, with Transitional Norman detailing. Some vestiges of the original Norman fabric of St Peter's remain high up on the south side of the nave, close to the Rood loft. It is from this rebuilding in the late 12th century that we can claim that St Peter's is Nottingham's oldest building in continuous use. (St Mary's was completely rebuilt in Richard II's reign and the original St Nicholas' was destroyed in 1643.)
The roof was steeply pitched, and there was no clerestory. The outline of the roof can be seen on the east face of the tower if one looks up from inside the church. It was probably lead covered or perhaps thatched. The next event was the building of the magnificent Decorated tower and the crocketed spire. It is believed that it was completed in or about 1340, some eight years before the Black Death carried off half the population and more than half the clergy.
Aisles and chapels
One has to realise that at this time England was a devout Catholic country, and the interior of the church would look strange and unfamiliar to our Protestant eyes. As early as 1281 there was reference to St Mary's Chapel in the south aisle. The south arcade would have been occupied by wooden screens, carved and painted, to divide the chapel or chapels from the nave - which would be without pews. There will have been a great beam across the chancel arch carrying the Rood or Crucifixion scene, and probably a screen below it, like the present rood screen; the spiral staircase to the right of the screen, which was rediscovered during the alterations in 1879, must date from this early period and must have given access to the Rood for special services.
There was an All Saints Chapel in the north aisle by 1395, which proves that this aisle was built before this date, giving St Peter's two aisles in addition to the nave. The construction of the north aisle is puzzling at firSt Apparently the north arcade, with its battlemented columns, was built inside the wall of the nave as then existing. This can be seen as one stands in the nave and looks west at the Tower arch, when the asymmetrical result becomes apparent. Perhaps this unusual proceeding was to avoid taking the existing roof off; who can say? The spandrels or triangular pieces of wall between the arches of the north arcade were richly decorated with medieval paintings, which can still be very dimly discerned. These were for many generations covered with "Puritan" rendering and only came to light in 1929 when this plaster was removed.
A roof of oak
One of the glories of the church is the nave roof. Recent dating at the University of Nottingham reveals that its oak baulks were from trees cut down about 1468. We know also that Gedling stone was being supplied for work at the church in 1485 and it must have been at this time that the clerestories were erected over the existing nave arcades. The additional weight must have been too much for the southern columns, which settled and left the vertical, as can be seen plainly, particularly at the east end of the nave. The oak for the roof was the gift of the Strelley family. If one looks carefully at the springing of the main beams it can be seen that the Tudor Rose appears among the carving, proving that the work was done after the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.
We have little to tell us anything of the chancel in all this time; all we know is that there must have been four and possibly five chancels in the history of St Peter's. In the autumn of 1643 the Cavalier army from Newark gained entry into the town and made their way to the Castle. They were quickly repulsed and during their retreat through the town they took refuge in St Peter's. It is not quite clear what followed, but it is certain that the chancel was destroyed by bombardment, so it is to be concluded that there was a siege and that the Royalists had to be ejected by force. The four windows in the north aisle had their tracery completely renewed in the 1670s, so it is likely that cannon fire came from the direction of St Peter's Gate, due to the lie of the land. The Town Corporation gave two oak trees for the rebuilding of the destroyed chancel in 1670, and the third or fourth successive replacement must have been completed soon after.
St Peter's Church, c. 1742. Etching attributed to Thomas Sandby, published in Charles Deering, Nottinghamia Vetus et Nova (1751).
At the same time as the damage to St Peter's chancel, St Nicholas' Church was demolished by Colonel Hutchinson, the commander of the Castle's Parliamentary garrison, to prevent its tower being used as a vantage point for snipers. The dispossessed congregation moved to St Peter's to worship, and in 1647 a gallery was inserted into the north aisle to accommodate them. St Nicholas' was rebuilt in 1682, but the gallery remained in St Peter's until 1879. Evidence of the gallery's construction can still be seen in the damaged capitals of the north arcade.
The appearance of the church in the eighteenth century would have been very different from what we see today. In addition to the gallery in the north aisle there was another one at the west end of the nave. The first organ was situated in this gallery until 1879 when it was moved to its present position in the north transept, recently completed at that time. There was another gallery across the chancel arch. By 1880 all the galleries had gone. During the eighteenth century pews were installed in the church for the first time, and were replaced more than once. The pews we see today were installed in 1880; those they replaced now line the walls as wainscotting.
St Peter's Church, c. 1815. Etching by an unknown artist published in John Blackner, History of Nottingham (1815).
One of the last great building projects was the construction in 1877 of the present fine Victorian chancel and the north transept where the organ movement is now situated above the church kitchen. The closing of St James' Church on Standard Hill in 1933 and the transfer of the congregation to St Peter's gave rise to the building of the St. James' Room in 1936, adjoining the Rector's Vestry (which was itself an addition in 1815, the year of Waterloo).
The fine tower was built to house a peal of six bells in the fourteenth century, since when the number has increased steadily to its present total of twelve with a second "sharp" bell. At one time the ringing was done from the level of the gallery at the west end, and the holes for ropes to pass through the stone vaulting can still be seen. Since 1880 the ringing loft has been at its present level half way up the Tower.
A word about the churchyard. This was closed for burial in 1848 and a large slice on the north side was carved off to enable St Peter's Gate to be doubled in width. Burials inside the church ceased in the early nineteenth century, but the Abel Smith vault remains under the north aisle, though the access was closed many years ago. About twenty feet of the churchyard was sacrificed in 1965 at the west end to widen St Peter's Square, when the present wall, railing and steps were constructed. The tower is now supported by a triple-piled concrete curtain. At the same time, Marks & Spencer's store was extended northwards over St Peter's Church Side and this extension was covered by a piazza at the same level as the churchyard, but this secluded area became a wilderness and prone to vandalism. With the further extension of the store over the piazza and the construction of the St Peter's Centre in 1997-98 the churchyard has become a garden, overlooked (from inside the store) and with gates locked at night.
And so St Peter's remains in the heart of the City, a fitting shrine for the worship of God, for all to see.
Why not take one of the illustrated tours of the church?
Southwell DAC Church History Project web-site
Further technical historical information about St Peter's Church