The Fifteenth Century
The 15th century saw the most vigorous period of development and expansion in the history of St Peter & St Paul, driven by the wealth brought into Northleach by the wool trade.
As was the custom of the time, the chancel was the responsibility of the clergy while the nave was the responsibility of the town. The comparative meanness of the clergy meant that the main changes during the period were in the body of the church, with the chancel left to come a poor second.
Developments were dominated by the rebuilding of the nave in the mid-to-late 15th century, funded primarily by the will of John Fortey; this forms the heart of the building that we so love today. Striking aspects include the tall piers with their concave mouldings, the shallow linking arches, and the wonderful clerestory above.
The South Porch
The clerestory windows are large, and include the unusual nine-light ‘Cotswold Window’ which carries the clerestory over the chancel arch. Together, they flood the church with light.
The Nave lit by John Fortey’s Clerestory, including the nine-light Cotswold Window
The new roof for the nave is nearly flat, as was the fashion at the time. The timbers of the roof are original, having been installed in c. 1495. Despite the inspiring improvements made to the nave, the Abbey of Gloucester evidently saw no need to alter the roof of the chancel. Its steeply pitched 14th century roof has been visible, poking up uncomfortably outside the east-facing Cotswold Window, ever since.
Although its roof was left unchanged, a number of improvements were made to the chancel during the 15th century, most notably enlarging the windows, including the east window. Other changes during the period included the installation of sedilia (recessed stone seats) in the south wall of the chancel, and the creation of an unusual ‘double squint’ which allowed the priest celebrating Mass in the Lady Chapel to see the priest at the High Altar.
The Lady Chapel, also known as the Bicknell Chapel
The Lady Chapel, also known as the Bicknell Chapel, replaces an earlier construction and is unusual in two respects. Firstly, thanks to an inscription on one of the corbels, we can date it quite precisely to 1489. Secondly, it is one of the few 15th century improvements which appears not to have been paid for by wool – or at least not directly. It was built by William Bicknell and his wife Margaret who are likely to have been the ‘Lords of the Manor’ at the time (records show that the manor was held on a lease by a Thomas Bicknell just ten years later in 1499).
The north and south aisles were constructed in the mid-to-late 15th century, as was the North Chapel. On the east wall of the south aisle, behind the altar now dedicated to St Peter, is a reredos. This is unusual in retaining a significant amount of colour, a remnant of the wall paintings that would have covered the church before the Protestant Reformation.
Lastly, but by no means least, the South Porch was built around 1500. Described by many as the finest in England, the two-storied porch boasts pinnacles, battlements and original statues.
The statues, although badly weathered, are remarkable for being there at all – most such imagery was removed during the Reformation. Immediately above the archway is a Virgin and Child; above that is a statue which represents the Trinity, although only the Father survives intact. Two unoccupied niches to either side may have originally held statues of St Peter and St Paul.
The interior has a fine lierne vaulted ceiling with a variety of carvings. Projecting from the walls are a number of carved corbels which probably would have supported statues.
One of the corbels is said to depict a cat playing a fiddle to three rats.
The upper floor of the porch, known as a parvise, would originally have provided living accommodation for the priest.
Lit by four windows with oaken lattices, the room has a fireplace containing an oven and surmounted by a mantel, with stone candle brackets either side. The flue for the fireplace is cunningly concealed in one of the pinnacles.