Parish Church of St john the Baptist

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Church History

The parish church of St. John the Baptist

The complete version of text from which this extract was taken and a guide to the church, can be found near the entrance in church.

How it started
The parish church of St John the Baptist is the only surviving part of an Augustinian priory, which dates from the latter half of the twelfth century. Between 1164 and 1179 a chapel for three canons was established and this was subsequently raised to a priory, initially for a community of only seven canons. It was set up on land granted by Eustace de Marc, Lord of the Master of Newsells and its site may have been influenced by the existence of a nearby wayside cross and the possible presence of a hermitage at the crossroads of Ermine Street and Icknield Way. The cross was either established or restored by a Lady Roisia (Crox Roisia) and the town's name was thus derived: Roisia's Tun or Royston.

The first documentary evidence for the priory is a Papal Bull of 1184 when Pope Lucius confirmed the original grant of land and a further grant by the founder's nephew, Ralph de Rochester. The dedication to St John the Baptist was also changed to include St Thomas of Canterbury who had been assassinated in 1170. The modest size of the foundation was not untypical of Augustinian settlements and probably varied little over the years. Ten canons signed the deed acknowledging the supremacy of the King in 1534, which was to lead to its dissolution two years later.

The Order of Augustinian Canons, known also as Austin or Black Canons (from the colour of their habit), emerged around the turn of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The Black Canons were essentially practical men who served the community by teaching, running hospitals and caring for the sick, as well as observing the daily round of prayer and worship. Over 200 houses were founded by the Order in England and Wales but many of them were, like Royston, of modest size.

A town is born
The Priory acquired an estate from grants of land, many quite small, which it farmed. This stretched from Therfield Heath in the West to Burloes in the East and Mill Road in the North to Newsells and Therfield in the South. The immediate priory lands were surrounded by a flint wall and comprise the present Priory Gardens and the private land attached to Priory House. There was a small pond which provided the canons with fresh fish and which survived until just before the Second World War. In 1189 Richard II granted the prior and the canons the right to hold a fair in the week of Pentecost as well as a weekly market every Wednesday and this still survives today. The temporary wooden market stalls were erected on land to the west of the priory but were gradually replaced by permanent buildings and thus the town of Royston was born.

The prior was granted considerable judicial powers although it seems likely that he found some difficulty in maintaining order in a town that straddled the county boundary (the boundary ran along what is now Baldock Street and Melbourn Street until the 1890s). There were disputes with the Knights Templar of Baldock over market rights and the town was burned down twice, in 1324 and 1405.

Royston Priory, as one of the lesser monasteries, was dissolved by the Act of Suppression in 1536 and work began almost immediately to tear the building down. However, the townspeople had come to look upon the church as their parish church and purchased the building for what is believed to have been the sum of £800 (approximately £80,000 in present day terms) and in 1540 an Act of Parliament created the new parish of Royston and the church was dedicated to St John the Baptist.

In its early years the parish was poor and provision for the vicar was inadequate, with the result that it was not always well served. By 1600 the church was described as 'utterly ruinated and fallen down'. This may have been an exaggeration but there is certainly evidence of major rebuilding around this time. Box pews were installed and their remains line the walls under the ringing chamber.

The eighteenth century appears to have been relatively uneventful in the history of the building but the nineteenth century saw major changes, with hardly a decade passing without work being carried out on the fabric. In 1823 the tower was given a coating of plaster, an organ and gallery were installed in the 1830s, restoration work (including rebuilding windows and arches of the south aisle) was undertaken in the 1850s and 1860s. Between 1872 and 1875 the church began to take on its present appearance. The tower was encased in flint and the porch and medieval west door removed. The seventeenth century pews were torn out and replaced by the present pews and the medieval font was ejected, not to return until 1927. Then in 1981 the first major addition since the Dissolution was undertaken with the building of the chancel and the extension of the south aisle. In the twentieth century a vestry was added at the west end in 1928, the nave roof was restored in 1951 following the discovery of Death Watch Beetle, a new organ was built in 1978, re-ordering of the chancel was carried out in the 1980s and the Victorian west doors were removed and replaced by a glazed entrance porch in 1991.

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