St Wystan’s parish church in Repton is a great survivor. Having seen the destruction of the monastery in the Viking raid of 873/4 and suffered serious damage itself, St Wystan’s recovered to be adopted by the Medieval Priory (founded for the Canons at Calke) as the church for the local community and outlasted its dissolution in 1538. It is still in fine operational fettle today.
Repton and St Wystan’s church
Repton’s main claim to fame is that in the mid-7th century this is where Christianity first came to the English Midlands. Repton was already a principal royal centre for Mercia. Penda was its pagan king. In 653 Peada, one of Penda’s sons, was set to marry the daughter of the king of Northumbria. He took Christian instruction and was baptised on Lindisfarne returning to Repton with his new wife and four missionary priests. They began a campaign of Christian conversion which Penda permitted, though remaining pagan until his death in 655.
About 660, Werburga, Penda’s granddaughter, founded a Benedictine monastery in Repton. It was a double house for men and women located in the present vicarage garden and churchyard where remains have been found of a two-roomed stone-built mausoleum and evidence of a building possibly the first church dating from around 675. The crypt of the present church, constructed in the early 700s, was probably originally a baptistery but converted to a mausoleum to accept the remains of King Aethalbald who died in 750. Further royal burials followed including King Wiglaf in 839. By then the crypt had assumed its current appearance with spiral pillars and vaulted stone ceiling.
In 849 Wiglaf’s grandson, Wystan was murdered by his cousin seeking to displace from him succeeding as king. Miracles occurred. A pillar of light shot up to heaven for thirty days and on each anniversary of Wystan’s death, human hair grew from the ground where he was killed. He was canonised and interred in the crypt. The resulting visits by pilgrims brought fame and wealth to the monastery. The church was extended and the existing stairways to the crypt were constructed.
In 873, the Viking Great Heathen Army arrived from Torksey near Lincoln and took Mercia. The monastery was destroyed, but it seems that with forewarning St Wystan’s remains were removed and survived. The church was ransacked and damaged by fire before the Vikings departed in early 874. The church was eventually restored to become the minster church for the Walecros Wapentake – an area similar to today’s South Derbyshire.
Following the Norman Conquest, the Repton property was granted to the Earls of Chester who built a motte and bailey castle northeast of the church. The Domesday Book of 1086 records Repton as having a church with two priests. The Earl’s wife and son gave Repton property to the Augustinian canons at Calke to build a Priory completed in 1254. This had its own large church just to the east of St. Wystan’s.
The Priory was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538 and Thomas Thacker of Heage gained the land and buildings. His son, Gilbert, demolished most of it to prevent Queen Mary from re-opening it. The Prior’s guest house remained and in 1557, the executors of Sir John Port acquired it to use as a free grammar school which evolved into the present Repton School. Schoolmasters and pupils attended services in St. Wystan’s until the School Chapel was built in the 1850s.
So, by the mid-1500s, with the dissolution of the monastery next door and its replacement by the School, the main structure of St. Wystan’s had assumed pretty much its present form – the chancel with a crypt underneath, nave, side aisles, tower and spire.
Nothing much was done for over 250 years. The existence of the crypt had been forgotten about. The ground level outside had risen to obscure the window openings and the steps down inside had been floored over. In 1779 a workman excavating chancel floor for an interment fell through to the crypt below. Its closing off for several hundred years meant that the crypt had survived in its original form; otherwise it might have been filled with 16th /17th-century tombs as in many other major churches.
Major alterations were done in 1792 which cleared out most of the surviving medieval furnishings and monuments including the original pews. It was thought that the established church should have sufficient seating for the entire adult community, so the nave and the aisles were packed with crude pine pews, and later in the 1840s galleries were constructed in the north and south aisles. The Religious Census of 1851 says that there was seating for 770 – more than double the current capacity.
The appearance of the interior as we see it today dates from the restoration of 1885-6 by Sir Arthur Blomfield who had recently finished work on Pears School next door. There were major repairs to the roof and stonework. The floor levels altered to where they are now. The current pews, choir stalls, font, pulpit and lectern all date from this time. The work cost £3,405 (about £450,000 today).
The first organ was installed in 1844 in the singing gallery that was at the west end across the tower arch. The organ we have now is the fifth one the church has had. It was installed in 1998 by Peter Collins, one of the leading English organ builders of the time.
The 200ft spire dating from the 15th century has needed regular major repairs, during the 20th century in 1929, 1960, 1987, and 2013. We are hopeful that the most recent work will last a bit longer!
Repair and conservation work on the crypt has been another recurrent theme and an important obligation given its importance as what has been described as “one of the most precious survivals of Anglo Saxon architecture in England.” The most recent work was a major conservation project undertaken in the mid-1990s.
Other changes have been concerned with the introduction of modern facilities – lighting, heating, toilets and so on. Electric lighting was first installed in 1921, and a heating system in 1927 from which we still have the radiators and pipework, though there have been several new boilers since then.
We estimate that over the last 25 years more than £600,000 has been spent on major repairs and improvements to St. Wystan’s. There will be a continuing need for significant expenditure to safeguard St. Wystan’s for the future – hence the recent formation of the Friends of Repton Parish Church to help the congregation with this vital duty.
Friends of Repton Parish Church
The Friends of Repton Parish Church seeks to support this by practical activity and direct fundraising as well as support in securing other funding and working towards projects that make the history and architectural heritage more accessible and meaningful to everyone. To become a Friend, please see the website (www.friendsofreptonparishchurch.co.uk/) or email email@example.com.