Last updated Thursday, 11 April, 2013
In 1094 Ranulf Flambard, a chief minister of King William II (Rufus), began the building of a Norman church on the site of the old Saxon Priory. A paragraph in the Christchurch Cartulary (1312-1372) states: 'Flambard (the Norman founder of the present church) destroyed the primitive church of that place and nine others that had been standing below the cemetery'. The nine others probably referred to nine individual monastic cells grouped around the main building.
In 1099 Flambard was appointed Bishop of Durham, but work continued under his successors in the office of Dean of Thuinam Priory, and by about 1150 it would have comprised a basic Norman cruciform church namely a nave (up to Triforium level) with its north and south aisles; probably a central tower; and an apsidal-ended quire extending eastwards from the crossing at the nave to about as far as the sanctuary steps in the present quire.
During this period of the 12th century it is probable that the legend of the Miraculous Beam originated, a legend which changed the name of the town from the Saxon Thuinam to the present day Christchurch.
In 1150 Baldwin de Redvers, Lord of the Manor and Earl of Devon, in conjunction with his son and heir Richard de Redvers and influenced by Henri de Blois, Bishop of Winchester and brother of King Stephen dissolved the secular Priory and reconstituted it as a Priory of Canons Regular (i.e. ordained) of the Order of St Augustine of Hippo (North Africa) and by charter (a facsimile of which is on display in the Nave) granted it the freehold of the land on which it was built. Reginald was elected the first Prior.
Building work continued and in the 13th century the nave aisles were vaulted and the clerestory built in the Early English style. The North Porch, notable for its unusually large size was commenced and the Montacute Chapels in Early English style replaced the Norman apse on the east side of the North Transept.
By 1350 the Nave roof had been lifted to its present height over the clerestory. A spire may have been built on the central Norman tower at this time or a little later.
Towards the end of the 14th century the Lady Chapel was started in early Perpendicular Gothic style. It was completed and vaulted early in the 15th century, its pendant vault being, probably, the first of its kind in England. St Michael's Loft, once the schoolroom and now the church museum, was built over the Lady Chapel in the same century.
It is reputed that about 1415 the central Norman tower and spire either collapsed and fell on the Norman quire or was taken down as part of a planned programme of reconstruction. In any event the old Norman quire was rebuilt in the Perpendicular Gothic style in the 15th century, the opportunity being taken to extend it further to the eastwards to join up with the ambulatory, and the newly finished Lady Chapel. The result of the work, completed early in the 16th century, is the Great Quire of today with its pendant and lantern vaulted ceiling.
A new tower in the Perpendicular style was erected at the west end of the church in 1470/80 to replace the old central tower.
The large Salisbury Chantry and the Draper Chantry were built in the ornate Tudor Renaissance style early in the 16th century (1529), being the last major works undertaken in the church before the dissolution of the Priory in 1539 brought an end to any further development. In general appearance the church was then much as it appears today. The conventual monastic buildings of the Priory which had been sited, as was customary, on the sunny sheltered south side of the church were pulled down soon after the dissolution.