St Michael's Loft Museum
Last updated Saturday, 9 January, 2016
St Michael's Loft, built over the Lady Chapel in the 15th century, was the last part of the fabric of the church to be completed. It is a consecrated chapel dedicated to St Michael, but the original use for which it was intended is not really known. That remains one of the medieval mysteries of the Priory.
The altar, piscina and corbels at the eastern end of the chapel suggest its definite use as a chapel, and it may be that the original intention was that it should be used as a training chapel for the oblates and noviciates coming into the Augustinian Order. The Augustinians at Christchurch were, from the middle of the 12th century, canons regular who had to be ordained.
The Augustinians, although living a monastic life were not members of a closed order and over a period, acquired pastoral responsibilities towards the townspeople and permission was granted by Bishop Morley of Winchester to use the loft as a school. Between 1662 and 1869 it was used first as a grammar school, and then as a private school run by the Vicar.
From here boys perhaps watched the smugglers bringing their contraband in carts across the marshes. There is a lens in the wall of the stairway on the south side through which a light could be shone as a signal to the smugglers on the marshes.
In 1978 the loft was opened up as the Priory Museum. The exhibits include some remains from Saxon times, a large tithe map of 1842, and various prints, paintings, photographs and items from the schoolroom.
Among the items of medieval sculpture are: what is thought to be the tomb slab of Stephen de Stapelbrugge, a Knight Templar; a damaged piece, possibly of Pope Gregory the Great (St Gregory) celebrating mass at the north end of an altar; a piece showing the Adoration of the Infant Jesus by the Three Kings or Magi; and finally Christ crowning the Madonna. The latter is very rare in Britain. In the 13th century there was a growing movement to worship the Virgin Mary and this became a heresy.
The museum is well worth a visit. It is open for Easter, closes briefly and is open again from May to October inclusive. Even if you have visited the museum before it's worth coming back as the exhibits are contantly changing and being added to all the time.
The door to the Museum is located in the North Quire Aisle adjacent to the Chidiock Tomb Chest. The climb up the 75 stone steps is well worth the effort, not only for the artefacts but also for the spectacular views out of each window. The charge for Admission is 50p for an adult and 20p for students and children.
The Priory History Consultant is Mr John Arnold, and the Curator of the Museum is Mrs D Edlund, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
How did the idea originate to put a Museum in St Michael's Loft?
With assistance from Geoffrey Piper's daughter Carolyn, the story can now be told. Canon Basil Trevor-Morgan came to Christchurch Priory as Vicar in 1975. He noticed that there were many artefacts from the Church scattered around the body of the Church as well as the Crypts and knew that St. Michael’s Loft was an empty space. He decided there could be an opportunity to constructively use one for the other. Canon Trevor–Morgan stated Geoffrey Piper (a guide at the Priory at the time) was 'Heaven sent' when he stepped forward and offered to take over the project and much of the hard work. With the help of John Foster whom Canon Basil Trevor-Morgan said was 'another right hand man' they were instrumental in making the Museum the reality it is today.
Mr Piper and Mr Foster set about collecting artefacts with relevance to the history of the Priory. There were artefacts brought forward by local people for the Museum, as well as treasures found within the Church. Mr Piper and Mr Foster located some display cabinets to house the smaller items. There is no doubt it was a lot of hard work moving large pieces of stone from the crypts as well as the Church up the spiral stone steps to the loft. How they did it is a small miracle, as much of the stone pieces need 2 people to move them from the window ledges just for cleaning. The display cabinets plus the Jacobean altar must have been quite a project to move up the stairs on their own.
Their industrious labors have enabled these ancient pieces of hand carved stone and precious artefacts a safe home for future generations to enjoy. In 1978 'St. Michael’s Loft' was opened. Many visitors have since climbed the stairs to see this majestic room and the impressive artifacts that are on display there. Thank you to the three gentlemen listed above for the inspiration and determination to create the Museum.
Deb Edlund, Curator
St. Michael's Loft Museum