St John's is built on a hill top, its spire visible for miles around. Long before there was a church on the site, this vantage point was utilised for a hill fort, and parts of these early fortifications can still be traced. Historical accounts of the area refer to the 'Danbury Camp', and archaeology has established that Danbury was occupied at least as early as 500BC.
If there was originally a wooden, Saxon church on Danbury Hill no trace of it has been found. The oldest part of the existing building is the north aisle, thought to have been a chapel endowed by the St Clere family in 1290 "for the soul of William de St Clere". Signs of earlier inhabitants of the site were incorporated into the new building – the lower part of the north wall shows traces of Norman workmanship, which in turn includes fragments of Roman brick.
Some decades later a tower and spire were raised – but did not last long. Records show that they were destroyed in 1402, probably by a storm or a fire. (The congregation of the day thought the destruction was the work of the devil!) The present tower, spire and nave were rebuilt after this, and the vestry added, and therefore date from the 15th century. There may have been stained glass in the windows, but none survives from that time.
No further major work to the church is recorded until 1776 when the existing south aisle was rebuilt. It is not clear why this was done, but records of the time indicate that the church was "in great want of reparations". More than 100 years later, in 1847, a visiting architect wrote damningly of the decaying and dilapidated state of the interior of the church, while also recording that some restoration work was being undertaken.
A much larger restoration took place in 1866-67, resulting in the church being closed for more than a year. The well-known architect George Gilbert Scott was employed to undertake the work, which cost over £3000! Major work was undertaken, including replacing and remodelling the south aisle (again!), raising the floor of the chancel and removing an interior false roof. Most of the pews date from this period, being modelled on the few remaining 15th century pews at the back of the church. Records show that, during the extensive work, features of the older building which had been hidden were rediscovered and restored.
After Gilbert Scott had finished his work, the renovated and beautified Church of St John Baptist, Danbury, remained largely unchanged for many decades until May 1941, when a German bomb fell near the unlucky south wall. Extensive damage was caused to the south east corner of the church and the roof. The organ and east window were destroyed. It took until 1952 for permanent repairs to be carried out.
Early in the 21st century the church was officially designated a Grade 1 Listed building. Maintaining this major piece of Danbury's heritage is a constant challenge, to both the Christian community to which it is home and to the village. Much time and hard work has been dedicated to the necessary extensive fund-raising. Major projects in modern times have included repairs to the tower (1982), renewal of the church lighting (1996), replacement of the leaking roof and redecoration of the interior (2003-04), and refurbishment of the church organ (2005). The people of St Johns, and of the village of Danbury, will undoubtedly continue to work to meet future challenges in preserving their much-loved Parish Church.
In June 2000, after months of research, two members of St John's congregation published a guide book for the church. The book includes a 'tour' of the church building, and an account of the church's history.
A Guide and History: The Parish Church of St John the Baptist Danbury, by Mary Satre Kerwin and Glenda Griffin, is illustrated with historic photographs and contains an extensive bibliography.
The guide book is A4 size and has 60 pages. A few copies of the book are still available at the back of the church.