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Relishing the Landmarks

By Paul Peter Jesep

Many historic structures grace the streets of this ancient city. There are two, in the opinion of this political historian, that merit special attention St. John's Church and the Warner House. Individuals associated with each edifice played key roles during critical periods of the city's development.

In many ways, St. John's Church in downtown Portsmouth, originally called Queen's Chapel, has the closest and most direct link to the city's past. The congregation traces its history over three centuries. In 1638, the Anglican community used a church where the court house now stands. In 1732, Queen's Chapel was built at the current site of St. John's Church. And in 1806, a fire destroyed the wooden structure where three Wentworth governors sought spiritual solace.

In 1717, John Wentworth became lieutenant governor of New Hampshire. Technically, the lieutenant governor answered directly to the Bay Colony's governor. But he would give nothing more than lip service to him while maintaining a direct and friendly relationship with the British king. As a result, New Hampshire, which consisted of not much more than a handful of Seacoast towns, received its own full governor 24 years later.

In 1741, Benning Wentworth, John's son, became governor. For a time, Benning rented the Warner House, built in 1718, on Daniel Street. And like his father, he attended services up the hill at Queen's Chapel. During his stay at the Warner House, some of the most important decisions about New Hampshire's future were made. Benning, like his father had done, plodded and strategized against the Bay Colony.

Massachusetts, anxious to annex New Hampshire, contested the border with its northern neighbor. Benning sent representatives to flatter and probably bribe members of the British Parliament. Towns were eventually named in New Hampshire after prominent members of Parliament. Eventually, Benning left the Warner House and moved into the mansion at Little Harbor.

John Wentworth II, nephew of Benning, like his uncle and grandfather before him, prayed at Queen's Chapel. He succeeded his uncle and continued to flatter members of Parliament. This last royal governor is, in addition to falling victim to the Revolution, remembered for founding Dartmouth College, among many other things.

Acclaimed 19th century writer, Thomas Bailey Aldrich wrote of the cemetery next to St. John's, so re-named in 1791, that "The place has about it an indescribable soothing atmosphere of respectability and comfort. Here rest the remains of the principal and loftiest in rank in their generation of the citizens of Portsmouth prior to the Revolution staunch, royalty-loving governors, counselors, and secretaries of the Province of New Hampshire, all snugly gathered under the motherly wing of the Church of England."

Aldrich adds, "It is almost impossible to walk anywhere without stepping on a governor. You grow haughty in spirit after a while, and scorn to tread in anything less than one of His Majesty's colonels or a secretary under the Crown. Here are the tombs of the Atkinsons, the Jaffreys, the Sherburnes, the Sheafes, the Marshes, the Mannings, the Gardners, and others of the quality ... You are moving in the very best society." Other prominent citizens who worshiped at Queen's Chapel, or St. John's, included George Washington, sailors under the command of John Paul Jones, and lawyer and congressman Daniel Webster.

Today, St. John's, along with the city's other religious communities, remain active, growing centers of spirituality. Here teachers, entrepreneurs, and community leaders, among many others, seek religion and guidance while assisting in the positive evolution of this ancient city by the sea.