There is no such thing as an average Hertfordshire church, no two are alike in plan or elevation, but there are some stylistic quirks native to the county. One of the most recognisable features is the slim needle spire known as a Hertfordshire spike, a late mediaeval design that stayed in fashion long after the Reformation. Even the grand abbey at St.Albans used to boast of one on its central tower, and it became a successful export to surrounding counties. Early church plans were simple two celled boxes and only in Norman times do aisles and cruciform churches appear. Less than a fifth of the county’s churches have transepts, though more may have been swallowed up in later aisles, as not only grand churches had a cross-shaped plan. Towers across the county tend to be low and bulky, often without battlements: Aldenham and Ashwell exceptions that prove the rule. The most ornate stone porches are all in the east of the county, reflecting the influence of East Anglian glories.
Christian architecture in Hertfordshire began with the shrine built around the place of execution of England’s first home grown saint, the Roman legionary Alban, killed for protecting the priest Amphibalus in 209 A.D. Before the year 400 there was apparently a monastery of some sort on the site, though anything remaining is buried under the footprint of its Norman successor, which itself had replaced Saxon buildings. It is likely that St.Albans is one of the few sites in England which can feasibly boast of continuous Christianity since Roman times. The three parish churches of the town were founded by the abbot in 984, with the church of St. Michael’s being sited in the Roman forum. Several Saxon churches were important enough to be rebuilt in stone, though except for the robed Christ at Weston there is little striking left to see.
The conquering early Normans strove to cover the land with stone churches as a means of controlling the natives’ religion, and the swift construction of the abbey at St.Albans was repeated on a smaller scale right across the county, much of which was abbey owned. Some of the earliest like Bengeo were but a tiny nave with the apsed chancel the incomers preferred, and grew no bigger; several of the twelfth century were big enough to show typically Norman decoration. Hemel Hemstead was built with aisles and a clerestory, transepts and a straight ended chancel with the unusual expense of vaulting over it, the round arched nave arcades sitting on big round piers with scalloped capitals, the western entrance encrusted with zigzag, Adam and Eve with the serpent hiding on one of the capitals. Having originally carved with axes, the discovery of the hammer and chisel led to greater depth and finer detail, and foliage became one of the favourite themes of Transitional design. Several churches around Kimpton have an unusual mixture of capitals with Gothic stiffleaf alternating with Norman scallops and waterleaf. Gothic came early to the county at the abbey, and many churches extended their chancels in length at this time, but Norman details took a long time to die out. Lancets were gathered together under one arch, plate tracery later piercing the space between their heads. Deeply undercut mouldings appear on capitals, bases and arches, whilst stiffleaf foliage appears to be blown in the wind. Anstey and Royston have good examples of the style, whilst at Standon and Eastwick ornate Early English chancel arches sit in Victorian frames. By the end of the thirteenth century bar tracery evolved and Geometric tracery started to flow into the Decorated style, seen in the transepts at Wheathampstead and the south aisle at Ware. The sinuous lines of such work were not long popular in the county, and at Albury can be seen straightening out on the way to Perpendicular. This is the style of the county’s heyday, when money from cloth enabled rebuilding on a bigger scale. Many of Hertfordshire’s biggest parish churches were rebuilt with the money of merchants buying solace for their souls, Ashwell and Baldock in the fourteenth century and Hitchin in the fifteenth, with window tracery and mouldings both being simplified, suiting the down to earth character of this practical county. Being so close to London, the influence of the simplified court style used by Henry Yevele trickled down through masons like Thomas Wolvey who had worked at Westminster before spreading the style through west Hertfordshire churches. By the end of the fifteenth century, brick is making a comeback, used for stair turrets at Broxbourne and corbelling at Redbourn, and for the splendid Tudor display on the porch at Meesden.
During the Elizabethan period, chapels are built of brick, as at Stanstead Abbots and Wyddial, whilst Watford and Hatfield both have Classical arcades, rare in churches of any county. Several churches gained doorways with classical details, and many churches were brought up to date with new triple decker pulpits, wrought iron screens, box pews and galleries. Hunsdon and Little Hadham even went so far as to rebuild the church to a protestant T-plan, centred on the pulpit rather than the altar. Chapels and even chancels were rebuilt to take big Georgian family monuments, with Offley and St. Paul’s Walden getting unusually fashionable chancels in Gothick and Classical styles. The most complete rebuild was neo-Classical Ayot St. Lawrence, which was as much a garden ornament as a church. The gothic revival spread quickly locally with many large houses built in the style before it returned to ecclesiastical use. Many old churches were almost rebuilt to remove all trace of any Georgian work, especially those in towns such as Watford and Ware, and Butterfield rebuilt Chipping Barnet, more than doubling its size, and new churches were built in the expanding suburbs of towns. The wonder is that so much Georgian work survives so close to fashionably pious London, but few rogue Goths were let loose in quiet Hertfordshire apart from Pritchett at High Wych, whose spiky spire rises like a rocket next to his church and school of 1861. This was much disliked by Pevsner, but when he gets het up about some Victorian building, you know it must be worth a look. Woodyer’s Waterford became a shrine to Pre-Raphaelite craftsmanship, and the Catholic church by Bentley at Watford contains Arts and Crafts fittings. In the twentieth century the upper classes turned back to the calmer Georgian style for inspiration, though Lutyens’ Knebworth church seems almost post-Modern in its use of Inigo Jones style. Several modern churches have sprung up to service the spread of commuters from London, and a few such as Cuffley have some architectural pretentions, but all seem to miss the all inclusive depth of meaning of earlier churches, being designed for only a part of the people. Older parish churches have had to house a range of beliefs, the source of the broadness of the church at its best; every parishioner had rights in these buildings, the concrete expression of our common past. Formed of a mixture of piety and pride, containing the best of our craft and our arts, these old buildings expressed our lives and our deaths in a way that no modern church can hope to do, cut off from all that went before, and home only to believers when we live in a rational age.
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