The subject of seating in the naves of medieval churches is surprisingly contentious; sharp words are exchanged on the subject on internet forums concerned with such things. (And if you really want to stir up a hornets' nest, try going on a Facebook page devoted to appreciating church architecture and suggest that Victorian pews should be thrown out of some churches.) Debate arises because we can't be sure exactly what the seating arrangements were in the Middle Ages. Did the congregation mostly stand? Certainly seats (in the form of pews or benches) made before the 15th century are only infrequently found in churches today; is this because they've been replaced over the centuries, or because there were never many of them in the first place? Documentary sources aren't much help, but the likelihood is that seats for the congregation were rare before this time.
What is clear is that by the 15th century seats were becoming more expected and common, as is shown by the existence of benches of that date in many churches (including some in Hertfordshire - see Wallington, for example). With the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century sermons were preached more often than before, and lasted longer. Box pews evolved to accommodate this development.
Box pews enclose a seat or seats in a 'box' of four wooden walls (ranging from about waist high to head height), with a door. They perhaps originated in the Netherlands, and reached England by the 1580s. Their purpose is to provide some comfort for the congregation so they can concentrate more easily on the sermons. The walls keep out the draughts (most important before heating was introduced to naves in the 19th century), but also provide privacy for the occupants. If the walls are high enough, no one (except perhaps the priest on his elevated seat beneath the pulpit) can see what is going on inside, so what was intended to be an aid to paying attention became a convenient way of potentially disguising various forms of inattention. In addition, box pews make it easier for families to sit together, and for seats to be reserved for and even owned by individuals or families.
The 17th and 18th centuries were the heyday of box pews; Jacobean and Carolean ones are often magnificent, while they tended to be more utilitarian in the Georgian era. But fashions and attitudes to religion change, and in the Victorian period they were generally thought unsuitable for services. The highly influential Ecclesiological Society promoted a return to medieval styles of buildings, fittings and ritual; box pews had no place in this. The members of the congregation shouldn't be able to hide themselves away, but should be in plain view. In addition, society was slowly becoming more egalitarian; the class differences that could be accentuated by box pews were by no means swept away, but it was thought that they shouldn't be quite so obvious and rigid. What's more, heating began to be introduced at about this time too, so the initial justification for box pews wasn't quite so pressing.
Consequently the great majority of churches summarily ejected their box pews, a great loss, and replaced them with the ubiquitous pitch pine pews that fill most naves nowadays (some would say an equally great loss). A small number of churches escaped the destruction, and most counties have a few that retain theirs;* Stanstead Abbots** is Hertfordshire's sole complete example (though Aspenden has a few). Its fittings remain intact because no one had got around to replacing them before 1880, when a new and more conveniently sited parish church, St Andrew, was built. The old church (St James) became a chapel of ease, which meant that it remained consecrated but was used for services only intermittently. By 1975 the Church decided it was no longer needed, and it was closed. Fortunately, in 1977 the Churches Conservation Trust (then the Redundant Churches Fund) decided that it was of sufficient importance to be worth preserving.
So Stanstead Abbots is the best place in the county to imagine what attending church was like from the later 16th century right through to the earlier 19th. The box pews are clustered around the pulpit (the sermon being the central focus of the services), which is positioned on the south wall of the nave. Those in the nave are of deal (a generic name for easily-sawn softwood), plainly panelled and roughly chest high, except in the eastern half where they're a little taller. They're thought to date from the early 18th century. Those in the north aisle are similar but made of more expensive oak, and are probably 17th century. (Some of these have little peepholes cut in them, the exact purpose of which is unknown; maybe they were intended to encourage servants to behave by making them feel watched.) It's worth sitting in one of the pews with the door shut behind you to begin to conjure up some sense of what services were like during the age of long-winded sermons, when the Church of England was determinedly lacking in 'enthusiasm' and going to church was seen by many as at least as much a social duty as an opportunity to worship God. Attendance was the done thing, but displays of piety were generally held to be faintly embarrassing; box pews were just the right furniture to suit these circumstances.
The rather chunky, probably late 16th century pulpit is a three-decker, that is, it has three seats at different levels. At the bottom (at ground level in this case) is a seat for the clerk, who would have lead the congregation's responses. Above this is a seat for the presiding priest, and at the top is the pulpit itself, to which the priest would ascend to preach. Originally there was a tester, a sounding board to help project his voice to the listeners, but rather bizarrely at some time this was removed and incorporated into the west door. The 17th century altar table (and rails) with its curly legs, commandment boards and royal coat of arms (dated 1694) over the altar, faded mural texts, and heraldic glass (dated 1573), together with the pews and pulpit, comprise a fortuitously preserved ensemble.
However, the origins of the church go back a lot further. The north wall of the nave has some Roman bricks arranged herringbone-fashion, which is usually an indication of 11th century origins.
The nave and chancel are 13th century (though the windows were enlarged in the later Middle Ages, and restored in the 19th century), while the tower, crown-post roof and loveable wooden porch (with cusped bargeboards) are 15th century.
The church has another surprise up its surplice. The north chapel was added in 1577, as a datestone over the east window attests. Not much church building was done under Elizabeth (though rather more than is commonly known), so this is unusual. The style is Gothic Survival, and could easily have been built a century (or even two) earlier. The windows are Perpendicular, the four bay arcade entirely typical of the same period (though the eastern bay is different from the others and is apparently later; how this is possible I don't understand). The chapel was built by Edward Baeshe (1506/7-1587), an important naval administrator and politician; he was 'Generalle Surveyor of the Victuals for the Navye Royall and Marine Affayres within the Realmes of England and Ireland' under four monarchs from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I. His job was a vital one, as a navy sails on its stomach. He lived in Stanstead Bury (which still stands north of the church, though much altered) and Elizabeth stayed with him there at least three times. He married Jane, the daughter of Sir Ralph Sadler of Standon, who had the misfortune of being declared illegitimate in 1545 when her mother's first husband, previously assumed to be dead, suddenly turned up. It took an Act of Parliament in 1546 to declare her legitimate.
His monument is in the chapel, a standard design but a good example of its kind.
|Brass to a knight, c.1490|
|At his feet what appears to be a dog looking up at him adoringly|
|Brass to a married couple, c.1540|
|Brass to William Saxaye, d.1581|
Another monument typical of its period but beautifully executed. It commemorates Sir Edmund Feilde, d.1719, and his son Thomas, who died aged 18 just a month after his father. The inscription is written on fictive drapery, a common conceit of the time.
There's an instructive sequence of similar monuments from the first half of the 19th century, variations on the theme of funeral urns with (in the earliest) naval and military paraphernalia and a sphinx, or mourning women, the latter at least verging on the sentimental.
|Robert Jocelyn, d.1806, and his son John, d.1801. The former had captained HMS Lenox at the Siege of Manila in 1762 (during the Seven Years War), and the latter died as an 18 year old lieutenant at the Battle of Alexandria (hence the sphinx) during the Napoleonic Wars|
|Philip Booth, d.1818|
|Henry Thomas Baucutt Mash (there's a fine name), d.1825|
|Mary Booth, d.1848|
The church did have some improvements made by the Victorians before the building of St Andrew, the new parish church, in 1880-1, in the form of stained glass, and in particular the east window of 1867. It's attributed to the firm Clayton and Bell, which had been founded in 1855 (and was in business until 1993), so this is an early work of theirs. This is a poor quality photo, but this window is typical of their style at this period, with blocks of colour - I especially like the rich reds - creating almost abstract patterns.
The 17th and 18th centuries made the largest contributions to the pleasures of visiting Stanstead Abbots, but in the north chapel we find one of the most beautiful artefacts to be found in any church in the county, and it dates from 2013. It's a stained glass window by Thomas Denny. (There's another one by him in Wigginton.)
It's inspired by two passages from the Bible, and Denny says it is intended to 'give a sense of the mingling of sacred and day to day life, of the ordinary being imbued with the presence of God.' However, the window contains no definitely Christian imagery. The two lights depict two different scenes, though they're linked by the motif of two people (on the left) or a person (on the right) looking through a tall narrow gap to a distant landscape, and by the use of much blue (with hints of purple). Together they evoke a marvellous sense of a numinous Beyond.
The left hand light is based on Psalm 37:3-7, which begins 'Trust in the Lord, and do good; so shalt thou dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed.' A woman and a man stand beneath two oak trees, looking at each other; they seem to be about to join hands, and, we assume, walk into the golden arboreal landscape. The trees (on the branches of which at least one little bird perches) are predominantly blue, and rays of blue light shaft in from the right, so clearly we are not looking at something that's meant to be photographically realistic.
The panel on the right is inspired by Psalm 84:1-2, 'How amiable are thy tabernacles, O Lord of Hosts! My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God.' (Vestiges of this text can be made out painted on the chapel wall.) The scene seems to be a view from a library. A figure - a man? - stands with his back to us, looking towards distant mountains, though it's deliberately unclear whether the vista is through a 'real' window (with curtains blowing aside) or a vision. At the top pages with writing on are caught in the wind, and there's a shape that might be a cross.
As in all Denny's windows, the glass has been not only painted but also treated by other methods, such as acid etching and flashing (sandwiching two layers of differently coloured glass, and exposing parts of one of them through the other). The result is that his windows have texture as well as colour and shape, which is one reason why they're so richly appealing. This particular window is a marvellous 21st century addition to the medieval and Early Modern features of the church.
Open the door of a pew, go in, close the door and sit down. It's November 1722; evensong. The church is gloomy, lit only by too few candles and oil lamps, and cold, but you and your family are dressed in warm clothes, and have brought cushions and blankets; it was a fag carrying them from the village a mile away, but worth the effort. The brand new box pews are a boon, though; you can make yourselves quite snug and private. You're hardly aware of your fellow worshippers: you can't see them at all, and apart from their responses in the prayers and singing of the hymns you can only hear the odd cough and occasional whisper. The only direction to look, apart from within the confines of the four walls of the pew, is up. You'd have thought that looking heavenwards would encourage pious thoughts, but somehow gazing at the roof rarely has that effect.
The Reverend Robert Brittain is in the pulpit, fifteen minutes into his peroration and just beginning to get into his stride. You do your best to follow his drift, and an occasional phrase catches your ear and interest, but your attention keeps wandering. Sometimes you try to force yourself to listen, but your mind doesn't seem to want to obey. Your children are fidgeting and whispering; you shush them more than once, but you know that it's not going to work and before long relent and let the younger ones produce their simple wooden toys from their pockets to keep them amused. It's going to last for a while yet, so you pull the blanket a little more up over your legs, wriggle to make yourself as comfortable as possible, and hunker down.
The Churches Conservation Trust website states that the church is open every afternoon; however, this appears to be untrue. It is routinely open only on Sunday afternoons in the summer, though it would probably be possible to arrange visits at other times.
* I highly recommend Churches the Victorians Forgot, by Mark Chatfeld (1989), copies of which may be found for a song on Abebooks.
** The spelling is flexible. Chauncy (1700) calls it Stansted Abbot, that is, with no 'a', one 't' and no 's'. Sources more than about half a century old tend to call it Stanstead Abbots; contemporary sources (including almost all websites) call it Stanstead Abbotts. Looking for strict logic in such matters is a mug's game; however, since it is named after the abbots of Waltham Abbey, who once owned the place, I'm going to stick to one 't' and award it an 'a' for effort.