Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Sunday 9 September 2018

A major Norman cruciform church: Hemel Hempstead, St Mary's, Herts

Hertfordshire isn't known for its medieval church spires. (1) St Mary's, Hemel Hempstead, as if to compensate for this, has a majestically assertive timber and lead spire, reaching almost 200' high. (2) It could be 13th century (though of course the lead will have been renewed periodically, most recently in 1984-7). It's slender and simple, unadorned except for four roundels (blanked off clock faces?) and the herringbone pattern of the lead (which points either up or down, depending on how you look at it). It adheres to one of the cardinal rules of spire design in that it's about the same height as the tower on which it stands, which creates a very satisfying sense of balance. (3)

It has to be said, though, that it also ignores one of the other cardinal rules, which is that the junction between the top of the tower and the bottom of the spire needs to be made aesthetically pleasing by one of four methods. Almost every other spire has either broaches,  a splayed foot, pinnacles or a parapet (or some combination of the four). (4) Hemel Hempstead has none of these, and consequently the transition between the tower and spire is jarring and clumsy; the four corners of the top of the tower look empty and stark. (5)

It also has to be said that this is a very ungenerous way of beginning a description of what is by any standards a major and rewarding church. Hemel Hempstead is nothing less than a large and complete Norman cruciform building, built c.1140-80, which would be remarkable anywhere. It mostly lacks the idiosyncratic figure carving of corbels and so on that makes many other Norman churches such happy hunting grounds, but otherwise it's mighty and mightily impressive. Only the fact that it stands on sloping ground below the High Street slightly diminishes its presence. Why Hemel Hempstead has such a large church is a mystery; even more mysterious is why and how the east end and tower were built during the civil war often known as 'the Anarchy' (1135-53). 

The central tower has, on each elevation, two big roundheaded soundholes with billet moulding (which looks like a length of cable with regular portions cut away), and capitals that appear from the ground to be curly foliage bunched into fists. Above them is a circular blind window with two rings of zigzag decoration, and flanking this are two niches. Fascinatingly, these niches are pointed. This means that they (presumably dating from c.1150) constitute one of the earliest appearances of pointed arches in England. (6) Above them the corbel table is, disappointingly, completely plain.

Most of the windows were replaced in the 14th and 15th centuries (and most of those in turn were restored in the 19th), but the clerestory windows are still essentially Norman. The other major external feature is the elaborate west doorway, with much lozenge decoration, though no doubt also much renewed over the years. (I failed to take close ups of the carving of the door, which I shall try to remedy the next time I'm in the area. However, the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland has a very thorough record of all the carvings in the church.)

The chief interest lies inside. The nave has two six bay later 12th century arcades, an imposing sight. The piers are plain and round; the arches at the west and east ends are decorated with a variety of zigzag. All the capitals are scalloped, though all have different variations, no two being quite the same. Some have little curly leaves, known as waterleaf, which in another few decades would have been elaborated into the well-known Early English stiffleaf motif. 

Even more imposing is the crossing. Some of the capitals are more elaborately carved than those in the nave, with a couple of foliate heads sprouting branches from their mouths. All in all, though, the carving isn't as inventive as you'd find in many other Norman churches, even some much smaller ones. Most of the northern arch is filled by an organ, which diminishes the overall effect. 

14th century piscina with characteristic ogee arch

Neo-Norman arch, with the arms of George III (1767)

The chancel is probably my favourite part of the church. Apart from most of the windows and piscina, added in the 14th and 15th centuries, it's all from the 1140s, and, most marvellous of all, vaulted, a rare feature. The two capitals on the east wall, on either side of the altar, are very different from the others; they look, with their relatively naturalistic foliage, to be of later date, though that seems unlikely. (The Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture, referred to above, doesn't illustrate them. Does this mean it doesn't regard them as being Romanesque?)

The two big windows on the south are 14th century additions, as their flowing tracery (renewed in the 19th century) reveals. They were filled with Victorian stained glass but were declared unsafe in 1979 and the stained glass replaced with clear. I'm generally fond of the work of the firm of Clayton and Bell, which made the glass, but in truth this removal was probably a good thing, as otherwise the chancel would have been dark and gloomy; it's now full of light. Unlike the rest of the church: I was there on a sunny August day, and all the lights had to be turned on to see anything.

In 1880 the chancel was restored by the prolific Victorian church architect G F Bodley (1827-1907), and he renewed the allegedly 13th century painted decoration of the chancel, as seen in the above photo. This survived for almost a hundred years, until 1979, when it was whitewashed over. A terrible shame, whether it was genuinely medieval or High Victorian. The pure white of the chancel now is perhaps sterile.

To the north of the chancel is a vaulted passageway of about the same date as the chancel, a surprising thing to find. Its purpose is obscure; perhaps it was a sacristry (similar to a vestry). It now serves simply as a corridor to a modern vestry.

The contents of the church need not detain us long; it's surprising that such a major church didn't acquire, for example, notable 17th and 18th century monuments. The best thing is a brass of c.1360 to Robert and Margaret Albyn, local landowners. They both have stylised faces; he is handsome and stoical, she has a faint smile. They both also have wasp waists, he even more so than her. There's the usual spacial ambiguity: are they lying down, as on a tomb, or standing? She rests her head on a tasselled pillow, implying she's prone, but their feet are resting on a lion and a dog respectively, which are seen from the side, not above, which suggests that the human figures are standing.


There are some so-so Victorian windows in the south aisle and elsewhere, but in the north aisle are grouped together, as if for mutual support, some real horrors from the early 20th century. English stained glass fell into such a decline during the period that it's a wonder that it wasn't terminal. I'll pick out just one, because although it's aesthetically shocking, the story behind it, sadly, is just heart-breaking. It was made in 1922 by the firm Heaton, Butler and Bayne, which worked from 1862 to 1953, and made some good windows in the 19th century. 

It shows two armoured soldiers being received by Christ. The faces are unbearably sentimental and idealised, the poses and imagery striving to evoke Henry V. It's all trying so hard to be profound, but achieves just a limp banality. Only the surreally coloured clouds in the background suggest the 20th century, or give any hint at the tragic story the window records, which is this: on the 24 October 1914, the third month of the First World War, Lieutenant Julian Missenden Smeathman of the Royal Engineers, aged 26, was killed in action at Ypres. On the very same day, his brother Lieutenant Cecil Smeathman of the 1st Leicestershire Regiment, aged 25, died of wounds at Bailleul. The two telegrams announcing their deaths took three days to reach Hemel, and the soldiers' parents received them on the 27 October, within half an hour of each other. 

This is a very grim note on which to end. Much more cheerfully, I was treated very hospitably when I visited the church, offered a cup of coffee and made most welcome. Unfortunately, at the moment the only time you'll have a chance of having the same experience is if you turn up there between 10 and 12 on a Saturday; it's closed to visitors at other times. As far as I can see this fact is not advertised anywhere on the church website, which is where most people would look for such information; it's announced only on a scrap of paper on the noticeboard outside the south door. But at least it is possible to get in, even if it means getting up early and a long drive; it's worth the effort.

(1) Apart from Hemel Hempstead the only other one that springs to mind is Wheathampstead (which was remodelled in the 19th century). But don't forget the numerous Hertfordshire spikes (that is, spirelets) dotted all around the county.

(2) This makes it one of the tallest English parish church timber and lead spires (there are taller stone ones). The famous twisted spire of Chesterfield, Derbyshire, is 230 feet high, which might make it the tallest, though it's difficult to find authoritative statistics. 

(3) The church guidebook claims that 'it is 130 feet high and reaches 200 feet to the gilded weather vane.' This of course would mean that the tower must be 70 feet high. However, although I've measured it only by the very crude method of using a ruler on a photograph, I find this very hard to believe. The spire is very evidently not nearly twice as tall as the tower.

(4) This is too big a subject to tackle here; I'll try to devote a whole post to the various kinds of spires.

(5) However, the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments: Hertfordshire (1910), mentions a parapet, so it seems that once one existed which has for some reason been removed. Aesthetically, this was a bad decision.

(6) The Gothic pointed arch was first used in St Denis, Paris, c.1135, and in the high vault of Durham cathedral at about the same time, though here pointed arches were purely structural rather than a stylistic choice. They weren't used in a major English building until the reconstruction of the choir of Canterbury cathedral started in 1175. Even though Hemel Hempstead's pointed arches are decorative, not functional, they're remarkably early. The church guidebook states that the church was consecrated in 1150 when the chancel and tower were complete, so that seems to date the arches fairly conclusively.

No comments:

Post a Comment