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

Tuesday 14 January 2020

Widford church, Herts: from Norman chevron to an Edwardian Tree of Jesse

There was a church in Widford (a few miles east of Ware) in the 12th century, and although reconstructions later in the Middle Ages removed most evidence of this it's possible to find some remains of the original building.

The south door is mostly Victorian, but the hinges predate most of the rest of the church. They're early 13th century, so they presumably are the result of an early upgrade.

Step through the south door into the nave and look back and up, and over the door is a small reset fragment of Norman chevron decoration; perhaps this was once part of the decoration around the original doorway.

In 1868 eight small plain pilasters (a couple of feet or so high) were found in the wall of the tower (I can't quite picture what they were doing there; it seems a very odd place to put or find such things). It's been speculated that they once comprised the legs of an altar table; it seems unlikely to me that there should have been such a grand piece of furniture here as this implies. Also found was a small Norman decorated cushion capital from c.1130-40 (Pevsner claims that it was one of several). All but one of the pilasters have since disappeared, but the remaining one, together with a capital, has been used to create a credence shelf* in the chancel. 

The early church, from which these fragments survive, must have been thought inadequate because it was completely rebuilt from about 1300 onwards. The result is largely the building seen today (which is open daily), a routine but attractive contribution to the village and the landscape . Its most prominent feature is the handsome recessed spire, rebuilt and encased in copper in 1888 to celebrate Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee (in 1887).

Architecturally Widford is unexceptional, but it does have some details that make it stand out and be worth going out of your way to see. It's one of relatively few Hertfordshire churches to retain fairly complete medieval murals;** to be honest they're of more antiquarian than aesthetic interest as they're badly faded, (they were restored, or more likely conserved, by Prof. Tristram in 1936), but nevertheless they're fascinating survivals from the hundreds that must once have existed, and their terracotta backgrounds are quite pleasing. The one above depicts a bishop raising his right hand in blessing.

This is the most interesting and complete one. Most authorities agree that it shows Christ at the Last Judgement, sitting on a rainbow and accompanied by a sword with which he will mete out justice. However, he's not brandishing the sword; rather, it seems to be stuck in his head (as martyrs who died by the sword are often depicted). Also, this explanation takes no account of the shape at the bottom. The notes in the church give an entirely different interpretation of the mural, that the figure is John the Baptist standing in or behind a font. It's true that the shape does look like a font, but this explanation takes no account of the sword or rainbow.

The last mural is this, of which I can make nothing. The notes in the church claim that some have discerned an image of Robert, Earl of Leicester and Mellent, who in 1118 gave the manor of Widford to the Cluniac monks who built the first church here, or the Annunciation. All I can say is that those who can see this have powers of observation (or perhaps imagination) that far outstrip mine.

We jump forward half a millennium to find the church's other notable features. The building was restored by George Edward Pritchett of Bishop's Stortford (1824-1912) in 1867-9. (He restored several Herts churches, such as Sawbridgeworth, as well as designing some new ones, notably the remarkable High Wych.) He did a tidy job, which included building the charming porch.

Just over a decade later, in 1881-3, Frances Charlotte Hadsley Gosselin painted the chancel ceiling. You can see a picture of her at her easel here, but it's difficult to find out much about her. Her family lived in Blakesware Manor, the local 'country house'. Her work in Widford is an excellent example of Victorian High Church decoration.

It's in two main sections. To the west are 21 panels; the central three are scenes from the New Testament (the one in the middle is I think Christ with John the Baptist), while the others are symbols of Christ's Passion within roundels.

To the east there are again three central panels, depicting the dove of the Holy Spirit, the Crucifixion within a mandorla of golden rays, and an Agnus Dei, all with much gold leaf; these are immediately above the altar. There are 72 smaller panels with a multiplicity of images, including several types of cross, St Veronica's veil with an imprint of Christ's face, and symbols of the Passion and the Evangelists. Gosselin wrote a book or pamphlet about the ceiling; you can buy a reprint of it here, but I've not read it. The ceiling is elaborate and impressive; it's easy to see why it took two or three years to complete.

It's probably fair to say that the east window, made in 1894 by the firm Burlison and Grylls, isn't a great work of art, (though some of the details aren't bad), but it's worth including here because of the story behind it. It commemorates the Puritan missionary John Eliot (c.1604 - 1690), who was born in Widford and emigrated to Boston, Massachusetts, in 1631, where he co-edited the Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in British North America. He dedicated his life to bringing Christianity to the native Americans, becoming known as 'the apostle of the Indians', and translated the Bible into the local Wampanoag language. When this was published in 1663 it became the first complete Bible to be published in the Western hemisphere.*** The window was paid for by his American descendants, but it's a shame that it's entirely conventional and verging on turgid, making no visual reference as far as I can see to Eliot, America or its inhabitants.

The south chancel window is much less conventional. It's from 1912 and is attributed to the firm Clayton and Bell, who made stained glass (and other ecclesiastical decorations, such as mosaics) from 1855 until as recently as 1993. At their best, and especially early in their career,  they created some outstanding windows, but some of their work is very run-of-the-mill stuff; thankfully, this window is nearer the better end of the scale than the other, despite its unpromising date. (Alfred Bell had died in 1895, and John Clayton was to die in 1913.)

It's a Tree of Jesse, a common medieval image showing the ancestry of Christ. There are superb ones to be seen, for example, in Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire, St Mary's Shrewsbury, Shropshire, and Llanrhaeadr, Clwyd. Hertfordshire has its own (much less spectacular) example in Barkway. The theme was taken up by Victorian designers; there's an excellent Arts and Crafts example by Christopher Whall in the county in Preston (from 1900). 

As far as I know, all the medieval examples show only Christ's male ancestors except Mary, and (although I'm a bit hesitant to say this as I've not seen them all) the same is true of the Victorian ones too. Widford's window shows men on the right: Abraham, Moses, Joshua, St George, David and St Alban. We can see at once that this isn't an attempt to show only Christ's predecessors, since George and Alban obviously lived after him. Clayton and Bell are making their own variation on the Tree of Jesse theme.

However, on the left the window radically depicts the almost 50% of Christ's ancestors who generally get overlooked, women: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Ruth, Esther and St Mary. I don't know if this was done on the initiative of the designer of the window or of a member of the Hammond family who commissioned it. 1912, when the window is dated, was just about the peak of the suffragette movement; women in prison had started going on hunger strike in 1909, and in 1913 Emily Davison died under the King's horse at the Derby. Is it possible that this window is a contribution to the cause?

For a while I played with a theory that the suffragette colours, green, white and purple, are encoded in the window. It's true that all the women and few of the men have some prominent white clothing, and that Ruth is dressed in green and white. But that's about as far as the idea can be taken. Moses and Abraham wear green, and there's no purple in the window that I can see. Oh well, it was exciting to think I'd uncovered a century-old secret message.

The four men at the top of the right light are very butch with their brandished swords; George is stately if wooden on his dead dragon while David displays the head of Goliath like a minor Edwardian aristocrat showing off a slaughtered pheasant. The most eye-catching figure however is Ruth, who holds her sheaf of barley and twists dynamically. 


Next to the church is a small private (but accessible) graveyard, once approached from the main churchyard through an Elizabethan or Jacobean archway (there's now a grille); it was known as the 'Manor gate'. It's said to be connected with a former priory, though this seems very doubtful. Nevertheless the brick of the wall and the arch provides a very pleasing foil to the flint and stone of the church. It's one more thing to add to the list of things that make a visit to Widford worthwhile.

* A credence shelf is where the bread and wine for the mass is placed before they're consecrated. The shelves are usually integral to a piscina, as can be seen in Anstey, Herts.

** Roger Roswell's Medieval Wall Paintings (2008) lists just nine (one of which is St Albans Abbey, which is of course not a parish church).

*** This is how Wikipedia phrases it. If the Western hemisphere lies west of the prime meridian then it includes most of London and much of France and Spain, plus the whole of Portugal and other countries, so I find it hard to believe that this claim is strictly true. Perhaps better to say that Eliot's Bible was the first published in the New World.

Also according to Wikipedia, Eliot has two more literary firsts: he wrote the first book on politics by an American, in the 1640s, and was the first author to have a book (the political book) banned by a North American government, in 1661. 

The church has another literary association, with Charles Lamb (1775-1834), who spent many happy childhood days at Blakesware, a large country house just outside Widford; his maternal grandmother, Mrs Feild [sic], was the housekeeper there. She is buried in the south west corner of the graveyard. Lamb wrote about his experiences in Blakesware in his Essays of Elia; however, I'm afraid I've not read them.

Interior looking east
Interior looking west

Font c.1420

A very lopsided piscina. I trust that the medieval mason who made this was thoroughly ashamed of himself

View from churchyard to the north, across the Ash valley
View from the cemetery across the road

14th century label stops on the tower

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