'Norton' - meaning 'north settlement' (that is, a place north of somewhere else) - is one of the commonest English place-names. There are at least a dozen places called simply Norton, plus many others which use the name as part of a longer one, such as Norton Disney in Lincolnshire, and, in Somerset, Midsomer Norton (which sounds magical, as if the dahlias and sunflowers are always in bloom and there are light, balmy evenings all the year round, but in fact is dismal, being brooded over by slag heaps).
Hertfordshire's Norton is one of the three ancient settlements subsumed by Letchworth Garden City (the others are Willian and, of course, Letchworth). It retains something of a village feel, with plenty of surviving pre-1903 (when the Garden City was founded) buildings. I particularly like Croft Lane, which combines genuine older buildings with some superb Arts and Crafts-influenced early 20th century houses.
As is the case in very many places in England and elsewhere, the church is by some distance the oldest building (though it's been much altered over the centuries). As is also the case in many places, the church has Norman origins. The chancel arch dates from c.1100; its antiquity and simplicity endow it with a certain presence. It's extremely plain: the arch isn't even chamfered, let alone moulded, and the imposts (the horizontal mouldings at the springing of the arch) are as rudimentary as can be. Curiously, they have a little channel apparently cut into them about half way along; was this perhaps to accommodate a chancel screen?
A word of praise here for the spartan but attractive light fittings, something churches so often get wrong.
A fairly unusual feature is the opening over the chancel arch. It's even plainer than the arch, having no imposts, and round-headed; could it be Norman too? Being high up it's of course hard to inspect and thus the age of its masonry is difficult to assess; from the ground it looks distinctly less ancient than the chancel arch. Neither Pevsner/Bettley, nor the statutory listing, nor the Victoria County History, nor the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments even mention its existence, which implies that they think it's obviously modern and of no interest. If it's not a window that was once above a much lower early Norman chancel roof, however, what is its purpose, and when was it inserted?
However, after a handful of emails back and forth he wrote to say that he'd found an illuminating photograph dating from c.1895 in the Historic England archive, reproduced above. It shows that at this date there was no opening (there's a framed royal coat of arms over the chancel arch, and beneath that a scroll painted on the plaster). The obvious conclusion to jump to from this evidence is that the opening dates from the restoration of the church in 1908-9, by Walter Millard.*
But that doesn't really make much sense. Bettley suggests, and I concur, that it's extremely unlikely that Millard would have introduced such a feature. Why would he have done? It serves no function, and would simply have added to the expense of the restoration. A much better explanation is that an opening over the chancel arch existed at some earlier date (either as an original, Norman, feature, or one added later). For some unknown reason, it was subsequently blocked, and in 1908 Millard found it and decided to open it up.
This adds to our knowledge of the church's story, but doesn't answer our initial questions. We still don't know when or why the opening was first made. And now we also don't know when and why it was blocked, and why Millard made it look Norman - did he do so because he could tell that it was originally from that period, or, if it was post-Norman, simply because he thought a round arch would be a better stylistic fit with the existing chancel arch?
There's one more puzzle. You'd have thought that the discovery and reinstatement of an ancient window (if that's what it was) would have aroused interest in and comment from local antiquarians. However, no sign of this has turned up yet. There's no contemporary reference to Norton church on the contents page of the East Herts Archaeological Society Transactions, and the transactions of the St Albans & Hertfordshire Architectural & Archaeological Society (their website is down as I write this) don't seem to be available for that period. Perhaps something will be found. (At the moment access to the Herts County Record Office is awkward because of the virus.)
For what it's worth, my guess - and I admit this is pure speculation, albeit plausible speculation - is that the original Norman chancel was much lower than the nave, and that there was a window over the chancel arch to provide more light in the nave. Perhaps it was smaller than the opening made by Millard. In 1814 the current chancel was built on a bigger scale, which rendered the window functionless, so it was blocked. A little less than a century later it was found by Millard, who thought that, although doing so would serve no practical function, reinstating it would add antiquarian interest to the church.
The rest of the church, except the chancel and south porch, is an early 15th century rebuilding of the original Norman structure, and has in turn been much restored, particularly by Millard. The chancel and south porch were added, as stated above, in 1814, not a date at which much church building was going on in most of the country. Why the work was carried out in Norton at this particular time I don't know. I suspect that the tracery of the chancel windows was renewed in the 19th century, or by Millard, as it's much too archaeologically accurate (that is, too much like genuine 15th century windows) to have been built in Georgian times. The outer doorway of the porch, presumably of this date, combines Gothic and classical elements, and is rather handsome.
* Walter Millard (1854-1936) worked as an assistant to William Burgess and G E Street. He had his own practice in London from 1883. From about 1914 he lived in Hitchin. He also restored St Mary's, Letchworth, and designed the war memorial in Hitchin.
** The Old Style calendar assumes that the year begins on March 25th, whereas the New Style, in use today, of course makes the illogical assumption that the year begins on January 1st. The monument states that the first Katherine died 3rd March 1648, and the second Katherine on 12th March 1652; I've 'translated' these dates to 1649 and 1653 respectively in the New Style.
The New Style wasn't officially adopted in Britain until 1752, when the Gregorian calendar finally succeeded the Julian. (I say 'finally' because much of Europe had been using it since 1582; not for the last time Britain was reluctant to toe what it saw as the European (and in this case Roman Catholic) line, despite the impracticality of standing aloof.) However, the New Style was widely used for at least a century before the official changeover. Samuel Pepys, for example, writing his diary in the 1660s evidently accepted that 1st January was the beginning of the year.
*** 'Open for private prayer' is not, I'm sure, intended to imply that visitors who enter for other purposes, such as wanting to sit quietly, or to look around, are unwanted. Certainly the lady who was in attendance when I visited was very welcoming. But the wording might put some potential visitors off. Surely a simple 'open' is sufficient.
|Three tiny but tubby ponies grazing in a field opposite the church|