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

Thursday 24 December 2020

Abbots Langley church, Herts: a quarter of a million pounds monument

I write this as Covid seems to be upping its game, condemning us to a bleak early winter, which will perhaps extend to equally bleak mid and late winters and, who knows, a bleak spring. I find some comfort and escape in looking through photos I took and notes I made when life was more innocent, and in writing about churches that will, I trust, remain whatever else changes. Maybe you will find some comfort and escape in reading about them.

According to Matthew Paris (a monk in 13th century St Albans, a writer and artist and one of the most fascinating people of his period) Nicholas Breakspear, the only English pope, was born in Abbots Langley. On the other hand, Paris also said that Breakspear's father was called Robert when in fact his name was Richard, so we can't assume he's always correct. Nevertheless, Abbots Langley is proud to boast of Breakspear, who was born sometime in the early 12th century, as the local-boy-who-done-good. In fact, he left England soon after being ordained as a priest, probably aged about 20, and spent most of the rest of his life in France, Spain, Scandinavia and Rome. But he seems to have remembered his home county with affection as he granted numerous privileges to St Albans Abbey. 

His papacy, which began with his election, as Adrian IV, in December 1154, came at a difficult time, as shown by the undignified spat that arose between him and Frederick Barbarossa, the newly elected Holy Roman Emperor, the following June. Frederick was keen to have his position cemented by being crowned by the Pope, but at the same time was determined to show that he was the one with the true power. When the two first met Frederick refused to ceremonially lead Breakspear's horse and help him dismount. Breakspear retaliated by refusing the Emperor the kiss of peace. I like to imagine them, arms tightly crossed and lips pouting, stubbornly saying 'Shan't' to all entreaties from their advisers. 

It took more than a week for things to be patched up enough for the coronation to go ahead. The Pope must have smugly thought that he'd got the upper hand as the Emperor did lead his horse, but when it came down to it Frederick casually abandoned any allegiance he may have explicitly or implicitly promised. He failed to come to Breakspear's rescue when King William of Sicily threatened the Papal States from the south, and, as at the time many of the citizens of Rome were hostile to the papacy, the pope found himself a virtual exile in Tivoli, some miles outside the city.

However, altogether the only English pope is considered to have done a reasonably good job in trying circumstances; at least he managed to keep the Church more or less united. After his death in 1159 the papacy was riven with internecine squabbling and for 20 years there were rival popes jockeying for power. 

Unfortunately there's nothing in Abbots Langley church from Breakspear's lifetime. The first and oldest things the visitor sees on entering are the two bay late Norman nave arcades, which probably date from thirty or forty years later, the reign of Richard I (1089-99), which was in its own way just as fractious as Breakspear's.* The turbulent times don't seem to have prevented church building taking place in the county, for example the nave of Hemel Hempstead, which was probably constructed just before Abbot Langley's, or that of Kimpton, just after.

The arches are handsomely decorated with billet moulding (like a cable which has had numerous short sections chopped out of it) and chevrons (a sequence of shark's-teeth triangles), which point away from the wall rather than, as is more common, into the middle of the arch. 

Most of the piers have scalloped capitals, though the one above is surely more properly called a trumpet capital as the cones terminate in circles, not semi-circles, giving the impression that a heavenly fanfare is being blasted across the church.

However, the south pier has a very different capital. Bettley/Pevsner, in The Buildings of England, say 'the pier was renewed in the early 13th century with a shallow stiff-leaf capital'. The pier looks identical to that on the north; why renew it with one just the same? It would have been an awful lot of work for very little result. Wouldn't even just renewing the capital have been a fairly major engineering project? The Victoria County History says 'The capital of the middle pillar of this arcade is carved with good foliage without a trace of romanesque feeling; it may have been reworked, but in view of the date of the arcade the carving may be contemporary and an early example' (i.e. of stiff-leaf). We can only speculate, of course, but let's leave open the possibility that this capital is, as the VCH suggests, not a later replacement but a precursor of the Early English style that was dominant in the 13th century.**

In the early 13th century the lower stage of the tower was built, and the tower arch is acutely pointed in the then very new Gothic manner. It has two quite freely-carved stiff-leaf capitals. Early Early [sic] English foliage carvings tend to be very unnaturalistic in their rigid poses, but these (like, possibly, the capital of the south nave pier) seem to be signs of things to come.

The next major building phase in the early 14th century resulted in the south chapel, which is best appreciated from the outside. The display of flint and limestone chequerwork is probably the best in the county, and is a very welcome improvement on the numerous plain flint churches that dominate the whole of the east of England. 

The two south windows each have a spherical triangle containing a sexfoil in their tracery (yet another forward thinking motif), while the east window is a clear development of Early English intersecting tracery. All three lights have a small arch at the level of the springing, and the mullions divide into two as they branch and spread, crossing over near the top, creating six shapes in the tracery. Each shape is foliated. It's a simple design, nothing like as complex as many of the windows created during the lamentably short-lived Decorated period, but it has poise.*** Compare it to the bog-standard-boring 15th century Perpendicular window in the flanking chancel. I suppose they called it progress and said you had to keep up with the times.

At the west end of the south aisle there's a monument to the first Lord Raymond, Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench and Baron of Abbots Langley, who died in 1733.**** In 1729 he presided over the case of Thomas Woolston, who was tried for blasphemy, having written books maintaining that the Bible must be interpreted allegorically rather than literally (for example, he questioned the literal resurrection of Christ). He was found guilty, and Raymond sentenced him to one year's imprisonment and heavy fines. He couldn't pay them and thus had to stay in prison, where he died in January 1733. Less than two months later Raymond followed him; maybe Raymond was able to pompously lecture Woolston about how wrong he was when they met in a literal Heaven, or maybe not. (In England and Wales blasphemy laws were in force until 2008; they had been largely quiescent for many decades before then, though the editor of the magazine Gay News was given a suspended prison sentence for the crime as late as 1976.)

Raymond leans on a pile of books and holds the Magna Carta. He seems very self-satisfied, holding out his left hand to a putto, deferentially crouched, who offers him a coronet. He doesn't deign to look at the poor young servant, but turns his head away in what looks like a deliberate snub. I suppose anyone with a wig as splendid as his is likely to have his self-importance go to his head.

His wife sits next to and behind him, looking down on him and holding a portrait medallion of their son. Her expression is inscrutable. What is she thinking as she surveys him?

The monument (which allegedly cost £1000, the equivalent of a quarter of a million today, an extraordinary sum if true*****) is prominently signed by Westby Gill (1678-1745), who was an architect and master carpenter. However, he only designed it; the hard work of actually carving it was down to Henry Cheere (1703-81), who was knighted in 1760 and created a baronet in 1766. Nevertheless, he signs it rather modestly. Raymond could have learned a thing or two from him. 

Raymond's son, the second (and last) Lord Raymond, who died in 1756, is commemorated in this monument by Peter Scheemakers (1691-1781), a Fleming who became one of the most prominent sculptors in Britain in the 18th century. On the left a figure representing Plenty, with a fruit-filled cornucopia in her lap, decorously dabs her eyes with her hanky, while on the right Hope refuses to give in to such girly emotionalism and grasps her anchor steadfastly.

My favourite monument is this one, to Dame Anne Raymond (d.1715), the first Lord Raymond's mother. She sits mournfully, reading a book held in her right hand; her left hand has the fingers broken off but she appears to be making an enigmatic gesture by raising her hand, palm first, to the viewer as if to say 'Keep back'. Her square-toed shoes project out of the 'frame' of the composition. 

She sits within a Corinthian aedicule, entirely typical of its period in its cool classicism, but beneath her are three naively conceived and carved wickerwork cribs, representing three of her grandchildren 'Who all dyed within few weeks after theyr Births'. They could come from a monument a century older. 

In the north aisle is this unusual and eye-catching monument to Ambrose George Armstrong, who died in 1894, aged 11. It was designed by his grieving father, Thomas, who was the Director of Art at the Department of Science and Art (which became the Royal College of Art in 1896) in South Kensington. The inscription at the bottom means 'May the angels lead him into Paradise.' In the middle is a lunette with a painted alabaster portrait head of young Ambrose. The two panels are painted plaster; on the left the young Christ disputing with the Doctors in the Temple, and on the right the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, both subjects suitable for a child. 

At the top are the figures of St Ambrose, pen in hand, and St George, who's in the act of killing the dragon. They were carved by Ruby Levick (1871-1940) who was a student at the time, and are apparently portraits of Ambrose's godfathers, which is very touching even though the figures are really too small to distinguish their facial features. The Corinthian pilasters and quantities of gilding make this a very imposing object.

15th century stained glass showing St Lawrence with a gridiron, the instrument of his martyrdom

The east window of the south chapel (with the Decorated tracery discussed above) contains 1911 stained glass by James Powell and Sons. It's a Benedicite, in which all of Creation praises God. There are nine scenes within the lush swirling monochrome foliage, including a starlit, icicle-threatened snowy landscape and church in the top left, a valley thick with corn centre middle, an angel sending fertile rain to the pasture top right, and a manically staring Moses with his eyes boring mercilessly into the viewer's bottom right. Altogether it's a magnificent Edwardian Arts and Crafty work.

The two other windows in the south chapel are also worth a look. This one is quite early, c.1842, by Robert Morrow (he signs it with his initials). He's an obscure figure, not featuring in Martin Harrison's Victorian Stained Glass. This window depicts scenes from the life of Christ; it's very effective from a distance with its blues and reds, though close up the drawing is rather crude.

This one is by Hardman and Co, 1870, depicting (I think) the Parable of the Talents and the Good Samaritan. By the mid-Victorian period the production of stained glass had reached a high level of competence and confidence, which can be seen when comparing this window with Morrow's slightly tentative work.

In the nave there are ten terrific 15th century corbels (though for some reason I have photographs of only six of them). The Statutory Listing says they've been renewed, but I can't see any reason to think that; they look untouched to me. Many of them stick their tongues out and grin, one mouth-puller among them. They're an amusing and intriguing bit of folk art, an entertaining contrast to the solemn, sometimes grandiose, monuments over which they preside.

The first time I visited Abbots Langley church, in 1994, there was a large and aggressively worded notice in the porch forbidding photography. I'm glad to say that on my most recent visit that was gone, and that the church was open and welcoming.

* Witness for example the rebellion in 1196 in London led by William Fitz Osbert (also known as William with the long beard), one of the first significant popular uprisings in English history. This was aimed at the wealthy (though not the monarchy) and allegedly attracted a following of 52,000. Predictably it didn't end well; he was torn apart by chains attached to horses, alongside nine accomplices. Many saw him as a martyr; half a century later Matthew Paris, with whom this account began, regarded him as a hero.

** I've just spent half an hour trying to find a date for the first use of stiff-leaf, without success. I have books about Saxon, Norman, Decorated and Perpendicular architecture, but nothing on Early English (is there one?), which is where I'd be most likely to find the answer. Eric Fernie's The Architecture of Norman England (Oxford, 2000) has a paragraph about how 'changing tastes from the 1150s to the 1180s' affected capitals, which mentions stiff-leaf, but the only example given is of Glastonbury Abbey in the early 13th century. He doesn't state or imply that this is the earliest example. It's entirely possible that no one knows when and where stiff-leaf was first used.

*** I've tried to explicate some of the complexities of Dec tracery here.

**** The inscription says 1732, but this is because Britain was still using the old Julian calendar in which the year begins on March 25th, and he died on March 18th. See the footnote here.

***** Surely it can't be true that this monument cost £1000. Another monument  by Cheere, that to Captain Philip de Sausmarez who died in 1747, cost £270.  (It's in Westminster Abbey; you can see it here.) Admittedly it's smaller and less elaborate than the Raymond monument, having no large figures, only two putti and a portrait medallion, though the pedestal and background are fancier. Even so, it's hard to believe that the monument in Abbots Langley cost almost four times as much as the one in the Abbey. Another monument in the Abbey, that to Admiral Vernon who died in 1757 (see here), cost £650, and it's roughly comparable in size and complexity to Raymond's.  I think we must conclude that the figure of £1000 is a pious exaggeration, similar to the claim sometimes made about the Saunders monument in Flamstead, Herts.


  1. Such a delightful Christmas treat to find this post here today. Such an interesting church, made all the more so by your very knowledgable comments. I'll definitely com back to peruse it further.

    Have you come across a book by a stone-mason called Alex Woodcock titled "King of Dust" (Little Toller Books)? His focus is on Romanesque sculpture in the south-west of England, and he also spent many years working on restoration of stone-work in Exeter Cathedral. I'm waiting for my copy to arrive from England.

  2. Happy Christmas, and glad you enjoyed my article. (I think some would substitute for' knowledgeable' 'good at looking things up and full of dubious opinions'.) No, that book has passed me by, but I've just ordered a copy. Do you know 'The Stonemason, a History of Building Britain' by Andrew Ziminski? In about 1980 I visited Wells cathedral with an older friend, who didn't recognise normal social boundaries, which could be very embarrassing but also got you into places usually inaccessible. At the time the restoration of the west front was in progress, and Ray (my friend) barged into the masons' yard that had been set up next to the cathedral (with me following hesitantly behind) and went up to someone working on carving a large piece of stone. The conversation didn't get off to a particularly great start. Ray: 'Hello, I'm interested in the work on the facade.' Genuine Medieval Mason: 'The what?' But after that he warmed to us and spent the best part of an hour showing us around, an unforgettable experience.

  3. Good: I'm glad you hadn't come across 'King of Dust'.
    And thankyou for the recommendation of 'The Stonenmason'. I'm trying to give up buying books but my library acquires next to nothing about England (or Britain).

    I like the story of you visit to Wells with your friend Ray.