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

Saturday 12 December 2020

Oxhey chapel: Gothic Survival and witch hunts amidst the housing estates


In the 60s, when I was a child (I officially became a teenager in the last few months of that decade), my maternal grandparents lived in Carpenders Park (a suburb of Watford). My family used to visit them often, and I loved their little bungalow in The Mead. Sometimes I went to stay with them, and their impeccably well-maintained back garden, my grandfather's darling, where I spent hours playing seemed like a magic kingdom. My grandfather was a compositor, and he was fond of saying that he could read upside down and back to front as well as he could read the right way round. I thought I had on my shelves his copy of a printers' and compositors' handbook, but I've just had a look and sadly I can't find it.

Anyway, naturally I don't expect anyone who might read these words to have the slightest interest in my childhood. I mention it because half a mile to the west of my grandparents' old home, across the railway track and hence in Oxhey rather than Carpenders Park, is Oxhey Chapel. This is a very surprising, and very delightful, thing to find in the middle of a post-war housing estate in what feels like an outer London suburb, a few minutes walk from a station on the Euston to Watford line. The interior of the chapel in particular is one of the most unexpected marvels of the county.

The chapel is built in a very attractive chequerwork of redbrick and knapped flint, with limestone dressings and (probably Victorian) brick buttresses. It dates from 1612 (when Oxhey was of course a settlement in its own right), and was built by Sir James Altham as an estate chapel for Oxhey Place (which burnt down in 1955). The chapel's history is as chequered as its walls. During the Civil War (1642-51, now more accurately referred to as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms) Parliamentary troops used the chapel as a store and barracks, and stripped the lead from the roof to make musket balls.* In 1688 Sir John Bucknall, the new owner of Oxhey Place, installed the splendid Carolean reredos, using woodwork from the house, and presumably patched up the building generally. 

In 1704 the chapel was given a hipped and tiled roof along with a bellcote, as seen in the photo above (which probably dates from c.1897). In 1712 more work took place, the main result of which was that the reredos was painted white (to brighten the interior). It seems shocking and outrageous to us now that such a notable piece of ecclesiastical furnishing should have been treated so casually. But I suppose it's the equivalent of us today being blase about furniture from the 1990s.

From about 1799 no services were held in the chapel and it was instead used for storage. In 1852 Thomas Grimston Bucknall Estcourt (I assume a descendant of Sir John Bucknall) restored the chapel as a church for use of the inhabitants of Oxhey. He stripped the paint from the reredos - good for him, as at the time a taste and respect for 17th century furnishings wasn't automatic, as I hope it is today. He also removed the old pulpit and pews. 

In 1866 however the estate was sold and then broken up into lots, and in 1877 a large part of it was bought by Thomas Blackwell (of Crosse and Blackwell, the food company), and in 1897 either he or his son (also Thomas) decided to return the building to its original use as an estate chapel. He employed J.E.K. Cutts for the job, and much of its current appearance is thanks to him. He unblocked the north windows and built the narthex, though the door - which I assume includes the doorway - was retained from the original west front. He also installed most of the seating, set against the north and south walls as in college chapels, and the west. It's made of teak, blends perfectly with the original furnishings, and makes a major contribution to the exquisite interior as it exists today. (Some of Cutts' photographs of his work can be seen on the website of St Matthew's church.)

Bu this wasn't the end of the mixed fortunes of the building. I don't know how long the Blackwells continued to live in Oxhey Place or use the chapel. After the First World War it became harder for families to maintain large estates, religious observance gradually declined, and even if families still worshipped they no longer expected to do so in their own private chapels. By the 1960s the chapel was verging on dereliction. A crisis was reached in the terrible winter of 62/3 when the roof partly collapsed. It would have been so easy for the building to have crumbled quietly away, hardly noticed. But fortunately an appeal raised £6,000 (the equivalent of £126,000 today) and it was rescued. A new roof** was constructed to weatherproof the building in 1963; the west and east gables also date from this time, as does the very dinky ogee hexagonal*** cupola bellcote. This changed the outward appearance of the chapel (at least as it had been since 1704), but the 'new' roof is entirely in keeping with the old building.

After this restoration the church still wasn't out of the woods (except literally: the black and white photo above shows it with trees as close neighbours, which were mostly felled as the area filled up with housing after the war). It must have been hard for such a small church to 'pay its way', especially with the numbers attending church being in steady decline since the war. Perhaps inevitably, it was declared redundant in 1977. Very fortunately it was considered to be of sufficient historical and architectural value to be vested in the Churches Conservation Trust (then called the Redundant Churches Fund), and its future is now secure (as long as the Trust can maintain its funding, of course - join now!).

The earlier 17th century isn't a period during which many churches were built (there were presumably enough medieval churches to meet the needs of nearly all congregations). However, there were a few, and most of them were built in a style that's now called Gothic Survival. (See appendix.) Externally, it would be very easy to assume the chapel was built a century or more earlier than 1612. The most obvious suggestion that Oxhey dates from before the Reformation is the windows.

St Paul's Walden, S chapel, early 16th cen

The early 16th century south chapel of St Paul's Walden church, Herts, has several windows consisting of three lights grouped together under a square hoodmould. The mullions ascend to meet the lintel, and the arches are depressed (that is, flattened). There is no cusping (triangles with two concave sides, like rose thorns, very frequently seen in Gothic window tracery). This is an entirely standard form found in late Perpendicular (or perhaps it would be better to call them Tudor) buildings. (Many windows made in the last half of the 15th century follow this pattern too, except that they usually have cusps.)
Oxhey chapel, 1612

Now compare these windows with those at Oxhey. Except for there being a group of four rather than three lights, a trivial difference, they're exactly the same. The builders of Oxhey, despite there being almost no living tradition of church building or of the Gothic style when they were working, must have adopted this style as it was the only one they knew, (or the only one they thought suitable). Gothic survived more than half a century of disuse, but was resurrected at Oxhey and some other places during the early 17th century.

Seen from the outside, the chapel is all but indistinguishable from a building dating from a century or more earlier. Fascinatingly, seen from the inside this isn't true at all. Apart from the windows, the only hint of Gothic to be seen internally is hidden up in the roof. In the spandrels between the tie-beams and the arched braces are some decorative mullion-like struts, which have cusps like those often found in medieval windows. So there are no cusps in the windows, where we might expect to find them, but there are cusps in the roof, where we wouldn't. Maybe the folk memory of cusps was so strong that they just had to find expression somewhere, even though they had to sneak in almost out of sight.

The 1688 reredos dominates the chapel (imagine it once covered in whitewash). It is very imposingly, swaggeringly baroque with its broken pediment, abundant fruit carving and twin twisted columns, and puts the Lord's Prayer, Ten Commandments and Creed unignorably front and centre. It's flanked by little swagged cartouches, and topped by an urn from which issue gilded flames. Just underneath this is a grimacing grotesque head. 

The communion rail, with mini versions of the reredos's spiral columns, and the black and white tiles are from the same period. 

Another contemporary feature is the font and its cover (though it was brought into the church from elsewhere in the 19th century). This is, quite simply, superb. It must be one of the county's best.**** It's made of oak; admire the intricate, stylised foliage (including oak leaves) with which it's carved.

This chair, which looks roughly contemporary with the other furniture, is another probably relatively recent import. The back features a very lively dog which wears a collar and has a feather- or leaf-like covering on its back. From its mouth vines sprout, which exuberantly intertwine with an oak which shoots from its - ahem - other end. At the top there's what looks like tracery from a Gothic window on its side. It's possible that all or some of this is a later pastiche, but even so it's accomplished and great fun.

This big chair (or small settle) has Tudor linenfold panelling on its back below Gothic window-style patterns. It's allegedly from St Albans cathedral. However, the tracery is quite unlike the stripped-down Perpendicular seen in the actual chapel windows and those of other Tudor building the chapel imitates. The tracery resembles that found in windows made in c.1300; (the 'light' on the left is the only one that would make a real Decorated window, however). Two of the four columns are twisted, a feature rare in England before the 17th century. I'm far from an expert on furniture, but I suggest with some degree of confidence that this piece must be much later, probably Victorian. Which doesn't make it any less enjoyable, of course. 

The doorcase, with its Corinthian pilasters, survives from the original building, but the pews and the return stalls on the west wall are as I've said from Cutts' 1897 restoration. They complement the original woodwork perfectly without outshining it.

There are two notable monuments. This one is to John Askell Bucknall, 'an Ornament to his Friends, and the Protector of his Neighbours', who died in 1796, aged 78, and whose family lived in Oxhey Place from the late 17th until the mid 19th centuries. A woman caresses a funeral urn, accompanied by a cypress tree, symbolic of mourning.

More interesting is that to Sir James Altham, who died in1616 (and his third wife, died 1638). In itself it's just a standard medium-sized Jacobean wall monument of no particular note, but it's significant partly because it was he who built the chapel in the first place, and more so because of his history. 

He was probably born in the 1550s, attended Trinity College, Cambridge, and entered Gray's Inn (to qualify as a barrister) in 1575. In 1603 he was made a sergeant-at-law (a judge), and in 1607 he was knighted and appointed one of the barons of the Exchequer. In 1611 he was one of the judges involved in the case of 'two blasphemous heretics' who were executed by burning. (These were among the last, or perhaps the very last, executions for blasphemy in England, though the death penalty for this crime was not abolished until 1676.)

The following year, 1612 (the same year, remember, when the chapel was built) he was one of the main judges who presided over the trial of the so-called Pendle (in Lancashire) witches. This is the most infamous witch trial in English history, with the highest death count. Ten people were executed (by hanging) for witchcraft, all but two of them women. (Another woman died in prison.) One particularly disturbing aspect of the trial is that one of the chief witnesses for the prosecution, Jennet Device, aged about nine, gave evidence against her own mother, Elizabeth, who was executed.*****

We know a great deal about this case as Thomas Potts, the clerk of the Lancaster assizes, wrote what was effectively an authorised account, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster. He concludes his book 'God grant us the long and prosperous continuance of these Honourable and Reverend Judges, under whose Government we live in these North parts: for we may say, That GOD Almighty hath singled them out, and set him on his seat, for the defence of Justice. And for this great deliverance, let us all pray to GOD Almighty, that the memory of these worthy Judges may be blessed to all Posterities' [spelling modernised]. (Incidentally, I'm not sure why the title page of Potts' book gives most prominence to Altham; from my skim read it seems that Sir Edward Bromley, who gets second billing, was the most active.)

We're likely to take a different view of the judges today. True, they could only operate under the laws, understanding and prejudices of their age, but, really, if judges can't be trusted to keep a level head in the face of hysteria, who can? Altham and the others don't come out of this story very well; it's hard to see them as honourable, reverend and worthy. 

Perhaps for this reason nearly all accounts of Oxhey chapel mention Altham, and some include his involvement with the 1611 blasphemy case, but almost none of them acknowledge his connection with the Pendle trial. The Victoria County History, which gives an otherwise full account, ignores it. The Wikipedia entry on Altham does likewise. I would have been unaware of it had I not read Stiffleaf's excellent Visiting Hertfordshire Churches website (to which I'm grateful for drawing my attention to it). It's strange that this dramatic story of witches and hanging hasn't been given more coverage.

Who would ever have thought that suburban Oxhey had a link with this deplorable and shameful episode in our history? Who, when looking around this utterly charming chapel, thinks of the ten poor people executed on the orders of the man who built it, in the very year it was built?

On my one visit to Oxhey (during which I came across some very odd local street names - Delta Gain? Gibbs Couch?) someone in the community centre next door saw me looking, and came rushing out with a key to let me in. 'Witches' aside, the chapel is as enchanted as my grandparents' garden was to me as a child.

* According to the website of the nearby St Matthew's church this happened after the Battle of Uxbridge in 1649. I can't find any reference anywhere, in any of the several books I've consulted or the interweb, to this battle. There was a Treaty of Uxbridge, an unsuccessful attempt to end the fighting, in 1645. (Uxbridge is about ten mikes from Oxhey.)

** The old tiles were sold to Sir Yehudi Menuhin; he used them to roof his Hampstead house. 

*** The Statutory Listing says it's octagonal. You wouldn't believe the childish satisfaction I get from getting one over on the experts. Take that, professionals.

**** On this list are also AnsteyWare and Caldecote.

***** I recommend this documentary made by Simon Armitage (now the Poet Laureate).


The Gothic style of architecture (which wasn't given that name until long after the Middle Ages) originated in northern France in the 12th century, and spread across most of Europe. It was the dominant style until the Renaissance; in England it was essentially the only style until the early 16th century. It is characterised by pointed arches, rib vaulted ceilings, large, tall windows which often contain stained glass and have cusped tracery (which also sometimes decorates surfaces), flying buttresses, pinnacles, and rich decoration. However, these features, abundant in larger buildings such as cathedrals, won't all be found in smaller buildings, such as most parish churches. In Hertfordshire you're going to have a hard time trying to find a flying buttress, and only a little better luck tracking down rib vaults or pinnacles.

The Gothic style is often thought to have died out at the Reformation in the 1530s, and not reappeared in England until the early stages of the Gothic Revival in the 1740s. In fact, there is a more or less unbroken chain of Gothic buildings during this supposedly inactive two hundred year period. While it's true that there was very little church building in the last six decades of the 16th century, there was a significant amount in the following century (and into the next), and most of it was Gothic (especially in rural areas). Almost every county has at least one or two examples. Hertfordshire has two complete 17th century Gothic places of worship, Oxhey and Buntingford (1614-c.28), as well as several additions to existing churches in this style, for example Little Hadham (c.1632), King's Walden (early 17th cen) and Braughing (c.1630). 

There were also secular Gothic Survival buildings, often bigger and grander than the generally small and unassuming churches. Most of these secular structures are collegiate buildings in Oxford and Cambridge.

Smaller Gothic Survival buildings tend to follow a stripped-down version of the Perpendicular style of Gothic. The windows have mullions with arches at the top, often under a square head, though the arches are sometimes rounded rather than pointed. There are generally no cusps (concave triangles, like rose thorns, found in the tracery of medieval windows). Oxhey mostly follows this typical formula, as the photo at the top of the page demonstrates. 

The term 'Gothic Survival' is in many cases a misnomer. We can assume that such buildings as Oxhey are genuinely survivals rather than early revivals. In other words, they were built in an approximation of the Gothic style because the builders didn't know any other style (or, if they were vaguely aware of other styles, they never considered them suitable for their purpose). But many other buildings usually included under the heading 'Gothic Survival' are probably really conscious revivals; this applies to the collegiate buildings in Oxford and Cambridge, such as the library of St John's, Cambridge (1623-28), arguably the very first Gothic Revival building. In other words, the builders were aware of other styles and made a conscious decision to build in an old, traditional style rather than a more modern one. Perhaps we should call such buildings 'Proto-Gothic Revival', but 'Gothic Survival' is well-established and understood.

Gothic Survival buildings are often (though not always) rather plain and architecturally unexciting; the most interesting thing about them is that they exist, despite their being stylistic throwbacks. Perhaps for this reason there is no book about the subject, even though there are many dozens of buildings in this category. I once thought of trying to write one, and I have compiled extensive lists, but I'm five years into a project to write about a couple of hundred of Herts churches and I'm not even a quarter of the way through yet, so someone more industrious (and knowledgeable) than me will have to take over the job.*

As well as many humble (but often lovably so) buildings all over the country, such as Buntingford church and Oxhey chapel, there is a sequence of relatively grand ones. To choose a few more or less at random: Trinity College chapel, Cambridge (1564), St Katherine Cree church, London (1628-31), Peterhouse chapel, Cambridge (1628-32), St John's church, Leeds (1632-33), Staunton Harold church, Leicestershire (1653-63), St Mary's church, Warwick (1698-1704), the north quadrangle of All Souls' College, Oxford (by Hawksmoor, 1716) and the west towers of Westminster Abbey (also by Hawksmoor, 1722-45). In addition to the buildings themselves there are also many fixtures and fittings from the 1540s to the 1740s in a continuation or version of Gothic; for example, there is much furniture associated with Bishop John Cosin, such as the astounding font cover in Durham cathedral (1662-3). Surely the Gothic Survival is a subject that deserves much more attention.

* The only serious and reasonably lengthy discussion of the subject I've come across is in the first chapter of The Gothic Revival by Chris Brooks, Phaidon, 1999.


  1. What a fascinating and complex little chapel! It looks as if it still needs some care: I think I see
    two panes broken in the upper window.

  2. There may have been some broken panes when I took those photos a few years ago. But generally the Churches Conservation Trust does an excellent job of looking after its churches. Inevitably they're going to be suffering financially in the coming months and longer, so donate now (assuming you haven"t already)!