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

Monday 25 January 2021

Berkhampsted church, Herts: a Victorian Day of Judgement

This is the fiftieth Hertfordshire church I’ve written about. (I’ve also covered a couple of dozen churches in other counties.) I like to think of this as something of a milestone. However, to put it into perspective, my main purpose on Icknield Indagations is to write about Herts churches, and I’ve been at it for five years so far; there must be a couple of hundred churches worth attention, and at this rate it will take another fifteen years to do them all by which time I’ll be in my late 70s. In addition, three of the fifty articles  - Barkway, Ware and Flamstead - deal with only one or two features of the church, and one more (Royston) is just a few photos without any substantial text. Several others are in need of rewriting. So while I can give myself a pat on the back for getting this far on my journey, I can’t hang up my hiking boots just yet. 

Since March 2020 visiting churches has been somewhere between difficult and impossible, so while writing I’ve been relying on old photos, notes and memories, in addition to, of course, Pevsner etc. This is frustrating, particularly because I can’t go back to the church itself to check details or take better photos. All I’ve written since that date must count as provisional, but is, I hope, better than nothing. 

Berkhamsted is one of those towns - Harpenden is another - that’s potentially most attractive but is compromised by having a major road running through its centre. (Mind you, when I visit I go by car, so I’m hardly able to complain.) The church roughly follows the line of the road, and is orientated towards the east even more approximately than most.

The church is large and imposing with its tall central tower and transepts, but, externally,  isn't easy to love. It suffers both from having traffic running almost alongside its south side, and by having buildings crowding it on the west, so it’s hard to stand back and get a good view from many angles (and the large expanses of dark, hard, forbidding knapped flint don't help).

From the outside, judging by the window tracery (the stonework of which has been replaced but probably mostly follows the original designs), Berkhamsted  church appears to be largely 14th and 15th century Decorated and Perpendicular. However, this is only partially true; the core of the church dates from the Early English period in the 13th century.

This is visible externally only in the north wall of the chancel, where two early 13th century lancet windows remain. 

Inside the church the crossing is of the same date; the clusters of attached shafts are a fine sight, grouped 1+2+1, the two central ones being slightly keeled (that is, have a raised band running down their length a little like the keel of a ship), the outer two with shaft-rings. Sadly, the capitals are plain. Even more unfortunately, the crossing's visual effect is spoilt by the eastern arch being walled by a reredos higher than eye-height. The north transept is coeval, though the large windows, with 14th century Decorated tracery, are later insertions.

The nave (the longest - 103'/33m - of any medieval parish church in the county) and aisles were built two or three decades later. The piers (which lean slightly outwards) are plain, but there is some variety as a few of them are quatrefoils rather than round. 

View of Lady Chapel from north aisle

Surprisingly, the east of the north transept opens out into a two-bay Lady Chapel which is arranged as an aisle to the transept, rather than to the chancel. Built, like the crossing and transept itself, c.1230, the chapel creates the kind of exciting spatial sensation that would normally be found only in much larger churches. That it's vaulted is a bonus. Originally it would presumably have had small lancet windows (as in the chancel), but a century later the decision was taken to fill to bursting the chapel with light by greatly enlarging the windows; the east wall in particular is almost all glass, helping to make what isn't actually a very big space feel expansive.

Unfortunately the tracery in the windows is rather ugly. It must be a replacement by Butterfield from the 1866-71 restoration; the mullions rising up to meet the arch are inelegant and divide the windows into three strictly separate slices. The original tracery can be seen in the three pictures above; firstly a watercolour dated 1788 (mislabeled as from the south), secondly an etching from c.1820 derived from, thirdly, a watercolour of about the same date. They show that the chapel had a variation of reticulated tracery, or perhaps foliated circles. (The resolution of the photos is too poor to allow much magnification; currently Buckler's watercolours in the County Record Office in Hertford are inaccessible thanks to lockdown, so I can't check to see if they provide clearer evidence.) I often try to defend Victorian restorers, pointing out that on the whole they did a good job of rescuing churches that were often on the verge of dereliction, but - oh dear, Butterfield, I can't find a good word to say for you in this case.

Opening out from the south transept is St Catherine's Chapel, the south aisle of the chancel, which was built at about the same time as the windows were enlarged in the Lady Chapel, say 1330. There are two big tomb recesses (the easternmost one has a renewed canopy, and whether we can trust its elaborate cusping any more than we can trust the Lady Chapel's windows I don't know), and an ogee-headed piscina. The clusters of columns echo those in the crossing.

There's some pleasing spatial ambiguity in the south aisle. There was originally a south porch, but in the mid 14th century it was incorporated into an outer aisle, which widens as it progresses eastwards. The roof is supported on a pier entirely without architectural pretensions (dating from when?), and, a little further east, a much more handsome octagonal wooden column. The east end of the aisle is filled with choir stalls and a modern organ with red, blue and pink pipes, decorated with carved pieces of wood looking like the result of someone experimenting with a fretsaw.

One of the disappointments of the church is that the early 13th century chancel has been closed off to use as a vestry. This not only means that some of the potentially best vistas in the church are blocked, (though it's true that the east window can be seen from a distance), but also that some medieval stained glass and what sounds like one of the best monuments in the church are denied to visitors. It must be one of the most palatial vestries in the county, however.

Nevertheless there's plenty for aficionados of church fixtures and fittings to see. Below is a selection.

In the Lady Chapel is this late 14th century tomb chest with effigies, perhaps commemorating Henry of Berkhamsted and his wife. He was appointed as the constable of Berkhamsted castle (which is fragmentary but worth a visit) by Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince, the son of Edward III and father of Richard II. Edward and Henry fought in the Battles of Crecy (1346) and Poitiers (1356). The heraldry on the tomb points to the Incent and Torrington families. The figures are much battle-scarred - she has lost her arms altogether - but his belt and her hair, for example, retain intricate detail.

There are half a dozen or more brasses in the church, two of the most interesting of which are seen above. Firstly, Richard (d.1356) and Margaret Torryngton, which is very worn; touchingly, they are holding hands; they each have their left hands pressed to their hearts in a gesture, presumably, of piety rather than romantic love. She has two dogs at her feet, one curled up asleep, the other apparently affronted at being trodden on, while he has a lion looking like a cuddly toy. And secondly, Katherine Incent (d.1520), naked within her burial shroud, looking surprisingly cheerful in the circumstances and despite the fact that her breasts (seen just below her shoulders) are shrivelled.

Since the reign of Henry VIII it's been common (though never compulsory) to display the arms of the monarch in churches. (This practice has only occasionally been continued in the 20th and 21st centuries.) However, the arms of Tudor monarchs are rare, there being probably only a dozen or so in the whole country, so Berkhamsted is fortunate to have those of Elizabeth I. Unlike most such arms, which are square of lozenge-shaped, these are rectangular with an oval bulge at the bottom and contain a fictive tondo and swags. An addition was made after her death on a rectangular pendant:
This mighty Queen is dead & lives
And leaves the World to wonder,
How she a maiden Queen did rule,
Few Kings have gone beyond her.

The arms were restored in 1797, and in 2012 another pendant was added, echoing the shape of the original arms, commemorating the Diamond Jubilee of the second Elizabeth.

I've already mentioned, and been rude about, the major architect William Butterfield (1814-1900) who  restored the church in 1866-88. At his best, as in his masterpiece, All Saints', Margaret Street, London, he is brilliantly individual, though sometimes wilfully perverse. Some of his designs are, it might be said, so ugly that they're beautiful. This is perhaps the case with his font (1871). It takes its inspiration from the 13th century, appropriately so as the core of the church, as we've seen, dates from that period. The dark, hard, polished marble is unlike anything else found in the church and seems out of keeping, and the details out of scale. Yet it undoubtedly has presence.

The pulpit is of the same date but entirely different. The angels, which are just (but only just) on the right side of twee, are by the Exeter sculptor Harry Hems (1842-1916); they were added in 1909.

The church has a fine collection of Victorian stained glass. 

The east window can't be viewed except from a distance, glimpsed over the top of the reredos blocking the eastern arch of the crossing. It's by the firm Clayton and Bell, who produced some outstanding glass when they were working at their best. This one dates from 1872; it depicts David, the Resurrection, and Jeremiah. Christ's red robe, with its network of yellow flowers (I think that's what they are), is dazzling, I like the distant glimpses of cities left and right too.

Usually when my photos are wonky it's because I'm incompetent, but this time it's not my fault. It's impossible to get a head-on view of this window because there's a column right in front of it. It's by  Heaton, Butler and Bayne, another prominent and successful Victorian company, and dates from 1869. The main lights show Faith embracing a cross (I'm afraid I can't look at this without that repugnant photo of Trump grabbing the stars and stripes with a sex-offender smirk coming to mind), and Hope with an anchor. The quatrefoil at the top uses a very Victorian mother cuddling her three children to symbolise Caritas (lovingkindness).

This is another Heaton, Butler and Bayne window, from 1865, with on the left a sower, and the Good Shepherd on the right, depicted in mostly muted colours and with nicely stylised landscape backgrounds. It was designed by Alfred Hassam, of whom more below. My favourite part is the quatrefoil at the top, an Arcadian scene of a lyre-player attracting wild beasts; one thinks of Orpheus, though the musician appears to be female. (Her skirt is remarkably similar to Christ's robe in the east window.) I don't know how this is relevant to the window's main figures.

Another Clayton and Bell window, from 1874, showing the Annunciation and Visitation (when the pregnant Mary called on her cousin Elizabeth), with a Virgin and Child at the top. Mary is traditionally depicted as being dressed in (usually bright) blue, but here she wears white and dark blue on the left, and white and pale blue (and red?) on the right.

The oldest glass in the church (apart from the medieval fragments locked away in the chancel-vestry) is in the north transept, from 1857. There's some heraldry at the bottom and top, but it's mostly grisaille. Grisaille (from the French for 'grey') glass uses mostly muted colours and consists of geometrical designs and/or intertwining foliage. This rather splendid example is by James Powell and Sons.

This is another Heaton, Butler and Bayne window, from 1902. I include it largely to illustrate the decline in the quality of the work of a once admired firm in particular, and of much English stained glass in general, by the Edwardian period. The figures have become sentimental, the painting attempting three dimensional realism (a mistake in my opinion). But I also include it because I have to admit that the birds in this window are undeniably cute.

Which brings me to this window, of engraved rather than stained glass, by David Peace and Sally Scott. (Engraved glass is near-impossible to photograph satisfactorily in situ; it really has to be done in the artist's studio before installation.) It was commissioned to celebrate the Millennium. 

In the main panel on the left we see Berkhamsted church, imagined to be in a setting very much more sylvan than reality. But 'The artist lies for the improvement of truth. Believe him' (Charles Tomlinson, 'A Meditation on John Constable'.) At the top a jet airliner competes with the swallows swirling over the church and disturbs the rural tranquility. The right panel has more Chiltern hills but is dominated by a pious inscription.

There are also two smaller panels at the bottom, which continue the cute animal theme. On the left are two hares and a robin, and on the right a running hare and a mouse, all very lovingly and charmingly depicted.

The west window is an example of the work of Heaton, Butler and Bayne at or near their best. It was shown at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867 and received a medal. Like the Sower/Good Shepherd window it was designed by Alfred Hassam, who was born in 1842 and may have studied at the Central School of Art in London. In about 1864 he became the chief designer of Heaton, Butler and Bayne, aged only 21 or 22, an astonishingly precocious achievement. In 1865 he won a prize for a stained glass window design from the South Kensington Museum (now the V &A); he was especially known as a colourist. He also exhibited portraits and historical paintings at the Royal Academy and the Royal Society of Arts from the same year, and at the Dudley Gallery (where Pre-Raphaelite artists showed their work) from 1866. Together with the elder but still young Robert Bayne (1837-1915) he fulfilled an important commission for the west window of Bradford Cathedral in about 1866. In 1868 ill health prevented him from working, and he died of tuberculosis the following year in Hastings, aged only 27.

Hassam's window was installed in the church in 1871, after his death. (I assume that the stonework of the window is Butterfield's design, but was the glass made to fit the stone, or vice versa?) There are ten panels, each including a separate scene, plus thirteen tracery lights. There's some uncertainty about the theme of the window. There are several clear references to St Peter in it, and as the church is dedicated to him I initially thought that the other scenes must narrate his story. But the website Church Stained Glass Windows, which is usually good at identifying subjects, says merely that the window shows 'scenes'. Angels and Icons: Pre-Raphaelite Stained Glass 1850-1870 by William Waters is only fractionally more helpful, with 'NT [ie New Testament] scenes'. 

On my first visit to the church in 1994 I took extensive notes as I walked around, and in the paragraph in which I muse on the window's subject matter I state: 'Even the curate bicycling up the nave couldn't help me with the other scenes.' I must have been being whimsical here; do parishes still have curates, and would he really have been bicycling up the nave? Probably he was the priest just pushing his bike. But whatever he was doing he still couldn't tell me what the window represents.

Here are the upper lights and panels; maybe a reader will be able to help to identify some of them:

The top central light shows St Katherine with the wheel, the instrument of her martyrdom.

The tracery lights on the left have, at the top, a bishop, and below him a soldier saint (George?). Below him are two mouchettes with heads in profile and colourful foliage. Beneath them is a cusped concave square with crossed keys, a symbol of St Peter.

On the right from top to bottom: another bishop, St Augustine, two heads in profile, and a cock, another symbol of St Peter.

Panel 1: St Ignatius. This is of course not Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits (whose appearance in an Anglican church in the 1870s would have been scandalous), but Ignatius of Antioch, where he was made bishop (or so legend narrates) by St Peter. He was transported to Rome and executed (again according to legend) by being thrown to wild beasts. The two tigers which are presumably about to devour him are suitably fierce, but the lion looks like a heraldic beast rather than one that could be found roaming the savannah. He also appear to have only one ear. The Roman soldiers at the very top have badly faded faces - an error in the firing process - but the two main ones are quite well preserved.

Panel 2: The apocalyptic vision of St John the Divine (Revelation 1: 12-17). 'One like to the Son of man', (that is, God/Jesus) stands at the top, a double-edged sword issuing from his mouth, and with seven stars on his robe. There are also seven golden candlesticks. At the bottom a youthful John sits, pen poised in his hand, attentive to but apparently unperturbed by the weirdness he's witnessing.

Panel 3: Christ blesses a male saint (probably Peter), witnessed by a crowd of other male saints (probably the other Apostles), with sheep at the bottom. Christ wears the same robe seen in Clayton and Bell's east window. Most of the faces are again faded.

Panel 4: Christ addresses three male saints, probably Peter (with a monastic tonsure) at the bottom, and a sailing ship in the background. This might refer to Christ calling Peter (who was a fisherman) to be a 'fisher of men'. Hassam has obviously much enjoyed drawing the rigging and snaking banner at the top, and even the stones and shells at the bottom are lovingly depicted.

Panel 5: a male saint with a long white beard is martyred by being burnt at the stake by Roman soldiers. He could be St Polycarp, who died in his eighties and was a disciple of John (seen in panel 2); he has been deliberately placed over panel 10, which shows another martyrdom.

Panel 6: at the top a Transfigured Christ presides over a group of men headed by a male saint, probably Paul (or more strictly Saul as he was then) who are watching the martyrdom by stoning of another male saint, probably Stephen, echoing the martyrdom of Ignatius immediately above. Paul wears a yarmulke (skullcap) and, strangely because watching a stoning isn't exactly saintly, has a halo.

Panel 7: a kneeling St Barnabas offers a bag of money, the proceeds from a land sale (Acts 4:37) to three male saints, probably including St James, in an elaborate building, probably a church, while at the bottom another male saint (probably Peter, though here he has a full head of curly hair) writes, echoing John above. 

Panel 8: in a Middle Eastern city a male saint (Peter?) blesses kneeling men and women, including some on crutches, echoing the blessing in the panel above. I especially like the exotic spires and domes at the top.

Panel 9: St Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus, echoing Peter's conversion above (if I've correctly identified the subject of that panel). A highly dramatic scene, yet at the top some passers by seem completely unaware of the significance of what's happening.

Panel 10: the martyrdom of a male saint, almost certainly Andrew, the brother of Peter, on an X-shaped cross. 

For the identification of many of the above scenes I'm indebted to my correspondent CG.

Gruesome deaths feature strongly in the window with five martyrdoms placed around the window's extremities, with scenes of blessing in the centre. The design is very busy, the details not easy to appreciate from a distance, yet I think that overall it succeeds marvellously. Hassam's use of colour is remarkable, and each panel is worth studying to see how beautifully composed it is. What a shame that Heaton, Butler and Bayne's firing, in which the black or dark brown painted on the glass is fused with it, wasn't quite up to the job. And what a tragedy he died so young.

The south window of the south transept is very different from the west window, but in its own way is just as good. It's another Clayton and Bell window, from 1872, and depicts the Day of Judgement. The splendid colours and the skilful massing of the numerous figures are highly effective; in windows like this Clayton and Bell take medieval precedents and make them their own.

As in most Victorian representations of the Last Judgement, there's no sign of any judging taking place. (See for example Burne-Jones' outstanding window in Easthampstead, Berks.) At the bottom of each panel people emerge from their graves (to be welcomed by angels in the two central scenes), but the atmosphere, set by a dozen vigorously trumpeting angels, is celebratory. They're clearly all going to Heaven; Hell doesn't appear to be an option, unlike in medieval Dooms (the west window of Fairfield, Glos, for example) where the agony of the damned is depicted with relish.

There are at least two other Last Judgements by Clayton and Bell. One is in Baldock, Herts, from 1880, and it is pretty feeble. It's also entirely different from the Berkhamsted version; the two windows, although made by the same firm, must have had different designers. 

There's also the west window of King's College, Cambridge, from 1879, in yet another style - here they've successfully adopted Renaissance practices in order to harmonise with the original windows. Probably for the same reason they do depict the fate of the damned. The firm's contribution to the chapel is obviously overshadowed by the fan vaulting, the woodwork and the 16th century glass, but Clayton and Bell's glass shouldn't be overlooked; they were one of the best Victorian stained glass manufacturers.

Berkhamsted church has always been open when I've visited.

Tomb chest, 1683

Monument, 1704


  1. I think the martyr being stoned is more likely to be St Stephen than St Lawrence, as the latter is traditionally believed to have been martyred by roasting on a grid-iron.

    And the saint with curly hair and beard is surely the same in Panels 7 and 8: most probably Peter, whose two Epistles are included in the New Testament. Saint Paul is usually depicted as balding, though in the scene of his conversionon the road to Damascus (panel 9) he is rightly shown as younger, and wearing his yarmulka as (then) a pious Jew.

  2. Many thanks for the correction; 'Lawrence' was of course a slip of the 'pen'. You're probably right too about panel 7; I've changed it. Any suggestions about about the subjects of panels 5 and 7? By the way, I now have a copy of 'King of Dust' but I've got several things to read first. Best wishes, David

  3. The male saint watching the stoning of Stephen must be Paul, or rather Saul as he was then. Notice the cloaks of other people doing the stoning over his arm and in a pile beside him, and also the same yarmulka as in the road to Damascus scene. It seems odd to give him a halo at that time, but it is shown as transparent, not solid colour.

    The saint in panel 3 ("feed my sheep") and 4 with the ship must be Peter, although there he seems to have a monastic tonsure rather than the full head of curly hair in panels 7 & 8.

    The Apostles to whom Barnabas presents the proceeds of his land sale (Acts 4: 37) are not named, but very likely included James the (step-) brother of the Lord, leader of the Jerusalem Christians and first Bishop there.

    My best guess as to the aged martyr in panel 5 is Polycarp, disciple of the Apostle and Evangelist John (panel 2), and being, with Ignatius, another very early Bishop-martyr.

    1. Thank you for your extremely helpful comments. I've now added them to the post.