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

Wednesday 15 September 2021

Buntingford church, Herts: Gothic Survival and an important brass


The village of Layston declined for centuries during the later Middle Ages and was probably practically deserted by the 16th century, though the church remained in use; the population had shifted to nearby Buntingford, on Ermine Street. In 1604 the Rev Alexander Strange (1570-1650) was appointed as vicar of Layston but naturally he, along with most of his congregation, lived in Buntingford. There was probably a chapel there in the Middle Ages, but nevertheless the principal services would have been held in Layston.* 

After a decade of fording the River Rib to reach the church, which can't have been fun, especially in winter, in 1614 Strange decided to build a new church in Buntingford itself. It's likely that his other motivation was that the fashion of the day was for services focused on the sermon, and the old church in Layston was deemed to be unsuitable for this purpose. (The old chapel in Buntingford was probably both unsuitable and decrepit.)

The inscription on the outside wall of the (ritual) north transept (actually east - I'll explain in a moment) reads 'DOMUS ORATIONIS', 'house of prayer',** together with the date 1615, by which time building work would have been reasonably far advanced. It was licensed for public worship in 1620, when it was simply a brick square, very suitable for preaching as all the congregation could be near the minister. The two shallow transepts were added in the following decade, and the semicircular apse later still. The chapel of ease (as it was until it finally became the official parish church as late as 1952) cost £418 13s 8d, (about £123,000*** today, which doesn't sound much). 

Churches (and chapels) are traditionally oriented with the 'altar end' at the east (indeed, this is the derivation of 'orientate' and its cognates). It seems that initially Buntingford chapel was arranged so that worshippers faced (roughly) east. However, at some point, probably quite early on, this was changed to the south, the arrangement that still exists today. Why this happened is not altogether clear; it may have been some sort of statement by Strange, breaking away from what was seen as an objectionable Papist tradition. Or it may have been a purely practical matter; for example, since entry was from the market place to the north it was thought better to have the altar opposite the entrance rather than off to one side. (I'm going to use the ritual orientation, assuming that the entrance is at the west and the altar at the east, rather than the real compass points.)

I'm less interested in the history of the religious background to the chapel than I am in what it tells us about the history of taste and style. In particular, what makes Buntingford church stand out for me is that it is a Gothic Survival building. I've written about this before (see here), so I won't labour the point, but briefly: Gothic is the name we give to the dominant style of European medieval architecture. In England, from the 16th century on classical styles of architecture became dominant until a Gothic Revival started in the mid 18th century. However, Gothic persisted throughout the period when it was 'supposed' to have died out. I find these architectural living fossils fascinating. Nearly every county has a few examples; Herts has two, Buntingford and Oxhey chapel (as well as several additions to pre-existing medieval buildings, such as the Halsey chapel at Great Gaddesden).

The external details of the building, and in particular the windows, are in a simplified form of Gothic, in that they have pointed arches under pointed hoodmoulds, albeit flattened points in the style of c.1500. (Some of the windows are from the restoration of 1899-1900.) Whoever designed the chapel (maybe they were following Strange's brief) thought it natural to adopt Gothic rather than classical styles, which isn't surprising as the first classical church in England, Inigo Jones' St Paul's in Covent Garden, London, wasn't built until 1631-3. Gothic remained the default style for church building until at least the mid 17th century. Buntingford church is said to be the earliest one to be built entirely of brick in the country.

We can get a good idea of what the chapel looked like before restoration from this naive watercolour of c.1790. Gothic is seen not only in the pointed windows (and door) but in the pinnacles (though these ones look as if they are classically-influenced, an interesting mixture of styles).

Most interesting is the five-light window on the north wall of the north transept, which rather than having all the lights the same height steps them, with the central one the tallest and the outer ones diminishing in size, an arrangement that hadn't been seen in England since the 13th century when stepped lancets were used, especially over the altar at the east end of chancels. (Is it just a coincidence that Buntingford's original altar was originally set against this window? Probably.)

13th cen stepped lancets at the east end of Stanton Harcourt, Oxon

The Victorian restoration was responsible for the porch on the west and the vestry (now a kitchen) on the south. The apse was also heightened at this time.

The bricks are laid in English bond, ie layers of headers alternating with layers of stretchers

As is usual in Gothic Survival buildings, while the builders and clients were happy to use traditional styles on the outside, they wanted the latest design features inside. (Oxhey chapel is a good example of this.) Apart from the windows, which are obviously visible from inside, the only internal features that could really be called stylistic are the wooden columns supporting the beam across the south transept (which now supports the organ pipes). These have Ionic capitals; however, clearly whoever positioned them was not familiar with them as the volutes are oriented at right angles to the beam, rather than in line with it as is the almost universal practice. This evidence of the workmen's incomprehension of the new-fangled style is charming. 

It has to be said that the interior of the church, though a valuable and cherished facility for the community, is a disappointment to the visitor more interested in the history and aesthetics of the building. Apart from the misaligned volutes there are only a few things worth going to see.

The west window has some handsome heraldic stained glass donated in 1622 by William and Mary Reynolds, the children of Lewes Reynolds, the vicar of Layston 1572-88. There was more armorial glass in the chapel but for reasons that escape me it was removed in the Victorian restoration.

But the one overwhelming reason for gaining access to the interior is the brass now displayed on the south wall of the chancel. It's very difficult to photograph (but I'm quite pleased with how mine have come out).

It dates from 1620 (when the chapel was licensed) and shows Strange preaching. The architectural setting is classical; even the three-light window which somewhat resembles some of the chapel's actual windows are round-headed instead of pointed. The large opening through which the scene is revealed looks rather like a Roman triumphal arch. This adds another layer to the palimpsest of taste: the chapel is what we might call minimally Gothic on the outside, but inside has some minimally classical features, while it is depicted on the brass as if it's a grand classical building.

Strange stands in his pulpit and gestures passionately, what might be an hour glass to time the sermon behind him. One congregant kneels before him, hands clasped in prayer; two or three stand, leaning against the box pews and there are perhaps many more standing behind them (it's hard to be sure); a dozen or so, presumably the wealthier and higher status worshippers, sit in the box pews near the pulpit where they have ringside seats and are most visible to the bulk of the congregation who sit in banked seating (rather like that in Sandwick in Orkney that I wrote about recently). Notice also that Strange is at least twice as big as any other figure (another throwback to medieval art when the size of people in pictures was often determined by their importance rather than their distance from the picture plane).

This is, surely, an idealised portrayal (it's most unlikely that there was ever banked seating in the chapel, for example). I hesitate to say that this brass is unique; there may be another one of similar date showing the interior of a church with a service in progress, but I can't find any reference to it. The closest thing I'm aware of is one in Wells Cathedral to Humphrey Willis, d.1618, showing him kneeling in a landscape with angels in the clouds above; but it's not really like Buntingford's brass at all. The brass showing Strange preaching is an important piece of social history, and deserves to be a lot better known.

Buntingford church is usually locked, but I've been inside several times over the years because it's happened to be open for some purpose as I've been passing, and I've always been very warmly welcomed. 

* Layston church fell into disuse in the 20th century and became derelict, except for the chancel which was used a cemetery chapel. However, it (except the chancel) has recently been made into a family home.

** The booklet St Peter's Church: 400 years by the Rev Ian Hill (2015) translates it as 'house of preaching' or 'lectures', but this seems dubious.

East end and apse

South transept

Western anteroom

Mechanism of the original early 17th cen clock 
North transept

West window

Seth Ward's Hospital (ie almshouse) next to the church, probably by the important scientist Robert Hooke, 1684

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