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

Wednesday 13 October 2021

Letchworth St Mary's church, Herts: a small monument in a small church with a big story

Letchworth Garden City was founded in 1903 and built between the old villages of Norton, Willian and Letchworth. They've all to some extent since been subsumed by the Garden City while retaining some of their villagey feel. All three have their medieval churches. Letchworth old church - the original dedication of which seems to have been lost over the years, but in the 20th century was assigned to St Mary - stands next to what's now the Mercure Letchworth Hall Hotel. This was originally the manor house, and was in the mid 19th century the home of one of the great Victorian eccentrics, the Rev John Alington

The church is small and humble. The nave is essentially 12th century, though the windows on the south, with their Y-tracery, are in the style of the late 13th, and those on the west and north 15th. 

The chancel is 13th century; most of the windows are original though much repaired; (the east window is late medieval, though probably almost entirely Edwardian in its present form. There was a restoration in 1908-10). 

The porch is 15th century; the unassuming but attractive little timber bellcote is hard to date: it may be late 15th century, like the window and internal arch beneath it.

Altogether the exterior view is very appealing, homely rather than beautiful, thanks in part to the mix of materials: mostly flint and brown ironstone rubble laid apparently at random, grey ashlar dressings, some cement rendering, dark red brick buttresses and darker still tiles set off very nicely by the white porch and window jambs. It's a pity that what would otherwise be the best view, from the south east, is partly obscured by a clutter of late 19th/early 20th century memorial stones.

Stepping into the porch and looking right reveals (if you look hard enough) some fascinating graffiti. It's hard to distinguish, and even harder to photograph adequately, but there are two images of a ship, one superimposed over the other. One is painted in red, the other incised (the top of the mast and the rigging are relatively easy to make out in the picture above). They were discovered only in 2013, and may date from the 15th and 17th centuries respectively. Graffiti depicting ships is relatively common in churches, but usually near the coast; no one knows why such images sailed to landlocked Herts.

The south doorway is 15th century, as its four-centred arch reveals, and the door must be too. However, the ironwork is earlier (Bettley/Pevsner dates it to the second half of the 14th century; I'd be inclined to think it older*). It is clearly made to fit onto a different, flat surface (i.e. a previous door); several of the nail holes are suspended above the wood rather than flush with it, and at the top one of the three lobes has had to be bent to meet the surface while the other two haven't, which looks a bit clumsy. Whether the hinges were reused because they held some special significance, or simply as a cost-cutting measure, is one of many things we'll never know.

Looking east

Chancel arch, northern respond

Looking west; the arch and timbers supporting the bellcote are visible

Chancel roof, 15th century

The church's object of greatest antiquarian interest is undoubtedly the stone effigy of a knight. This is very small - only c.2'/60cm long. It is very worn - in particular his face has gone completely - but he is clearly clutching a heart casket to his chest, and presumably marks a heart burial.** Heart burials occurred when the person in question died an appreciable distance from their preferred place of burial; (but sometimes they specified, or their executors decided, to be buried in two or even three places. For example, the body of Queen Eleanor of Castile (1240-91), the wife of Edward I, was buried in Westminster Abbey, while her viscera were buried in Lincoln Cathedral and her heart in the Dominican convent of Blackfriars in London). There are several dozen surviving English monuments commemorating such burials, but this is the only one in Hertfordshire.***

Some of these monuments have full-sized effigies, but a substantial subset have only miniature ones. No one really knows why; it may have been a cost-cutting measure, an act of humility, or have happened for some other reason. These smaller monuments are obviously more portable than the large ones and many of them seem to have been moved over the centuries. Letchworth's example is currently on a windowsill, but it seems unlikely that this was its original and preferred location.

It dates from the later 13th century, and is said to represent Baron Richard de Montfichet (d.1267), who held the manor of Letchworth. He was one of twenty-five barons appointed to oversee the instigation of the laws in the Magna Carta (1215), and for his trouble was excommunicated by the Pope. More trouble came his way when he, along with many other barons, supported Louis VIII of France when he invaded England in 1216 and was proclaimed as Louis I of England. When King John died later that year many of these barons switched their allegiance to John's son, Henry III, but Montfichet stayed loyal to Louis, which proved to be an unwise move as he was taken prisoner in 1217. He must have been very persuasive as he was pardoned by the new king, only to blot his copybook once more in 1223 by taking part in an illegal tournament, and had his lands seized. But once more he managed to wriggle out of it, and afterwards lived another half a century, relatively trouble-free, continuing to contribute to the running of the country, and died in his mid seventies. 

We wonder why he apparently had a heart burial in Letchworth. If the monument is indeed his, it's not impossible that this was a subsidiary burial and his main monument was or is somewhere else, either now lost or unidentified.

There are a few stained glass windows. This one, in the chancel, commemorating an 1861 death, is by an anonymous maker and shows Christ healing the blind. Like many windows of its period, the glorious borders are the best bits. The books and candlesticks provide a pleasing predella.

Another anonymous window (even the name of the dedicatee seems to be unrecorded) from the 1860s is in the nave, showing Esther and Ahasuerus. He was, in the Bible, the King of Persia, and Esther was his wife. She foils a plan to have all the Jews in the kingdom killed (and instead wins permission for the Jews to kill their enemies, which they then do). The scene shows her begging her husband. I think it's rather good. I especially like the colourful curtains and bed hangings.

The east window is by Hardman & Co, from 1950. The firm was founded in 1838 and lasted 170 years, until 2008. In the mid 19th century they made some splendid windows, but by the mid 20th century their products had become sadly anaemic if this window is anything to go by. The heraldry is vigorous, but the rest seems lifeless. Fortunately the altar and its accoutrements, originally by the prolific architect and designer Sir Charles Nicholson (1867-1949), made c.1921, distracts us from the glass. The splendid angels on the riddel posts are especially effective. They were introduced in 1946 by C M Crickmer (1879-1971), the architect of many Garden City houses (and the old building of the nearby St Christopher School).

The last windows to mention aren't stained glass in the usual sense at all. They depict various saints, are by the obscure J T Lyon, and date from 1869. But at first glance you'd think they're a hundred or more years earlier. Instead of comprising numerous pieces of coloured glass cut to fit the shapes of the images, the main panels are rectangular white glass painted with silver stain (which makes yellow) and black. The borders are simple rectangles of red, green or blue glass. Lyon works as if it was still the 18th century and the last few decades, when the medieval methods of making stained glass had been reinvented, had never happened. Nevertheless, I confess to liking these windows for more than their novelty value.

Letchworth church isn't easy to get into. I worked half a mile from it for thirty years, and lived in Letchworth for thirteen, but until recently I'd been inside only once (despite often trying the door), and that was for a funeral. I took advantage of the most recent Ride+Stride day (the second Saturday in September each year, when people can raise money for churches by being sponsored to visit as many as possible, and when some usually locked churches open their doors) to see the interior, and was very pleased to meet the enthusiastic and knowledgeable parishioners there. The church may be small, but it has big and fascinating stories to tell.

* The Royal Commission on Historical Monuments says it's 13th century.

** However, caution is needed here. Although we can safely assume that many, probably most, effigies shown holding a heart denote heart burials, some probably mark entrails burials, and quite possibly in some cases the heart is purely symbolic (as an expression of piety, for example). See 'Divided by Death: The iconography of English heart and entrails monuments' by Sally Badham, in Church Monuments, Journal of the Church Monuments Society, Volume XXXIV, 2019. 

*** There was apparently one more in the county, in the old church of Ayot St Lawrence, which was, most unusually, made of wood rather than stone, but this has been lost.

Fragments of late medieval glass

View of the tower built by Sir John Alington (now part of the hotel) from the church

Watercolour, J C Buckler, c.1840

Watercolour, J C Buckler, c.1840

Rubbings of the church's brasses. Top, a priest holding a heart, 1475; bottom, a couple, c.1400.

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