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

Tuesday 28 December 2021

Mosaic tiles from Warden Abbey, Beds


On a recent visit to the excellent Higgins Museum and Art Gallery in Bedford I was struck by a new display of mosaic tiles excavated from the site of Warden Abbey. This wheel design, with its 'spokes' curved to make it look as if the whole thing is rotating anti-clockwise, a frozen Catherine wheel shooting clay shards in all directions, is especially intricate and appealing. It has six differently shaped elements, and must have required great ingenuity in designing and making it. There are a few traces of colour remaining, but mostly all that's left is the colour of the baked clay.

It's even more impressive seen in its original context. As you can see, the roundels - there were two of them - were merely small elements in a much grander overall scheme.

Also on display is this border, a frieze of six-pointed stars. Like the other mosaic tiles, they presumably date from c.1300 or a little later. 

Warden Abbey (near the modern village of Old Warden, with its unparalleled collection of airworthy vintage planes) was founded in 1135 by Walter Espec, who'd also founded Rievaulx; they both belonged to the Cistercian Order of monks. Warden became one of the most influential monasteries in England, and had the largest abbey precinct of any in the country (143 acres). At its height, in c.1200, it had over 100 monks and 300 lay brothers (who worked in the fields and carried out other essential tasks). 

Unfortunately the monk's overreached themselves in the late 13th century when they started an ambitious building plan, presumably including the elaborate (and therefore costly) tiles, and essentially went broke. External events such as the Great Famine of 1315-17 and the Black Death, which reached England in 1348, didn't help. The Abbey survived until the Dissolution (it was surrendered to the King's representatives in 1537), but its former prosperity never returned. Nothing now remains above ground, except some elements from the former Abbot's lodging which were incorporated into a mid-16th century house (now available for holiday lets via the Landmark Trust).

The centrepiece of the new exhibition is this reconstruction painting by Peter Dunn, showing the Abbey in c.1370. 

We might wonder why the Cistercians, who were famously ascetic when it came to the decoration of their buildings, allowed such extravagant designs on their floors. In 1205 the Abbot of Pontigny (France) was reprimanded for, among other things, allowing there to be an elaborate pavement in his church. He was told to remove it or change it so it no longer caused a scandal. Similarly, in 1210 the Abbot of Beaubec (France) got into trouble with the Order's authorities for allowing one of his monks to spend a long time making elaborate pavements. They were deemed to be the cause of 'levitas' (levity) and 'curiositas' (curiosity) in non-Cistercians, (presumably members of the Order were above such frivolity). 

We don't know precisely what the offending tile pavements looked like. Reading between the lines of the various documents, it seems that the authorities objected to figural designs and bright colours. The Warden tiles are abstract and, although they've lost almost all whatever colour they once had, were presumably suitably modestly coloured, and so escaped censure.

I've written about mosaic tiles before, in Byland, Rievaulx and Ely, and Meesden.

Bibliography: Cistercian Art and Architecture in the British Isles, eds Christopher Norton and David Park, Cambridge, 1986.

Sunday 19 December 2021

Pirton church, Herts: a castle and a 'Devil's door'


Pirton - through which a branch of the Icknield Way runs - is especially valuable to those of us interested in the Middle Ages (as aficionados of churches tend to be, as most of the best churches date from then). Immediately south of the church is the giant steamed pudding of a motte (a castle mound), now called Toot Hill, probably built in the earlier 12th century, perhaps during the civil war known as the Anarchy. The Victoria County History speculates that it could have been an adulterine castle, which sounds as if it should mean that was a venue for medieval dirty weekends, but in fact denotes an unauthorised structure. The castle stood in a bailey, an enclosure, substantial remains of which can still be seen in the form of earthworks marking where village buildings once stood. The Statutory Listing calls Pirton 'one of the most important historic sites in Hertfordshire.'

Although having its origins, like the castle, in the 12th century, Pirton church doesn't quite live up to its surroundings. This is despite being, unlike the other nearby churches, which are made principally of flint, mostly of clunch (a type of chalk), which was probably quarried in Totternhoe in Bedfordshire. Why Pirton went in for the extra expense I don't know. 

Sometime in the earlier 12th century the church began as cruciform with a central tower. However, first the south transept was destroyed in the following century when the tower collapsed onto it, and then later in the same century, after the tower had been repaired, the north one suffered the same fate. (The south transept was rebuilt in the early 20th century, but the north was lost forever). In 1876 the great architect John Loughborough Pearson (1817-98) was called in to begin a restoration. (He must have been related to the then vicar, the Rev Ralph Lindsay Loughborough.) He rebuilt the tower 'from the foundations', which I take to mean that he took everything apart and put it back together, using the original materials whenever possible. The east and west Norman crossing arches remain, impressive in their stark simplicity.*

The walls of the aisleless nave are probably Norman too, but all the details are later; the windows are 14th and 15th century. 

On the south wall there's a door at chest height - originally wooden steps would have given access to it - opening onto a staircase leading to the parvis, the room over the (flint) 14th century porch. Another notable feature of the nave is its carved corbels, which are often overlooked and underappreciated wherever they're found. Pirton's set is not in any way exceptional, but together they're enjoyable examples of village statuary from c.1400. As corbels often do, they range from the handsome to the hideous and back again.

The chancel has a double piscina from the earlier 14th century, but its most striking feature is its roof.


This sturdy, intricate, ship-like structure is dated 1697 on a tie beam; at some time it was concealed by a ceiling until it was very fortunately removed in 1948. Also in the 17th century the east window was replaced by one that looks from surviving pictures to have been a simple Gothic Survival design. The current east window, a disappointing sub-Perpendicular affair, also dates from 1948. In 1944 a V1 flying bomb had landed near the church and destroyed the earlier window. (If it was aimed at London, as it presumably was, it was hopelessly off target.)**

In 1909 work finally started on rebuilding the south transept. Pearson's plans from 30 years before were revived by his son, Frank Loughborough Pearson (1864-1947), and the work was carried out mostly by volunteer labour from the parish. The church guidebook refers to stone coming from 'the quarry on the church's glebeland'; it's possible that all the stone used in the cburch is from this source. Finished in 1914, the transept cost £447 (£53,000 today).

The guidebook also states 'A door built in the north wall of the nave was left open during a baptism to let out the evil spirits in the child, but, [sic] as this custom fell away during a less superstitious age most of the Devil's doors were blocked up.' I regard this statement with some scepticism. It is an interesting piece of (probably relatively recent) folklore, but should not be thought of as an historical fact.

Maybe the alleged devil's door is blocked up, but the main door is certainly wide open, as the photo at the top of the page reveals. If only all churches were this welcoming, and took such a pride in showing themselves off. Thank you, Pirton.

* Hertfordshire's other Norman crossings are in AnsteyHemel Hempstead and Weston.

** J L Pearson didn't have much luck in Hertfordshire. His one complete church in the county was Ayot St Peter, but this was damaged beyond repair by lightning in 1874. Then Pirton, on which he and his son worked on and off for nearly 40 years, was attacked by the Nazis. Apart from Pirton the only surviving church in which Pearson did any work is Westmill.

Chancel south

East window

Transept and tower

West window

South door

Saturday 18 December 2021

Why do we step down into some churches dedicated to St John the Baptist?

Not 7 steps to Heaven, but 5 steps down into Hinxworth church, Herts

I recently posted about alleged 'devil's doors'. Another, but much less widely propagated, myth I've come across is stated on the website of St John the Baptist's church, Great Gaddesden, Herts: 'As you enter from the porch you step down into the church; this is often a feature of churches dedicated to St John the Baptist, as Jesus Christ stepped down into the River Jordan to be baptised.' The same claim is made on the website of Widford church, also in Herts.

Is there any contemporary (i.e. medieval) documentary evidence that any churches were ever deliberately built below ground level for this symbolic purpose? I’ve certainly never come across it, and I highly doubt that such evidence exists, or ever existed.

To start with, building a church thus would be asking for trouble with damp and floods. Has anyone ever done a statistical survey of churches that you step down into, and counted what percentage of them are dedicated to St John the Baptist? I doubt this too, but I bet my complete set of Pevsners that if such a survey were to be conducted it would conclude that there is no relationship between dedication and depth.

The truth of course is simply that the ground tends to rise over the centuries and buildings consequently ‘sink’, and so it’s not at all rare to have to step down into them. This sometimes happens to churches dedicated to St J the B, and confirmation bias ensures that when it does some people ascribe a special meaning to it.

They would benefit from visiting Hinxworth church, also in Herts. It has no fewer than five steps down into it. It’s dedicated to St Nicholas.

Unlike the story of devil’s doors, which is certainly more than a hundred years old (and I’d guess older than that), this one seems to be of more recent origin. I’ve not come across it anywhere except in the two websites mentioned (though apparently Corstorphine Old Kirk in Edinburgh, which has the same dedication, makes the same claim). Are there any others? 

What are the origins of this story? I suppose it’s natural to think that if some elements of a church have symbolic or ritual significance (and they do, of course), then all the others must have too. This apophenic desire to create order and meaning where none exists is common; it partly explains why conspiracy theories are so rife, for example. I wonder if anyone’s ever made up a story to give religious meaning to, for example, why church tower buttresses can be either angled, setback, clasping or diagonal, or why there always seems to be a chipped vase on a windowsill somewhere?

None of this means that stories about devil's doors, or why some churches are lower than the ground surrounding them, or various other church-related myths, should be simply scoffed at and dismissed, even though they tell us nothing about the intentions of the original builders or users of the buildings. They have interest and value as little pieces of post-medieval folklore. They should never be stated as if they're facts - Great Gaddesden and Widford churches are in danger of making themselves look like credulous purveyors of superstition - but as stories they can be enjoyed in their own right, and as windows into the relatively recent past.

Wednesday 15 December 2021

Debunking 'devil's doors'

Blocked north door, Lower Gravenhurst, Beds

The otherwise useful guide to Pirton church, Herts, states 'A door built in the north wall was left open during a baptism to let out the evil spirits in the child, but, [sic] as this custom fell away during a less superstitious age most of the Devil's doors were blocked up.'

Googling 'Devil's doors' brings up Wikipedia and the relevant page from the National Churches Trust among the first few results, and both of these agree with the guide's statement. But let's examine the evidence. How do we know this statement to be true? Is there a medieval document which describes and explains the custom of opening the north door? To the best of my knowledge - and I've read a lot of books about churches - no such document exists. As far as we know, no one ever claimed that he or she had opened a north door to let the evil spirits out, or witnessed such a thing happening.

This should be enough to make us sceptical. The existence of the doors hardly counts as evidence, since, obviously, doors have other potential uses. So why should we believe that they were made with this as their principle purpose?

So there's no positive proof that north doors were ever used for the purpose claimed. In addition, there is negative proof which strongly suggests that 'Devil's doors' did not exist. For example, how do we account for the fact that many churches - a minority, but still many hundreds - have, and always have had, their main entry on the north? If the north was seen as so closely associated with the devil, why were people apparently happy to enter from that direction? Why couldn't they just walk around to the devil-free south (or west)?

Nicolas Orme's Going to Church in Medieval England (2021) is a very thorough discourse, based firmly on a wide reading of the documentary evidence. (The endnotes are 47 pages long, and the bibliography 13.) There is a 12 page account of what happened during baptism in an English medieval church. The number of times the north door is mentioned in these dozen pages is exactly zero. 

What's more, we learn that 'The liturgy began at the church doors. [Whether north or south Orme doesn't specify.] Baptism ... was a rite of transition that brought the recipient from outside to inside the church. One motive for building porches in the later Middle Ages was to provide a shelter for the outdoor part.... The first part of the service outside the church was called "the making of a catechumen", meaning :a candidate for baptism. It consisted of a series of ritual actions to make the baby fit for baptism.... The baptismal party brought with it some common salt. This the priest exorcised and put a tiny quantity in the baby's mouth, saying "Receive the salt of wisdom that God may be propitious to you in eternal life." The salt was followed by a series of prayers ... which contained an exorcism of the Devil and the signing of a cross on the infant's forehead' (pp306-7).

This makes clear that the child was exorcised, that is had the Devil driven out of him or her, even before they entered the church. Why then would it have been necessary for the north door to be open during the later part of the ceremony inside the church? The Devil had already skedaddled (and no one seems to have worried about which direction he might have made his getaway in).

This surely knocks on the head the claim that north doors were left open during baptism. Where, then, does this idea come from? I don't know when or by whom it was first invented and propagated (the Oxford English Dictionary has no entry for 'devil's door'); my guess would be that it was dreamt up by an 18th century antiquary, anxious to make medieval people seem picturesquely superstitious. Victorian ecclesiologists (I imagine) happily seized on it, and it survives as a mainstream dictum in the 21st century.*

Going back to the Wikipedia entry, it's notable that the only authorities cited are local history books, a genre that sometimes (not always, of course) relies more on gossip than documented evidence. As for the National Churches Trust, it's inexcusable that they allow such nonsense to appear on their website.

The two remaining questions are easily dealt with: what was the purpose of north doors if they weren't intended as Beelzebubian boltholes? And why are they so often blocked up? The first can be answered by asking: what do you use doors for? Personally, I use them for entry and exit, and I hazard a guess that it's the same for you and was the same in the Middle Ages. Perhaps they especially came into their own during processions. The second can be answered with a single word: draughts.

With so much mis- and disinformation around at the moment, much of it potentially or actually harmful, this probably seems a trivial subject to devote thought and effort to. And it probably is. Nevertheless, I'm glad to be able to definitively slam the door resoundingly shut on this particular piece of fanciful foolishness.

* The earliest reference to this supposed custom of which I know is in George Smith Tyack's Lore and Legend of the English Church (1899).

Saturday 11 December 2021

Lilley church, Herts


Lilley is set in the bosky, bucolic Chiltern Hills, between Luton and Hitchin. The A505, which follows the route of the old Icknield Way, is just to the south, while the new Icknield Way long-distance path is just to the north. 

Preserved in the church are pictures of the old church, which was of 12th century origin; we can see that it had typical late medieval windows and a feeble-looking tower, possibly weather-boarded, and Hertfordshire spike. On the north it had some Early English lancet windows, which are echoed in the new design. It was deemed to be in such bad repair that restoration was impossible. The vicar, the Rev. Arthur Coles Haviland (d.1904), who arrived in the parish in 1868, set about raising the funds for a new one. It probably helped that he was independently wealthy. He raised £3600 (about £438,000 today, which would scarcely buy you a three bed semi there nowadays), and in 1870 commissioned Thomas Jeckyll (1827-81) to build him a new church (and rectory and school). The result was, as often happened (compare Barley and Therfield, for example), something much grander than might be expected in a medium-sized village.

Jeckyll was an important figure in the Aesthetic Movement of the later 19th century; he was responsible (with James McNeill Whistler) for the famous Peacock Room of 1876-77, originally designed for a townhouse in Kensington but now in the Freer Gallery in Washington DC. However, I don't think that anyone who was previously unaware of this connection could possibly deduce it from the church, which is in most respects a fairly standard Gothic Revival church in the Victorians' favourite early Decorated style (i.e. imitating buildings of c.1300).

Not completely standard, though, as there are a number of small eccentricities which mark it out. The tower, instead of being at the west end of the nave, is on the south of the west end, and doubles as a porch. The entrance to south porches is nearly always on the south, but here it's on the east. There's also an east door in the south transept. 

The tower has several subtle design features. On the south side there's a small oculus, a round window, with yin-yang tracery, and a stair turret that starts out square, like a miniature version of the tower itself,  but about half way up becomes octagonal and is topped by a little pepper pot cupola. While built, like the rest of the church, of flint with limestone dressings, the tower's top stage has a greater proportion of ironstone rubble than elsewhere; as a general rule, it's aesthetically satisfying when towers increase in complexity of design as the eye travels upwards. This same rule means that towers shouldn't have an abrupt termination with the sky at the top, but should have crenellations and/or pinnacles. Lilley has neither, but Jeckyll contrives to make this less of a problem by ensuring that the parapet is elaborated by means of chequerwork (tiles laid on edge alternating with stone). 

Stepping into the porch under the tower we find that it's built of brick inside, and that there are several monuments from the old church.

The nave is plain enough, but on the right of the chancel arch there's a doorway and a staircase that might at first be imagined to lead up to a non-existent rood loft.

In fact the stairs lead to the chapel of the Sowerby family on the first floor of the south transept (the ground floor is their burial vault). This is a beautiful, light-filled space, and enables us to look down into the chancel (an unusual vista in a parish church) and have a better view of its ceiling, and of the finely-detailed capitals of the arch communicating between the chapel and chancel - see the little bird in the photo above, for example.

But it's really the chancel itself where most of the interest lies, and in particular the ceiling, which Bettley/Pevsner call 'the glory of the chancel'. The panels depict emblems of St Peter - the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven and the inverted cross on which he was crucified - alternating with fleur-de-lys. The red paint and gold bosses look very splendid together; this is the only part of the church that looks as if it could have been made by the man behind the Peacock Room.

On the north side is the biggest relic of the old church, a reset arch, originally the chancel arch (and which now shelters the organ). This is very plain, without even a chamfer, and made from red tufa; offhand I can't think of anything else in the county made from this material. Tufa is created when spring water bubbles up beneath calcium carbonate-rich limestone; the water absorbs the chemical and then deposits it on the surface, and it over the millennia dries and hardens. The red tinge will be because of iron ore. Presumably the tufa was fairly local; it probably came from the bottom a nearby chalk escarpment where many springs emerge.

The east window, like all the glass in the church, is by the firm Heaton, Butler and Bayne. It dates from 1882 and seems to have been the first stained glass to be installed, so it evidently took the parish more than a decade after the completion of the building for funds to be raised to begin the glazing scheme. This excellent window depicts the Baptism of Christ, the Crucifixion and the Supper at Emmaus. 

According to the notes in the church, crosses on altars were rather frowned on in the 1870s, but the Rev Haviland, being presumably High Church, was determined to have one and that no one would remove it, so he ensured that the cross visible in the photo was made of stone and an integral part of the altar and reredos, so short of being attacked with a chisel it will stay where it is.

The west window, depicting the Ascension, is even better. It's from 1901, by which time much stained glass had descended into insipidity and sentimentality, but fortunately Heaton, Butler and Bayne managed to keep their standards up. 

Altogether Lilley is uncommonly interesting for a church of its date. What's more, despite being in the same benefice as Offley and King's Walden, which are impenetrably locked, it's always been open when I've visited (and the nearby Lilley Arms very welcoming).