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

Tuesday 7 December 2021

Offley church, Herts: a 13th century sandwich


Offley stands atop what passes in Hertfordshire as a steep escarpment, which rolls down to Hitchin to the east and Bedfordshire to the north. The village's name means 'woodland clearing of a man named Offa', and it seems that all its inhabitants are determined to believe that this refers to Offa, King of Mercia (reigned 757-96), and that the place was special to him. It is claimed that he built himself a palace here, despite there being only the flimsiest evidence. The 13th century chronicler Roger of Wendover, a monk at St Albans Abbey, wrote in his Flores Historiarum (Flowers of History) that Offa 'died, according to the opinion of many, in the town of Offley', a statement that doesn't inspire much confidence as he was writing about poorly documented events that had taken place nearly half a millennium earlier.* Another St Albans monk, the more widely celebrated Matthew Paris, made similar claims but they were probably based on Roger's. 

In 1777 two late medieval tiles were found in the vicinity which were deemed to be Anglo-Saxon, and were placed in the church with a sign claiming that their discovery 'proves that King Offa was buried here', which would be cack-handed reasoning even if they'd got the dating right. The theory was exploded by John Edwin Cussans (1837-99), the historian of Hertfordshire, who rather spoilt everyone's fun by pointing out that the word 'ossa' (bone) on the tiles had been misread as 'Offa'. Nevertheless the 1903 Little Guide to the county states as fact that Offa had a palace here, but the more scholarly and level-headed 1912 Victoria County History doesn't mention Offa at all in connection with Offley. Sadly, there's nothing at all in the church from the 8th century (though the nave and aisles are coeveal with Roger of Wendover), but nevertheless it's an exceptionally interesting and rewarding place to visit (it's one of my ten best Hertfordshire churches).

The church is approached from the south west; the first things you see are the brick tower and the flint and clunch nave, aisles and porch. The tower is slightly unusual, having been built in 1800, before the Gothic Revival proper had got underway, but nevertheless it complements the medieval portion very effectively. It's in a slightly dumpy version of Gothic, with the arches of the windows and door depressed (i.e. flattened). It has one odd design feature, which is that the quatrefoils (in the circular windows below the sound holes) are so positioned as to have their cusps rather than their lobes at the top. 

Abbots Langley, Herts

The quatrefoil (a four-lobed circle) was a common feature of church design from about the mid 13th century onwards; above is a photo of the early 14th century east window of the south chapel of Abbots Langley, Herts, which incorporates one (with a lobe, not a cusp, at the top). Compare this with Offley's example from five hundred years later and you'll notice that the latter has been rotated through 45 degrees. I can't claim that this is absolutely unique, but it is rare. Whether the architect or builder was responsible for it, and whether it was done out of ignorance or a desire to be different, we don't know.

This minor oddity - probably very few spot it, or think it strange even if they do - is nothing compared to the surprise - almost shock - when you've walked around the exterior far enough to see the chancel (built in 1751-9 by the Salusbury family and updated in 1777). It is unusual in several ways. It's taller than the 13th century nave, which isn't unprecedented but is far from common. Together with the tower it sandwiches the nave, and, unlike the nave, which is mostly constructed of flint no doubt gathered from nearby fields, it is faced in expensive Portland stone brought from more than a hundred and fifty miles away. Most surprisingly, it seems to have no windows. (In fact it does have one small east window, but it's mostly lit by a glass cupola in the roof.)  It doesn't seem to fit with the nave or tower; in fact it looks like some kind of vault or fortress. The feeble-looking battlements and squat pinnacles don't help much. Only the fact that the interior is glorious compensates for the uncompromising, almost aggressive starkness of the exterior.

The nave and aisles look from the outside, thanks to the later windows, to be typical Herts Perp'n'flint, but inside their earlier origins can be seen. The arcades date from c.1220-30, with capitals displaying various forms of stiffleaf foliage, Some of them are wind-blown (i..e sculpted as if they're moving in the breeze) while others are much more static and stylised; presumably they were carved by two or more different masons.

It's not uncommon to find leaning pillars in churches; the weight of the nave roof means that often over the centuries they've been forced outwards. But Offley's arcades take this to an extreme. The perspective of the photo above exaggerates the lean, but not by much.

The font is a delight. Each of its eight faces has a design featuring blank tracery, as if from the top of a window. The arches are ogee-headed (i.e. they incorporate S-curves), a typical 14th century motif, but what's particularly interesting is that while some of the tracery is in the curvaceous Decorated style (prevalent c.1290-1350), including a 'correctly' oriented quatrefoil, some of it is Perpendicular (c.1350-1530), with many straight lines, especially vertical ones. It's unusual to find the two different styles side by side in one artefact. Bettley/Pevsner remark: 'So the date must be the second half of the 14th century,  and an unexpectedly long survival of Dec[orated] forms is proved.' Which might be true, but surely it's equally likely that the font dates from the mid 14th century, and proves how early Perpendicular forms found their way to relatively remote places such as Offley? After all, the style has its origins in the 1330s (in Gloucester Cathedral and elsewhere). But let's not allow a squabble over a few decades to spoil our enjoyment of this delicious piece, with its crockets, finials and rosettes all carved in high relief so the play of light over them enlivens the surface; it is, surely, a candidate for the best font in the county (along with AnsteyCaldecote and Ware).

Next to the font is a large monument to Sir John Spencer of Offley, the 3rd Baronet, who died unmarried in 1699, aged 21. He lies, propped up on one elbow, with his left hand pressed to his chest in slightly campy fashion as if to say 'Who, me?' He is dressed in ancient Roman armour (but he wears his very unRoman perriwig), although there is no evidence that he had any connection with the military.** He gazes up at a grim-faced woman, also in some form of classical garb, kneeling beside him who seems to be clutching something - a rolled up cloth? - to her chest with her left hand, and with her right points upwards and backwards. 

It's hard to read these gestures. Is the woman 'real'? Bettley/Pevsner assume that she is young Sir John's mother. In which case it looks as if she's giving him a good finger-wagging admonishment, and his reaction is sheepish surprise. But maybe she is an allegorical figure, representing perhaps Fate, and she is pointing in the general direction of the two putti floating above them, bearing a crown and palm leaves (which would seem to imply that he will retain his social status in Heaven). In either case, there is an implied narrative, the details of which remain elusive.

Bettley/Pevsner call this monument 'spectacular'; this seems to me to be an odd adjective to apply to it. It's impressive, certainly, but no more spectacular than many others. There have been previous attributions, but it's now generally agreed that it's from the workshop of Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721, so this is the quatercentenary of his death) who is best known as a carver of genuinely spectacular - they're practically miraculous - lime wood decorations (as seen, for example, in Petworth House, Sussex, Trinity College library, Cambs, and St Paul's Cathedral). His stone carving is prosaic in comparison.***

Before moving into the chancel it's worth pausing to look at some corbels and brasses (see the bottom of the page), and in particular the window at the east end of the north aisle. This has two panels of 18th century painted glass. Before the Victorian Gothic Revival, when the medieval methods of making stained glass were revived, figurative glass was painted rather than stained. In stained glass the colours are in the glass itself, but painted glass consists of coloured enamels applied to plain white glass (and then fired in a kiln). The left panel depicts, I think, King Saul threatening to kill David (as he suspects him of trying to usurp his throne), and the right could be the Marriage at Cana, where Jesus turned water to wine. Above each scene are some random fragments of late medieval stained glass.

We've seen the forbidding chancel from the outside; now let's go in. It's entered through a tall classical chancel arch with a plaster panelled soffit, and round-headed niches containing busts in the jambs on each side. Surprisingly, and fortunately, despite the lack of windows visible from the outside, it is light, spacious and handsome. It is in effect a Georgian mausoleum to the Salusbury family.

The overall style is, as you'd expect, classical, but there are some interesting Gothic (or rather Gothick, i.e. medieval-style details included for their picturesque appeal) features. The east window (which, as Bettley/Pevsner point out, is ridiculously small) is pointed, and while the arch of the apse is round the super-arch above it is pointed and encloses a (correctly aligned) quatrefoil and two mouchettes. 

The original semi-circular wrought-iron altar rail also features very pretty designs distantly reminiscent of Perpendicular window tracery. The scholarly study of Gothic forms didn't begin until the 19th century, but at least since Horace Walpole's Strawberry Hill mansion and the publication of Batty Langley's books for builders in the 1740s aristocrats and others had been happy to keep up with fashion by having Gothic details incorporated into their Georgian buildings.

The biggest monument commemorates Sir Thomas (d. 1773) and Dame Sarah (d. after 1804) Salusbury. Sarah had the chancel altered in 1777 to accommodate it, and for more than a quarter of a century saw this statue of herself every time she went to church. She was his second wife; the exact details are obscure, but there is a tradition that they originally met and became informally engaged many years before their marriage (presumably before his first marriage), but were then parted. They were eventually reunited beneath an oak tree; a charming story whether true or not. He is seen giving her a wreath, perhaps as a substitute for a ring which would have been too small to be easily seen, or too hard to carve in stone.

The monument is by Joseph Nollekens (1737-1823), and just as Bettley/Pevsner overpraise Gibbons' monument in the nave, it seems to me that they're unwarrantedly snooty about this one. Apparently it is 'very pretentious and self-confident' and the tree 'rather vulgarly detailed'. It's true that the faces are bland and without much personality, especially hers, but its originality of conception and design make it worth at least a modicum of praise.

The chancel's other major monument is to Sir Henry Penrice (1677-1752) and his son Spencer (1719-39). The father was a judge of the High Court of Admiralty, and the son an undergraduate at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, the library of which preserves the manuscript of his unpublished diary, which provides a lively insight into the life of 18th century students. Sadly, he died of smallpox, aged only twenty.

The monument is by Sir Robert Taylor (1714-88), whose greatest adventure came when he was studying in Rome in 1742 and news reached him of his father's illness. He determined to travel back to England, but the War of Austrian Succession was raging across Europe at the time and the only way he could pass safely across enemy lines was by disguising himself as a Franciscan monk. He dined out on this story - admittedly a good one - for the rest of his life. (Sadly, his father died before Robert reached him.)

The monument features the very animated, twisting figure of Truth, with a laurel wreath in her left hand (presumably she once brandished something such as a scroll in her right), set against an obelisk of pink and pale yellow marble. Above her are profile medallion portraits of father and son, while at her feet are military and naval objects. 

Nollekens also made these two busts, in the niches within the chancel arch. The first is to Samuel Burroughs (d.1761), who was Dame Sarah's father, and the second to Elizabeth Maude (d.1796), her friend. They both have far more personality than the figures in the large monument. He looks a bit pompous but kindly, while she is stern and disapproving, but with perhaps a hint of vulnerability.

The east window and altar (which was originally oval, which must have looked splendid) are sheltered by some flamboyant plasterwork. The painted glass is by William Peckitt of York (1731-95), the most prominent 18th century practitioner in this medium; it depicts Aaron. The central panel is painted on fifteen small rectangles of white glass (though some of them have broken and been patched). However, Peckitt was one of the few people at the time to experiment with making stained glass, and he has incorporated some into the deep blue border. I think the jewel-like border which runs around the edge (why is there a further border of plain glass?) is also stained glass. It's easy to overlook this window as 18th century glass is often dismissed as hardly worthy of attention, and it has so much competition in the chancel and the rest of the church, but it really is worth a look.

Unfortunately, having a look at the east window or anything else is difficult because Offley church is hard to get in, and has been for several decades. (There are two other churches in the same benefice, KIng's Walden, which is similarly impenetrable, and Lilley, which is open. I don't know why the policy differs.) 

* Roger devotes some space to the alleged barbarous punishments meted out by the Emperor Charlemagne, a contemporary of Offa. He 'put out the eyes of many who had incurred his suspicion', and 'those who kept vigils to God, who lived religiously, or who had in their possession the relics of saints, he condemned and deprived of their patrimonies, and subjected to every species of torment; he caused the beards of such as were more religious to be smeared with wax and pitch, and then to be set on fire.' Yikes.

** The fashion for men being depicted in classical dress on their monuments began in the 1620s, but became common only in the 18th century. So Sir John was something of a trendsetter. See this article.

*** This is his only church monument in the county. There are some decorative carvings by him in Moor Park mansion, now a golf club, but these aren't easily accessible by the public. 

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