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

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.


  1. Thank you for sparking a lunchtime discussion between me and my husband! The parish church at Eastwell, North Leicestershire also has steps (I think 2?) leading down from the door but it is dedicated to St Michael and All Angels. My husband draws church geometry as a hobby and has spent a long time trying to debunk modern myths about apotropaic marks when we speak to people about Medieval buildings and churches. This was a new one on us!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Karen. As I say, I know of only two sources for this myth, but it must be a bit wider spread than that. As for apotropaic marks, that's a fascinating subject that we'll never get to the bottom of (but does, I'd guess, have some basis in reality), but at least it's not as obviously preposterous as devil's doors and steps down symbolising stepping into the
    River Jordan!