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

Tuesday 15 March 2022

Digswell church, Herts: ancient and modern


Approaching Digswell church via the road gives the impression that it is completely encircled by the housing estates of Welwyn Garden City, of which Digswell is now a suburb. But walking along the paths to the east immediately reveals that this is misleading. Open wooded parkland gently dips down (and across the A1000) to the leafy Mimram valley, crossed by the forty herculean brick arches of Joseph Cubitt's railway viaduct (1848-50), which still carries the main London-Edinburgh line despite being only two tracks wide.

Long before metalled roads and iron railways and garden cities were thought of, before the Conquest, Digswell was part of the estate of the intriguingly named Ansgar the Staller (who derived his name from his delaying William the Bastard's appropriation of London for more than a month after the Battle of Hastings). The land went through  numerous owners before and after 1414, when it was conveyed to John Perient, whose descendants feature in the story of the church.

In 1771-3 Lancelot 'Capability' Brown (1716-83) landscaped the extensive grounds* of Digswell House.** Traces of his work survive, though much of it has been lost, initially in the early 19th century when a new owner, the 3rd Earl Cowper, decided to update his surroundings according to the rather more naturalistic style of Humphry Repton (1752-1818), and later by the demands of the Garden City, founded in 1920. 

The church too amalgamates old and new, from the 12th century through to the 1960s. No architectural details from the earlier period survive, though the walls of the chancel and nave probably date from then; the oldest surviving recognisable feature is the very simple arch, with just a single chamfer, between the nave and north chapel, which was built on the cusp between the 12th and 13th centuries (and is probably one of the first pointed arches in the county). The screen is early 16th century.

The double piscina is 13th century; it currently dispenses hand sanitiser rather than disposing of leftover communion wine: a sign of the times. 

Perhaps the church's most remarkable feature is found on the north wall: what looks like the top of a late 13th century window with geometrical tracery; it was probably originally part of a funerary monument. The design incorporates a quatrefoil and two trefoils framing, most remarkably of all, a dove (symbol of the Holy Spirit). It's hard to think of many other examples of tracery being embellished by figurative sculpture.*** Three corbels support the stonework, depicting a priest, a wimpled woman and a bishop.

The church was enlarged c.1530 by the addition of a tower squeezed into the north west corner, a north aisle and north chapel. The latter has a couple of image brackets featuring the arms of the Perient family (three crescents) quartered with crosses with floriated arms, which suggests that it was intended to be the family chantry chapel. The wooden ceiling with linked squares and hexagons also dates from the same period. However, the chantry wouldn't have been used as such for very long as they were abolished in 1545 as part of Henry VIII's reforms (and money-grubbing).

Another juxtaposition of differing periods, and of the mundane with the out of the ordinary, is found in the north aisle. It's probably part of an original rood screen, which became a tower screen, and is now a door leading from the kitchen which occupies the aisle. I love its curly ogee top. It dates from c.1540, and according to Bettley/Pevsner the carved frieze at the top is 'the earliest example in Herts of the new Renaissance fashion of ornamentation', though details in the new style had been appearing in English churches in some other places for a couple of decades by then.

The best post-Reformation monument is in the chapel; it commemorates William Sedley, who died in 1658 though he or his successors had to wait until 1673 for it to be erected. It's attributed to Joshua Marshall (1629-78), who was the master mason for the Monument (Wren's memorial to the Great Fire of London), for which he was paid £1500 (£355,000 today). Rupert Gunnis calls him 'one of the greatest statuaries of the 17th century', but Margaret Whinney opines that he had 'little power of invention'.**** In this monument he manages to combine restraint with sumptuous decoration, so in this instance at least I'm with Gunnis rather than Whinney. 

The church was restored in 1811, a slightly unusual date for such work to be carried out, and then by the Irish architect Henry Curzon (1839-91) in 1874-6. It's hard to know how much is visible of the earlier work; could the ceiling of the nave date from then? The later restoration presumably contributed the east window and very pretty chancel screen, among other things.

The glass in the east window also dates from 1874, and is an excellent example of the work of the firm Clayton and Bell; in the left light are prophets and apostles, on the right martyrs, all of whom are adoring, in the centre, Jesus who is depicted under a Lamb of God. The numerous splendidly attired figures are depicted against a bright blue background. (There's another fine window by the same makers in Berkhamsted.)

Welwyn Garden City was founded, as already stated, in 1920, and in 1948 was designated a new town. Consequently it expanded rapidly and subsumed Digswell (though, as also already mentioned, not completely so), and the population grew rapidly. By 1960 the church was too small, and so an extension was built on the south side. It does it rather an injustice to refer to it as merely an extension, because it much more than doubles the area of the old church, which becomes effectively a north aisle. The old chancel continues to function as such, but the old nave is now purely a social area.

The new church is by John Glanfield, about whom I can discover nothing, which is a shame as I think he did a pretty decent job. The exterior, now sixty years old, is bit drab and uncared for, and is done no favours by the prominent and starkly utilitarian service block which blemishes the south front, but altogether its updated version of Perpendicular windows (as found throughout the church except for the Decorated-style Victorian east window) is successful. The three big, linked five-light windows on the south, with alternating transoms and under depressed (ie almost flat) but just about pointed arches, are particularly good. The other windows are square-headed but have prominent mullions. It's all very rectilinear, though this is slightly relieved by the shallow apse.

All those windows create the impression that the interior will be airy and light, and this is indeed what we find. There are five Perpendicularesque arches linking the new and old churches, and three of them, communicating with the old nave, have tall, slender cruciform piers, a happy blending of old and new.

Most of the windows have clear glass, but the large south chancel has the colourful geometrical abstract St Albans window from 1982, by Mike Davis (about whom I can discover little except that, forty years on, he still seems to be working). In the nave the eight small windows have designs by Glanfield himself from 1977.

According to Mary Rensten (Hertfordshire Brasses, 1982), 'Digswell Church possesses some of the finest brasses in the county.' Sadly, I've never seen them as they're under large fitted carpets (not just rugs) and doing so would entail much shifting of furniture. It would probably be wise to make an appointment to see them rather than just turning up. The best I can do now is to reproduce the illustrations of rubbings from her book.

There are five brasses altogether, the oldest and largest (almost life-size) of which is also by far the most impressive. It commemorates Sir John Perient (or Peryent), who died in 1432, and his wife Joan who predeceased him in 1415. He was Esquire for the Body to three kings (Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V), pennon bearer to Richard II and Master of Horse to Joan of Navarre (the wife of Henry IV). He is dressed in full armour and armed with a sword and a dagger, and his feet rest on a spotted leopard (rather than a more usual lion). Details would originally have been picked out in enamel. 

She was the chief Lady-in-Waiting to Queen Joan, and was evidently something of a trendsetter. There are three details on her brass which are apparently unique to her: a framed crespine (which the OED defines as 'a net or caul (of gold or silver thread, silk lace, etc) for the hair, formerly worn by ladies') head-dress, the swan brooch on her collar, and the hedgehog at her feet. (The latter is very hard to make out on the rubbing.)

Their son, also Sir John Perient, who died only a decade after his father, is smaller and plainer, though the flowery tussock he stands on is attractive.

In the 80s I lived only a mile or so from the church for three years, yet never visited it as I assumed it wasn't worth the effort. How wrong I was. The more fool me.

Digswell church is open 9-12 on Fridays, and I can vouch for the warm welcome given to visitors and the very reasonable price of the tea and coffee on offer. I was even offered some sausage rolls for free, which, being a non-carnivore, I had to regretfully, but I hope not rudely, turn down. 

* He was paid £1100 for this work, the equivalent of about £179,000 today. (This otherwise useful website gets its decimal points in a twist and claims that it equates to £1,800,000.)

** Though the building we see today, next to the church and now divided into flats, was built in 1804-7 on the site of the previous house, by Samuel Wyatt.

*** The north chancel window of Dorchester Abbey, Oxon, is the only one that springs to mind.

**** A Dictionary of British Sculptors 1660-1851 and Sculpture in Britain 1530-1830 respectively.

A half-size reproduction of a ceramic candlestick made for Coventry cathedral

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