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

Thursday 28 April 2022

Buckland church, Herts: a church built during the Black Death

There are at least eight places in England called Buckland, and several others which tag on another name to create a double-barrelled one, such as Buckland Monachorum. The name is common as it simply means 'book land', that is, a place that was established by a written document (such as a charter). The lord of the manor of the area that now includes the Hertfordshire Buckland, on the old Roman road Ermine Street (now the A10), was in 1252 granted the right to hold a market every Friday, and an annual three days' fair, at 'the New Cheping'. This is now the hamlet of Chipping ('chipping' in place names means market), a mile or so to the south of Buckland. Six years later he obtained a further grant to hold a market on Tuesdays, and another three days' fair, in Buckland itself. 

However, for unknown reasons neither market ever prospered, and both Buckland and Chipping remain tiny today (their combined population is less than three hundred). So the former is named after a 'book' that in fact had very little influence on or importance to it. In 1360 Elizabeth de Burgh, the lady of the manor, started a new market a few miles further to the south on some land she owned in Buntingford; this proved to be a success, and eventually became the focus of a thriving town. 

Buntingford didn't have a church of its own until 1614 (before then it relied on Layston for worship, a place which has in the intervening centuries dribbled away to become not much more than a name). Buckland, on the other hand, despite its size and lack of commercial success, has a church seemingly intended for a substantial congregation. How often its pews were packed I don't know. (Chipping has never been a parish and thus has no parish church.)

Buckland church is relatively rare in that we have an exact date for its construction. The historian of Hertfordshire, Nathaniel Salmon, who published his work in 1728, states that there was a stained glass inscription in the church, now lost, recording that 'Nicholai de Bakeland' (Nicholas of Buckland) built it in 1348. This is doubly interesting as we know that the chancel of Sandon was built in that same year, and trebly so because of course that was the year the Black Death reached England, which over the course of about 18 months killed something like half the population. It is strange that at least two Hertfordshire churches were under construction at the time and apparently unaffected by the devastation. Is it possible that rural Hertfordshire escaped the worst of the plague?

The mid-14th century origins of the church are best seen on the north side of the nave, where there are three standard Decorated windows, and on the south of the chancel. (The east window, with four rather inelegant daggers arranged in an X, could be a Decorated design but is a Victorian insertion.) The tower with its pyramidal roof was built half a century or so later, and the south aisle and porch added in the late 15th century. Evidently the failure of Buckland's market did nothing to stop the architectural ambitions of its inhabitants.

Inside, the absence of pews and abundance of clear glass means that the interior feels light, spacious and cordial. Entry is normally through the west door, so at once we have a vista of tower, tower arch, nave (with a promise of the south aisle off to the right), chancel arch and chancel. I'm normally as keen to extol 14th century Decorated work as I am to knock 15th century Perpendicular, but here I have to admit that the prettiest part of the church is the south aisle of c.1480.

The arcade is of three bays; the piers are lozenge-shaped, that is, they're square (though their corners have been chamfered) but arranged diagonally so that the sides are at 45 degrees to the axis of the church. They're also plain up to about head height, with simple capitals and graceful mouldings above. At the west end there's a very woebegone angel corbel.

Buried in the wall at the east end of the arcade are the remains of of a 14th century pier, the relic of an earlier chapel or transept demolished when the aisle was built. I wonder if there were arguments in the parish over this potential act of cultural vandalism.

The nave north windows have small label stops; carvings such as this often allowed the masons to exercise their imaginations and indulge in whimsicalities, but in Buckland this mid 14th century sculptor has produced six sensitive character studies. They all look serious and pensive, and it's easy to believe that they must be portraits of some of the parishioners of the day, and that their expressions reflect the plague that was (or had recently been) savaging the population (though of course this can only be speculative).

The aisle roof is original and has some attractive foliate bosses. (The wagon roofs of the nave and chancel are Victorian.)

In the nave windows there are some fragments of the original mid 14th century stained glass; we can only guess at the fate of the rest: deliberately smashed by iconoclasts, or simply the victim of Time and neglect? They're easy to pass over as not worth more than a glance, but in fact they are unusually interesting and deserve a close look (preferably via telephoto lens or binoculars as they're tiny). They both show figures in architectural settings. In one a man in a short tunic is standing within a niche under a pinnacle supported by turrets and flying buttresses, and essaying what look like some hot disco dance moves. In the others there are two near-identical three-aisled buildings (presumably churches) - note the dodgy perspective of the central windows - with, again, flying buttresses, and what might possibly be intended to be domes. Two pairs of women stare each other out from the left and right. Both the women on the left sides seem to me to have a malevolent glare. What religious scenes did these personages once preside over? Alas, we'll never know.

There are three brasses on the floor of the chancel.

Alice Boteler, d.1451. Mary Rensten (in Hertfordshire Brasses) suggests that this could be the same Alice who was appointed as governess in 1424 to the two year old Henry VI (who'd been king since he was nine months old), but apart from the name there appears to be nothing to suggest this.

John Gyll, d.1499. His six daughters are also commemorated, but the brass to his sons is missing.

William Langley, d.1478, Rector of Buckland. Again according to Rensten, this is one of only two medieval brasses in the county showing a communion wafer above a chalice (the other is in Clothall). There was once an inscription (probably a prayer) around his head in a kind of halo.
There are a couple of notable monuments. 

Under the tower we find this to John Clare, d.1772, signed by John Richards of Bishopsgate, who isn't included in Rupert Gunnis's Dictionary of British Sculptors 1660-1851 (at least not the first edition) and seems to have left no footprint on the internet.* This is strange as it's a real swagger piece by an obviously competent artist. 

The other one is to Susan Clerke, d.1635, attributed to Edward Marshall (1598-1675), who was appointed Master-Mason to the Crown in 1660. (He also had fourteen children, only one of whom survived him.) While the Clare monument is Rococo, this one shows the influence of Mannerism (notice, for example, the deliberately awkward pose of the mother and children - probably symbols of Charity - on the right of the stony-faced bust), which would have been rather passé in mainland Europe but was the latest thing in England.

The church was restored in 1874-5 by Gordon Macdonald Hills, who, according to notes in the church, was architect to the Rochester diocese of which Buckland was a part (the St Albans diocese not being created until 1877).** His work is most obvious in the chancel; the musician angel label stop above is due to him. for example.

He also built the vestry. It is now crammed with various paraphernalia and assorted junk. I find the heater in its fireplace somehow very affecting (though whether it dates back as far as the 1870s I don't know); I can picture the priest huddling over it as he prepared himself to take a service on a cold winter's Sunday morning, with a couple of dozen of the parishioners waiting in the even colder nave. The forgotten vases and jugs on the mantelpiece, and the portrait photograph that's slipped down from its mount, are almost equally melancholy and evocative of people and ways of life long gone.

In 1980 the church was declared redundant; it's perhaps surprising that it clung on so long, given the number of inhabitants it served. Fortunately it was vested in the Churches Conservation Trust (then called the Redundant Churches Fund), and they care for it still. Consequently it's open every day.

* Unless he's to be identified with (which seems very unlikely) John Inigo Richards (1731-1810), a landscape painter and one of the founders of the Royal Academy.

** He also restored Puttenham and Throcking churches, but post-1877.

There's a fascinating article about the graffiti in the church on the Raking Light website; see here.
Nave roof

East window by Alexander Gibbs, 1883

Stained glass in the lowside window by Hemming, 1880s; Jesus with the cleansed leper

Alarming notice on the back of the organ

Stained glass by Hemming, 1886

South aisle

Looking west
Door to rood loft

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