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

Sunday 5 June 2022

Sandridge church, Herts: a stone chancel screen


Screen from the east

Sandridge, a couple of miles north of St Albans, is one of those churches that has an outstanding headline act - in this case, a stone medieval chancel screen - but which turns out to have a fine supporting cast too.

There are plenty of stone screens in cathedrals and other major churches (such as abbeys), where they're called pulpita (singular, pulpitum), but there are only maybe a couple of dozen medieval examples in English parish churches, and Sandridge's is the only one in Hertfordshire. 

Screen from the west; watercolour, J C Buckler, 1840

Screen from the east; watercolour, J C Buckler, 1839

We know what the screen originally looked like thanks to J C Buckler, who painted numerous pictures of Hertfordshire churches in the 1830s and 40s and to which I often refer; they are now in the County Records Office in Hertford. It was constructed in the late 14th century, and the openings are Perpendicular in design, as would be expected from the date, but they are embellished with fleurons in the jambs, a feature more commonly associated with the Decorated style of earlier in the century. This embellishment is found only on the east-facing side, which is unusual as generally the side seen by the congregation rather than the clergy is the more elaborate of the two. 

Screen from the east

Screen from west

When the screen was built the original chancel arch was retained. This is of Roman brick (presumably salvaged from nearby Verulamium (Roman St Albans)), and probably dates from the late 11th or early 12th century. Whether its preservation was a result of reverence for an earlier structure or a purely practical matter we don't know.

One delightful and individual detail of the screen is that on the east there are low buttress-like projections on either side of the door, with small reclining figures on them. The one on the south is bearded, has his right hand up to the side of his face and holds a rosary his left; the figure on the north is more damaged but seems to be a woman as she has a wimple; she holds her left hand up to her chin. He is certainly looking across at her, while it's unclear if she's looking at him or not. The Statutory Listing suggests that they may represent donors; they relax there as if eternally listening to the services and each other.

Bettley/Pevsner name Thomas Wolvey (fl.1397-d.1428) as the mason possibly responsible for the screen. He worked on Henley-on-Thames church and Westminster Hall, and probably designed the clock tower which still stands in central St Albans. It's likely that he was the Master Mason of St Albans Abbey for the last three decades of his life, and worked on several churches in the area, and Newnham in the north of the county. He's buried in St Michael's, St Albans

Quite apart from its antiquarian interest the screen is aesthetically pleasing. The church was restored in 1886-7 by William White (1825-1900); he entirely rebuilt the tower and the rest of the west end, but also worked on the screen. Comparing the photo above with Buckler's watercolours shows that he left the screen itself untouched, but that he replaced all the masonry forming the east wall of the nave with an openwork timber screen, in order to reduce the weight the stone screen was supporting. (A similar structure can be seen outside in the half-timbered east gable of the nave.) Given that this was necessary I think that the result is very successful, with the wooden panels mirroring the stone ones below.

The three-bayed nave is late 12th century, with square scalloped capitals on octagonal piers. Some of the capitals have odd volutes at the corners, like monstrous faces. The font must be of a similar date, or perhaps a little earlier.

The tower arch belongs to a later period, the 13th century, as is evident from the two damaged stiff-leaf capitals. The tower itself is otherwise entirely by White and is concrete, not stone.

The east window, a so-so Ascension from 1887, is by Ward and Hughes.

St Christopher, an early work by Christopher Webb (1886-1966), 1916. There's an Enid Blytonesque charm to the three children presenting daisies to Christ.

St Michael slaying Satan in the form of a dragon, by John Hayward (1929-2007), 1957. This is, surely, the best window in the church. It is highly dramatic, the scene packed into a partial circle except for some details which spill into the quarries. The dragon is fearsome, but St Michael, with his magnificent wings which almost cage it, is up to the task and stabs him with his spear-staff despite being encumbered with the scales with which he weighs souls.

The most recent window, from 1992, was designed by Peter Archer and made by his own Chapel Studios. It features a quotation from Psalm 23 and a gently meandering river. It's a most attractive piece.

In 2004-5 the west end was reordered by Bruno Hooker; the most striking feature of this is the engraved glass screen which has turned the ground floor of the tower into a separate room. There are lively but hard to photograph birds and fishes.

This is only tangentially relevant, as he may not have ever set foot in Sandridge's church, but in researching for this post I came across Laurence Clarkson (1615-67), and I can't resist adding something about him. (He has a Wikipedia entry and one in the Dictionary of National Biography.*) He was the Baptist minister in Sandridge for about a year in 1646/7 before he was sacked for his unorthodox views. His fame (such as it is) rests on his having gone through six religions during his life (or, more accurately, six versions of Christianity). He was born into Anglicanism, then became a Presbyterian, an Independent, an Antinomian (as a Ranter), a Baptist, and finally a Muggletonian (all this against the background of the Civil War; he had joined Col. Fleetwood's regiment of the New Model Army). The shades of difference between these sects may be hard for us to grasp (or care much about) nearly four centuries later, but at the time they were argued and even fought over. He also, at various times, practiced astrology, healing and magic, rejected conventional morality, and was notorious for his libertinism.

He wrote one of the earliest English memoirs, The Lost Sheep Found, published in 1660 under the name Laurence Claxton, but unfortunately I can't recommend it as an enjoyable read: it concerns itself mostly with obscure theological disputes and self-justification (he particularly has it in for the Quakers), and the paragraphs are often many pages long. There are a few moments of unintentional comedy, as when in 1645 he was arrested and put on trial in Bury St Edmunds, during which the judge questions him with rather suspicious persistence about 'dipping' (baptising) naked women (which he denies having done). Occasionally he writes in a more anecdotal and lively style:

But now to return to my progress, I came for London again, to visit my old society; which then Mary Midleton of Chelsford, and Mrs Star was deeply in love with me, so having parted with Mrs Midleton, Mrs Star and I went up and down the countries as man and wife, spending our time in feasting and drinking, so that Taverns I called the house of God; and the Drawers [ie drawers of drink, the barmaids and barmen], Messengers; and Sack [fortified wine], Divinity; reading in Solomons writings it must be so, in that it made glad the heart of God; which before, and at that time, they improved their liberty, where Doctor Pagets maid stripped herself naked, and skipped among them, but being in a Cooks shop [well supplied with pleasures of the flesh], there was no hunger [desire/lust], so that I kept myself to Mrs Star, pleading the lawfulness of our doings as aforesaid, concluding with Solomon all was vanity. (pp28/9)

He became a Muggletonian in 1656. The sect was founded in 1651 by Lodowicke Muggleton; they were apolitical, pacifist and egalitarian, and believed, among other things, that God takes no interest in events on Earth and will not intervene until the Last Judgement. The last known meeting (they didn't hold services as such) of Muggletonians was as recently as 1940. Clarkson, however, died in Ludgate debtors' prison in 1667; he had fallen into debt because he lent £100 to some people to assist in the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666, and they absconded with it. An unfortunate end to a unusually full life.

* Anyone with a (free) UK library card will be able to access this; overseas readers will need a subscription.)

Sandridge church went through a phase of being locked, but thankfully seems to have returned to being generally open.

The Statutory Listing calls this a 'broached spire'. It is in fact a splayed foot spire.

Later medieval tiles

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