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

Monday 27 June 2022

Watton-at-Stone church, Herts: an embarrassment of battlements

Icknield Indagations: 150,000 page views as of June 2022. 173 posts in a little less than seven years.

The name Watton-at-Stone probably means 'place by the stone where woad is grown', (the 'stone' possibly referring to Stone Street, a Roman road). The church, which isn't predominantly made of stone (it's mostly flint, like the majority of churches in the county), is perhaps the closest thing Hertfordshire has to a grand Perpendicular structure in the manner of Suffolk or Norfolk. It is embattled almost throughout, and has no fewer than three stair turrets poking up above the parapets (one providing access to the roof of the tower, the others to the now vanished rood loft and/or the other roofs), creating exciting vistas of converging and diverging angles. In the later Middle Ages it was fashionable for churches to display their grandeur by having crenellations silhouetted against the sky (this is probably partly why so many nave and chancel roofs were lowered in pitch at this period), and any visitor will certainly get their fill of battlements here.

It's highly likely that there was a church here before the 15th century, when the present one was built, but there isn't a single identifiable feature from that earlier church extant. This is unusual, as it's generally possible to find remnants and fossils of previous buildings embedded in medieval churches, and identifying them to trace the building's history is one of the things that makes their study so absorbing. 

The north chapel dates from the mid 16th century.* Joseph Clarke (1819/20-81)** subjected the whole church to a thorough restoration in 1851; he was responsible for the design of the enjoyably showy ogee-headed door on the south of the chancel and many other features.

Inside, the arcades are tall and stately with elaborate mouldings. 

The ribbed tunnel vault of the north chapel dates either from the early 17th century (the Statutory Listing), or Clarke's 1851 restoration (Bettley/Pevsner). Its white ribs against the light blue plaster are a pretty sight. The corbels (which must be decorative rather than functional, and thus not really corbels at all) depict, of all things, and most delightfully, elephants' heads (with rather human ears), the crest of the Smith family who bought the manor and house of Woodhall (in Watton) in 1801. (The only other church I know with similar corbels is Wickham, Berks, where they depict the entire front half of elephants, not just the heads, and are made of papier mache.)

In the south aisle is this monument to Philip Boteler (d.1712) and his wife Elizabeth (d.1740). They both lean on a pedestal which looks too tall and top-heavy to remain upright if one of them removes their elbow. He is dressed in contemporary costume while she wears that of a Roman and looks a bit glum or perhaps just bored. Maybe the monument was made after her husband's death, and before hers. They're both seen frontally and kneeling (though nothing else about their demeanour suggests they're praying), but as their legs are notionally subsumed by the wall behind them it looks as if their legs have been amputated below the knee. 

There are plenty of other monuments, most of them in the north chapel, which was locked on the day of my visit (it doubles as the vestry); fortunately a reasonably good view can be had through the screen. The best is perhaps the one illustrated immediately above, to Sir Thomas Rumbold (d.1791), by John Bacon Senior (1740-99). 

On the south side of the chancel are two colourful windows dating from the time of the church's restoration in 1851; unfortunately their maker is unknown. Each has four tiers of roundels, three of which are geometrical-floral, and one pictorial. The latter show: the Prodigal Son leaving his father; the Prodigal Son as a swineherd (it's not often that you see pigs in stained glass); the Prodigal Son is welcomed home; the Adoration of the Magi; the Flight into Egypt; Jesus disputing with the Doctors. Each little scene is compactly composed.

For me the most striking object in the church is the east window, which also dates from 1851. It depicts three New Testament scenes: the Nativity, the Deposition from the Cross, and Noli Me Tangere. Originally it had a companion piece depicting three Old Testament scenes: Moses and the Brazen Serpent, Passover and Abraham's Sacrifice of Isaac. However, for somewhat obscure reasons this was ejected from Watton in 1861 and found a home in Datchworth.

In Martin Harrison's Victorian Stained Glass (1980) he confidently attributes the Watton window to Charles Clutterbuck. (The Datchworth window is clearly by the same hand.) However, in the decades since then he has changed his mind and now assigns it to the English artist William Jay Bolton (1816-81), who made what was probably the first figural stained glass produced in the United States, completed in 1843 when he was living there from 1836 to about 1845. In the latter year he returned to England and set up a stained glass workshop in Cambridge, which is where the Watton and Datchworth windows were presumably made. In 1848 he began to study for the priesthood at Gonville and Caius College in that city (an older than usual undergraduate at 32); he married in 1849, but tragically his wife died only a month after the birth of their daughter the next year. He seems to have given up stained glass round about this time (how this chronology fits with the production of the Watton window in 1851 is unclear; perhaps it was made before the restoration of the church). He was ordained a deacon in 1853 and as a priest in 1854. He remarried in 1855 and he and his wife went on to have five children. Bolton spent the rest of his life as a curate and then a vicar; he wrote books of Christian apologetics but as far as is known never returned to visual art. His entire career in stained glass lasted less than a decade; it's remarkable that he produced work of such quality in such a short time.

Bolton's very painterly style is quite unlike most Victorian glass (as well as that of most medieval glass). This window is like an oil on canvas painting transferred to glass, which is usually something to be avoided, yet it works beautifully here. 

Watton-at-Stone church was locked for many years, but thankfully recently the policy has changed and now it is generally open. Entrance is via the north porch.

* According to Bettley/Pevsner. Other sources, including the Statutory Listing, assign it to the later 15th century, while some (surely erroneously) date it to 1851. I'm inclined to agree with Bettley/Pevsner that it post-dates the Reformation and is thus an example of the Gothic style's continued use. 

** He also designed Apsley church, and restored that of Bishop's Stortford.

George III coat of arms

Piscina and sedilia

15th/16th cen parish chest

Arcade between chancel and chapel by Clarke, 1851. The screen, like all the dark, heavy, shiny woodwork  in the chancel must be from the same or a similar date

Victorian pelican in its piety

From the north west

South porch

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