The subject of seating in the naves of medieval churches is surprisingly contentious; sharp words are exchanged on the subject on internet forums concerned with such things. (And if you really want to stir up a hornets' nest, try going on a Facebook page devoted to appreciating church architecture and suggest that Victorian pews should be thrown out of some churches.) Debate arises because we can't be sure exactly what the seating arrangements were in the Middle Ages. Did the congregation mostly stand? Certainly seats (in the form of pews or benches) made before the 15th century are only infrequently found in churches today; is this because they've been replaced over the centuries, or because there were never many of them in the first place? Documentary sources aren't much help, but the likelihood is that seats for the congregation were rare before this time.
What is clear is that by the 15th century seats were becoming more expected and common, as is shown by the existence of benches of that date in many churches (including some in Hertfordshire - see Wallington, for example). With the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century sermons were preached more often than before, and lasted longer. Box pews evolved to accommodate this development.
Box pews enclose a seat or seats in a 'box' of four wooden walls (ranging from about waist high to head height), with a door. They perhaps originated in the Netherlands, and reached England by the 1580s. Their purpose is to provide some comfort for the congregation so they can concentrate more easily on the sermons. The walls keep out the draughts (most important before heating was introduced to naves in the 19th century), but also provide privacy for the occupants. If the walls are high enough, no one (except perhaps the priest on his elevated seat beneath the pulpit) can see what is going on inside, so what was intended to be an aid to paying attention became a convenient way of potentially disguising various forms of inattention. In addition, box pews make it easier for families to sit together, and for seats to be reserved for and even owned by individuals or families.
The 17th and 18th centuries were the heyday of box pews; Jacobean and Carolean ones are often magnificent, while they tended to be more utilitarian in the Georgian era. But fashions and attitudes to religion change, and in the Victorian period they were generally thought unsuitable for services. The highly influential Ecclesiological Society promoted a return to medieval styles of buildings, fittings and ritual; box pews had no place in this. The members of the congregation shouldn't be able to hide themselves away, but should be in plain view. In addition, society was slowly becoming more egalitarian; the class differences that could be accentuated by box pews were by no means swept away, but it was thought that they shouldn't be quite so obvious and rigid. What's more, heating began to be introduced at about this time too, so the initial justification for box pews wasn't quite so pressing.
Consequently the great majority of churches summarily ejected their box pews, a great loss, and replaced them with the ubiquitous pitch pine pews that fill most naves nowadays (some would say an equally great loss). A small number of churches escaped the destruction, and most counties have a few that retain theirs;* Stanstead Abbots** is Hertfordshire's sole complete example (though Aspenden has a few). Its fittings remain intact because no one had got around to replacing them before 1880, when a new and more conveniently sited parish church, St Andrew, was built. The old church (St James) became a chapel of ease, which meant that it remained consecrated but was used for services only intermittently. By 1975 the Church decided it was no longer needed, and it was closed. Fortunately, in 1977 the Churches Conservation Trust (then the Redundant Churches Fund) decided that it was of sufficient importance to be worth preserving.
So Stanstead Abbots is the best place in the county to imagine what attending church was like from the later 16th century right through to the earlier 19th. The box pews are clustered around the pulpit (the sermon being the central focus of the services), which is positioned on the south wall of the nave. Those in the nave are of deal (a generic name for easily-sawn softwood), plainly panelled and roughly chest high, except in the eastern half where they're a little taller. They're thought to date from the early 18th century. Those in the north aisle are similar but made of more expensive oak, and are probably 17th century. (Some of these have little peepholes cut in them, the exact purpose of which is unknown; maybe they were intended to encourage servants to behave by making them feel watched.) It's worth sitting in one of the pews with the door shut behind you to begin to conjure up some sense of what services were like during the age of long-winded sermons, when the Church of England was determinedly lacking in 'enthusiasm' and going to church was seen by many as at least as much a social duty as an opportunity to worship God. Attendance was the done thing, but displays of piety were generally held to be faintly embarrassing; box pews were just the right furniture to suit these circumstances.
|Brass to a knight, c.1490|
|At his feet what appears to be a dog looking up at him adoringly|
|Brass to a married couple, c.1540|
|Brass to William Saxaye, d.1581|
|Henry Thomas Baucutt Mash (there's a fine name), d.1825|
|Mary Booth, d.1848|
The Reverend Robert Brittain is in the pulpit, fifteen minutes into his peroration and just beginning to get into his stride. You do your best to follow his drift, and an occasional phrase catches your ear and interest, but your attention keeps wandering. Sometimes you try to force yourself to listen, but your mind doesn't seem to want to obey. Your children are fidgeting and whispering; you shush them more than once, but you know that it's not going to work and before long relent and let the younger ones produce their simple wooden toys from their pockets to keep them amused. It's going to last for a while yet, so you pull the blanket a little more up over your legs, wriggle to make yourself as comfortable as possible, and hunker down.
The Churches Conservation Trust website states that the church is open every afternoon; however, this appears to be untrue. It is routinely open only on Sunday afternoons in the summer, though it would probably be possible to arrange visits at other times.
* I highly recommend Churches the Victorians Forgot, by Mark Chatfeld (1989), copies of which may be found for a song on Abebooks.
** The spelling is flexible. Chauncy (1700) calls it Stansted Abbot, that is, with no 'a', one 't' and no 's'. Sources more than about half a century old tend to call it Stanstead Abbots; contemporary sources (including almost all websites) call it Stanstead Abbotts. Looking for strict logic in such matters is a mug's game; however, since it is named after the abbots of Waltham Abbey, who once owned the place, I'm going to stick to one 't' and award it an 'a' for effort.