Churches and Chapels

St Nicholas is the parish church, but Harpenden did not become a fully separate parish until 1859.  Until then it lay within the parish of Wheathampstead (Hwaethanstede) which was a gift from King Edward the Confessor in 1060 to Westminster Abbey, as part of the royal endowment for the rebuilding of the Abbey.  It is doubtful if there was a church in Harpenden at that time, but in the following century a separate ‘chapel-of-ease’ was dedicated to St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra and patron saint of travellers.  A papal deed of 12 December 1319 granted the right to hear “Masses and other Divine Services” in the parochial chapel of St Nicholas, and to bury the dead within the precincts of the chapel out of consideration for the difficulty they had in carrying the corpses all the way to St Helen’s in Wheathampstead, particularly in bad weather because of floods “and other dangers of the roads”.

At the Reformation, Harpenden received its own charter in 1537; the ‘Great Bible’ in English arrived here in 1541 and in 1543 the English litany was introduced.  There is no way of knowing how parishioners felt about the confiscation of images, shrines, rood lofts and other aspects of ‘popery’ during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI, but Protestantism was firmly established when Elizabeth I came to throne in 1558.

With Dissent growing during the seventeenth century, there is evidence in family and other records of families of Quakers, Baptists, Anabaptists, Methodists and other nonconformists in the area.  The Toleration Act of 1689 provided for the licensing of dissenters’ meeting houses. 

During the mid-nineteenth century the Anglican parish church founded missions which developed into the churches of All Saints, Coldharbour, St Mary’s, Kinsbourne Green, and St John the Baptist.  Methodist, Congregationalist (Independent), Salvation Army, Catholic, Quaker, Brethren, and Evangelical places of worship became established in Harpenden from the early nineteenth century and into the twentieth century.

The history of Church and Chapel is more fully described in Vol.3 of Wheathampstead & Harpenden (WEA 1975 – see the Local History Society’s Publications).


Page link: Bellringers for the 1953 Coronation
Bellringers for the 1953 Coronation
The Bells of St Nicholas rang out
Page link: Burglary at Bowling Alley, 1846
Burglary at Bowling Alley, 1846
From the Hertford Mercury & Reformer, 26 December 1846
Page link: Crabtree Church
Crabtree Church
from its origins in the United Missions Chapel on West Common, to 139 Crabtree Lane
Page link: Harpenden's former Norman parish church
Harpenden's former Norman parish church
St Nicholas church, as described in the early 1800s
Page link: School Feasts in 1869
School Feasts in 1869
as reported in Harpenden Parish Magazine, August and September 1869
Page link: Southdown Methodist Church
Southdown Methodist Church
The oldest Primitive Methodist chapel in Hertfordshire still in use as a Methodist church
Page link: Sunday School Picture from late 1950's.
Sunday School Picture from late 1950's.
St Nicholas Church, Harpenden.
Page link: Harpenden in the 1860s, recalled in 1935
Harpenden in the 1860s, recalled in 1935
The Parish Church; the 'rope walk'; and village pranksters
Page link: Methodism in Harpenden
Methodism in Harpenden
From cottages to four churches
Page link: The Reformation comes to Harpenden
The Reformation comes to Harpenden
Henry VIII's permission to the people of Harpenden to bury their dead 1537
Page link: The Bells of St Nicholas
The Bells of St Nicholas
From three in 1552 to eight in 1990 - and two Oldfield bells