Harpenden's former Norman parish church

St Nicholas church, as described in the early 1800s

Edward Wedlake Brayley

This extract is from The Beauties of England and Wales, published in 1808

Photo:St Nicholas Church, 1839, by J C Buckler FSA

St Nicholas Church, 1839, by J C Buckler FSA

Scan of print of watercolour painting from Harpenden, A Picture History, WEA 1973

Harden Church is dedicated to St Nicholas and, as appears from the style of the architecture, was erected in Norman times. It is built in the form of a cross, with a towere at the west end: the arches at the intersection of the nave and transept are plain and semi-circular; but are sustained on clustered columns, with varied capitals.


Photo:St Nicholas Church, interior, 1832, by J C Buckler FSA

St Nicholas Church, interior, 1832, by J C Buckler FSA

Scan of print of watercolour painting from Harpenden, A Picture History, WEA 1973


On each side of the nave are four arches, also semi-circular, rising from square massive pillars: two circular pilasters extend to the space under the tower. In the chancel is a neat cenotaph in memory of Godman Jenkyn, Esq. of this parish, who was buried at St Stephen’s. Several of the Cressies, formerly Lords of the Manor, lie buried here, for whom some inscriptions yet remain; the oldest of which records the memory of Matthew Cressey, and Joan, his wife, the daughter of Edmond Perient, Esq. of Digswell: the latter died in November 1478.

Another inscription is inserted in a slab in the east of the wall of the north cross, under the Brass figures of a male and female kneeling before desks, with the scriptures lying open on each desk, and above them, in the centre, their arms quartered, with a singular crest, of a hairy man rising from a basket on a helmet, and in the act of throwing the javelin; his left arm extended with a shield. The inscription has been very erroneously given, both by Chancy and Salmon, but it is as follows:

Here under lyeth buryed ye body of Willm Cressye Esquyre Deceased ye 24 daye of Octobre in ye ffyrst yere of Quene Elizabeth. Grace Johnes’ his wife dyed ye 14 Daye off fabruary, 1571, and was one of the Daughters of Robt Darkenhall of Wensharore in ye countie of Kente.”

**********

Notes from Harpenden, A Picture History

In 1861 it was decided, in spite of protests, to pull down the Norman church and build a larger one. Only the tower, rebuilt in 1470 following a fire, was left standing. Many of the memorials in the Norman church were saved and built into the walls of the tower where they can still be seen. The watercolour paintings by J C Buckler FSA show what was lost. Other local artists made sketches, shown below.

The main reason given for demolishing the old church was the cramped conditions for worship. The square box pews were rented by the principal residents and cottage women could occupy them only when the gentry were absent. Sunday School girls filled a west gallery and overflowed 'onto the communion' (up by the chancel). There were benches for twenty labouring men under the gallery and a few free seats in 'that there back aisle' where the massive Norman piers cut off all sight and most sound of the proceedsings. Here the boys were stowed. Bishop Wigram, when called in to adjudicate on whether to pull down the church or not, exlaimed "A boy must have a lively imagination who believes himself to be in God's House when sitting in this place".

During the re-building in 1861-2 services were held at Rothamsted Laboratory and in the British School which was temporarily licensed for marriages.

Photo:Pencil sketch of St Nicholas church from the north, June 1822, artist unknown

Pencil sketch of St Nicholas church from the north, June 1822, artist unknown

LHS archives, cat.no. B 3.46

Photo:Two watercolour sketches of St Nicholas Church, 1850s

Two watercolour sketches of St Nicholas Church, 1850s

LHS archives, cat.no. B 2.104

Photo:Pencil sketch of St Nicholas Church, 1850s?

Pencil sketch of St Nicholas Church, 1850s?

LHS archives, cat.no. B 2.105

Photo:Sketch of St Nicholas church from the south, 1850s?, artist unknown

Sketch of St Nicholas church from the south, 1850s?, artist unknown

LHS archives, cat.no. B 3.45

Photo:Watercolour of interior of St Nicholas church, 1850s?

Watercolour of interior of St Nicholas church, 1850s?

LHS archives, cat.no. B 3.55

Photo:Plan showing building phases of St Nicholas church, undated, 1960s?

Plan showing building phases of St Nicholas church, undated, 1960s?

LHS archives, cat.no. B 2.122

This page was added by Rosemary Ross on 17/07/2012.

If you're already a registered user of this site, please login using the form on the left-hand side of this page.