11 March 2023
Saint Peter and Saint Paul,
Watford: an early 14th century
church near the Watford Gap
During my visit to the village of Watford in Northamptonshire last week, in search of any traces of the Comberford Manor that existed from the mid-15th to mid-16th century, I also visited Saint Peter and Saint Paul Church, the parish church in this village which gives its name to the nearby Watford Gap on the M1.
For centuries, this was effectively an estate church for a succession of families, including the Burnabys, Clerkes, and then the Edens, later Lords Henley, who owned the manor in succession to the Parles, Comberford and Spencer families. However, all that survives of the 16th to 17th mansion at Watford Court, on the site of the Comberford Manor, is a pair of stranded gate piers on the road near the church.
Saint Peter and Saint Paul Church is a Grade I listed building on the west side of Church Street in Watford. The church has been re-opened recently following extensive roof repair and restoration works.
The main structure of the church was built between the early 14th century and the 15th century, with further work and additions in the 18th century and restoration work in the 19th century. The church now consists of a nave, north and south aisles, a chancel, a north chapel, north and south porches and a west tower.
The church is built of coursed and uncoursed ironstone rubble, the west tower is partly sandstone ashlar, and there is a lead roof. Chancel with north chapel, aisled nave.
The perpendicular chancel incorporates early 14th century work, and has a Perpendicular sedilia and piscina with cinquefoil arches. The five-light east window has a five-centred arch and panel tracery. There are three similar three-light windows on the south wall.
There are two similar three-light windows in the south wall to the east of the porch and two pairs of lancets to the west of the porch. There is a flat-arched Perpendicular window without tracery in the west wall of the south aisle and a straight-headed doorway of same date below.
The priest’s doorway from ca 1300 has a chamfered arch, and there is a three-light east window in the south aisle from ca 1300 with intersecting tracery.
Other features in the church include the 14th century south porch, the Perpendicular west tower with a castellated parapet and gargoyle waterspouts, traceried two-light bell openings, a four-light west window with panel tracery, a 14th century west window without tracery in the north aisle, and an early 14th century three-light window with reticulated tracery to the west of the north porch and two similar windows to its east, and a five-light window with geometrical tracery in the east wall of the north chapel.
An early 14th century tomb recess in the north wall has an arch with deep hollow mouldings and short jamb shafts with leaf capitals. The blocked 14th century double chamfered arch to the west is a former opening to north chapel.
The north chapel has been converted to the vestry. It has a panel opening to the east end of the north aisle that was blocked when a 19th century doorway inserted. Pevsner noted it had three further tomb recesses.
The three-bay nave arcades, also dating from ca 1300, have octagonal piers, double chamfered arches, and hoods with large head stops. There is a Perpendicular clerestory.
The altar rails date from ca 1800 and are in the Gothic revival style.
The restoration works in the church in the mid-19th century brought the introduction of low box pews and the stained glass in the chancel by Heaton, Butler and Bayne.
The east window is of five-lights with a five-centred arch and panel tracery and is part of the Perpendicular period build of the chancel. The stained-glass dates from 1863 and is the work of Heaton, Butler and Bayne.
The images include: Christ in the home of Mary and Martha; the corporal works of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink, sheltering the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, and visiting the prisoner; the impaled arms of Henley and Peel; two roundels with A and Ω; the four Evangelists; the 12 apostles; and floral patterns.
This east window is in memory of Julia Emily Augusta Peel, wife of Anthony Henley, Lord Henley, who died on 15 February 1862 at the age of 34.
A three-light window in the south wall of the chancel by Heaton, Butler and Bayne (1866) shows Christ raising Jairus’ daughter, accompanied by her parents, Saint Peter and Saint John. The text below reads: ‘The damsel is not dead but sleepeth.’
This window is in memory of Florence Mary Henley, eldest daughter of Arthur Henley, 3rd Baron Henley, and his wife Julia Augusta (Peel); she died on 28 May 1866 aged 18.
The Resurrection window in the south wall of the chancel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)
Another three-light window in the south wall of the chancel by Heaton, Butler & Bayne (1869), shows the Resurrection with the soldiers are shielding their eyes in terror. The text reads: ‘Behold there was a great earthquake, for the angel of the Lord descended from Heaven and came and rolled back the stone from the door and sat upon it.’ The window also shows angel musicians.
The window is in memory of Harriet Peel (died 1869), widow of Robert Henley Eden, 2nd Lord Henley (1789-1841).
Another windows on the south side of the chancel is yellow with purple tracery, and gives a sunny glow to the chancel when the afternoon sun shines.
The monuments in the chancel include one to Sir George Clarke, who died in 1649. This is a black and white marble architectural wall table with segmental pediment and black columns, and was described by the architectural historian Sir Niklaus Pevsner as ‘uncommonly noble.’
To the left of this, a monument to George Clarke, probably from the late 17th century, is an architectural wall tablet in grey and white marble.
The monument to Susanna Eyton, who died 1631, is a stone wall tablet with Tuscan columns, entablature with strapwork cresting and a long inscription on a wooden panel.
At the west end of the church, a small exhibition near the south porch remembers two residents of Watford, Thomas Rogers and his son Joseph, who were passengers along with other Puritans among the ‘Pilgrim Father’ on the voyage of the Mayflower in 1620.
The churchyard gates, designed by Christopher Fiddes, were commissioned to celebrate the millennium in 2000.
The parish registers survive from 1565, and the historic registers are held at Northamptonshire Record Office.
Watford is part of a united benefice with Long Buckby, West Haddon and Winwick, each parish retaining its own church. The benefice is currently vacant and seeking a new vicar.
• The services in Saint Peter and Saint Paul Church, Watford, for the rest of March and April 2023 are: Sunday 19 March, 4 pm, Mothering Sunday; Sunday 2 April, 10:30 am, Benefice Palm Sunday; Sunday 9 April, 4 pm, Easter Day; Sunday 16 April, 4 pm, Holy Communion. Saint Peter and Saint Paul Church, Watford is open daily 10 am to 4 pm.
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