16 November 2023
Saint Peter’s Church in
Berkhamsted is one
of the largest churches
Before things got hectic in London two weeks ago, Charlotte and I had dinner with extended family members in Berkhamsted. I have been through Berkhamsted many times on the train between Milton Keynes and London, but this was an opportunity to visit both Berkhamsted and Saint Peter’s Church, one of the largest churches in Hertfordshire. So, I decided to go back there yesterday, and have a second look at the church and some other interesting places in the market town.
Saint Peter’s Church stands on the High Street in Berkhamsted – once known as Great Berkhamsted – and is easy to find with its clock tower rising to a height of 26 metres (85 ft). The earliest part of the church dates from ca 1200, and its architectural details represent at least five architectural periods.
Saint Peter’s is close to Berkhamsted Castle, and in the past the church had a long association with kings and royalty. For many centuries, the reigning monarch was the patron, nominating the rectors of Berkhamsted.
The oldest church in the area is Saint Mary’s Church, Northchurch, about 2.3 km (1.4 miles) north-west of Saint Peter’s. It has Saxon origins and is mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086). The Parish of Great Berkhampstead was formed soon after, and Saint Mary’s Church was originally known as Berkhampstead Saint Mary. After the Norman Conquest, the focus of political and church power moved south to the area around Berkhamsted Castle.
A chapel stood within the walls of Berkhamsted Castle from the 11th century, and it was rebuilt ca 1250 by Richard of Cornwall. Another chapel dedicated to Saint James may have stood in the town for many centuries, perhaps on the present site of the Post Office.
Saint Peter’s is said to have been founded ca 1222, when Robert de Tuardo, the first known rector, was instituted by the Bishop of Lincoln, Hugh of Wells. The parish was within the large Diocese of Lincoln, extending from the Humber down to London, until it was transferred in 1843 to Rochester and then in 1877 to the new Diocese of St Albans.
In the mid-14th century, Henry of Berkhamsted was Constable of Berkhamsted Castle under Edward the Black Prince and fought with him at the Battle of Crécy in 1346. A stone chest tomb in the Lady Chapel is said to be Henry’s tomb.
Saint Peter’s had eight successive rectors between 1369 and 1386, the shortest being Thomas Payne, whose was there for only nine days. The high turnover of rectors at the time may have been caused by the plague.
John de Waltham was the rector of Saint Peter’s from 1379 for 16 months. He later became Bishop of Salisbury in 1388, and was Lord Privy Seal and Lord Treasurer. When he died, Richard II honoured him with a tomb in the Chapel of Saint Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey, the only person not of royal blood to be buried in the royal chapel.
The rectors of Saint Peter’s were presented by the Abbot of Grestein until 1381, when Peter de Burton was presented by King Richard II
Robert Incent, a parishioner in the 16th century, was the secretary to Cecily Neville, Duchess of York and mother of Edward IV and Richard III, at Berkhamsted Castle. His son, John Incent, was an agent of Thomas Cromwell during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. He was the Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London (1540-1545), and founded Berkhamsted School in 1541. The Incent family home on the High Street, opposite the church, is known today as Dean Incent’s House.
When Sir Adolphus Carey of Berkhamsted Place died in 1609, he was buried in Saint Peter’s. His funerary helmet was displayed for years, hanging above the tomb of Henry of Berkhamsted. It was stolen in the 1970s and has never been recovered.
The Revd Thomas Newman was the rector for over 40 years, from 1598 to 1639. He was a Chief Burgess of Berkhamsted and mayor in 1631. But he fell out of favour politically when he opposed the enclosure of common land by the Duchy of Cornwall and was barred from Saint Peter’s rectory by Act of Parliament.
Newman’s successor, the Revd John Napier, became the Rector in 1639. During the English Civil War, he was ejected by Parliament and was replaced by a series of Puritan ‘intruders.’
General Fairfax turned Saint Peter’s into a military prison in 1648 to hold captured royalist soldiers. The church was full of maimed, hungry soldiers, and Fairfax removed the church windows to allow ventilation.
The regicide Daniel Axtell was born in Berkhamsted and baptised in Saint Peter’s in 1622. He commanded Cromwellian forces in Ireland and was Governor of Kilkenny, before returning to Berkhamsted in 1656. After the Caroline restoration, Axtell was executed in 1660 for his part in the trial and execution of Charles I.
As for Napier, he lived in Buckinghamshire for 18 years. During his absence, he continued to record the baptisms of his own children in the Berkhamsted parish register, signing himself as rector. He was restored as the Rector of Great Berkhamsted in 1670 and remained in office until 1681.
After the Caroline restoration in 1660, John Sayer of Berkhamsted Place was appointed chief cook to King Charles II. When Samuel Pepys visited Sayer in 1661, he recalled in his Diary, Sayer took him to his wine cellar ‘where, by my troth, we were very merry, and I drank too much wine … I drank so much wine that I was not fit for business.’
Sayer died in 1682, and left £1,000 to build a row of almshouses on the High Street, with 12 rooms to accommodate six poor widows. His elaborate marble tomb is in the Lady Chapel.
The reigning monarchs remained the patrons of Saint Peter’s until the 18th century. Charles II presented Napier’s successor, the Revd Robert Brabant, in 1681. When the Revd John Cowper became rector in 1722, the role of patron was exercised by Prince George, Duke of Cornwall and the future George II.
Cowper was the father of the poet and hymn-writer William Cowper (1731-1800), who was baptised in Saint Peter’s. His popular hymns include ‘Oh! for a closer walk with God.’ His hymns give the English language the phrase ‘God moves in a mysterious way.’
Cowper was an active abolitionist in the anti-slavery movement. He was quoted by the Revd Martin Luther King in his protest speeches in the 1960s. The East window in Saint Peter’s Church commemorate Cowper’s life and his hymn-writing.
The Revd John Wolstenholme Cobb documented Berkhamsted’s past in his History and Antiquities of Berkhamsted while he was curate of Saint Peter’s (1853-1855). He returned to the parish as rector in 1871-1883.
Parishioners in the 19th century included Augustus John Smith, Lord Proprietor of the Scilly Islands (1834), and George Dorrien, Governor of the Bank of England (1818-1820).
When the Revd James Hutchinson became rector in 1851, Prince Albert Edward, later Edward VII, acted as the royal patron. After the local estates of the Duchy of Cornwall were sold to the Ashridge Estate in 1862, the rectors of Great Berkhamsted were presented by the Earls of Brownlow. Hutchinson’s successor, the Revd John Wolstenholme Cobb, was presented by Lord Brownlow in 1871.
Saint Peter’s Church is cruciform in shape. It is 51 metres (168 ft) long from the west door to the east window and is 27 metres (90 ft) wide across at the transepts. The chancel is the oldest part of the church and is dated ca 1200. The church is in the Early English style, and the transepts, dating from the reign of Edward II, are from the Decorated Period.
The church expanded westwards in the 13th century, with the nave, transepts and crossing added after the chancel was built. North and south aisles were added to the nave in 1230, and the north transept was extended to the east. This extension was later used as a vestry and today it is the Lady Chapel.
On the south side of the chancel, the chapel of Saint Catherine was added in 1320. Saint John’s Chantry was built onto the south aisle in 1350 and was later used by Berkhamsted School.
A clerestory was added to the nave in 1450, raising its height, and a large timber pillar was added to the middle of Saint John’s Chantry. The tower was raised to its present height (26 metres) in 1545-1546, when the church reached its present size.
The teachers and boys of Berkhamsted School had a narrow escape in the 1700s when, moments after they left Saint John’s Chantry, the main beam gave way and the ceiling collapsed. The crash revealed a set of mediaeval painted figures on the pillars, depicting 11 apostles and Saint George, seemingly ‘whited over’ by Puritan iconoclasts in the 17th century.
Sir Jeffry Wyatt or Wyatville (1766-1840), a member of the Wyatt dynasty of architects, began a major restoration in 1820. But his work was controversial and he was criticised for his destruction of many original features. He removed ancient monuments and covered the outer walls with stucco. He moved the font from the west end to the south porch, walled up doors, moved the Torrington tomb to the transept, obliterated many old inscriptions, and erected a new gallery at the west end. At the time, the peal of six bells was recast into eight.
William Butterfield (1814-1900), the architect of All Saints’ Church, Margaret Street, London, Keble College, Oxford, and Saint Mark’s Church, Dundela, Belfast, carried out another restoration in 1870-1871. His work also involved the removal of some original features, including the obliteration of the paintings on the pillars.
Butterfield raised both the roof and the floor of the chancel, raised the roof of the south transept to its original pitch, removed the vestry, incorporated the south porch into the south aisle, refloored the nave, installed new oak benches and replaced Wyattville’s gallery.
Butterfield also installed clear windows in the clerestory, allowing more light into the nave, and extended the aisles by knocking down dividing walls at the west end. He removed Wyattville’s crumbling plaster on the exterior and refaced the walls with flint flushwork. To mark the completion of Butterfield’s work, the Archbishop of Canterbury preached in Saint Peter’s in January 1888.
Saint Peter’s underwent further restoration in 1956-1960, when the tower and nave were re-roofed, Saint Catherine’s Chapel and the nave were refurbished and a large mural of the Ascension that covered the wall over the tower arch was painted over.
When the church was re-ordered, the high altar and sanctuary area were brought forward under the tower crossing in 1960, and iis on a raised white marble floor. The gilded reredos is a reworking of the 15th-century rood screen, with carved figures of 12 saints.
To the left of the sanctuary, a long brass plaque lists the rectors of Great Berkhamsted since 1222. The old chancel area was converted into a vestry area for the choir and clergy. It includes a large mosaic reredos by Alfred Hoare Powell with a painted crucifixion scene by Burrows.
Saint John’s Chantry Chapel was used by Berkhamsted School until the 19th century, and was separated from the nave by a dividing wall. It is now used for the choir stalls and the organ. The present organ was built by Peter Collins of Redbourne in 1986, and replaces an earlier organ built by Walker.
The Lady Chapel dates from the 13th century. It is an extension of the north transept and the memorials there include the marble tomb of John Sayer (1682).
Saint Catherine’s Chapel, dedicated to Saint Catherine of Alexandria, is to the south of the old chancel adjoining the south transept. It dates from ca 1320, and has two recessed mediaeval tombs in the south wall.
The late Gothic Revival pulpit in the church dates from 1910 and is decorated with figures of angels, carved by Harry Hems.
A carved wooden 17th century parish chest is in the north aisle. The marble tomb of Sir John Cornwallis, a member of the Council of King Edward VI, is at the corner of the north transept.
The stained glass by renowned Victorian glass makers include: Heaton and Butler, Clayton and Bell, Charles Eamer Kempe, Nathaniel Westlake, Alexander Gibbs, James Powell and Sons and Curtis, Ward and Hughes.
The north aisle windows include a version by Heaton and Butler of William Holman Hunt’s painting ‘The Light of the World’ in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, and the chapel of Keble College Oxford.
A three-light window by Westlake (1885) in memory of the Berkhamsted sheep dip manufacturer William Cooper depicts Christ enthroned surrounded by saints and martyrs, including Saint Edward the Confessor and Saint Hugh of Lincoln (feast day, 17 November) with his pet swan.
Most of the old gravestones in the churchyard were laid flat in the late 19th century, and the churchyard is now a green. The large stone cross is the Smith-Dorrien Monument (1909). The town war memorial, erected on the corner of Water Lane in 1920, was moved to the south-west corner of Saint Peter’s Church in the 1950s.
Saint Peter’s marked its 800th anniversary last year (2022) with a year-long celebration of community events. On Advent Sunday, thousands visited the church to see it lit up by candles.
Saint Peter’s is part of the Berkhamsted Team, five parishes – Great Berkhamsted, Great Gaddesden, Little Gaddesden, Nettleden and Potten End – in the Diocese of Saint Albans and six churches: Saint Peter’s, Great Berkhamsted; All Saints’ Church, Berkhamsted LEP; Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Little Gaddesden; Saint John the Baptist, Great Gaddesden;; Saint Lawrence, Nettleden; and Holy Trinity, Potten End.
Father Stuart Owen is the Rector of Saint Peter’s and the Team Vicar in the Berkhamsted Team Ministry. The priests and ministry team include Father Anthony Lathe, Father David Lawson, Father Chris Rogers, the Revd Becky Taylor, Berkhamsted School Chaplain, Beth Mitchell and Father John Russell.
Saint Peter’s follows a traditional Anglican style of worship, centred on the Eucharist, with the Said Eucharist at 8 am and the Sung Eucharist at 9:30 on Sundays. Music is a large part of the worship and the choir sings at the main Sunday Eucharist and at a monthly Choral Evensong. The church is also a frequent venue for classical music concerts.