‘So I went to Ashwell.we first saw its gigantic fourteenth century church tower. dominating all.And the church inside, white and spacious and East Anglian, with arcades like a Cathedral, clear glass everywhere, uneven floors and splendid chancel, was worthy of the best of English villages’ .
Written by the late Sir John Betjeman, poet laureate and lover of churches.
The Church is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and was build during the 14th century. No record exists of an earlier building but there has almost certainly been a Church on the site from early times and stones from the earlier building are probably incorporated in the present fabric. It is now one of the largest village churches in Hertfordshire and its most striking feature is in the tower.
Crenellations about half way up The Tower show its original height. The second half is said to have been added after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 and the traditional Hertfordshire spike was added between 1415 and 1562. The Tower is the tallest in Hertfordshire and with its wood and leaden spike at the top, rises to 176 feet. Unusual features include a stone handrail in the spiral staircase and a passage in the thickness of the walls, themselves eight feet thick in places. The battlements, at the top of the Tower, were removed in 1771 leaving only the corner merlons.
There are six Bells in the Tower. The second and oldest was cast in 1694 by Charles Newman. The first, third, fourth and sixth were cast by John Brian of Hartford in 1791, 1817, 1787 and 1789 respectively. The fifth was cast by Robert Taylor of St.Neots in 1808. The heaviest bell weighs 18cwt 3qrts and 101lbs – nearly a ton! All still hang in their original 15 th century oak frame.
The Clock was presented by Mr.J.Westrope in 1896 but it has only three faces. It is said that the side facing The Bury was left blank so that the Bury and Brewery workers should not be clock watchers!
The Church was build from “clunch” stone, which is chalk and would have been quarried locally. It is not very resistant to weathering and the increase of acid rain has acted on the alkaline of the chalk and created the problems we see on the Tower today.
The South Porch and Main Door
The South Porch
This was added in the 15th century and is entered through an 18th century spiked gate. It has two storeys. The room above has a fireplace and may have been a priest’s room or a schoolroom. The Porch ceiling was renewed in 1858. The seats and window spaces are, however, original.
The Main South Door
This is the original 14th century door. It still has the sanctuary ring and iron strapping. The small nails are the result of the door being used over the centuries as the village notice board.
The North Porch
This was added in the 15th century, as was its door and sanctuary ring. Both the North and South Porch would have had holy water stoups for those entering church who wished to bless themselves – a reminder of their baptism.
At the back of the Nave the impression is one of great simplicity and light. Originally the windows were filled with stained glass and the walls covered with paintings. All were destroyed either at the Reformation or by the 17th century Puritans. In 1538 the east window telling the story of Thomas Beckett was removed by edict Henry VIII at a cost of 6s 8d:
View from the back of the Nave
Exspences and wges layedout at Asshwell For My lorde Abbott of Westm(inster)
Fyrst for tymbre to make apayer of Stokes ijs
It(e)m For Sawyng of the same xijd
It(e)m to the Carpenter John bygrave for makyng of the same
For iij Dayes Worke xviijd
It(e)m for Iron & Smythes worke iijs
It(e)m for my Lord(e)s p(ar)te of the bylle xs
It(e)m for makyng of ij p(ar)ts of the wyndowe in the Channcell
that was takeid down for by cause it was A story of Thomas bekett
S(u)m(ma) xxiiijs Alls
Most of the stained glass however was destroyed in the 1640s by the Puritans. Three very small pieces were left in situ in the tracery of the windows of the North Aisle. Other fragments of it were found in the Churchyard and have been reset.
The arches are 14th century with the earliest being at the East End. The windows also date from the 14th century though three on the South Aisle were altered in the early 16th century.
The roof of both the Nave and the Chancel were replaced in the late 18th century. Craftsman who worked on the Church sometimes left their mark. Just inside the south door five carpenters have left their names on the woodwork. Two sets of initials, HS and JS, may be Henry and Jonathan, the sons of Thomas Squire who probably helped their father and insisted on their names also being there.
At the West End of the Nave the 19th century font stands on medieval steps. Here there is also a new screen in the tower arch given in memory of John Sale and William Wallace father in law and son in law. Going through it into the choir vestry the famous Graffiti can be seen on the north wall.
At the East End of the Nave are the choir stalls. Ashwell has a strong tradition of church music. The main act of worship is usually the Parish Eucharist sung with anthems. In the evening the choir sings Cathedral Evensong each Sunday except in August.
The Pulpit dates from 1627 when it was bought for £9 by the Churchwardens: Paid for the pulpit and new
seat: churchwardens account 1627/1628 laid out by William Sell andRichard Bigrave.
The matrices (shapes on the floor) are all that is left to show there were once brass memorials here. The brass was removed in 1633/34 when 36lbs of brass was sold at four pence halfpenny per pound, giving an income of thirteen shillings and four pence.
The North Aisle is dedicated to St.James. In the vestry at the east end is an altar tomb which is thought to be that of John Harris of Hinxworth who founded a chantry in Ashwell in 1462.
This was originally divided from the Nave by the wooden screen which supported the great crucifix or rood. The rood itself was destroyed at the Reformation but the screen survived until the 19th century when Churchwardens undertook major works. It is believed there are some remnants of the screen in the organ surround.
The Resurrection Cross
The great rood has been replaced by a cross with a figure of The Risen Christ. This was specially created for Ashwell by John Mills, President of the Royal Society of British Sculptors, who says:
I saw making this image as a challenge. Not only should it communicate to the congregation the image of Christ, but it should fit poignantly in an environment that, despite its medieval origins, seems to transcend time. The decision to suspend the sculpture above the altar was the result of considerable consultation with Patrick Bright, the Rector at the time, and with the subsequent serendipity of the sunlight from the west window highlighting the cross, this came to be seen as the correct choice. The material, which I call ‘faux ivoire’ and the colour pay a modern homage to medieval ecclesiastical traditions for using ivory and alabaster.
On the Chancel walls are some memorials to past vicars and rectors. At the east end, on the south side, is The Sedilia . These three seats, which date from the 14th century, are there for those officiating at the High Altar for the Eucharist. They are so positioned because the High Altar originally stood under the east window. This area is now used as an extra chapel and altar is dedicated to the Holy Trinity. There once was a chantry chapel on the north side of the chancel, which was removed in 1799, and the blocks from it used to build the village “Lock up” in Hodwell. The blocked entrance is still visible in the north wall and the pisina can still be seen on the outside of the Church.
The Lady Chapel
Enclosed by 15th century wooden parclose screens, the Lady Chapel is at the east end of the South Aisle. In the top right hand corner there are two heads each dressed appropriately for that century. The statue of our Lady in the niche on the south side is modern and was rescued from a bombed church. This niche and the projecting corbel stone on the left of the altar would once have housed medieval statues, which were probably destroyed at the Reformation. The stained glass window is in memory of Susanna Tingling who, with her husband and brother, owned nearly a quarter of Ashwell’s land in the 19th century.
Virgin and Child
The embroidered Altar Reredos with Our Lady flanked by St.James and St.John the Baptist, the two banners at the east end of the Chancel and Christ in Majesty over the North Door are the work of Percy Sheldrick of Ashwell who in the 1920s was a master weaver at the William Morris workshops. In those days an expert weaver was expected to produce one square foot of work per week at a wage of £2.10s. His largest work The Passing of Venus from a cartoon by Edward Burne-Jones, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, took him three and a half years to weave. It incorporated eighteen full size figures and was sold for over £2000 in the United States, a great price in those days. It now hangs in Lansing College in Detroit but then Percy Sheldrick’s work hangs all over the world. One of his proudest moments was in 1966 when the cushion he had worked illustrating Westminster Abbey’s 900th anniversary theme “One God, one people” was accepted by the Abbey as a gift from the Village of Ashwell and dedicated by the Dean at the Shrine of Edward the Confessor.
The exquisite banner The Virgin and Child was given to St.Mary’s in memory of his mother. The central panel took him 9 month and the whole work two and a half years using Bruges silks which were gossamer fine and sixty years old. The gold work is out of this world and typical of the 15th century. The second banner is dedicated to the Church’s patron saint – The Virgin Mary.
The Christ in Majesty is one of his greatest works. It was specially embroidered for Ashwell Church and to the Glory of God. Against a background of blues, indigos and greys, the rose-robed Christ is seated among blinding blades of light. Encircled with a gold ring, Christ crucified hangs below. In the four corners of the panel are the emblems of the four Evangelists. Percy Sheldrick, who died in 1978, worked all his life for the Glory of God and was indeed Ashwell’s voice of the Middle Ages.
Worship has continued here in Ashwell for more than a thousand years. The Church, mentioned in the Doomsday Book, was completely rebuilt in the 14th and 15th centuries. The Black Death interrupted building for nearly twenty years but it was resumed in 1368 and continued with the completion of the tower to celebrate the victory of Agincourt in 1415. The 20th century has seen a great deal of repair and restoration work but there is still an enormous task ahead if we are to preserve this glorious building for the future generations.
St.Mary’s has a lively and active congregation, which contributes generously towards maintaining the fabric of the Church. We also have a supportive and helpful local community. Much repair work has already been achieved over the past twenty years but we are catching up with the decay of centuries and so there is still much more to do.