A Short History of St Peter’s
The Church of Great Berkhamsted St Peter is a medieval building full of historical and architectural interest at the heart of Berkhamsted. In the eight hundred years of the church’s history, we can trace the fortunes of our town. From the war memorials to the chime of bells above the High Street, the rich heritage of St Peter’s is cherished by locals and visitors, parishioners and non-churchgoers alike.
St Peter’s was originally built at the beginning of the 13th century, during the reign of King Henry III, possibly on the site of an even earlier church. Over the centuries, the church has withstood periods of turmoil such as the Black Death, the Reformation, the Civil War and two World Wars. There are historical connections all over the town, with Berkhamsted Castle, Berkhamsted School and Rectory Lane Cemetery, with English poets, princes, kings, queens and saints. Although the church has undergone alterations and restorations, the building we see on Berkhamsted High Street today is substantially the same building that has stood over the centre of our town since the reign of Henry VIII.
Before the Norman Conquest
The oldest church in the area is in fact St Mary’s Northchurch, which can trace its origins back to Saxon times. Berkhamsted only emerged as a town after the Norman Conquest. After St Peter’s Church was built, the focus of ecclesiastical power shifted a mile south down the road to the newer town of Berkhamsted, closer to the Castle, and St Mary’s came to be known as “the North Church”.
St Peter’s parish records begin in 1222, when Robert de Tuardo, the first known rector, was installed by the Bishop of Lincoln, Hugh of Wells. At this time, the Great Berkhamsted Parish lay within the Diocese of Lincoln, a huge territory that stretched down as far as the edge of London.
A Victorian stained-glass window in St Peter’s depicts Bishop Hugh (Saint Hugo of Lincoln) with his constant companion – a white swan.
The oldest part of St Peter’s Church is the old chancel – the eastern end of the church that is now in use as the vestry. It dates from around 1220. It is slightly out of alignment with the rest of the church, suggesting that it may have been built on the foundations of an even older church, although nothing is known about this older building.
In the early years, construction of the church proceeded steadily – the north and south transepts and the lower part of the tower were built by 1220.
The church was then extended westwards, with the addition of a long nave. Aisles were added to the north and south by 1230, and around the same time an extension with a vaulted roof was added to the east side of the north transept.
Further addition were made to the building:
- a chapel dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria was built to the south of the chancel in the first half of the 14th century
- c.1350: the Chantry of St John the Baptist (the area occupied today by the choir stalls)
- 1375*: the great West Window, a clerestory (row of windows at the top of the nave) and a south porch next to the Chantry
In 1535-6, the upper part of the tower was built, bringing the church to its full size.
*Historians Norris and Cobb consider that the clerestory dates from about 1450, but it is now thought to be earlier
From the foundation of St Peter’s in 1222, the advowson – the right to present a new parish rector to the bishop – rested with the Abbot Grestein Abbey in Normandy, a remnant of Norman domination since 1066.
In 1381, this changed when Rev Peter de Burton was presented by King Richard II. This established a new tradition of the reigning monarch acting as patron to each new rector.
John de Waltham
John de Waltham was rector of St Peter’s 1379-1380. Waltham was an important figure in the Church, becoming Bishop of Salisbury in 1388. He also became a favourite and close friend of King Richard II, who later appointed him Lord Privy Seal, and Lord Treasurer. After Waltham’s death, Richard honoured him with a tomb in Westminster Abbey in the Chapel of Edward the Confessor, the only person not of royal blood to be buried in the royal chapel.
During the medieval era, Berkhamsted Castle was an active military fortress and often a royal residence. Many townsfolk had connections with the castle, among them Henry of Berkhamsted, a knight who served as Constable of Berkhamsted Castle under Edward the Black Prince and fought with the prince at the Battle of Crécy in 1346. It is thought that a stone chest tomb in the St Peter’s Church is the tomb of Henry and his lady wife.
The Incent Family
The Break with Rome
Until the mid-16th century, the English Church was Roman Catholic, under the authority of the Pope. In 1527, Pope Clement VII refused King Henry VIII’s request to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The bitter political dispute led to England’s schism with the Catholic Church. From 1534 onwards, England’s monarch was styled “Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England” in place of the Pope (this title was briefly revoked by Queen Mary I, but reinstated by Elizabeth I).
This act set in motion a chain of events that led to the events of the English Reformation. This history shaped the distinctive identity of the Church of England, resulting in a church that today is rooted in its ancient heritage with many Protestant influences, often described as being “both catholic and reformed”.
After the Break with Rome, John Incent, the son of Robert and Katherine Incent, became an important figure during the religious turmoil of the 16th century. He was one of the agents of the Lord Chancellor Thomas Cromwell responsible for the confiscation of of religious properties during the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-1541).
John Incent became Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in 1540, and in 1541 he founded the Berkhamsted School. The Incent family house, which still stands on the High Street opposite the church, is today known as “Dean Incent’s House”.
Sir Adolphus Carey
In 1580, Queen Elizabeth I leased Berkhamsted Castle to Sir Edward Carey (or Cary), the Keeper of the Crown Jewels. He plundered the derelict castle for stones to build Berkhamsted Place, a mansion house at the top of Castle Hill in Berkhamsted.
In 1596, Edward leased the mansion to his brother, Adolphus, later a Member of Parliament for St. Albans. In Berkhamsted, Sir Adolphus Carey was known as “a most loving benefactor to the poor of this town”. He died in London from smallpox in 1609 and was buried at St Peter’s.
For many years his funerary helmet was on display in St Peter’s, hanging above the tomb of Henry of Berkhamsted, before it was stolen in the 1970s. It has never been recovered.
A century later, England was once again in turmoil as the Civil War broke out. Anne Murray, a local parishioner who lived at Berkhamsted Place, became embroiled in a Royalist plot to smuggle the young Duke of York (later King James II) out of the country.
There is a a memorial in St Peter’s to her brothers, James and John Murray, who died young, before the Civil War hostilities.
One of Oliver Cromwell’s foremost henchmen, Daniel Axtell, was born in Berkhamsted and baptised in St Peter’s in 1622. Axtell served in Cromwell’s forces in Ireland, before returning to Berkhamsted in 1656 to live at Berkhamsted Place. After the Restoration of the Monarchy, Axtell was executed at Tyburn in 1660 for his role in the execution of King Charles I.
After the Siege of Colchester the summer of 1648, St Peter’s Church was requisitioned by the Parliamentarian commander, Sir Thomas Fairfax, to hold wounded prisoners of war. With the church now full of wounded Royalist soldiers, the churchwardens were forced to take out the windows to increase ventilation. A lot of medieval glass was probably lost at this time.
Another unfortunate result of the Civil War was the work of Puritan iconoclasts, who zealously destroyed church monuments across the country. There are accounts that there were once wall paintings in St Peter’s, possibly medieval in origin, including images of the Eleven Apostles and Saint George and the Dragon on the pillars. These paintings were whitewashed over in the 17th century. Similar wall paintings may be seen in other churches in the area, including in All Saints Little Kimble, St John the Baptist Little Missenden and St Albans Abbey.
There is evidence of the dictatorial climate in England during the 1650s in the record of Rectors who served at St Peter’s. During the Civil War, priests with Royalist sympathies were ejected from office and a series of “intruder” priests were installed by Parliament. It is known that Rev John Napier was ejected in 1650 and returned in 1661, but his replacement in that time is not recorded on the list of Rectors displayed in the church.
After the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, an era of relative peace and prosperity returned to England. Parliamentarian sympathisers fell out of favour, and Royalists were rewarded for their loyalty. John Sayer, who had been in exile with the royals during the Commonwealth, returned to Berkhamsted and was appointed chief cook to King Charles II.
An entry in the Diary of Samuel Pepys from September 1661 records a hearty drinking session in Sayer’s wine cellar: “By my troth, we were very merry, and I drank so much wine that I was not fit for business.”
Sayer died a wealthy man in 1682, and a lavish marble chest tomb in St Peter’s Church records his piety and generosity. In his will, Sayer left £1000 for the relief of the poor in the parish, and in 1684 the row of almshouses was built on Berkhamsted High Street to house poor widows.
Dukes of Cornwall
In 1722, the duty of patronage shifted from the reigning monarch to the Prince of Wales when the heir to the throne, Prince George, Duke of Cornwall (the future George II), presented Rev John Cowper as Rector.
After this, rectors of St Peter’s were presented by the Dukes of Cornwall (a title conferred upon the heir to the throne and Princes of Wales) until the 1860s. There had been a strong historical connection between Berkhamsted and the Duchy of Cornwall since 1227, when Henry III granted Berkhamsted Castle and surrounding lands to Richard, Earl of Cornwall.
Rev John Cowper served as rector of St Peter’s from 1722 to 1756. The family name is significant because he was the father of the poet and hymnodist William Cowper, who was born in Berkhamsted rectory and was baptised in St Peter’s Church in 1731.
William Cowper poetry was admired by both Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. Cowper wrote a number of popular Evangelical hymns, including Oh! for a closer walk with GOD and There is a fountain fill’d with blood. Cowper’s hymns gave the English language the phrase “GOD moves in a mysterious way”. He was also active with William Wilberforce in the anti-slavery movement and was quoted by Martin Luther King in the 1960s. Two windows in St Peter’s Church commemorate Cowper’s life and writing.
Rectory Lane Cemetery
For centuries, the churchyard by St Peter’s Church had served as the final resting place of the town’s deceased. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, Britain’s population was growing, and many town churchyards began to run out of space for new burials.
In 1842, Charlotte Catherine Anne, Countess of Bridgewater and widow of John Egerton, 7th Earl of Bridgewater, donated an acre of land next to the rectory, allowing St Peter’s to open a new Rectory Lane Cemetery. The cemetery was extended several times before it closed in 1954.
Rev John Crofts, Rector of St Peter’s Church 1810-1851, had a new Rectory built on Rectory Lane to replace the old 17th-century house. This large, red-brick house served as the home of many Berkhamsted rectors until the parish sold it in the 1960s, and built a new, more modest house a few metres down Rectory Lane.
The Victorian rectory is today a private house. Although it was not the original priests’ house, it is referred to today as the “Old Rectory”,
Earls of Brownlow
The last rector of St Peter’s to be presented by a royal patron was Rev James Hutchinson (installed in 1851 with Prince Albert Edward, eldest son of Queen Victoria, as patron).
In 1862, the local Duchy of Cornwall estates were sold to the Ashridge Estate, and rectors of Great Berkhamsted have since been presented by Earls of Brownlow.
A Decaying Building
Over the years the fabric of the church building decayed. A 1628 record described St Peter’s as “a large and goodly church for the publique service of Almighty God, which by reason of antiquity and former neglect is very much and dangerously decayed.” In the 1700s, the Chantry ceiling collapsed, narrowly missing the boys and masters of Berkhamsted School.
There were many alterations to the ancient fabric of the church over the years, but eventually major restoration work became necessary.
In 1820, Jeffry Wyattville, architect of Ashridge House, was appointed to carry out a major restoration of the building. His “improvements” were drastic, and contemporary accounts describe churchwardens “tearing down from the walls the memorials of the past”. 19th -century restorers did not have the same reverence for historic fixtures as we do today.
Wyattville also covered the outer walls of the church with stucco (plaster), moved the medieval chest tomb from the nave into the north transept, and removed a musicians’ gallery from the east end.
In 1837, the borders of the vast Diocese of Lincoln, of which Great Berkhamsted was a part, were redrawn and the southern parts transferred to to other dioceses. Hertfordshire churches such as St Peter’s were brought under the Diocese of Rochester. After 50 years, a new Bishopric of St Albans was created in 1877 with St Albans Abbey as its cathedral church. Since then, Berkhamsted has been part of the Diocese of St Albans, which covers Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and parts of north London.
Although mechanical clocks have been in use since the 13th century, they were the luxurious preserve of abbeys and cathedrals. In the early 14th century, an astronomical clock designed by Richard of Wallingford was installed at St Albans Abbey.
Early illustrations of St Peter’s Berkhamsted show the bell tower with no clock; it was not until 1838 that the present clock, built by Thwaites & Read of Clerkenwell, was installed.
In the Victorian era, church restorations became all the rage, and under Rector James Hutchinson, another renovation programme was commissioned. In 1870, the church brought in renowned Gothic Revival architect William Butterfield.
Among his changes, Butterfield raised the roof of the south transept to its original pitch, re-floored the nave, demolished an adjoining vestry building, installed new oak benches, replaced the west end gallery, and replaced Wyattville’s crumbling exterior plaster with flint.
Butterfield knocked down interior dividing walls, notably removing a chamber at the west end that had been used to house the town fire engine.
However, Butterfield also removed many original features, and finally the obliterated the remains of the medieval paintings on the pillars. No trace of these paintings remains today
Leftover stone from these alterations was later used to construct Sunnyside Parish Church in 1909.
John Wolstenholme Cobb
Rev John Wolstenholme Cobb served as Rector from 1871 until his death 1883. He was an enthusiastic historian and did much to document the history of Berkhamsted Castle. His book, The History and Antiquities of Berkhamsted (1855) is still used by historians today.
Cobb was appointed Rector just before the completion of Butterfield’s restoration work. Further improvements occurred during his Rectorate. He was buried with great ceremony in Rectory Lane Cemetery
In the Great War of 1914–18, 200 men and boys from Berkhamsted lost their lives. Many who were killed in action were interred in the battlefield Cemeteries of Belgium and France; some who died at home were buried in St Peter’s Cemetery on Rectory Lane. A War Memorial was erected to their memory on the corner of Water Lane.
Another World War took its toll, and the names of the Second World War dead (1939-45) were added to the memorial. In the 1950s the monument was moved to its present position next to St Peter’s church, where we remember the sacrifice of war annually.
700th Anniversary Pageant
The year 1922 marked the 700th anniversary of the consecration of St Peter’s Church. The occasion was marked with a pageant play that was performed daily for 4 days in July, in the ruins of Berkhamsted Castle. It rained during every performance except one.
Parishioners dressed up in historical costumes to reenact Berkhamsted’s history in 10 episodes. A short choral piece was specially composed for the pageant by Gilbert Hudson and Stanley Wilson, entitled simply A Song of Berkhamsted.
The full 1922 programme is available on The Redress of the Past website.
The novelist Graham Greene was born in Berkhamsted in 1904. His father, Charles Green, was headmaster of the Berkhamsted School from 1904. Although Greene was familiar with St Peter’s, it is likely that the family usually worshipped at the school chapel. Graham Greene was agnostic, but later converted to Roman Catholicism.
Greene mentioned St Peter’s in some of his stories. In The Human Factor (1978), there is a brief scene inside St Peter’s in which a sonic boom suddenly “shook the old glass of the west window and rattled the crusader’s helmet which hung on a pillar”. The helmet was that of Sir Adolphus Carey (who actually lived around 300 years after the crusades).
20th Century re-ordering
This photograph dating from around 1920 shows how St Peter’s looked between Butterfield’s 1870 restoration and 1960. We can see the wooden tie-beam roof, and at the east end, a 15th-century rood screen surmounted by a cross separates the nave from the crossing and chancel. The oak benches and the wooden pulpit by Harry Hems are in place.
Covering the wall over the tower arch, is a large mural depicting the Ascension. This painting was gifted by the widow of Rector James Hutchinson in 1872 as part of the renovation of the sanctuary area. It was later lost after damp damage and was painted over in renovations of 1956-1960. Today, there remains a plaque fixed to the wall commemorating this gift, even though the decorations it describes have all vanished.
Similar murals of this period can still be seen at nearby churches such as St Peter and St Paul Tring and St Mary’s Edlesborough.
The 1960 renovation work also included a major re-ordering of the sanctuary. A wooden 15th-Century rood screen which separated the nave from the crossing was moved back to create a partition wall, and the ancient chancel was turned into a vestry. The screen was also painted in a medieval style, and a row of twelve 19th century carved wooden figures. The altar is now located under the crossing. Additionally, the leaking roof was replaced with a concrete structure.
Visit of HM the Queen
On 6th May 2016, Berkhamsted was honoured by a visit from Her Majesty the Queen.
The Queen unveiled a newly-restored Coat of Arms of Elizabeth I which hangs in St Peter’s Church, and the choirs of St Peter’s Church and the Berkhamsted School sang a short programme of choral pieces. The Queen then went on to visit the Berkhamsted School, which was celebrating the 475th anniversary of its foundation by Dean Incent.
St Peters’ church resonates with the legacy of 800 years of Christian worship. In its memorials we can trace the fortunes of our town.
In 2022, we will celebrate our 800th Anniversary, all the more aware how we must cherish our fascinating heritage because it connect us with our forebears, enriches our present and inspires us for the future.