Architectural Overview | St Peter's Great Berkhamsted

The Church of St Peter Great Berkhamsted

Architectural Overview

St Peter’s Through Time – click and drag the slider to compare two photos of Berkhamsted 150 years apart.

Here we see a rare photograph of St Peter’s as it appeared before the Butterfield restoration of 1868-72. The walls of the church are covered in render, iron railings surround the church, and the entrance to the west door is through a gate on the corner. Above the west end there are Gothic pinnacles and there is a door to the south porch (both removed by Butterfield). Note how the roof of the south transept is much lower – it was rebuilt by Butterfield at a much higher pitch.

St Peter’s Church stands in a prominent position on Berkhamsted High Street in the centre of the town, the visible focus of Christian worship in the heart of Berkhamsted. It is the oldest surviving building in the town centre and architecturally the most important.

The earliest parish records go back to 1222, and the oldest parts of the church date from the 13th century. The church has been altered and extended many times in the past 800 years; it was restored in 1820 by Wyatville, again in 1870 by Butterfield, and re-ordered in the 1960s.

Whilte most of the exterior stonework and the flint facing of the building date from the 1870 restoration, 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.



Floorplan of St Peter's showing the main sections of the building

The building is a large cruciform church – an ancient church layout in which the floorplan is shaped like a Christian cross, with a nave and chancel crossed by transepts. In line with ancient Christian tradition, worship faces east towards the rising sun.


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.



St Peter's bell tower

On top of the crossing is the tower, the most visible part of the building that can be seen for miles around. The tower was completed around 1535-6, during the reign of Henry VIII. 



The bells of St Peter's

There is a ring of eight bells that were re-cast in the Whitechapel Foundry at various dates between 1838 and 1946. The Church clock was built by the clock manufacturer Thwaites & Read of Clerkenwell and dates from 1838. 

Possible stonemason's marks in one of the tower piers

The earliest part of the building dates from the early thirteenth century and forms the cruciform framework of the building. The stonework is in a bold but plain style. The massive stone piers supporting the tower have a large number of mason’s marks, some of which appear to resemble marks on stonework of similar age in St Alban’s Abbey. There are similar marks in the Lady Chapel.



The nave is flanked by arcades of pointed Gothic arches, supported by round columns with simple moulded capitals. Interestingly, some of the columns near the altar are quatrefoil – their shape resembles four overlapping circles. It is uncertain why they are shaped like this.


Stained-Glass Windows

Lancet window the old chancel

The stained-glass windows in St Peter’s are particularly interesting. Most of the original medieval stained glass has been lost (although two small examples of 13th century glass survive in the old chancel and the north aisle), but the surviving Gothic stonework is very significant because reveals much about the age of building. The oldest part of St Peter’s was built in the Early English style, and in the Old Chancel we see three lancet windows from the early/mid-13th century. There are also traces of Early English window openings in the Lady Chapel.

Geometric forms in the east window

Between 1250 and 1400, the building was extended and altered, and this is revealed in the changing style of the window openings and the patterns of the tracery. Straight lines and circular forms are prominent in the tracery of the east window, and of the windows in the south transept and the St John’s Chantry, a style called Geometric. This is a typical feature of early Decorated Gothic, which dates these parts of the church around 1270-1300.

Ornate reticulated tracery of the Curvilinear style can be seen in the north transept window

In the windows in the north transept and the St Catherine Chapel there is a striking change of style. These are all fine examples of the Curvilinear style, a type of Gothic design that came into fashion around 1315. Sinuous, S-shaped curves are combined in a complex, ornate net-like pattern known as reticulated tracery. This suggests that these parts of the church were built in the early 14th century.

During the Civil War, St Peter’s Church was used to imprison Royalist soldiers, and in 1648 the windows were taken out, losing most of the original medieval glass.

The great west window

During the Victorian renovations, the original medieval tracery and the external reveals were replaced with faithful reproductions, while the original internal reveals were retained. New stained glass from renowned Victorian glassmaking companies was installed. The large west window was designed by Heaton, Butler & Bayne; it was displayed at the Paris Exhibition of 1867 and won the bronze medal. From the same workshop are two windows (Crawford and Bartrum memorials) in the St John’s Chantry.


In the north aisle is the Longman memorial window, also by Heaton, Butler & Bayne. It is based on the famous Pre-Raphaelite painting The Light of the World (1851–53) by William Holman Hunt which hangs in St Paul’s Cathedral.

South transept window depicting the Resurrection of the Dead (Clayton & Bell)

The east window, commemorating the poet William Cowper, and windows in the south transept (Curtis memorial) and the St John’s Chantry (Cooper Memorial), are by Clayton & Bell, and there are windows in the south aisle by Kempe (Smith-Dorrien memorial) and in the north aisle by Nathaniel Westlake.

Windows in the north transept (Dorrien memorial) and Lady Chapel (former east window) are by Powell. There are fragments of early glass in the chancel lancets and a modern (2000) engraved glass window by Peace & Scott in the north aisle.


St Catherine Chapel

The St Catherine Chapel, of 14th century date, was restored c.1890-1900 and has good quality stained glass of this date from the workshop of Curtis, Ward & Hughes and an alabaster reredos, also of this date and copied from the high altar screen of Winchester Cathedral.


Monumental Brasses

Early brasses include those to Richard and Margaret Torrington 1356, Margaret Briggs 1370, John Raven 1385 Richard Westbrooke 1485, Katherine Incent 1521 and an un-named priest of c.1400. Several small sixteenth century brasses commemorating members of the Waterhouse family are palimpsests, including part of an interesting and finely engraved memorial of c.1470 to a London goldsmith, Thomas Humfre, and his wife Joan. The church has good quality reproductions of the palimpsest fragments.  


Tomb Chests

A knight and lady (possibly Henry of Berkhamsted)

Tomb chests include:

  • a knight and lady of c.1375 in Totternhoe stone
  • Sir John Cornwallis 1544, a member of the Council of Prince Edward,
  • John Sayer 1682, Master Cook to Charles II and founder of the almshouses in Berkhamsted High Street.

Other important monuments include an early medieval coffin top tomb (c.1200) with floriated cross in St Catherine’s Chapel, a wall monument in the South aisle to Thomas Baldwin 1642 by Nicholas Stone, and another in the South Transept to Elizabeth Craddock 1704 by J. Hardy.


Other Monuments

The Murray (or Moray) Brothers Memorial

In the old chancel there is a fine wall monument to the brothers John & James Moray c.1649, which depicts them holding hands.  In the North Transept is a floor slab commemorating Anne Cowper née Donne, mother of the poet William Cowper whose father, John Cowper, was Rector of Berkhamsted 1722-56. Also in the North Transept, are four early Victorian hatchments, restored in 2005.



The Altar and reredos

The present reredos was made up from a 15th century wooden screen and was painted and gilded when it was put in place during a reordering of the church in 1960.  The mosaic reredos in the old chancel is by Powell.

Detail of the pulpit by Harry Hems

Notable furnishings include a large, panelled Parish Chest of the 17th century, a handsome Victorian brass eagle lectern by Barkentin & Krall (Smith-Dorrien memorial) and a pulpit enriched in 1910 with carved angels by Harry Hems of Exeter.



The choirs stalls and organ

The principal organ is by Peter Collins and was introduced during the reordering of the church in the 1980s. The church also houses a small Bryceson pipe organ and a Kawai 7′ concert grand piano.



Ancient trees create a beautiful setting in St Peter's churchyard

The churchyard, closed in the nineteenth century, is an attractive area of lawn, on the north side of the church, with several mature trees (cedar, common lime, silver lime) and bounded on the north side by the original Berkhamsted School building of 1541-4. A yew tree, probably about 350 years old, stands within the churchyard by the junction of the High Street with Castle Street.



photo of Christopher Green

Christopher Green

Chairman of Diocesan Advisory Committee