The church is a large cruciform building with a crossing tower. It stands in a prominent position alongside the High Street in the centre of the town. It is firstly and most importantly the visible focus of Christian worship in the heart of Berkhamsted. It is used for regular Sunday and weekday services and for various occasional services by several local schools, including Berkhamsted Collegiate School, a sixteenth century foundation having long-standing connections with the church. St Peter’s is open all day every day and is used daily by members of the general public for prayer and meditation. St Peter’s has a well-established and vigorous musical tradition with a robed choir including a large group of able and enthusiastic junior choristers – both boys and girls. 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 has recently acquired a Kawai 7′ concert grand piano. In addition, as an historic building representing nearly 800 years of history and architectural evolution St Peter’s is a valuable educational asset used regularly by local schools, and with a seating capacity of c.450 serves the community as an important venue for musical and other performances.
St Peter’s is the oldest surviving building within the core of the town and architecturally the most important. The earliest work, forming the cruciform framework of the building, is of early thirteenth century date in a bold but plain style. The stonework of the crossing and the Lady Chapel has a particularly pleasing quality and the tower piers bear a large number of mason’s marks, some of which appear to resemble marks on stonework of similar age in St Alban’s Abbey. The nave arcades, of round and quatrefoil columns with simple moulded capitals, surmounted by pointed arches are impressive but rather less refined.
Windows of thirteenth century age survive in the old chancel and the north aisle, but most of the windows are of fourteenth century date and Decorated tendency or are later, standard Perpendicular forms. The church was restored in 1820 by Wyatville, and in 1870 by Butterfield. Most of the exterior stonework and the flint facing of the building date from the 1870 restoration. In the renewal of the windows at this time the internal reveals were retained while the original medieval tracery and the external reveals appear to have been faithfully reproduced. The St Catherine Chapel, of fourteenth 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.
The tower has a ring of eight bells re-cast in the Whitechapel Foundry at various dates between 1838 and 1946. The Church clock by Thwaites & Read of Clerkenwell dates from 1838.
There is a good selection of Victorian stained glass, including a large west window by Heaton, Butler & Bayne which took the bronze medal at the Paris Exhibition of 1867. From the same workshop are two windows (Crawford and Bartrum memorials) in the St John’s Chantry and another in the north aisle (Longman memorial), based on Holman Hunt’s painting The Light of the World. 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.
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 include a knight and lady of c.1375 in Totternhoe stone, Sir John Cornwallis 1544, a member of the Council of Prince Edward, and 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. 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 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. 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 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.
Christopher Green, St Peter’s Buildings Committee