St. Mary’s church, once known as St. Andrews has been disputed as being an atypical church for the medieval period. This is what I shall be investigating using primary and secondary sources. St. Mary’s has suffered many disasters both natural and man-made. These range from earthquakes to fires. When the new church was built in 1305 it gained vast amounts of money from rich merchants in the wool trade. They patronised the church leaving large sums of money, with this they used the money how they saw necessary to expand the church, its popularity, and make people look at it and feel intimidated.
St. Mary’s Church was one that had significant importance to the people of Hitchin, and pilgrims from across the country. It was open for all classes; however there was a rood screen to divide rich and poor. When parishioners visit the church they can see how wealthy it is and feel overcome thinking back to there own homes, and work places. During the15th century three private chapels were built that doubled the size of the church, they were built using the money from three rich families who were all church people of St. Marys.
Many more modifications were made to the church during this time using the money left from rich merchants in the wool trade, and rich families who spent a lot of there time in the church worshipping. The Font at St. Marys is just one of its many features. It’s made of stone as shown in the picture to the right; Fonts can be made from other materials such as marble, or wood. This font has been engraved with the twelve decipals that go all around the font however upon closer inspection there faces have been hacked off. This occurred in the 16th century when Oliver Cromwell came to power due to his dislike of strong images being visible.
This was very typical and happened in many churches across England during his reign. The Font in St. Marys is situated in the nave, in front of the south porch now used as the main entrance. This positioning symbolizes the newly baptised reception into the church; it holds holy water for baptism and for the church people. This Particular font was described as, “a richly carved twelve sided font, with defaced figures of saints”1 There are other fonts that are carved with an extreme amount of detail and precision, one of these is the font at St. Mary’s church in Ware.
It has a similar hexagonal shape and size but is decorated differently with its carvings on the outside of it, shown in the picture to the right. St. Mary’s church has many medieval stained glass windows throughout. Stained glass windows are very traditional in parish churches. These windows were used to tell story’s for the people who couldn’t read or write that belonged to St. Mary’s. They also served the purpose of simply letting in light; “The Interior is ablaze with light”2 This quote shows the amount of light that is let into the church.
There is a window above the chancel arch that is unusual and atypical; it’s believed to just be there to serve the purpose of letting in light. The three large windows on the eastern side of St. Mary’s are five panelled as shown in the picture above from the outside, these three windows let a large majority of the churches light. The photo on the right shows just how detailed these windows are, every window in the church large or small is very ornately decorated showing just how wealthy St. Marys was at the time.
This extensive range of detailed glasswork makes the typical stained glass windows slightly atypical. However Hillesden church in Buckinghamshire also boasts magnificent windows “A treasure, is the magnificent window in the east wall of the south transept, illustrating eight scenes of the life of St. Nicholas”3 Fairford Church is a very well known boasting some extraordinary windows. “Fairford church is famous over the world for having the most complete set of medieval stained glass windows in any parish church in the United Kingdom”4 This shows that St.
Mary’s Church isn’t alone in its greatly designed and decorated windows, therefore they are a typical feature of medieval churches. St. Mary’s like all other churches in the medieval times had a rood screen built that served the purpose of separating the upper class from the lower class. St. Mary’s was a large wooden one that was built between the nave and the chancel. The rich who contributed to the church were permitted to sit in the private chapels, where the poor were restricted to the nave while being watch from the priest.
The picture to the right shows where the rood screen would have been placed as though you were looking towards the chancel. St. Mary’s rood screen was a very elaborately designed one proven by this quote “An elaborate medieval rood screen”5 this quote also shows that it is more ornately decorated than many others, but there is also evidence later on that shows otherwise. “Cullumpton is famous for its rood screen: without doubt the best to be seen anywhere in the country. “6 This shows that there were rood screens around that were more impressive.
This also means that there were elaborate rood screens in other churches that make it a typical feature of medieval churches. As it was taken down in the 18th century I can’t say whether it really was more outstanding than any other rood screen in the country. In St. Mary’s church there are three private chapels, these are the chapel of holy trinity, the chapel of St. John the Baptist and the St. Andrews Chapel. Together these three private chapels built in the 15th century almost doubled the size of the church. St.
Andrews chapel built by the donation from the Pulter family is a great example to portray the churches wealth, along with the spectacular roof with its ornate carvings and angles above watching down on you it has a fantastic screen to enter it, called the angel screen. This is one of the most respected and well known screens for its decorations. The ceiling shows how influential church followers can be, the roof in this chapel has gold stars and gold angles looking down on you as shown in the pictures to the right.
This chapel was named after the previous name of the church before it became St. Marys. Simon Jenkins mentions in his book that St. Oswald Church also boasts extravagant private chapels. “Malpas’s two treasures are the Cholmandeley and Brenton Chapels, each divided from the nave by perpendicular screens with tracery of lace like delicacy”7 Other parish churches also have private chapels that are impressive and boast there quality’s, “The Chapel is more ornate. Round its ceiling is a frieze of half angels with instruments”8 These both show that although St.
Mary’s private chapels are slightly atypical there are other parish churches that also have such wonderful chapels that are worth talking about, this still makes these chapels slightly atypical because they weren’t commonly decorated so ornately in every parish church. The Angel Screen at St. Mary’s is the entrance to the private chapel of St. Andrews. The screen as shown in the pictures must have been made by a very skilled worker, the detail and ornate decorations show the wealth of the church as it would have cost an absolute fortune.
The money that funded this screen was money that came from the merchant John Pulter and his wife Alice, as a tribute there are two sculptures of themselves either side of the screen to commemorate what they built. Each angel in the screen is holding an item that represents something used in Jesus’ execution, “The screen has a carnice with angels holding the instruments of the passion and splendid tracery”9 This is also shown by the photos, Although Simon Jenkins has talked about other churches and there ornately decorated screens. “The great beams disappear completely behind the heavy host of angels.
There are 118 in addition to saints and apostles”10 This means that there are screens that have taken just as much if not more skill to make meaning this Angel screen isn’t unique, also many other private chapels have screens to enter them. Therefore the screen at St. Mary’s church is a typical feature. Brasses are another form of memorial, dated back to the 13th century and onwards. In St. Mary’s church you can see them towards the back of the church; they are between the chapels of St. John the Baptist and the chapel of St. Andrew. They are brass cut outs of the wealthy church worshippers left as a way of remembrance.
There are many of these brasses in the church and it also gives you an idea of what the fashion was like in the medieval period, mainly because of the extraordinary detail shown in the pieces. The pictures show just some of the brasses that have been quoted as “a fine collection of brasses”11 St. Albans Cathedral has a large collection of brasses similar to those in St. Marys. The brasses are of a similar quality the ones at St. Marys and give you a better understanding of medieval clothing. The Exterior of the church boasts many quality’s that give it an extremely powerful look, such as the size of the tower, buttresses, and embattlements.
The tower was added in the 13th century, shortly after the nave. Its purpose is to hold the 10 bells at the top and to ring them every Sunday to entice and invite people into the church attracting followers. It is typically built using flint however with its disasters in the past it has been rebuilt using red brick during the roman period as shown in the picture above. This is also a typical feature in medieval churches. However it has been said that “The tower… is one of the most clumsy and heavy ones that I ever saw. “12 Which implies it is atypical.
The tower is supported with buttresses, however these are atypical because of the sheer size of them, and they are also very prominent and striking giving the church a look of power and again wealth. The church also has embattlements that go around the whole of the church like a castle does showing prestige and power. “The church is in fact embattled all round, one of the usual ways to express importance and money spent”13 this quote tells us that it’s the ‘usual’ way, implying that it is typical in this period. The other exterior feature that is important would be the double storey south porch.
This porch has been described as “The most spectacular Piece”14 and “An elaborate front porch” 15showing that it is recognised and stands out more than some porches in other churches. However there are some churches that posses elaborate exteriors. Fairford Church has carved stonework on its outside walls, backed up by this quote, “The church exterior is enriched with carved stonework”16 All in all the exterior development of St. Marys is atypical, simply because of the way in which they are built, many other parish churches may have the same features, but they aren’t as grand and intimidating as they are at St.
Mary’s. I believe that all the features I have talked about and investigated are typical of all parish churches in the way that they all have them. But the way and extravagance that St. Mary’s features are decorated leads me to a final conclusion that St. Mary’s church is atypical of other parish churches in the medieval period. St Mary’s church was on the good end of a great wool trade in Hitchin, the money that was received from the rich merchants and patriots of the church led to every typical church feature being bigger, better, and a lot more ornately decorated.
This extra detail in all areas of the church also did the job of enticing new church followers and patriots to possibly fund new projects in and around the church if the new followers were rich. During the medieval times all churches were well kept and had many followers, but St. Mary’s had that extra benefit of rich followers that left a great deal of money for them to do and use as they pleased. So that’s why I believe St. Mary’s church is an atypical one, simply because of its extravagance and extremely ornate decorations.