Tour of St Mary's Church, Hitchin

A history - updated August 2012

By David Everest

 I’m going to tell you the story of St Mary’s Church and it is a mixture of fact, fiction and sometimes, pure fantasy.


As an example of fantasy, why was the church built here, and why do Hertfordshire churches have spikes instead of spires?  Legend has it that Pope Gregory the Great (540 to 604 AD) saw some blonde child slaves from Britain and being told that they were “Angles”, said “Non Angli, sed Angeli”. Although the Celts were Christians, the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Friesians who had displaced them, were pagans. When the Pope found that the Angles were not Christians, he instructed Augustine (later to be Saint Augustine of Canterbury) to come to Britain to convert the pagans to Christianity. This was at the end of the Sixth Century (AD 597 to be exact). If the original party of monks accompanying St. Augustine in the summer of 596 had had their way, they would have turned back in France and never set foot in England. However, the stubborn Saxons were fully converted by 630 AD.

Keeping the Devil out

The authorities that wanted to build churches for the new converts found that all the best sites in Hertfordshire had been bought up by the devil.  When a delegation of the churchmen went to meet the devil, (always seemingly reasonable, but with a hidden agenda), he agreed to let them have the sites, but stipulated that they mustn’t put steeples on the towers. This is because when the devil comes through the roof of the tower to get to the bells, he can’t get in if there is a sharp steeple in the way. So, it was agreed, but they cunningly put a spike there, instead. This keeps the devil out just as well as a steeple! Also, the cockerel on the spike is a symbol of vigilance against the wiles of the devil. In fact, as frequently occurs, there is a grain of truth in this myth. Where there was a pagan place of worship, as it was not Christian, it was assumed to be associated with the Devil. The Christian church was built nearby, slightly to the South (warmer and lighter and putting the pagan temple in the shade), thus proving that the old gods were not powerful enough to repel the forces of Christianity.

The North door

The North door of the church, that overlooked the pagan site, was known as the Devil’s door, and the font was nearby in the nave. During baptisms, the baby was completely immersed, to ensure that the holy water touched every part of its skin, leaving nowhere for the Devil to enter and any ‘evil spirits’, due to the “original sin” of Adam and Eve, could escape as the child was christened. When the baby cried, it was known as “letting the Devil out”. The North door used to be left open so the devil could leave the church via the Devil’s door. And if the baby didn’t cry, the Vicar used to give it a pinch! There is still a remnant of this belief, even nowadays, in that it is supposed to be lucky if a child cries during christening. And it has been known, even nowadays, for the baby to be given a pinch! The north doors in a number of churches became linked with superstitions so it was used in rituals, blocked up or locked.

The churchyard

Also outside the Devil’s door, the Northern side of the churchyard was considered to belong to Satan. It was thought that the north side of the church was the sinister side (Latin; sinestre = left): the side where the evil spirits could hide in the shadow of the building. The gargoyles and grotesques on the Northern side were always more monstrous to frighten the devil away. The Northern part of the churchyard was used mainly for the burial of paupers, criminals, suicides, unbaptised infants, unmarried mothers and their offspring, felons and travellers. The belief in the Devil was widespread, as he left his marks in Hertfordshire, for instance the Devil’s toenails, which are fossils, known as belemnites. The rest of the churchyard was used for ordinary burials, with the feet of the dead facing East, towards the rising sun, following the Jewish custom, as a sign of hope. Except for the clergy, who are buried looking Westwards, so that they can face their congregation at the Resurrection.

Skull and crossbones

Two of the gravestones close to the porch have skulls and cross-bones carved on them. This is often supposed to denote a death as a result of plague, or even that the people were robbers and pirates! This is not the case. The skull and thigh bones were reckoned, by medieval theologians, to be a desirable minimum from which the angel Gabriel could constitute our resurrection bodies on the day of Judgement. In origin, therefore the skull and cross-bones is a symbol of hope of the Resurrection to eternal life. It was only later that pirates used the macabre device.

A medieval trade route

So why was the pagan place of worship built here? One reason was that pagan places of worship were absorbed into Christian points of worship, rather than being destroyed. Also, because it was on the Icknield Way – a medieval trade route, drover’s road, cattle rustler’s track and especially, a pilgrimage route to Walshingham Abbey at the Northern end. At the Southern end, the pilgrimage route joined up with the Ridgeway as far as Avebury. The point of a pilgrimage was that everybody (except martyrs) had to go through purgatory when they died. To reduce the time spent in purgatory, a pilgrimage to a shrine (like Walshingham Abbey) could be made. Icknield Way is claimed to be the oldest road in Britain, possibly dating back to pre-Roman times, although the Romans paved part of it and knew it as the Via Icenia. In fact, the Icknield Way used to run right through the centre of Hitchin, along what is now Bancroft, the High Street (Cock Street as it used to be known) and Sun Street, but was diverted to the North West in AD 795. The very first Hitchin bypass! As a matter of interest, during mediaeval times, the Icknield way was made to be sufficiently wide to allow two ox teams to pass each other safely, or sixteen armed knights to ride abreast.

The tower spike

And why is there a spike instead of a spire on the bell tower? The problem is that as there is no local stone in Hertfordshire (apart from flints); the builders had to construct the tower from flints set in cement.  This construction is not sufficiently strong enough to take the weight of the bells as well as a spire. The weight of a steeple is considerable – for instance; Salisbury cathedral’s steeple weighs 6,400 tons!

A royal manor

I’ll tell you about the very early history of the church later, but in 1086, the Domesday Book mentioned “Hicce” (Hitchin) as a Royal Manor, with the church being dedicated to St. Andrew.  Pope Gregory had sent the Abbot Mellitus to England in 601 A.D. to ensure that each church had a saint’s relics before it could be dedicated to them. A few slivers of bone were sufficient and they were kept inside the altar stone. The Domesday Book stated that the Church was standing on two of the five “hides” of land that made up Hitchin. A “hide” is the amount of land that a plough pulled by eight oxen can till in a year. It was considered enough to feed one peasant’s family, and is about 120 acres, so Hitchin covered about 600 acres and the Church was on about 240 acres at that time. It is now considerably less, but from the graves and gravestones that have been found, it is known that the Churchyard used to stretch up Brand Street, which was known as “Pound Lane” at the time. This was because there was an animal Pound where the “Friends Meeting House” is now situated.

Building and re-building the church

The church was started in 1115, still dedicated to St Andrew, but a comet appeared that year, which was taken as a portent by the locals and shortly after, the North side of the Church was blown down by a “great wind”. It was rebuilt yet again. The Bell tower was erected (at the Eastern end of the Church) in about 1195, for two main reasons. Firstly, for the social esteem to the patron and to the dignity to the parish – it enhanced the prestige of the church, as it was the mark of a cathedral. And ultimately to accommodate the bells so that they could be rung to protect against disaster, plague, evil, thunder, demons and even Old Nick, himself. There were flints in the walls of the tower, as there are today in the newer tower at the Western end. The flints were there, as not only were they the only local stone available, but it was well-known fact that flints stopped any building from being struck by lightning.  However, the tower was struck by lightning in 1292. The well-known fact became a well-known fiction! It was repaired but there was an earthquake six years later in 1298, which again mostly demolished it. It was rebuilt yet again at the Western end, with a number of recycled Roman bricks (from Verulamium) as well as more flints in the walls, but it was not solidly attached to the rest of the Church and it pulled away in 1301.  In 1304, the church roof fell in and was once again rebuilt, and then, in 1311, the tower settled again and was pulling away badly from the rest of the Church, so the fairly solid “angle buttresses” were built on to the tower. The buttresses are somewhat redundant – only one is needed at each corner, pointing out at an angle, rather than two on each corner.


As I mentioned previously, Hertfordshire has very little building stone of its own, and the art of brickmaking had been lost when the Romans left Britain. However, during the Middle Ages, stone from Totternhoe was used in a number of medieval churches in the surrounding counties. Just west of Dunstable, Totternhoe is also on the Icknield Way, and was renowned for its stone, which is really a hard form of chalk, known as “clunch” or “freestone”. This is so soft that, shortly after being mined, it can be marked with a fingernail. It is the hardest stone that it is possible to work with woodworking hand tools, and conveniently, it hardens on exposure to air. It doesn’t weather particularly well, though, unless treated with a mixture of linseed oil and turpentine. However, in time, the water soaks into the clunch, which then flakes off when it freezes. That is why there are no Anglo-Saxon churches remaining in Hertfordshire. The Normans brought building stone to rebuild the church in the structure that is seen today. However, clunch was used in the present church for the chancel and nave in 1305. It was also used for the windows, but with “string courses” and “hood mouldings” made of limestone to shed the rainwater, preventing the clunch stonework below from becoming saturated. The clunch finally gets a crusty surface and flakes off. Some of the hood mouldings were replaced in Victorian times, but they used mortar, which breaks up and falls off. These have been replaced recently with Chilmark stone.

Masonry marks and putlog holes

The mason builders of St Mary’s Church, that built the tower, left evidence everywhere inside and out. The major detectable traces are ‘Masonry Marks’ on the stone and the scaffolding holes called “Putlog (or “Putlock”) Holes. Today’s freestanding scaffolding wasn’t used, and ‘Cantilevered Scaffolding’, commonly known as “Falsework” was used. These Putlog Holes were where the scaffolding beams were passed through the entire width of the wall. Then planks were laid on top of the beams for the workers. Walls were erected inside and out at the same time, unlike today. When the work was finished, the beams were either pulled out or sawn off flush to the wall. In time the scaffolding beams rotted, leaving the holes you can see today. It was the lay people rather than the clergy, who maintained, adorned, extended and rebuilt the church – including the bell tower – as a means of shortening the time they had to spend in purgatory. After death, it was thought that a period in purgatory for the soul was inevitable (except for martyrs), and every effort was made to shorten it, for instance by good works or going on a pilgrimage.

Aisles and chapels

In 1325, the North Aisle was added and in 1345, the South Aisle was added. Before the aisles were added, the lay people used to stand in the nave. The chancel was extended in the late 14th Century and again in the 15th Century. The North and South Chapels were added in the mid 15th Century. There is a floor tile in Hitchin Museum that was discovered in the Church during excavations in 1904/1905. This tile dates to the 14th Century, and shows a Paymaster. He is thought to be a Paymaster to the builders as there is a purse on his belt.  There is a similar tile on the floor near the altar rail in St Andrew’s chapel, known as the “St. Mary’s Tile”, which shows a “Franklin” or free man. As a matter of interest, right next to the tile in the Museum, is a rooftile model of a man on horseback. He and another like him (now stolen) were on top of a building in Bancroft. When St Mary’s clock struck midnight, he and his companion were supposed to have raced up and down Bancroft, dealing with evil-doers.

There was a pause in the work on the Church for about a hundred years, caused by the Black Death, which arrived in Hitchin in 1349. One third of the population of Hitchin died, and what is now “Queens Street” was called “Dead Street”, as there were no survivors in it. In AD 1575, the Plague ravaged Hitchin. Again, in 1665, the Plague killed everyone in “Dead Street”, which retained this name until 1856.

The sign of four

The South Porch was added in the late 15th Century, paid for by Nicholas Mattocke, a wool merchant.  On the left hand side of the Porch doors is Nicholas Mattocke’s mark. This wool mark combines the mystical “Sign of Four” with the merchant’s name or initials. The “Sign of Four” was an outgrowth of an early Christian symbol, Chi-Rho ( ?? ), standing for Christus Rex in Greek letters. The ? (Chi) was rotated so that one leg was upright to simulate the cross and was amalgamated with the ? (Rho). This became simplified to a reversed “4” in medieval times. Travellers and fugitives from justice had the divine protective power of the South Porch; all they had to do was to grasp the door handle. Then they could not be removed without breaking sanctuary.  Sanctuary was also granted to murderers if they touched the door handle. They could stay in the church for forty days, but then had to leave by a main road to the nearest port, to take ship overseas. The murdered person’s relatives could not touch him while he was on the road, but if he strayed off it; they could, and did, kill him. There is still a modern remnant of this custom, in that the police cannot enter a church to apprehend a miscreant directly, but have to first obtain permission from the vicar.

Another ancient custom that is still in force is that no weapons may be taken into the church (this came into effect after Thomas a Becket’s murder in the cathedral). When Prince William got married in full dress uniform, he could not take his sword into church, but only the scabbard. Couples wanting to be married were met at the South porch and asked by the priest if they consented to be married, before they went inside for the wedding. If they did not consent, the priest would open the South door and let them enter.  The girl’s irate father (no doubt with his musket at the ready), would rush round to the North door to catch them, but they would quickly leave by the South door and go their separate ways.

A wool church

The inner door to the South Aisle is the original – so at least 500 years old! In 1450, the church was enlarged to the East, joining the North and South Aisles and doubling its size. The font, angel screen and pulpit all date from this period of King Henry the VI, the thriving wool trade paying for all this work. In fact, Hitchin Church is known as a “Wool Church”. The influential “Fraternity of the Guild of St. Mary” (or “The Brotherhood” as it was also known), petitioned King Edward IV to change the dedication. The King licensed the foundation of a fraternity “to honour God and the Virgin Mary”. By this licence of the King and the issue by the Bishop of Lincoln in 1475, the church was given its new name St Mary’s, with a patronal Festival date of July 2nd. The licence allowed an association of the merchants of Hitchin, with “Courts of Piepowder”. They had two annual fairs in Hitchin on Easter Tuesday and the feast of the Translation of Edward the Confessor on the 13th of October. In 1475, the Guild of Our Lady (otherwise known as The Brotherhood, who had the building of that name constructed as their meeting hall in Bancroft) petitioned to change the dedication, in which they were successful.

The “Court of Piepowder” was created by the Guild as an addition to the fairs, and it dealt with any petty disputes or misdemeanours that occurred during the fair. The Court of Piepowder (from the French, pieds poudrés) referred to the dusty feet of travellers and vagabonds. It was a local court that was set up, wherein justice might be done while the boots of the parties were still white with the dust of the highway. The Guild tended the “lights”; these were tapers that burned in honour of their brethren. They burned from the day of their burial and for the next thirty days after, known as “months mind”, to speed their souls through purgatory. The “Month’s Mind” also referred to a Requiem Mass celebrated for the deceased on the thirtieth day after the death.

War and religion

In 1548, when the Monasteries were dissolved by Henry VIII, he also abolished the Guild and took all the Church silver. Henry VIII also gave Hitchin to three of his wives, Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and then to Jane Seymour.

Just before the Civil War, on the 25th of June 1642, the leading citizens signed a petition calling on King Charles I to renounce papism and to abide by the laws of Parliament. Edward Radcliffe, the Lord of Hitchin Priory, presented this petition. In 1645, three thousand of Cromwell’s troops and one thousand horses were quartered in Hitchin, which had a population of about two thousand at the time. Some of the troops were billeted here in the church, and they also used it as stables, bringing their horses in. They did a lot of damage, taking the nine figures on the outside of the South Porch from their plinths, including St. Andrew and St. Mary, which were on either side of the doorway. However, they left the “Holy Trinity” and the donor and his wife, which were out of their reach.

The Puritan government forbade – amongst other things – organ playing (it was distracting!), theatres, Maypoles and Christmas, as they weren’t mentioned in the Bible. Several congregations were prosecuted for observing Christmas Day, but there was so much opposition to this directive, that the Government relented and allowed it, once again.  However, the eating of mince pies or Christmas pudding on Christmas Day was forbidden, as Christmas puddings were considered to be “carnal and sensual delights”. They also forbade troops plundering the local inhabitants. Unfortunately, the troops weren’t paid regularly and provisions were scarce, so there was a lot of plundering of the local residents. In addition many soldiers deserted and committed various crimes against the locals. Twelve of them were hanged locally.

A new maypole

Cromwell also put a tax on soap, but although it hardly registered on the mass of the unwashed peasantry, the few in the aspiring middle class were put out. Although the town was originally very anti-Royalist, the damage that the Puritans did and their practices did rather change the way the town thought. After Cromwell died, the Stuarts were welcomed as deliverers, the tax on soap was repealed and the Maypoles were once again allowed. A Maypole was set up at the junction of Sun Street and Bridge Street and dancing and music was allowed once more. The eating of Christmas pudding and mince pies at Christmas became acceptable again.

The Double Scientific Sundial on the octagonal tower with the inscription “Anno Salvus 1660” (In the year of security 1660) obsequiously refers to the restoration of Charles the Second. Surprisingly, the two vertical declining dials are entirely different in design and date. Charles was crowned on the 29th of May 1660, and the wearing of a sprig of oak on the anniversary of the crowning showed that a person was loyal to the restored king ( he had spent a whole day, in 1651, hiding from the Roundheads in an oak tree) . Those who refused to wear an oak-sprig were often set upon, and children would challenge others to show their sprig or have their bottoms pinched. Consequently, this day became known as “Pinch-Bum-Day”, or for the more prudish, “Oak-apple day”.

Resurrection men

The “Resurrection” men – the body snatchers – were widespread in the early 19th century. The bodies that they snatched were sold to medical schools for three shillings an inch, so somewhere between £8 and £10 each – worth several hundred pounds in today’s money. To try to keep them away from the graves, very large gravestones were used in the hope that they would be too heavy to lift.  But after an unpleasant body-snatching incident in 1828, when Elizabeth Whitehead’s body was stolen, iron railings were put up around the Churchyard, to protect the graves from the body snatchers. A gate was put across, from Halsey’s to the old Vicarage, which used to be where Pebble and the Triangle café are. Another gatepost (a metal one) can be seen by “Stripe”, opposite Simmon’s bakery. After dark, the Beadle used to patrol the area within the Churchyard. The railings and the gate were taken down just before World War Two. Now the gateposts have all been replaced by the small wooden posts that you can see today. The War Memorial was constructed in 1922, and the churchyard was closed for burials in 1957.

Trinity College, Cambridge

In 1536, Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the Monasteries (and any religious house with an income of less than £200 a year). St Mary’s was one of these, and the Church was given to Trinity College, Cambridge. Outside the South Porch doors, (right hand side, looking into the Church) are the arms of Trinity College, Cambridge, to mark this gift.

It was lucky that it was given to Trinity, as many churches perished completely, the lead on the roof was used for bullets, the bells were melted down to make cannon and the timbers were used for Henry’s shipping. Then the locals moved in and used the stones for houses. From 1314 , the Crown required all wool for export to be traded at a designated market, called ‘ the Staple’. This allowed the Crown to monitor the trade and levy tax on exports. A system gradually became established under which, by royal ordinance, wool could only exported through a limited number of specified towns. These towns became known as the “Staple” towns.


Eventually, when the system was finalised, there was only one English staple town – and that was Calais. Calais was then in the possession of England, of course, prior to the fall of the town to the French in 1558. Calais was the staple from 1363 , when a group of twenty-six traders was incorporated as the Company of the Staple at Calais. In exchange for its co-operation in the payment of taxes, the company was granted a total monopoly on wool exports from England. The company was important to the English crown, both as a source of revenue, and through its role in the defence of Calais against the French.

Successive monarchs taxed the wool trade, especially when they had exceptional needs for revenue, such as in times of war. One way to raise taxes and to control the trade so that taxes could more effectively be raised was to regulate and tax the export of wool. King Edward the 1st introduced a “wool tax” of six shillings and eight pence a sack – about one third of the value of the complete sack. This gave rise to the nursery rhyme “Baa, Baa, black sheep”, where one third of the price went to the King (the master), two thirds to the Church (the dame), but none for the shepherd (the little boy that cries down the lane).

Burials in woollens

The “Staple” originated in a duty on wool that was introduced in 1275 at the “request of the communities of merchants” with the intention that the burden of tax should fall on the foreign buyers of wool. So as to keep up the production of wool Charles II had an Act put on the Statute Book, in 1666 (and another in 1678), that all bodies should be have a “burial in woollens “. An affidavit that the body had been buried in woollens had to be delivered to the local magistrate of the parish, where the deceased, was buried within eight days of the burial. The penalty for not procuring the affidavit was £5. Of this £5, half went to the poor and half to the informant. The rich managed to defy the Act by having a family member as the informant. The penalty was thus effectively halved to £2:50. The Act wasn’t repealed until 1814.

Edward IV granted a licence to establish the “Merchants of the Staple of Calais”. The Staple of Calais was a kind of employers’ co-operative for the wool trade, and was the most influential trade guild of the fifteenth century. The Merchant Staplers had the monopoly of exporting the principal raw commodities of England, especially wool, to all the lands England then held in France. There are two brasses of 15th Century Merchants of the Staple, inside the Church, who have woolpacks beneath their feet. Wool tax paid the ransom of King Richard the Lionheart captured during the crusades, and to this day the Lord Chancellor sits in parliament on a woolsack to mark the historical importance of the wool trade. Even Sir Richard “Dick” Whittington was wool merchant as well as three times Lord Mayor of London. In medieval times the risk of piracy or shipwreck was always present and it became customary for merchants to divide consignments of goods between several vessels, rather than risk a full cargo in one ship. For this reason adequate marking of goods was essential to avoid confusion and a mark on a bale established legal evidence as to ownership.

Warding off the Devil

Early travellers, voyagers and merchants displayed their merchant’s marks as well to ward off evil. Adventurous travellers and sailors ascribed the terrors and perils of their life to the wrath of the Devil . To counter these dangers merchants employed all sorts of religious and magical means to place their caravans, ships and merchandise under the protection of God and His Saints. There is a famous tale from the Miracles of Our Lady of Laon in the first half of the twelfth century, which tells how canons of Laon took ship for England to collect money to rebuild their church. They were joined by a number of merchants on the way to buy wool. Pirates attacked the ship, and the merchants vowed all their money to Our Lady of Laon if she would get them out of the mess. “Thereupon a storm arose and wrecked the pirate ship, but directly they were safe at home, the merchants resumed their moneybags, leaving Our Lady without a penny”. Anyone familiar with the characteristics of the medieval Virgin as manifested in her Miracles can guess the sequel. ‘For when,’ says the canon of Laon, who tells the tale, ‘they had gone almost all over England and had spent their money buying quantities of wool, they stored it in a big house on the seashore at Dover and, behold, in the night before their departure the house with all the wool was burned to the ground and they were reduced to penury.’ The festival of St. Blasius, who was the patron saint of wool combers, shepherds, sheep shearers and comb makers, was celebrated on February the 3rd as a holiday in Hitchin, with colourful processions.

Inside the Church: in the nave.

The early history of Hitchin

The King of Mercia from 757 to 796 was King Offa. Mercia covered the Southern half of England, with the exception of East Anglia and Wessex (approximately Devon and Cornwall) and right up to the Welsh border. After suffering years of raids and attacks from his Welsh neighbours, Offa ordered the construction of a dyke that would stretch from one sea to the other, separating the Welsh from the rest of Britain. There are no records of how exactly Offa’s Dyke was constructed, how long it took, or how many people were involved, but it is safe to say that it must have been the largest undertaking in the history of Britain up to that point. The word dyke is perhaps not a strong enough term to understand the breadth of the project, and “The Great Wall of Wales” might better convey it. At the time of its completion, Offa’s Dyke stretched around 177 miles from sea to sea. It consisted of a great ditch dug nearly twenty feet deep, topped by an earth wall some eight feet high and filled with thorn bushes. It is now thought that part or the entire wall may have been topped with wooden palisades or stone walls. In places, the dyke was as much as 65 feet wide. Although there are gaps in the dyke at various points, it is now thought that these gaps were likely protected by fortresses and were purposely left to allow legitimate movement between England and Wales.

King Offa

King Offa gave his name to Great Offley; the village just down the road. Offa was a pagan, but legend has it that he made a pilgrimage to Rome (at the request of his Christian wife) after he had murdered his cousin for the throne. He had an audience with Pope Adrian I, who imposed a penance stipulating that Offa “should forthwith erect a fair Monastery”. The term “monastery” actually includes secular priests (they hadn’t taken vows of obedience to monastic rule). So the legend is that he founded a Benedictine monastery here in A.D. 792 – the foundations are here beneath the nave. This monastery was built just south of an earlier pagan temple. He founded another Benedictine monastery at St Albans, which was built in AD 793.

Why in this area? – well – Offa was a local lad; he was born in a (wooden) castle – now long gone, in what is now Benington Lordship. If you are ever in St Albans, there is a picture of him in the arch leading to the North presbytery aisle. However, Offa kept up his evil ways – in AD 794 a man called Ethelbert, the King of the East Angles, came to seek the hand of Offa’s daughter “Aelfryth” and Offa had him murdered by beheading and his body thrown into the river Hiz. A bright light shone, and a spring arose from the spot. His body was taken by ox-cart to Hereford, where the head fell from the cart. It was retrieved by a blind man who stumbled over the head and recovered his sight.

Ethelbert was made a saint and St. Ethelbert’s body was buried in Hereford Cathedral, where it is to this day. The Danes invaded England in AD 865, and in AD 878, it was agreed at the Treaty of Wedmore – between King Alfred and Guthrun the leader of the Danes – for the River Lea to be the boundary between Danelaw and the rest of England. “Up the Thames, then up to the River Lea to its source (at Leagrave, near Luton) then right to Bedford, then up the Ouse to Watling Street”.

Danes and Anglo-Saxons

There was continuous fighting between the English and the Danes, King Alfred counter attacking in AD 884. He defeated the Danes and Guthrun and 29 of his chiefs were baptised to become Christians. In AD 907, King Edward made peace with the Danes at Hitchin. In AD 910, the Danes burned down the Monastery, Offa’s palace and most of the town of Hitchin. Then by AD 937, Hitchin was again Anglo-Saxon. There was a “Minster” here in Hitchin in about 985 A.D. – A lady called “Aethelgifu” owned some two dozen separately named properties in Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, and Hertfordshire. Her will gives a highly detailed accounting of her many bequests, of which the chief beneficiary was the ancient abbey of St. Albans, and the church of Hitchin.

Scot free

Manor courts were often held in the nave, and tenants came there to pay their rent, or scot. A free meal was given to those who paid their scot, hence our term, “scot free”. Originally, people stood in the nave or even milled about, to hear the church service. Pews were not introduced until the 15th century after the Reformation, when sermons became more important. Because few could read, Biblical stories were often acted out for the congregation in the form of miracle plays. These plays evolved into cycles or collections, beginning with the Creation and ending with the Last Judgement. The plays were performed in the churchyard or porch. In the 15th century morality plays appeared, in which moral ideas combatted (e.g. Virtue vs. Vice).

The font

The font is made of “Ketton” stone, a sort of fine-grained limestone from Caen in Normandy, and has been here since at least 1470. There used to be a third step beneath the font but it was removed in Victorian times, no doubt to make it more convenient for baptisms. The font was constructed to be the length of the average newborn, as the infant used to be wholly immersed. In the 1640’s, the Puritans did a lot of damage, defacing the apostles on the font. Puritans were Anglicans who “purified” their doctrines to the absolute limits. The Puritan iconoclasts were opposed to any ornamentation, decoration or statues, – following the Second of the Ten Commandments (Thou shalt not make thee any graven image) – which they considered “graven images”. The Puritans also did a lot of other damage, which I will tell you about as we reach it. They also forbade the veneration of relics, which they considered were being worshipped.


There is a Victorian font cover made of oak, which replaced an earlier one. Font covers were made compulsory from 1236 onwards. Edmund, the Archbishop of Canterbury, ordered them as a protection from Sorcery. (“Fontes baptismales sub sera clausi teneantur propter sortilegia”). The waters of the font were blessed on Easter day and left for later use. They were considered to be extremely powerful and they had to be kept under lock and key so that they couldn’t be used for witchcraft. These locks became known as “Witchlocks”. Some fonts have plain ‘lids’ over the stone fonts, or like this one above, very ornate and raised by a cable and pulley system and a counter weight. Some are kept in this raised position and others actually lowered over the font and only raised for Baptisms. Some font covers did survive the Cromwellian destruction, but this one didn’t, being a Victorian copy of an earlier original.

South Aisle.

And now for some fiction, the legend of Dick Whittington has it that he stopped in Hitchin on his way to London and left the cat (whose name is “Tommy”, by the way) in the Church overnight, as they were plagued with rats and mice. Next morning the cat had killed all of them, and the grateful inhabitants put up a statue to him and his cat. The statue is carved on a corbel on the North-West wall of the South aisle, just below a vertical wooden beam. Dick has had his head shot off by the Puritans, but the cat is still there on the right. This is almost certainly only a legend, as, opposite, there is a stone commemorating Richard Whittington, gentleman of Stevenage, but this is not our Dick Whittington! Dick lived in Edward III’s time and his date of birth is given as in the 1350’s and he died in 1423. Also, the cat didn’t come into the Dick Whittington legend until 200 years after his death. Above the Richard Whittington stone are a beggar and a rat (rather Disney like, I always think). And a young girl with an imp whispering in one ear and an angel whispering in the other ear.

The south door

The South door is where the wedding couples and babies for baptisms enter. Above the South door, are three diamond-shaped “Hatchments”, (a corruption of the word “achievements”) which would have been carried in the funeral procession, then put first on the entrance to the house and finally on the wall of the church. You will note that the background of the one on the right is half white and half black, with the right hand side being white. This means that the married man died before his wife. The ones with the black background mean bachelors (single coat of arms), widowers (twin coats of arms), spinsters (single lozenge shaped coat of arms) or widows (twin lozenge shaped coats of arms). “Resurgam” means “I will rise again”, of course.

The Priest’s squint

In the middle is a “Priest’s Squint”. There is a small room upstairs, called a “parvise”, where the vicar could sit and keep an eye on what went on in the Church through the squint. For instance making sure that the pilgrims put money into rather than taking it out of the charity box! From his parvise, the vicar needed to check if anyone who looked literate (for instance, the squire, the schoolteacher, the doctor or a merchant) was reading the Bible. This was frowned on; the Church authorities wanted the laity to listen to the vicar, not to make their own interpretation of what it said in the Bible! Also, during a long sermon, the sexton used the squint in the parvise to see if anyone was nodding off and would come down and give them a prod!

Henry VIII

In 1527, King Henry VIII requested the Pope Clement VII to permit him to divorce his wife on the grounds that she had not produced a male heir. In fact he wanted to marry Anne Boleyn, who wouldn’t accept being the King’s mistress. Unfortunately for Henry, a Vatican spy had stolen his love letters to Anne, and the Pope therefore refused his request.  (These love letters can be seen to this day in the Vatican library). King Henry responded by annulling his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, marrying Anne Boleyn (in 1533) and, in a Royal Proclamation, renounced Roman Catholicism in the 1534 “Act of Supremacy”. He thus took England out from under Rome’s religious control, and declared himself as the reigning head of State to also be the new head of the Church.

The Church of England

This new branch of the Christian Church, neither Roman Catholic nor truly Protestant, became known as the Anglican Church or later, the Church of England. The Pope did not take this lightly; he excommunicated Henry and declared the marriage unlawful. In fact, he always referred to Anne Boleyn as “La Concubina” – “The Concubine”.  Henry’s next act was to further defy the wishes of Rome by funding the printing of the scriptures in English, the first legal English Bible. He also ordered the destruction of prayer books “wherein the Bishop of Rome is named or his presumptuous proud pomp preferred – and his name and memory to be never more remembered”. In 1536, Thomas Cromwell issued the “Ten Articles and Injunctions”, which required priests to conduct the services in English. The Ten Articles also put limits on images in the church, declaring some of them as being idolatrous.

The English Bible

In 1539, Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, at the request of Henry, published the “Great Bible”. It became the first English Bible authorised for public use, and it was distributed to every church, chained to the pulpit, and a reader was even provided so that the illiterate could hear the word of God in plain English. Until this time, it had been illegal for ordinary people to own a bible, from a law passed by Henry IV in 1401. For those caught, the penalty was burning at the stake!

When Edward the VI (he was the original of the legend of the “Prince and the Pauper”) came to the throne in 1547, radical reforms were introduced under the influence of the Duke of Northumberland. The Chantries Act abolished commemorative masses making guild altars obsolete. Shrines, pictures, “monuments of superstition”, were done away with and images in the church were whitewashed over or defaced.  Penances, transubstantation and extreme unction were also totally abolished.

In 1549 Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer was introduced in English. This was not popular with the laity, they preferred the familiar Latin even if they could not understand it, but all Latin books had to be destroyed. The inhabitants were persuaded to go to the Protestant church by a system of fines. For one missed Sunday Service from 1559, there was a fine of one shilling per week, and with the wages of the peasants at about three or four pence a week, this proved an admirable encouragement. A few years later, this fine was raised to £20 a month, which brought most of the gentry into the fold.  Continuous absence led to heavier fines, and these became a prime source of revenue to the government. As well as these fines, it was also an offence to import or display in public either a crucifix or a rosary. This crime was punishable by life imprisonment and confiscation of goods.

The pews

If you feel under the pew seats, you will find two grooved strips of wood: these were to hold gentlemen’s top hats in Victorian times. There is a tomb slab in the South Aisle to a “Captain Robert Hind”; he was the original of Uncle Toby in Tristram Shandy. Before 1475 there would have been standing room only in church, except that there may have been some seating round the sides for the aged and infirm giving rise to the saying “the weakest to go to the wall”. In mediaeval times, the men used to come into the Church through the South door and stand in the South aisle, and the women through the North door, standing in the North aisle. This is because the North side was colder in winter. Not a bit politically correct! The pews at the front have carvings of animals and plants. These were carved at the end of World War 1.

Parish chests

Near the pulpit, there are two chests (15th and 16th century, respectively), that used to hold the parish records. A law was passed in 1538 that required each vestry to provide a lockable chest to record births, baptisms, marriages and deaths. After 1597, the records had to be bound into books. These old records are now held at the County Record Office in Hertford, in atmospherically controlled conditions.

 The Pulpit

Dated about 1500.  It was moved from the North side to the South side. Before this time, the North aisle of the church was known as the “Gospel” side, as it was where the Gospel was read. Nowadays, the Bible is on the lectern, which is in the shape of an eagle. This is because the eagle was thought to be able to look at the sun without flinching and the words of the bible are an unflinching revelation of God. Pulpits are typically octagonal as this represents a halfway between a circle (perfect, so God) and a square (earth’s four corners). One day, in recent times, the Bishop preached a sermon from the pulpit, and when he went to leave the pulpit, his gown caught on a projection on the edge. He had just taken a step forward and couldn’t get back into the pulpit. There he was, suspended between heaven and earth, and the congregation had to rescue him by pushing him back up!

The Angel Screen

One of the finest in the country – surprisingly left by the Puritans – they used a lot of these screens for firewood. The Puritans were a little confused about angels, as they weren’t human; so it was doubtful if the prohibition on graven images referred to them. John and Alice Poulter paid for the screen in about 1450. It is carved from oak and there are twelve Angels with intercrossed wings – the two outer ones carrying shields and the rest carrying the items used during the crucifixion, the “Implements of Passion”. From the left, Linen shroud, Hammer, Scroll (for name), Cross, Crown of Thorns, Nails, Bindings (to tie legs to the cross), Sop soaked in vinegar, Cup (“I thirst”) and Scourge. The medieval population could easily see that the doors beneath the screen represented the Gates of Heaven, through which humanity could pass because of the crucifixion. And whilst on angels, there are over 170 in the church. Angels were frequently put on the roof rafters, as a reminder that looking up to the roof was like looking towards heaven. John Poulter’s tomb is in the Trinity Chapel, and is dated 1485.

St Andrew’s chapel

There are two carvings on the priest’s chair, called “poppyheads”. This is an Anglicisation of the French word “poupée”, meaning a doll or puppet. This beautifully sculpted seat is where the previous priest said Mass. The carvings of St. Mary and St. Andrew are 19th (or 15th?) Century.

The Guild Altar

The Guild Altar is a new Altar plus an Altar rail, with the Mouse trademarks by Robert “Mousey” Thompson of Kilburn, Yorkshire. The story told by Robert Thompson himself is that one of his craftsmen remarked “We are all as poor as church mice”. Whereupon Robert carved a mouse on the Church screen he was working on, and from that day on, he always used a mouse as his trademark. Two mice are carved; one is on the Eastern end of the Altar rail and the other on the North side of the Altar. The mouse signifies ‘industry in quiet places’. Just inside the “priest’s door” on the South wall, is a large rectangular stone that is used on which to lay the chalice and communion cup.


There are eleven brasses in the floor – some of the missing ones can only be seen as “indents” and they are, again, the work of the Puritans, who pulled them up to melt them down to make cannons. Interestingly, some of the brasses are double sided, (known as “palimpsests”) as it was cheaper to re-use an existing brass than to produce a new one. The earliest brasses are dated at A.D. 1421. Several brasses are of interest, one is a lady in a woollen shroud. Another is a man and wife with two smaller brasses below them, showing that the wife had six daughters and the husband had four sons. A further brass has James Herte (vicar of St Mary’s who died in 1499 A.D.) with two heart brasses (they were great on puns) above his head. The hearts have tears on them. You will notice that the brasses are always laid so that the figures are looking towards the altar. This is so they will be facing the Lord on Judgement Day. Sometimes priest’s brasses are facing the other way, looking towards their flocks.

The “Retrochoir”, ambulatory or cross Aisle.

The Victorian mosaic of the Last Supper includes Judas and his 30 pieces of silver – he is always shown side on (or nearly so) so that his gaze wouldn’t corrupt onlookers. Jesus has a “Cruciform” halo and there are ordinary halos on all the Apostles except Judas, who has no halo at all. Beside this are more mosaics with complementary stories from the lives of Jesus and Moses. On the left, (Old Testament on the Northern – colder – side) Moses is striking water from the rock of Horeb and on the right (New Testament on the Southern – warmer – side, with the greatest honour), Christ asking the woman of Samaria for a drink of water from Jacob’s well. Again, Moses gathering Manna on one side and the Shepherd with a lamb on the other side. Just below the mosaic is an Elizabethan altar that was used in the now defunct Church of St. John the Baptist.

Look down the centre of the church and you will see that it is offset to the South against the far stained glass window, known as a “Weeping Chancel”. Legend has it that this was because Christ’s head laid on his right side (the “good” side), when on the cross. It is more likely that this is due to the alignment of the church when it was being built.  Even before Christianity, places of worship were built facing towards the rising sun. Early medieval (seventh to early twelfth century) churches in central and southern England display an average alignment which is close to true east (average of 88° (T)), for 183 churches). This near liturgically-correct orientation can only have been achieved by astronomical means. Sixty-two per cent of the measured buildings lie within the range 80°–100° (T); such relatively minor discrepancies may be due largely to foundation setting-out errors. A considerable proportion of those churches which deviate significantly from true east were probably established on sites which were constrained by older structures in towns, and perhaps by the natural topography in rural areas. And as in the rest of Great Britain, Hertfordshire churches built during Saxon times were traditionally made to face the direction of sunrise on the feast day of the patron saint. In this case, November the 30th is the feast day of St. Andrew. At this date, the sun rises well to the South of East. When the church was rebuilt as St Mary’s, the rules had changed and the centre-line was made to be as close as possible to true East, thus the St Andrew’s part was offset to the South. On the other hand, it could be that it is poor workmanship on the part of the builders – more of that later. But, there are many churches in Hertfordshire like this, and most of them are offset to the North. There are churches, however, where the offset is to the North.

In the Middle Ages, the altar itself was imbued with a special divine protective power, due to the “Doctrine of Divine Presence”. This stated that the when the mass was celebrated, the bread and wine were actually the body and blood of Christ, who was physically present, not just symbolically. The pious parishioners wanted to be buried as close as possible to the altar to benefit them of Christ’s protection, in the next world.

The Trinity Chapel.

Seven small pieces are all that remains of the medieval stained glass; the rest was knocked or shot out by the Puritans.  Two of these pieces show King Edward the IVth (1461-1483) and his wife Elizabeth. The remainder of the stained glass in the Church is mostly Victorian. There is a carved wooden screen on the Eastern wall; it is a “Parclose” or Chancel screen, which used to be between the altar and the nave. Its purpose was to keep the peasantry away from the altar, and also to keep the dogs out of the area!

Behind the screen is a piscina – a small basin in a niche in the wall – this is used for washing the Communion or Mass vessels, with a credence – a shelf in the piscina recess to take the vessels used in the Mass before consecration.  Below the screen is a small hole in the floor. This was used to pour away the remains of the sacramental wine after a communion in Victorian times. This was because of the heavily bearded gentlemen who used to lose their whiskers in the wine! Not particularly hygienic!

The Charnel House (or “Skull House”).

This was an ossuary, built in the 1450’s, to contain the bones from the Churchyard when the Church was extended. After the bones had dried completely, they were removed and burnt in a “bonefire”, the origin of our word “bonfire”. Later on, the Puritans used it as a prison for the Cavaliers. Imagine what it must have been like, as they were down there for several months. Not open to the public, but I have been down there, not very interesting, no bones or any trace of prisoners, just the central heating boiler and old chairs. The handle on the door has four hearts, again commemorating James Herte.

The Organ

There is a plaque on the organ case that celebrates Sir Henry Wood, the internationally renowned conductor, who died in Hitchin in 1944.

The North Aisle

The roof is dated at around AD 1300. There are three stone figures, which came from Temple Disney when the Templars were dissolved. The tombs of Sir Edward de Kendale (he founded the Biggin as a Gilbertine convent, just next door, in 1361) and his wife Elizabeth. He fought in the battles of Crecy and Poitiers. You notice that he is in armour and his foot (if only he had feet!) are resting on a lion (or is it a dog? – a symbol of faithfulness). A lion usually means that he had been on a Crusade. The important first seven Crusades to the Holy Land were over a hundred years previously, but there were later ones against heretical Christians – the Cathars in the Albigensian Crusade, or the Waldensians, for instance.  The Crusaders slaughtered them with the same enthusiasm as they did the Jews and Moslems in the Holy Land.

Sir Edward de Kendale also quelled the civil disorder that broke out after the Black Death. The tomb of his wife, Elizabeth de Kendale, who died in 1376, has two pug dogs at her feet, this is quite normal for ladies’ memorials.

The Knights Templar

The third monument is to Bernard of Balliol (1095 to 1153) – he was the Lord of the Manor of Hitchin and the founder of the Preceptory of Knights Templars at Temple Dinsley, three miles to the South of Hitchin. (This is now the Princess Helena College for Girls). It was always rumoured that this monument came from Temple Dinsley, and this was proved beyond reasonable doubt a few years ago, when his missing foot was found at Temple Disney. The fact that his legs were crossed used to be considered that he had gone on a Crusade, but this is just a myth. However, his sword is an indication that he went on a Crusade to the Holy Land – the Second Crusade. He fought for King Stephen against the Empress Matilda. His great great great grandson John was the King of Scotland in AD 1292, having disputed the throne of Scotland with Robert the Bruce. An even later descendant founded Balliol College, Oxford. Pope Clement V issued a papal Bull in A.D. 1309, which ordered the Archbishop of Canterbury to suppress the Knights Templar. The ostensible reason was that the Templars were guilty of heresy, in that they were worshipping cats, which were well known to be Satan’s favourite helpers. The Templars were finally put down by King Edward II in AD 1312, who wanted to confiscate their hoard of gold, silver and precious jewels. However, the treasure was too well hidden and has never been recovered, although it is still believed to be at Temple Dinsley.

The Church columns.

Offset by about a yard or so at the Western end. More poor workmanship on the part of the builders, or rather they didn’t think it important, after all, the church was waterproof and the acoustics were great, so what is anyone’s problem! The columns are Doric (rather than Ionic or Corinthian), they were associated with masculinity and strength, so are used in churches dedicated to male saints.

A (mostly) Rubens.

The Adoration of the Magi is a copy of the original which is in Lyons.  However, some details in the Hitchin copy are not in the Lyons version. The visit of Magi is when Jesus is first revealed to the Gentiles.  The painting is thought to be what is known as a “workshop” painting – that is actually painted in the Rubens studio. It is thought, however, that Rubens painted the Holy Family but the remainder of the picture was completed by his students, with the least able students doing the simpler bits of the background. The painting was formerly over the communion table.

The Bell Tower.

The oldest parts of the church are the two end pillars at each of the corners of the nave belonging to the 12th Century.  Henry II granted the church to the Benedictine nuns of Elstow who funded the rebuilding of St Andrews and added the tower in about 1195. The tower is open to the public on some Open days, well worth the climb to see the bells and the view.

The bells

The bells were considered to be the protectors of man and beast and the drivers-away of all sorts of evil; famine, pestilence, lightning and storms, earthquakes, fires and the devil himself.  The bells were rung on All Hallows Eve and at other times when evil spirits were thought to be especially powerful. Inscriptions on church bells were thought to give them double force. The fifth bell of the peal of eight has the inscriptions on it: LAUDO DEUM VERUM (I praise the true God), PLEBEM VOCO (I summon the people) CONGREGO CLERUM (I assemble the clergy) DEFUNCTO PLORO (I lament the dead) PESTEM FUGO (I drive out pestilence) FESTA DECORO 1762 (I celebrate the feasts).   The latest information is that at least some of the bells are due to be melted down and recast.

Unanswered questions

There are some questions, still. What is the story behind the coat of arms above the entrance to the Bell Tower? Why are there two 18th Century Bishop’s mitres either side of the coat of arms?

Work in Progress: 15th August 2012, by Dave Everest.


Chauncy “History of Hertfordshire” (1815)  “Clutterbuck’s History of Hertfordshire” (1815 & 1821) Cussans “History of Hertfordshire” (1870 & 1881) W.Dunnage “History of Hitchin” (1815)                       R. L. Hine “The History of Hitchin” (1927 & 1929) R.L.Hine “A Short History of St. Mary’s, Hitchin” (1948) I.James. “History of Hitchin” (1788)                    I.James. “History of Hitchin” (1826)                    Salmon “History of Herts” (1728)

For more information about St Mary’s, go to 

This page was added on 16/08/2012.

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  • As a family we lived in Hitchin from 1975-1983 and worshiped at St Marys in that period.
    In pre-reformation times the rood, the sculpture of Christ crucified, would have been suspended in the chancel arch, above the rood screen. The protestant reformation under Edward VI swept all ‘catholic’ inspired imagery away. The Royal Arms was introduced in to this space above the chancel in Elizabethan times to reinforce the message that The Sovereign was head of the Church in England.
    The passage of time saw further reordering of the church interior. Royal Arms were repositioned. The west end or on the north wall are favoured positions. The passage of time saw The arms of Queen Elizabeth I being replaced with those of the Sovereign of the Day. George III being favoured in celebration of Trafalgar or Waterloo and Britain’s the rise to a world power .

    By Les Cook (29/11/2021)
  • What a lovely tour and fond memories stirred. I was in England in 2013 and stayed at my cousins home in Hitchin. We toured the Church and I just loved it. I
    I wonder if you can help me refresh my memory. I seem to recall a glass box containing a poor man who was killed in error for some misdeed and was sewn back up and placed in the box in the church. I may have the wrong building so would love your input . Thank you in advance and hoping to hear from you Margie Feduck

    By Margie Feduck (26/08/2021)
  • One detail – the Greek letters chi rho didn’t stand for Christus Rex, which is Latin. They were the first two letters of Christos (ch is a single letter in Greek).

    By Nicholas Blatchley (02/01/2019)
  • My great grandfather, John Henry Wiles, was the son of the Rev. Henry Wiles M.A., vicar of St. Mary’s Church, Hitchin, Hertfordshire. He was born in 1830, and in 1852 came to South Australia in the ship Prince Regent where he settled at Glen Osmond. In 1888 he made a return trip to England and while there ascended the spire of St. Mary’s, at Hitchin, on which as a boy he had carved his name on the topmost point. It was said that at that time the carving was still legible.

    My enquiry is, does anyone today have any knowledge of this story and more particularly, is the carving of his name on the spire still to be found?

    By Robert Dettman (25/02/2018)
  • Hi David,

    You showed my fiancee, my mother and I around the church today.

    In the chapel, above the Radcliffe memorials and the brasses, is a sword and what appears to be gauntlets. It’s been bugging me – can you please tell me what that’s all about?



    Mike Stuchbery

    By Mike Stuchbery (11/08/2015)
  • This is great ! Thanks for publishing I am hoping to undertake a project on the history of St Marys and this is so useful . Easy to read and very interesting I have lived in hitchin for many years but have learnt lots of new facts, esp useful is your referencing for further reading.

    By Lin (22/02/2013)
  • Thank you for the work and research you have undertaken to provide this much detailed information about such a beautiful building. The simplicity and humour within have made the reading so much more pleasureable and easier to absorb and digest. Again, thank you.

    By Trish Burton (16/08/2012)
  • Thanks Trish, for your comments. St.Mary’s is open 12.30 to 4.30, most first, second, third and fourth Tuesdays and Fridays (not 29th, 30th or 31st of months). The Church Stewards (of which I am one) sometimes offer a guided tour – I certainly do! Dave Everest

    By Dave Everest (16/08/2012)