The History of St. Mary’s Church, Shephall
A brief history and guide by the Reverend G.B.White – Vicar 1991-2006 (updated 2022).
“How old is this church?” people kept asking, and as there’s no easy answer, it seemed worthwhile to put together this booklet. In outlining the story of St. Mary’s, I have drawn extensively on Mary Spicer’s village history “Tyme Out Of Mind” which is no longer in print but can be obtained from second-hand booksellers.
Enjoy your visit, but remember: the chief delight of this place is its atmosphere of prayer, why not spend a few minutes in God’s presence, giving thanks for the faithful witness and worship of many generations here?
The Doomsday Book of 1086 tells us quite a lot about “Escepehale”, but not whether it had a church. However, a number of factors suggest that the villagers of the pre-conquest “Sceapa-heale” (i.e. a remote clearing where sheep could be grazed) had some religious building here, perhaps of wood.
First of all the churchyard itself: its oval shape has suggested to some an earlier, pagan religious site, perhaps linked to the nearby well. Secondly, the Chronicles of St. Albans Abbey (edited circa 1240) list Shephall as part of the original endowment of the Abbey, founded by King Offa near the end of the 8th Century: an abbot would normally provide a church for his own tenants.
Finally, there is a stone, which was re-used as an inside quoin high over the south window of the sanctuary, which appears to have “runic” letters crudely incised: this would suggest Saxon or Danish origin, but since no meaning has yet been deciphered, this is not conclusive evidence.
What we do know, however, is that, by the middle of the twelfth century a church stood in Shephall, attached to the neighbouring parish of Aston, which in turn was held by Reading Abbey. In a contract of 1151-54, Reading ceded to St. Albans its rights in regard to the church of “Sepehale”, and recognised its independence from the church of “Estuna”. Thus the Abbey of St. Albans exercised both civil and ecclesiastical jurisdiction over Shephall until its dissolution in 1539; the parish was a detached island of the bishopric of London, surrounded by the enormous Lincoln diocese, and similarly constituted an outpost of the Liberty of St. Albans within the Hundred of Broadwater.
THE MEDIAEVAL CHURCH
The small Norman church probably occupied the site of the present nave (without its aisle), with an apsidal (?) chancel slightly shorter than the present one; indeed some of the present walls may stand on Norman foundations and incorporate material from that date. It would have looked like a slightly reduced version of the fine old church St Leonard in Bengeo, near Hertford, complete with frescoes, of which tiny fragments have been found at St. Mary’s. The east end seems to have been rebuilt and probably extended, about 1300.
To the early 14th Century belong the roof timbers and the rare wooden chancel arch (dated by Adrian Gibson in 2004 as 1340). The corbels supporting the wall posts are uniquely made of wood and probably originally had carved angels attached to them or wooden boards with angels painted on them. The nave has a crown-post roof of arched trusses that formerly had trefoil tracery in the spandrels. The ‘perpendicular’ rood-screen below may be of the same period, but is generally ascribed to the following century. Originally it was richly coloured, perhaps with some gilding, and ornamented with a motif of small flowers, of which some trace remains. There was probably a central arch and gates, and the lower panels may have contained images of saints. Up above was a (carved?) rood (crucifixion scene) and a ‘tympanum’ – a large, flat, plastered panel, usually depicting the Last Judgment; under the great arch you can still see the holes where it was secured by dowels.
Geoffrey Fisher of the Courtauld Institute visited the church in 1998 and made many attributions including the tablet of John Rudd vicar d.1640 to Edward Marshall. The ledger stone to Edmund Fielde d.1676 is by Jasper Latham, a master mason working for Christopher Wren at St Paul’s. The reminder of the wall monuments and ledgers are by Thomas Stanton (1610-74), William Stanton (1639-1705) nephew of Thomas and Edward Stanton (1682-1734) son of William. Most of the inscriptions can be found in R Clutterbuck’s History and Antiquities of the County of Hertford (1821).
We don’t know whether the windows contained stained glass; none more than 145 years old remains. At any rate, the church before the Reformation would have looked dark, yet rich and mysterious. The outside was entirely plastered, and remained largely so until the Victorian restorers exposed and renewed the flint construction.
The watercolour by Henry George Oldfield of circa 1801 shows an earlier construction of the west end of the nave with a crenelated brick wall and square clock tower rather than the slender bellcote now present. That alteration may have been the work of the Victorians in 1865 when much other work was undertaken including the addition of the north aisle.
THE PRESENT CHURCH
Entering through the 19th Century porch, one is immediately aware that this is a real village church: the old oil lamps survive, converted to electricity and now with energy saving LED lamps, and the pews have an endearing irregularity. Until the mid-fifties our parish never had more than 250 inhabitants (the 1881 Census records a population of 221): now St. Mary’s ministers to a population of around 15,000.
The font with its cover, is Victorian, as is the north aisle (1865), widened for the new town suburb in 1956. Unfortunately the Victorian stained glass from the aisle has been lost, but the remaining windows are of interest, and are mostly the work of Heaton, Butler & Bayne. The west window (1912) portrays soldier saints in memory of Colonel Alfred Heathcote, of Shephalbury. The nativity window by the pulpit, which externally retains its late 14th Century tracery, commemorates his father, Unwin Unwin-Heathcote, who rebuilt the manor-house and restored the church. Between them is the resurrection window, aglow with marigolds, lilies and pomegranates, (a fruit which symbolized new life in the legend of Persephone).
The Heathcotes reigned at the Bury for a century, but the Nodes family had been there for almost three, and it is their monuments which dominate the nave. The most baroque is surely that of George (d.1697) by the pulpit, with its death’s head and grotesques; those on either side of the font are also particularly fine but the finest white marble monument to Susan Nodes d.1695 is hidden away in the vestry behind the organ pipes. One curious monument, at the east end of the aisle, commemorates a former Vicar, John Rudd, who was found a little too “full of hot zeale” in his preaching at Great St. Mary’s Cambridge and retired to Shephall as its “faithful pastor” for 45 years. Read the inscription and note the over restored miniature, which originally depicted Rudd as the Good Shepherd. The monument was originally on the north wall of the chancel under a window but would have been moved to its current location on the east wall by the Victorians with the north aisle extension.
Before you pass through the rood screen (see above) notice how the more recent pulpit and lectern echo its design. The choir stalls are modern, but above are two more 18th Century memorials.
The altar has been brought forward so that the priest can face the people in the Eucharist, and it bears a painting of the crucifixion dating from the ‘20’s. On either side are memorial brasses to the 1st George Nodes “Sargaunt of the Bucke Hounds” to Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth, and his wife Margaret.
The east window contains a modern representation of Christ the High Priest, while that to the south has our oldest stained glass (1877) showing St. Paul preaching at Athens. The quoins around this window exhibit curious patterns, while at the top there is the rune-stone. Notice also a mediaeval piscina set in the sill, with another (14th C) reset to the left; these were for the priest to wash his hands and the vessels at Mass.
So ends our tour of the inside, though if you have time, you might like to study the list of incumbents and the benefactions board in the north aisle. The organ is a Compton 2-rank extension built about 1950 and acquired by St Mary’s from Royston Methodist church in 1976. The 2 manual console with RCO pedal board is located to the north of the chancel and the organ pipes are located at the western end of the north aisle. The organ and console were completely overhauled and refurbished by E J Johnson (Cambridge) Ltd in Sept/Oct 2017. As you go out, there is one previous relic of the Norman church which you should note, even if you can’t see it: the treble bell, one of the few 12th Century bells in the country and the oldest in Hertfordshire and is believed to have been made between 1150 and 1190. The only other bell in the Diocese of comparable age is the priest’s bell at Leighton Buzzard. Ours is still rung, along with its tenor companion, recast in 1767; both were restored in 1974, partly in memory of Tom Hampson, an Olympic gold-medallist in the 1932 Games, whose grave is in the churchyard.
Outside you might notice, in the brick east wall (circa1800) a memorial to the Revd John Jones. He was a high-churchman – a “friend of Catholic Christianity” and a friend also of Samuel Richardson, the novelist. The vestry/parish room was added in 1971, but the great yew-tree may be as old as the church itself; it was sacred to the Saxons, and was later cut for bows and arrows. You will probably pass through the lych-gate, a replica of the Victorian gate vandalised in 2005. It reminds us of the old English word “lych”, meaning corpse. Most of those who pass beneath it are decidedly alive, though, as is our church; museums can be dead places indeed, but I hope you have sensed the living tradition within our church’s ancient stones.
The parish room was added in 1971 by David M Sutcliffe and is now in need of modernisation and extension. Feasibility studies are being undertaken to see what we might be able to achieve and fund raising towards the potential costs is underway.
“Tyme Out Of Mind”, no longer in print, is available on loan from Hertfordshire County Libraries or to purchase second hand.
St Mary’s is a Grade II* listed building mostly as a result of the monuments within the church.
Shephall Manor, previously known as the Bury has a grade II listing. It is now, together with its immediate grounds, the headquarters for the Coptic Church in the UK.