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St. Lawrence the Martyr, Abbots Langley (C12-15)

Fig. 1: St. Lawrence the Martyr, Abbots Langley (south elevation). Image: Struan Bates.

The principal features of the church of St. Lawrence the Martyr in Abbots Langley, Hertfordshire (Fig. 1), date from between the 12th and 15th centuries. The church appears to integrate progressive stylistic trends, spanning the Norman and Perpendicular gothic periods, in a way that is characteristic of the region. Richard Morris asks in Churches in the Landscape (1989) whether parochial preferences in church-building followed in the wake of technical innovation, or vice versa; St. Lawrence’s offers support for both sides of this argument, but this article will contend that the most significant factor that influenced its architectural development were changes in liturgical arrangements.

An ecclesiastical building pre-dating the church on the same site is confirmed by the Domesday Book, where Abbots Langley is listed as held by the abbot of St. Albans with a priest in situ. The short nave and chancel also hints at a Saxon structure: an abrupt transition from Norman to gothic arcading along the south aisle corresponds with a short side-return on the north aisle: this suggests a wall may once have divided the nave and chancel, with the chancel possibly forming the original Saxon church.

The principal surviving features, however, are Norman. Most striking are the 12th century semi-circular arcades dominating the nave (Fig. 2). Large circular piers support scalloped and coned capitals, with zig-zag decoration adorning the middle orders of the arches. These features are characteristically late-Norman, dating the arcades to between 1150-1190. Similar rich detailing was brought to St. Albans Abbey during this period under Abbot John de Cella, and its use at St. Lawrence’s and nearby Hemel and Redbourn suggests co-ordinated planning of works at parish level with the mother church.

A single round-headed window in the west wall of the north aisle also suggests that the aisles are Norman in origin. They are particularly narrow, and may be contemporary manifestations of prestige, rather than a response to a requirement for more congregational space. If this was the case, their lack of decoration suggests that, if they did form part of Abbot de Cella’s 12th century vision, their technical implementation was truncated.

Fig. 2: Left: Looking east from nave to chancel, with 12th century arcading to the north and south. Right: The indicated capital from the middle north aisle pier, with scalloping and zig-zag arch decoration. Images: Struan Bates.

The next significant addition was the west tower (Fig. 1) of rubblestone and flint, with traces of Hertfordshire Puddingstone. This was erected in at least two stages: narrow, lancet windows adorn the north and south walls which, together with the pair of low, diagonal buttresses supporting the west face, date the lower half of the tower to the transitional period of the early-13th century. Perpendicular windows above the west entrance date the upper portion to the 15th century, with a modern brick parapet crowning the cornice.

Greater structural consequences, however, were affected by St. Lawrence’s changes in liturgical arrangements from the 14th century. The most significant addition was the Corpus Christi chancel chapel (Fig. 3, Fig.4). From the exterior, the chapel obscures the chancel, incorporating three Decorated windows in knapped flint and Totternhoe Clunch squared chequerwork walls. Roberts notes that clunch, a hard chalk quarried in nearby Bedfordshire, was first used at St. Albans under Abbot de Cella, and was almost universally used in Hertfordshire and South Bedfordshire churches, principally being transported along routes to St. Albans and Windsor. This suggests the guiding hand of higher clergy in planning the chapel, however its origin is uncertain.

Fig. 3: Left: The chancel chapel from the south-west. Right: Totternhoe Clunch and flint chequerboard work on the east wall. Images: Struan Bates.

The religious guild of Corpus Christi founded churches during this period, however the practice appears to have been mainly urban. The chapel also changed its name to the Lady Chapel in the 15th century before later reverting. Paul Barnwell notes that chancel chapels were built to accommodate overspill of the congregation or for chantry reasons, and were often designed to be deliberately ‘showey or elaborate’ in rivalling the chancel. It is notable that St. Lawrence’s chapel’s disproportionate embrace of width, characteristic of the Decorated style’s use of space- and the liturgical importance attached to it – would have a lasting impact on how the church managed its congregation, principally in subsequent modifications to the chancel and nave.

This is first apparent when viewing the chapel through the extended gothic arcading (Fig. 4) separating it from the chancel. The chapel’s greater dimensions position it as the dominant space, with the eye drawn to its fine roof with king posts and curved braces, and the three Decorated windows. Their cusped window heads and reticulated tracery suggest a date of the early-14th century, and deliver the ‘softness and fluidity’ that is the hallmark of the Decorated period. Access to the chapel, however, is awkward.

The reason lies in the arrangement of the gothic arcading. The easternmost pair of two-centred arches, with double-chamfered moulding and octagonal piers and capitals, date to the late-14th or early-15th century, and documentary evidence confirms the chancel was rebuilt at this time. The chancel also appears to have been lengthened during the same works, fitting with a wider trend of chancels being enlarged in the 14th century to distance the altar from the laity. These changes indicate that the chancel and chapel may have co-existed as largely separate rooms or buildings, with a wall subsequently removed between them.

Fig. 4: Left: Looking through the chancel arcade into the dominant 14th century chancery chapel. 16th century skew arch in the foreground. Right: Decorated windows and kingpost roof in the chapel. Images: Struan Bates.

West of the two-centred arches is a larger, four-centred arch, incorporating a hood mould in the Tudor style (Fig. 4), with two smaller pointed arches beneath. The larger skew arch dates to the 16th century, with the apparent purpose of further integrating the congregation. Positioned at the juncture of nave and chancel, however, it awkwardly connects the Norman and gothic arcading, upsetting their rhythm and the harmony between the church’s principal spaces. The liturgical consequences of the Corpus Christi chapel, therefore, had architectural implications. Once the Decorated chapel was complete, a decision appears to have been made to further integrate the congregation in a way that complemented the chapel’s growing status and fluidity of space.

To an extent, the second phase of later-medieval renovations can be seen as a response to the architectural questions the chapel posed. The works from this next period are in the Perpendicular style (Fig. 5), and were begun by Abbot Moote of St. Albans in the early 15th century. The chancel received larger east and north windows with Perpendicular tracery. The upper part of the tower was reconstructed, with a parapet added, in keeping with a movement towards greater angularity. The aisle walls were also rebuilt, and the nave roof and clerestory raised.

Fig. 5: Left: When viewed from the east elevation, the Perpendicular chancel again appears dominated by the Decorated Corpus Christi chapel. Right: Grotesque corbel of pig in a cowl in the nave roof. Images: Struan Bates.

Also embedded in the nave roof were a series of grotesque corbels, some depicting friars as pigs. Was this Chaucerian satire a response to the excesses of the neighbouring King’s Langley Priory? If so, the corbels may suggest a local rivalry between between the priory’s mendicant Dominican order and the Benedictine house at St. Albans, the product of which possibly accelerated Abbot Moote’s Perpendicular improvements at St. Lawrence’s.

By the 15th century, St. Lawrence’s had reached its maximum medieval areal extent. The Perpendicular phase, however, appears to have been insufficiently accommodating, as between the 16th and 19th centuries the chancel was employed as a mortuary chapel, with a funerary monument in the place of the high alter, whilst the taking of communion moved to the chapel. How clergy and laity were arranged for worship in this later period, when there was effectively a dog-leg between nave and chapel, requires further investigation.


Fig. 6
: Plan of medieval phases of St. Lawrence the Martyr, Abbots Langley (2021). Image: Struan Bates.

This article has shown how some of the key stages in St. Lawrence’s development between the 12th and 15th centuries were the product of stylistic visions instigated by senior ecclesiastical institutions, or by the rivalry between them. If works decisions were made at a parochial level, evidence for this is limited.

These visions, however, were often truncated, with only the 14th century Decorated Corpus Christi chapel achieving a coherent form and function of its own. The chapel’s exterior use of conspicuous vernacular techniques and materials also suggests a confidence to embrace technical innovations. The more significant consequences of changes in liturgical arrangements and subsequent architectural responses promoted by the chapel’s success, however, would be far longer-lasting.

Bibliography

P. Barnwell. ‘The Community and the Individual: Worship and the Late Medieval English Parochial Church’, Barnwell (ed), Places of Worship in Britain and Ireland 1350-1550  (Donington, 2019)

F. Bond, An Introduction to English Church Architecture from the Eleventh to the Sixteenth Century, vol. 2 (London, 1913)

J. Bony, The English Decorated Style: Gothic Architecture Transformed, 1250-1350 (Oxford, 1979)

J. Harvey, The Perpendicular Style 1330-1485 (London, 1978)

R. Morris, Churches in the Landscape (London, 1989)

N. Pevsner and B. Cherry, The Buildings of England: Hertfordshire, Second edition (Harmondsworth, 1978)

E. Roberts, ‘Totternhoe Stone and Flint in Hertfordshire Churches’, Medieval Archaeology 18:1 (1974)

R. Wilkinson, The Church and Parish of Abbots Langley (London, 1959 – many thanks to the Peter Waddell, vicar of St. Lawrence’s, for the loan of this book)

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