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Preface to Hertfordshire


Hertfordshire is an inland county of SE England, one of the so-called Home Counties. It is bordered by Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire to the north, Essex to the east, Greater London to the south, and Buckinghamshire to the west. It is roughly rectangular in shape, with its long edges running from SW to NE. At its greatest it is 35 miles long and 26 miles wide. Its area in 1891 was 406,161 acres, or 635 square miles, making it the 35th of the 39 counties in size. From the point of view of local government, Hertfordshire has remained a stable entity since the mid-1960s, when Barnet urban districts were transferred to form part of the London Borough of Barnet, and the Potters Bar urban district was transferred from Middlesex to Hertfordshire.

Landscape, Geology and Building Stones

The eastern end of the Chiltern Hills is in NW Hertfordshire, around Tring, Studham and the Gaddesdens, and this is the only hilly area in the county. For the rest the chalk bedrock is overlain with clays, especially in the south. As a building stone chalk is very variable, the harder, more compressed beds are useable, especially internally, and the best of all came from just outside the county around Totternhoe in Bedfordshire. Within the chalk is are nodules of flint which was the main facing stone of medieval Hertfordshire.

The flint chancel of St Mary, Little Hormead

The county has no major rivers. The longest is the Lea, a tributary of the Thames that rises in the Bedfordshire Chilterns and runs east and south, passing by, or through Luton, Harpenden, Wheathampstead, Hertford, Ware and Hoddesden, and leaving the county at Cheshunt in the south east to eventually join the Thames at Bow Creek. It forms the boundary between Hertfordshire and Essex from Roydon to Cheshunt.


The southern borders of the county are defined by their proximity to London; from Cheshunt in the east to Watford, Rickmansworth and the Chalfonts in the west, this part of Hertfordshire is very much commuter belt. The M25 actually follows the county boundary between Potters Bar and Cheshunt. Furthermore, the road and rail links from London to the north and north east extend the possibility of commuting to the Garden Cities of Letchworth (founded 1903) and Welwyn (1920), and to such nearby historic towns as Baldock and Hitchin. Stevenage (designated a New Town 1946), Hemel Hempstead (1947) and Hatfield (1948) were purpose-built or massively enlarged after the second World War to accommodate Londoners displaced by the Blitz. Today the county’s largest urban settlements are Watford (with a population in 2011 of 131,982), Hemel Hempstead (94,932), Stevenage (89,663) and St Albans (82,146). Of these only St Albans was an ancient centre of any size, having its beginnings in Roman Verulamium.

The eleventh-century settlement pattern was rather different. The number of places named in Domesday is 180, including five places for which burgesses are recorded: Hertford, Ashwell, Berkhamsted, St Albans and Stanstead Abbots. Evidence from the Survey indicates that settlement in the county was strongly polarized. In the north eastern half (E of a line joining Cheshunt and Harpenden) the population density averaged around 10 households per square mile, rising to 13 around Ashwell in the north and Stanstead Abbots in the east. In the south west it was generally 2-3 households per square mile, except around Tring where it rose to 9. This is mainly explained by the preponderance of woodland in the western half.

Domesday landowners

The evidence of Domesday is that in terms of hideage, half the land was held by the top ten tenants in chief. King William held a total of something over 40 hides, of which the largest manor was at Bayford, which Earl Tostig had forfeited to Edward the Confessor late in his reign. Among the religious landholders by far the greatest was the Abbot of St Albans, with 137 hides including St Albans itself. The bishops of London and Bayeux, and the Abbots of Ely and Westminster held between 40 and 50 hides each. Three of the great lords had significant holdings in the county: Count Eustace of Boulogne held 64 hides including Tring, Robert Count of Mortain the Conqueror’s half-brother, held 54 hides and Count Alan of Richmond 37. Of the towns with burgesses, Hertford was a royal town, governed by a king’s reeve and William had 18 burgesses in the town, making him the main landlord, Ashwell was held by the Abbot of Westminster, Berkhamsted by the Count of Mortain, St Albans by the Abbot there and Stanstead Abbots mainly by Ranulph, brother of Ilger.

Medieval towns


Hertford stands in the centre of the county, and can trace its origins to 673, when the first recorded synod of the English church council was held at Heorutford, generally thought to be Hertford. The earliest certain reference to the town is in the reign of Edward the Elder. About 913 he established the burh that was to be Hertford on the north side of the River Lea, and in the following year he returned and extended the burh to the south side of the river. This might simply have been a strategic military installation, but in the reign of Edgar (957-75) it became the administrative centre for the newly formed county, to which it gave its name. It became a mint town, and coins were struck at Hertford from the reign of Edward II (975-78) to the Confessor (1042-66). By the time of Domesday it was a royal town, governed by one of the king’s reeves who had a house there. The Domesday Survey describes a town of 166 houses belonging to burgesses and approximately 30 more held by neighbouring landowners. Hertford Castle, originally Saxon earthworks rebuilt as a motte and bailey shortly after the Conquest, was reconstructed by Henry II between 1170 and 1174. The other great foundation was Hertford Priory, a cell of St Albans Abbey built at the end of the eleventh century by Ralph de Limesi for six monks from St Albans. This became relatively prosperous and was dissolved in 1536 and demolished.

Hertford remains the county town, but it is a small one (26,800 in 2011) and attractive too apart, as Bettley (2019) points out for the blight of Gascoyne Way, built in 1963 to remove traffic from the centre but effectively a barrier that cuts the town in two.


Ashwell is at the extreme north east of Hertfordshire, and today is a large village distinguished by timber-framed houses, a widening of the main street suggesting a market, and what is probably the largest church in the county which boasts an extremely detailed drawing of Old St Paul’s scratched into the plaster of the north wall of the tower. The manor was given to the Abbot of Westminster by Edward the Confessor, and a Saturday market was recorded in 1211.


Berkhamsted is at the western edge of Hertfordshire, in the valley of the River Bulbourne. Its High Street follows the line of Akeman Street, a pre-Roman route. Its earliest documented event dates from 1066, when after his victory at Hastings, William marched inland with his army. Laying waste as he went, until he came to Berekhamsted, where he was met by Aldred, Archbishop of York, Edgar Atheling, the last male member of the House of Wessex and Edward the Confessor’s heir, and a group of London nobles including the brothers Earls Edwin of Merica and Earl Morcar of Northumbria, who swore fealty to him while he promised to be a gracious lord to them. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle from which this account is taken comments that it was very imprudent that the submission was not made sooner. Robert of Mortain built a castle here, which was rebuilt by Thomas Becket as Henry II’s chancellor in 1155-65. In 1156 the town received its charter, a market was recorded in 1218 and an annual fair was granted in 1245. By the end of the fifteenth century the town was in decline, eventually losing its borough status in the later seventeenth century. Its recovery can be attributed to the construction of the Grand Junction Canal alongside the Bulbourne (opened 1798) and London and Birmingham Railway (opened in 1837). Since the beginning of the twentieth century Berkhamsted has become more of a commuter town, with the building of estates and a good deal of council housing. The designation of nearby Hemel Hempstead as a New Town in 1946 and its growth thereafter had its effect on Berkhamsted, which retained its independence from its gargantuan neighbour, retaining a rural setting in woodlands against the backdrop of the Chiltern Hills to become the best place to live in the south-east, according to Sunday Times’s 2018 list.

St Albans

St Albans is towards the west of central Hertfordshire. The town, the abbey and the Roman city of Verulamium are linked in people’s minds, yet each has its own history and the links between them are complicated. To begin with the topography, a glance at the map shows the abbey some 400m south-west of the town centre and the Roman city another km west of the abbey. Watling Street ran through Verulamium, of course, but before the Romans arrived there coins bearing the name of Tasciovanus, a king of the Cattuvellauni were minted at Verlamion c.25-5 BC. With the arrival of the Romans, Verlamion became Verulamium, probably one of the largest Roman towns in England. During the Roman occupation, Alban sheltered a Christian priest called Amphibalus, and was persuaded to become Christian himself. He was captured and executed by beheading. There is considerable disagreement about the date and place of this event. The date has been put anywhere between c.209 and c.305. The story was first written in the Passio Albani , a text of the fifth or sixth century which describes a visit to Alban’s grave by Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre. The position of St Albans Abbey was thought to mark the eventual location of his head when it came to rest after rolling away when it was cut off. The earliest statement that the church was built on the site of the martyrdom comes from Bede, writing 4-500 years later in AD 731. He recorded the existence of a beautiful church, and gift from Offa, King of Mercia at the end of the eighth century testify to the existence of a rich monastery here at that time. The Norman building began in 1077 in the Abbacy of Paul of Caen, and the builders made use of Roman brick from Verulamium.

St Albans Cathedral from NW

St Albans Cathedral from NW

The medieval town of St Albans grew up on the hill to the east of Verulamium and the abbey. Abbot Wulsin (Ulsinus) is credited for the growth of the town; he founded a market and built churches at the three entrances to the town – St Peter’s, St Michael’s and St Stephen’s. Matthew Paris gives a date of 948 for this work, but he is now usually thought to have flourished c.860-80.

After the Dissolution, the abbey was sold to the town in 1553 and became a parish church, while the Lady Chapel became part of St Albans School. A charter was granted by King Edward VI making the town a borough with a mayor and ten burgesses. The population of the town grew from 4000 to 9000 between 1800 and 1860; a slow and steady rate of growth. Three railway stations on different lines opened between 1858 and 1868, and in 1878 Queen Victoria issued a second charter that gave St Albans city status and made the former abbey a cathedral with its diocese mainly carved out of the Rochester diocese. The church, which had fallen into disrepair, was restored in a Gothic style by Sir Edmund Beckett (later Baron Grimthorpe) a barrister, horologist and amateur architect whose main qualification for the work was that he was immensely rich and prepared to pay for it himself.

After World War II the city expanded in line with the government’s policy of expansion around London, and by 2011 the population had reached 140,664.

Religious History

The west and centre of Hertfordshire lay within the diocese of Lincoln in the Middle ages, except for the area around St Albans, which formed an independent archdeaconry. The east of the county lay in the London diocese. The boundary between the two certainly respects an older frontier, between the kingdoms of the East Saxons and the Mercians. Coincidentally it also follows, very approximately, the line of the modern A10.

As for religious houses, the position of St Albans Abbey was dominant. Other Benedictine house in the county were all dependents: Hertford and Redbourn of St Albans, and the alien priory of Ware a cell of Saint-Evroul-sur-Ouche. There were samm Benedictine nunneries at Cheshunt, Rowney in Little Munden, Flamstead and Sopwell, houses of Austin Canons at Royston and Little Wymondeley, and a Knights Templar preceptory at Dinsley.

Romanesque architecture and sculpture

Again, St Albans is far and away the greatest foundation, but it has losts its Romanesque E and W ends, and what survives; the transepts, 2 bays of the presbytery and unequal stretches of the nave on the N and S sides, is generally very solid, unarticulated and largely of brick. The parish churches at Bengeo, Great Amwell and Great Wymondeley have chancels with apsidal E ends and Romanesque chancel arches. Great Wymondely can also offer a clunch S doorway with chip-carving and whimsical heads on the capitals. The chancel arch capitals are of a more conventional volute design, also found at Reed and Bengeo.

St Mary's Great Wymondeley, exterior and a detail of the south doorway

Weston and Pirton were twelfth-century cruciform churches, surviving in part.

Crossing arches at Holy Trinity, Weston

From the later twelfth century, Hemel Hempstead is an almost complete survival with rib vaults and a variety of chevron ornament of different dates.

The west doorway of St Mary's, Hemel Hempstead

For the font enthusiast, Anstey offers mermen holding their tails, as at St Peter’s Cambridge, but apart from this, most of the 12thc fonts are imports in Sussex or Purbeck marble, as at Bishops Stortford, Broxbourne, Clothall, Gilston, Sarratt and Thorley.

The font at St George's, Anstey


Hazel Gardiner recorded most of the county in 2003-04, and from 2017 the remainder was taken over by Ron Baxter. The CRSBI wishes to thank the incumbents, churchwardens and keyholders of Hertfordshire, and the vergers of St Albans for their help and forbearance.

Short Bibliography

  1. J. Bettley, N. Pevsner and B. Cherry, The Buildings of England: Hertfordshire, New Haven and London 2019.
  2. N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Hertfordshire, Harmondsworth 1953.
  3. N. Pevsner and B. Cherry, The Buildings of England: Hertfordshire, Harmondsworth 1977.
  4. RCHME, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Hertfordshire (London, 1910),
  1. D. Short (ed.), An Historical Atlas of Hertfordshire, Hatfield 2011.
  2. Victoria County History: Hertfordshire vols 1-4, 1902-1914.
  1. T. Williamson, The Origins of Hertfordshire, Hatfield 2010.