St Mary the Virgin, Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire

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Feature Sets (3)


A large cruciform church comprising chancel with vestries on N (separated from the chancel by a narrow passage contemporary with the chancel), crossing tower, N and S transepts, nave with clerestory, N and S aisles and N and S porches. The church was begun in the mid-12thc. and completed c.1170. The S porch was added in the 14thc., the N porch in the 15thc. and the N vestries in the 19thc. Of clunch, flint and some puddingstone and Roman brick.


Prior to the Conquest the manor of Hemel Hempstead was held of Earl Lewin by two brothers. At the time of DS it was held by the Count of Mortain and the tithe was given to the church of St Mary of Grestain in Normandy. The church appears to have been given to the Abbey of St Bartholomew in Smithfield, London as records show that the canons paid a fine of 200 marks for confirmation of the grant. The canons continued to claim the right to the advowson until 1232 when it was given to the rector of nearby Ashridge.


Exterior Features


W doorway, nave.

Round-headed, of three orders.

First order

Plain bases, half shafts, partially restored and carved capitals with necking.

L capital: four-leaved symmetrical acanthus foliage arrangement on angle, S face and E face. On the angle a beaded medallion fixes the stems.

R capital: bearded figures on NW and NE angles with foliage which appears to spring from their shoulders. The SW figure has an coiled snake to his R, its head and open mouth at the level of the figure's ears.

The imposts are hollow-chamfered above a roll moulding with an incised line along the upright. The imposts terminate on the outer order below the beginning of the (restored) billet-moulded string course.

Two parallel grooves run along the soffit of the arch followed by a roll moulding on the angle. Within two fine roll mouldings is a band of undercut square four-petalled and round five-petalled flower motifs. In the angle between first and second orders are two bands of acanthus, in groups of four leaves, two from each band, each one mirroring its adjacent and opposite leaf. The leaves join at the centre of the group.

Second order

Attic bases, nook shafts, capitals with necking.

L capital: acanthus foliage, on each face are three upper leaves (facing toward angle) and two lower (facing away from angle). The W face mirrors the S face. The S face is decayed/damaged.

R capital: a stem with four leaves on W face, a harpie on tbe N face, facing W, with leaves above.

The arch has free-standing point-to-point lozenges of triple roll profile on face and soffit, separated by an angle roll.

Third order

Attic bases, nook shafts (restored) capitals with necking.

L capital: above a collar of small rounded leaves is a band of reeded zig-zag running across the upper faces of the capital. Inverted lilies with hollowed central lobes are suspended from the downward points of the zig-zag. The zig-zag may have nailhead but whitewash obscures the detail. The two lilies on the W face have a central vertical line of nailhead, this is not visible on the other lilies, and may have worn away or is obscured by whitewash.

R capital: as L capital, although the lilies are too worn to see any trace of nailhead, as is the zig-zag.

The arch has point-to-point lozenges with a lozenge-shaped nailhead contained by each of the lozenges formed on the angle. Face and soffit lozenges are undercut.

The label is chamfered with round billet on the chanfer, continuing horizontally N and S as far as the facade buttresses; modern.

The interior is plain, apart from the label which is carved with round billet. This continues to the string-course.



Of the original windows only one is left in the chancel, in the N wall of the E bay. Round-headed of two orders.

First order

Attic bases, nook shafts, roll necking, decorated capitals.

L capital: double scallop with nailhead between the cones.

R capital: double scallop capital (damaged) with half cylinders between scallops.

No imposts, nook roll on arch.

First Order.

PIain, square, continuous.


Round-headed of two orders.

Second Order

No bases, or they have been worn away.

Plain nook shafts with roll necking and sheathed double-scallop capitals.

Hollow chamfered impost with incised line along the upright (partially restored). Chevron carved point-to-point on the soffit and face of the arch (on the arch the profile is roll/hollow), followed by a billet-moulded label. The billet-moulded string course continues from this.

Second Order

Attic bases, nook shafts, roll necking, decorated capitals.

L capital: double scallop with inverted cones between the cones.

R capital: waterleaf, with large drilled holes between each leaf.

Hollow chamfered imposts with plain face, with incised line along upright.

Syncopated chevron on the face of the order (two rows of hyphenated chevron, so points match hollows).

The imposts continue for about 0.5m on either side of the window.

The string-course at the base of the window is restored.



All have attic bases on square plinths, with nook shafts, roll necking, decorated capitals, shallow imposts and nook roll on arch.


L capital: double scallop with pointed shields and a collar of small leaves.

R capital: waterleaf with volutes (not very clear)


L capital: waterleaf

R capital. waterleaf


L capital: waterleaf with volutes

R capital: waterleaf with volutes


L capital: waterleaf

R capital: waterleaf


L capital: triple-scallop

R capital: cushion


L capital: waterleaf

R capital. waterleaf



N clerestory from W to E


L capital: round headed leaves (not very clear)

R capital: waterleaf


L capital: sheathed double scallop with fluted necking

R capital: sheathed triple scallop


L capital: waterleaf

R capital: waterleaf


L capital: sheathed double scallop with fluted necking

R capital: sheathed double scallop


L capital: double scallop with a third shared scallop on angle

R capital: waterleaf


L capital: waterleaf

R capital: double scallop, with incised shields

S clerestory from E to W

S transept, W wall.

Of two orders.

First order.

Plain, round-headed.

Second order

No bases, plain shafts, capitals very worn and chevron (roll, hollow, roll) on the face of the arch. This window is very badly weathered and thickly coated in whitewash.

Interior. Nook shafts, roll necking, decorated capitals

L capital: one large plain leaf on angle

R capital: fluted leaf on angle.


Of three stages with a parapet and a tall leaded spire. The second stage has two round-headed windows on each face. The third stage has twin bell openings on each face, of three orders.

Above each pair of bell-openings is a blind oculi. S and E oculi are decorated with two rows of frontal chevron, N and Ware plain and look restored. On each face, near the angles are niches with pointed heads, plain square shafts, chamfered impost with incised line on upright, soffit roll on arch. The angles of the third stage are chamfered with recessed square shafts and look restored. On the SE corner of the tower is a newel staircase.

First order

Plain, square with chamfered jambs.

Second order

Attic bases (weathered), nook shafts, roll necking, waterleaf capitals with drilled holes between lthe eaves, and volutes, some seem to have acanthus but are indistinct. Imposts chamfered with groove on upright (this continues over the third order), arch with groove on soffit, angle roll, followed by a hollow on the face of the arch then a fine roll moulding in the angle of second and third orders.

Third order

Attic bases (weathered), half-column shared by the two openings, on outer side of windows sunken 1/4 shafts, capitals seem to be waterleaf, some with leafy volutes, plain arch, billet-moulding on label which continues on to a string course.

Exterior Decoration


A course of billet moulding did extend around the whole of the church, but was mostly cut away when the exterior of the church was plastered. Only small fragments remain.



There is another course of billet moulding on the top stage of the tower, level with the heads of the bell openings.

Interior Features


Tower/Transept arches

E arch

First order, shared

S capital: multi-scallop with ribbed sheath, small scallops forming volutes at the angles.

N capital: fluted collar, multi-scallop with lilies with beaded ribs;on the petals. Drilled holes on SE angle.

The imposts are hollow chamfered with a groove along the upright. The arch has a thick soffit roll.

Second order, E

N capital: double-scallop with nailhead between scallops and on the angle.

S capital: fluted collar, double-scallop with lilies in the shields, beading between scallops and on angle. Imposts continuous with first order, and with the W vault respond of the chancel. sheath, triple-scallop, one large scallop (W) and two smaller ones, two bands of drilled holes between large and small scallop.

Second order, W

N capital: double scallop with nailhead on angle and W face.

S capital: double scallop with leaves between scallops.

Third order, W

N capital: S face, necking continuing from second order, sheathed-double scallop, with two drilled holes at the base of the cone.

S capital: S face, necking continuing from second order, reeded.

(iii) W arch

First order, W

N capital: multi-scallop, with nailhead in the angles, between the cones and in a half-circular band within each scallop.

S capital, S face: a centrally placed head issuing foliage from its mouth. There are two branches of foliage, one on either side of the head, the stems are reeded, the first leaf of each stem, which is decorated with rows of nailhead, curls back toward the head, the outer leaves lack the nailhead.

S capital, W face: on the upper R a head issues one stem of foliage which curls down then upward, terminating in a downward curving voluted leaf, another leaf lies along the stem parallel to the head.

S capital, E face: a central stem supports a head above a reeded band, a large open leaf curves down on either side of the head.

Second order, E

N capital: double-scallop.

S capital: double-scallop.

Second order, W

N capital: a head with pointed ears on the angle issues a stem decorated with nailhead from its chin. The stem divides into four with two leaves on each face of the capital, the two next to the head pointing upward, the two outer pointing downward. The leaves are fluted with scalloped edges and volutes at the base.

S capital: above a fluted necking a central reeded stem grows on each face, mirroring each other the stems make a loop terminating in a leaf, the lobes of the leaves touch across the angle.

The arch has two rows of frontal chevron, followed by a billeted hood mould.

Third order, E

N capital: cushion

S capital: double-scallop

(ii) S arch

First order, S

E capital: multi-scallop.

W capital: multi-scallop, nailhead in the angles and between the shields on either side of the angles.

Second order, N

E capital: double-scallop

W capital: double-scallop

This order is cut into on N by the third order.

Second order, S

E capital: waterleaf, one large leaf on the angle with raised central vein, another leaf on either side.

W capital: double-scallop with nailhead in the angle and between the cones.

Third order, N

E capital: double-scallop on E face

W capital: double scallop on W face.

N arch

First order, N

W capital: multi-scallop, with cylinders between the scallops and nailhead in the angle.

E capital: multi-scallop.

Second order, N

Obscured by organ

Second order, S

W capital: a central reeded stem divides above a band with drilled holes into two leaves, one either side of the stem. The leaves curl in towards the stem. The S face. A single leaf as W capital, the stem begins on the W face, crosses the angle and curls upward so that the lobes of the leaf lie along the angle.

E capital: as W except with a shorter stem (with drilled holes on stem and a reeded band) and leaves furled but projecting outward rather than down, and two additional symmetrical leaves above with the lobes of the leaf joining at the centre and stems on the angles. There are drilled holes on the R near angle S face plain, cut into by third order.

Third order, S

W capital: large palmette with tendrils curving downward, the lowest tendrils curling round on themselves. Damaged slightly on lower L.

E capital: a lamb or sheep with rows of beading to represent the fleece, the tail curls behind the animal's body and above the back, its head placed to the N. It stands upon a fluted collar



N Arcade

The inner order of each arch is plain. The second order in bay 1 has syncopated, hyphenated chevron on the face, followed by a row of billet moulding. The arch of bay 6 has two rows of chevron lateral to the face, of the profile roll/hollow, followed by a band of billet moulding. All other arches have an angle roll followed by a hollow, a groove then billet moulding.

E respond: multi-scallop, with half cones and nailhead in the angle cylinders between the scallops.

Pier 1, capital: multi-scallop, sheathed with beading outlining each slightly recessed shield, the point between each shield surmounted by a lily with nailhead on the central petal.

Pier 2, capital: multi-scallop, sheathed with nailhead outlining each shield, shields slightly recessed, small rectangular bands join the nailhead at the point between each shield.

Pier 3, capital: multi-scallop, sheathed with grooved volutes on the angles, three cones on each face with half daisies in the shields, each daisy with a vertical band of nailhead on the central petal.

Pier 4, capital: multi-scallop, sheathed, with nailhead outlining each slightly recessed shield.

Pier 5, capital: multi-scallop, sheathed with keeled shields, partly restored.

W respond: multi-scallop, sheathed.

S Arcade

Similar to N arcade. The inner order of each arch is plain, the second order in bay 1 has two rows of chevron lateral to the face, of the profile roll/hollow, followed by a band of billet moulding. The arch of bay 6 has has syncopated, hyphenated chevron on the face, followed by a band of billet moulding. The inverse of the N arcade. All other arches have a chamfered angle roll, followed by a hollow, a groove, then billet moulding.

E respond: multi-scallop with grooved cylinders between the cones and on the angles.

Pier 1, capital: multi-scallop, sheathed with double row of nailhead outlining sunken shields.

Pier 2, capital: as first pier capital with only one row of nailhead, nailhead also in NW angle in indentation.

Pier 3, capital: multi-scallop, sheathed, slightly recessed.

Pier 4, capital: multi-scallop, sheathed with sunken shields with flat band around the whole of the shield area, drilled holes on the band. Volutes on the angles with nailhead along the angle.

Pier 5, capital: multi-scallop with deeply grooved half-cylinders between the cones, keeled half-cylinders on angles.

W respond: multi-scallop with drilled holes in small half circles on sheaths, at base of cone, deeply grooved on angle.

Vaulting/Roof Supports


Two bays of quadrupartite responds.

Half-column responds with concave moulded bases. plain necking, decorated capitals.

Bay 1

NE respond: double scallop with small scallops on the angles which give the effect of volutes (unfinished?)

N respond: multi-scallop with sheathing, half daisies in the shields, volutes on the angles.

NW respond: triple-scallop, with sheathing, half circles at bottom of cones with two holes drilled in each, an incised line along the scallops.

Bay 2

SE respond: multi-scallop

S respond: cushion with volutes, sheathed with nailhead along the line of the sheaths, inverted lily in the S shield with beading along each petal. E and W shields have half daisies. The volutes have an incised line along the angle and nailhead on their lower edge, and have lilies within them on the S face and daisies on the E and W faces.

SW respond: cushion with chamfered angle. A band of beading runs along the angle and along the edge of the shield area. Additional respond capitals on the NW and SW of the chancel are triple-scallop.

Vestry Passage

To the N of the W bay of the chancel is a narrow room, contemporary with the chancel, opening at the W by a doorway to the N transept and at the NW and E to modern vestries. The chamber had a small round headed window at the E, the opening of which was replaced in the 14thc. The chamber has a quadrupartitite rib vault of two bays supported on six scallop corbels. NE, NW and SW are double scallop corbels, the NW one, which may have been reset, has a row of nailhead between the cones. The SE corbel is triple-scallop. The two central corbels are multi-scallop (the S one partly restored). The ribs of the vaulting are roll moulded, the transverse arch is plain.

Interior Decoration

String courses


A restored billeted string course remains beneath the windows, though cut into by the later windows.


A plain string course runs below the clerestory windows.

N Transept

N and W walls have string course with billet. The string course is at the level of the sill of the later window

S transept

String course on E, W and S walls interrupted by the later N window.


The 12thc. church was built in what appears to be one continuous campaign, with the chancel and crossing capitals datable to the mid-12thc. and the aisles to the 1160s or 1170s.

The W doorway is compared by Thurlby to the W doorway at St Peter's, Dunstable, in its alternation of carved and moulded orders. Although in general the richness of the decorative scheme of each may be compared, the virtuosity and exuberance of the Dunstable W front carvings is is no way matched by those at Hemel Hempstead. Pevsner suggests that the W doorway has been recut. Details are difficult to read owing to the thick layer of whitewash covering the doorway. It has recently been suggested that the Dunstable W doorway could be as early as 1160 (see Dunstable), which might have implications for the dating of Hemel Hempstead.

Further comparisons may be made between interior features of St Peter, Dunstable and those at Hemel Hempstead. Thurlby points out similarities between the vaulting rib profiles and the form of the capitals in the chancel at Hemel Hempstead and those surviving in the first two bays of the S aisle at Dunstable.

Thurlby also points out similarities between the N nave arcade at Redbourn and the Hemel Hempstead nave arcades. The arch mouldings at Hemel Hempstead, comprising an angle roll followed by a hollow, with billet on the label are paralleled at Redbourne, and some of the scallop capitals are very similar to those at Redbourne.

The fine carving of the crossing capitals echoes that of a series of capitals from the former slype at St Albans Cathedral as well as sculpture on the S transept doorway of the Cathedral. The St Albans carvings are in Totternhoe stone

Pevsner speculates whether the narrow room between the chancel and the vestries was a sacristy.


  • Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (England): An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Hertfordshire, London, 1911, 109–111.
  • The Victoria County History: A History of the County of Hertford, London, 1908, 2:215
  • N. Pevsner and B. Cherry, The Buildings of England: Hertfordshire, Harmondsworth, 1953 (1977), 216-217.
  • M. Thurlby, 'The Place of St Albans in Regional Sculpture and Architecture in the Second Half of the Twelfth Century', Alban and St Albans. Roman and Medieval Architecture, Art and Archaeology, British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions, 24, Leeds, 2001, 166-172.
Interior, general view from W.


Site Location
Hemel Hempstead
National Grid Reference
TL 055 078 
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales): Hertfordshire
now: Hertfordshire
medieval: London
now: St Albans
medieval: not confirmed
now: St Mary the Virgin
Type of building/monument
Parish church  
Report authors
Hazel Gardiner