St Mary the Virgin
History of Walkern Church of St Mary the Virgin
Adapted from Walkern Local History Notes by H & M Venster
In the extract from the Doomsday Book about Walkern, it is stated that there was a priest at Walkern when the book was compiled (1087). This means that there must have been a church in the village at that time.
This church would have been plain and simple with a few narrow slits in the walls to let in the light. Glass was almost unknown, the little there was being manufactured abroad and very expensive. The villagers’ houses would be mostly near the church. The Saxons seemed to have regarded sites of Roman settlements with superstition and generally made their dwellings some distance away. Thus the discovery of the Walkern Roman Vase about a mile away from the church is in keeping with what is found elsewhere in the country.
Naturally one asks what relation did it bear to the present church. There can be no doubt that the oldest section of Walkern church is part of the south wall of the nave. The two Norman arches that now pierce the wall do not rest on a central pier but just cut into the wall, a part of which separates them. So this wall must be older than the Norman arches and must be Saxon and would belong to the original church of pre-conquest days.
The wall was not as high as at present but was, at some time, extended upwards and clerestory windows were included in the extension. The wall was pierced by a south doorway. The position of this is indicated by the remains of a rood of very early date, in carved chalk. This can be seen by glancing up to the right as you enter the church. It is on the south wall facing the aisle. This rood, about 4ft 6ins high, shows the Lord in Glory but the figure of Christ is robed. Veiled crosses such as this were not used after the 12th century, probably because of a change in doctrinal emphasis on the significance of the crucifixion. The old south doorway would be underneath this rood.
Admittedly, a wall is not generally regarded as exciting or remarkable. However, as one sits facing the altar and then glances to the right the imagination might conjure up this old wall’s continuity with a long past. When it was first erected by the Saxons, the church it was part of would have no tower, no aisle no porch and probably no chancel. The service would be in Latin and the congregation would all stand, the weaker ones leaning on the wall (hence the saying “the weakest go to the wall”).
In the 12th century the north wall was knocked down and the church widened. The south wall was left but pierced by the two arches and an aisle containing a large window (now blocked up) was added. The church would be extended eastwards as the chancel was added. The Norman south door was built at this stage. Thus it was a period of considerable expansion and donations would have come from a wealthy patron, but it is difficult to determine who he was.
Walkern church is interesting, as are many of our parish churches, because it has a history of continuous change. Although it has a Saxon wall it is not a Saxon church, and although it has a Norman south doorway and two Norman arches it is not a typical Norman church. There is 13th, 14th and 15th century work, and the chancel was rebuilt in the latter half of the 19th century.
Church builders in earlier times were not concerned that everything should be uniform, nor had they the same respect as we have for architectural styles that pre-dated their own. If their own style was Gothic then any Norman work requiring restoration was restored with Gothic features. Yet although our churches and cathedrals are a hotch-potch of various styles this gives interest to them and it is very helpful when it comes to dating different parts.
Restoration in Victorian times, however, attempted to copy the original style of building. On the whole it was not successful as master masons are obviously happier when creating rather than copying. Thus the restored parts of the chancel at Walkern are pseudo-Gothic. They were the work of E. Gough in 1878 and are copies rather than innovations. Similarly in 1882 a new aisle on the north side of the chancel was built with funds provided by the Rev. J. G. Cotton- Brown
Below, we give some of the dates concerning features of the church constructed since the 12th centry. These details are to be found in the “Victoria History of Hertfordshire”.
13th centry; Chancel rebuilt and north aisle added. 14th centry (middle): Tower was built
15th centry (early): South porch added.
15th centry (late): New windows inserted in both aisles.
16th centry: Clerestory built (the windows in the nave above the aisles).
19th centry: North and south chapels added and chancel completely restored.
The Chancel Arch is of 13th centry date but was rebuilt late in the 14th centry. Small oak pulpit is of early 16th centry
There are 6 bells, the first dated 1626 by an unknown founder, the second by Edward Mears, 1833, and the third, fourth and fifth of 1713 by John Waylett. The Treble bell complrtes the peal of six and was added in 1926.
The plate, a silver chalice and paten, and almadish were the gift of Benjamin Heath, Rector, in 1782. The registeres begin in 1680 and the Baptisms, Burials and Marriages from 1680 to 1812 are all recorded in one book.
The Rectors can be traced from 1255, the present one is the 51st since that date
As we previously mentioned, country life from the Norman Conquest to Victorian times, and even later in some villages, was largely influenced by the occupants of the manor house and the manorial system of land cultivation.
For more information on the history of the parish church of St Mary the Virgin in Walkern, please see the website for the United Benefice of Benington with Walkern
You may also be interested in…
- 1888 Enlargement of Walkern churchyard
- Effigy of William de Lanvalei
- Rectory & Rectors
- St Marys bell tower
- The Bells at St Marys
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