St Mary's - History

St Mary's Old Town Hemel built 1140 showing leaded spirebelow are quick links to the various parts of St Mary's history


Architectural Features


Restoration Work in the Church

Friends of St Mary’s Hemel Hempstead

Some Matters of interest

The Church Register and the Churchwardens’ Accounts

Charitable Bequests

Notes about the Living

St Mary’s List of Clergy



St Mary the Parish Church of Hemel Hempstead (collegiate 1286-1535) in the Diocese of St Albans

The church was built by the Normans of clunch stone and flint with Roman bricks inserted. It is cruciform in style, begun in 1140 and took some 40 years to build, being dedicated to St Mary in 1150 when the Chancel and tower were completed. The building of the Nave and West door followed, both being splendidly preserved examples of Norman architecture of the later decorated period.

The South Porch was added in 14th Century, the North Porch in the 15th Century and the North Vestries in the 19th Century.

Windows and doorways have been inserted at different times. The magnificent fluted leaden spire probably of the early 14th Century is itself 40m (130 feet) high and reaches a total height of almost 61m (200 feet) to the gilded weathervane. Chaucer wrote that “it is a very fair and tall spire covered with lead, which is a great ornament to the town”.

Birds eye plan view of St Marys


Architectural Features

The Chancel is the earliest part of the building and measures 11m by 5m (36 feet by 16 feet). The East window of three lights was inserted in 1880 in memory of Elisabeth Lady Cooper. In the North wall is an original round-headed window of one light with zig-zag mouldings inside. The jambs outside have slender shafts. West of this is a blocked 15th Century archway originally opening into the Chamber on the north side of the chancel. Further west at the level of a former room over this Chamber there is a modern arch of 12th Century design. The modern room housing the organ motor opens into the Chancel through a wide pseudo Norman arch covered by a wooden grill. The ceiling is vaulted in two bays with stilted cross ribs.

In the South Wall are two 14th Century windows each of three lights and modern tracery. The internal splays have shafts with foliated capitals and the moulded rear arches are enriched with carving.

Beyond the North wall of the Chancel is a chamber 4m by 2m (13 feet by 6 feet), vaulted in two bays. It has in the East wall a 14th Century loop light with original staunchions, and below this a doorway with a shouldered arch probably of the same date. It has the appearance of being at one time an outer door, but now gives access to the Clergy Vestry.

The Central Tower, supported by the four horse-shoe arches, is 5m (16 feet) square, and impresses one by its massive security and stability. On each side of the ground stage are semi-circular arches. The West arch is enriched with zig-zag ornament on the side facing the Nave. The piers have half-round responds and angle shafts with carved capitals. The second stage has two plain round headed windows in each face, and the third stage has double round headed windows with circular lights above them. Near the angles are shallow niches with arched heads.

The North Transept, 6.5m by 5m (22 feet by 17 feet), is now an organ chamber with a Side Chapel below; the Chapel of The Holy Spirit. There is a 15th Century North Window of three lights with modern tracery which is hidden by the organ. It has memorial stained glass in memory of Ann and Helen Varney.

The South Transept, 6.5m by 5m (21 feet by 17 feet), has a 15th century East Window of two lights with a quatrefoil head. It is filled with stained glass to the memory of Charles Ehert Grover and was given by his eleven children.

In the South Wall is a window of three lights filled with stained glass - the Godwin Memorial of Grove Hill. Below this on the west is a 16th Century doorway with modern external jambs.

In the west wall is an original Norman window, the arch enriched with a zig-zag ornament.

In the corner of the South Transept is a small piscine which serves to show that this transept once was used as a Chapel.

The transept roofs which are very fine examples of 14th Century work were opened and restored in 1880.

The Nave, 22m by 5.5m (73 feet by 19 feet), consists of six bays and shows the expert Norman workmanship of the later period at its best. You will observe that the pillars are equal in number to the twelve apostles.

The massive but beautifully proportioned arcades have sturdy round pillars with moulded bases and scalloped capitals. The East and West arches of both arcades are richly ornamented in zig-zag pattern.

One of the Norman arches

Above the arcades are six Norman clerestory windows. Over the second window from the East on the South side of the Nave there is the Head of a wider arch, all that is left of a Tudor window inserted here to give light to the 15th Century Rood, which at one time faced the Nave. The very fine 15th Century roof was restored in 1885. In the West wall of the Nave is a large doorway of the 12th Century with a richly carved semi circular arch. The carving of the capitals portray Adam and Eve wrestling with a serpent and as a background the Tree of Life. This lovely West door is frequently used as an illustration for a treatise on perfect Norman architecture. The North and South Aisles have 15th Century windows of two lights with tracery all much restored. In the South wall are the sills of 12th Century windows.

The North Porch has a 15th Century doorway. The outer handsome oak doors of this porch were presented by Mr A. L. Seldon, a former Mayor and Bailiff of the Borough, to commemorate the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

The South Porch has an inner doorway of the 14th Century. The outer arch is moulded and in each side wall is a window of three trefoiled lights.



Against the West wall of the South Aisle of the Nave is a large slab, removed from the top of an alter tomb, bearing two brass effigies of Robert Albyn and Margaret, his wife, which date from the 14th Century (C.1360).

The inscription reads: -

“Robert Albyn lies here and Margaret his wife with him. May the Lord have mercy on their souls. Amen”.

The Combe memorial on the wall of the South Aisle commemorates the family associated with Master John Waterhouse (King Henry VIII’s auditor), who together resided at the Bury Manor. Mention of the Combe legacy is made elsewhere in this guide. Soon after the Dissolution of Ashbridge in 1536 it is recorded that the Rector, Thomas Waterhouse, the brother of John Waterhouse, together with Francis Combe rented the Impropriation of Hempstead and lived at The Bury.

Four shields or coffin plates of lead bearing the armorial arms of the Combe Family were recovered after being buried in the Vicarage garden and are now fixed to the wall of the South Aisle, in proximity to the family memorial.

Also in the South Aisle is a memorial to Sir Astley Paston Cooper, Baronet of Gadebridge. He was a surgeon on the staff of Guy’s Hospital, and a pupil of John Hunter. He was called upon to perform a minor operation on King George IV and was rewarded with a Baronetcy. He was a great benefactor to the Parish and the town.

Paston Cooper founded the infirmary of Piccotts End in 1826, re-established in 1878 as the West Herts Hospital. He died in 1841 and the family hatchments are attached over the North and South porches. His grandson, the third Baronet, was Mayor and Bailiff in the year of incorporation under Queen Victoria’s charter of 1898. The family crest adorns the medallion of the old Mayor chain of office.

In the South aisle are memorial windows to Nunton Cooper, 1864, Sir Astley Paston Cooper, 1866 and Lady Catherine Cooper, 1870. There is a mural tablet in memory of The Countess of Marchmont, and a tow light memorial window to the Reverend John Yelloly, Curate, 1835-1845.

The font sited by the West door is probably original with 19th Century carving added. The oaken cover embellished with a reproduction of Norman ironwork, was dedicated in 1956 to the memory of Dr. Alice deBoer, who worshipped at St Mary’s from 1926-1955.

Affixed to the arch of the tower within the nave is a mural tablet, dedicated in 1933 to Lovel Smeathman, churchwarden and First Freeman of the Borough of Hemel Hempstead, who served the church and the state for over 50 years.

At the entry to the Vestry-

            Inscription on floor: -

“Here lyeth buried ye body of Dame Ann Combe a dutyful and respectful daughter to her father John Freere of Ashen in ye County of Essex, Esquire and a loving and beloved wife of Sir Richard Combe of Hemelhempstead in ye county of Hertford, Kt, who exchanged his life for a better ye 18th April 1658”

In the North Aisle is a series of five two-light memorial windows. Beginning from the West is the Moses and Solomon Window to the memory of Lovel Smeathman. Next is a representation of The Good Shepherd of unusual design, probably of Greek origin, showing Our Lord as beardless. It was dedicated in 1927, as was the clerestory window immediately above, to the memory of Canon Buckley, a generous benefactor to the parish. Next in order is a window dedicated in 1922 to the memory of the wife of Canon Buckley. The next commemorates Lieut Julian Smeathman and Lieut. Cecil Smeathman who were both killed early in the 1914-1918 Great War. The last window at the East end of the Aisle is in commemoration of Henry Day, 1883.

There are also affixed to the wall of the North Aisle the Parish memorials to the two World Wars.

The oak door in the Tower leading to the Belfry was presented as a token of remembrance of William and Louisa Clarke by their children, 1953.

The Vestries: These occupy the site of a building which had fallen into decay and were erected by the Misses Ann Hamilton, Ann Varney, Elizabeth Jane Vaughn Hughes, and Helen Varney in the 60th year of the reign of Queen Victoria.

In 1983 there was a severe fire in the Choir Vestry which caused considerable damage to the vestry area. Both vestries have now been repaired and modernized.

The wall above the Tower arch has been painted with a representation of “The Annunciation”, as a memorial to the Misses Hamilton of Marlowes.

The carved oak choir stalls were given by Miss Helen and Miss Ann Varney who were generous benefactors.

The Reredos behind the alter is believed to have been carved at Oberammergau in Bavaria, the scene of the Passion Plays. It was given in memory of Lady Elizabeth Cooper, 1880.

 St Mary's Reredos

In the Chapel of the Holy Spirit there is a wood carving called ‘Love and Peace’ by Rev. David Moore. It was presented to St Mary’s Church in Memory of Pam Gaddes in July 2015.

‘Love and Peace’ by Rev. David Moore


Restoration Work in the Church

Extensive alterations and restorations took place in 1757, 1846 and 1862, but the faculties are not to be found in the Lincoln archives. Other restoration work over the last 150 years has included:

  • The removal of the ceiling and galleries of the old 14th century roof
  • The repositioning of the stairs to the pulpit
  • The installation of gas lamps and then electricity – and finally central heating
  • The exterior repointing of the lower stonework
  • Repairs to the chancel: replacement of the stained glass windows with plain glass, the installation of a damp course and the repainting of the vaulted ceiling.

Maintenance of this historic building is a continuing issue and many other works have been carried out, both internally and externally, over the years to keep it in good condition.


Friends of St Mary’s Hemel Hempstead

The idea for this charity arose in 1980, the aim being to maintain the building and fabric of the ancient Anglican church, and at that time especially to face the urgent need to finance the renovation of the beautiful mediaeval spire. The President was Sir John Betjeman and, through the work of Trustees and other activists, support was drawn from the local community and from central and local government. The spire was renovated over the period 1984-87 at a cost of £237,000 (£730,000 at 2017 prices) and the Friends were greatly helped by the Borough of Dacorum, which gave the charity an interest –free loan of £100,000, a loan now fully repaid. The Friends raise money through donations and well attended social events. They have given both encouragement and wonderful financial support for the continuing maintenance of the building, for roof repairs, for stonework, for damp proof protection, for replastering and repointing and other building works. At 2017 prices it is estimated that the charity since its inception has spent an estimated £1 million in support of St Mary’s Church.

Spire covered in scaffolding during the 1980s restoration

Some Matters of interest

Originally the parish was in the Archdeaconry of Huntingdon and the Diocese of Lincoln. From 1845 it was placed in the Archdeaconry of St. Albans and the Diocese of Rochester. From 1877 it was placed in the Archdeaconry of St. Albans and the Diocese of St. Albans

In 1302 a Cell to Ashridge College was founded in Hemel Hempstead and the church had collegiate status up to the Dissolution in 1536. The last Collegiate Rector Thomas Waterhouse died on Ascension Day, 1555, and was buried at Hemel Hempstead.

The original parish boundary included Bovingdon and Flaunden, Cussan records- “On the appointed fourth Sunday, if the weather was fine, a man was stationed on top of the Tower of Bovingdon church, whence he commanded a view of the road leading from Hemel Hempstead. If he saw the parson or his curate approaching, he would descend and ring the bell to summon the parishioners to church”. St Paul’s Church, Queen Street, was formerly a chapel of ease to St. Mary and was consecrated in 1867 (demolished 1964). The church of St. John the Evangelist, Boxmoor, rebuilt on the site of the former church erected in 1829, was consecrated in 1874. Both St. Paul’s and St. John’s were created out of the Mother Parish of St. Mary.

The Parish Vestry Meeting was formerly held in the room over the modern vestries. The ancient charters and bailiwick records were stored in the handsome parish chest and were delivered into the sanction of The Lord Chancellor 24th, July 1896. One Vestry Order Book remains, covering the years 1732-1742 of special interest.

It is recorded that John Eggerton, Vicar, had “The Lamb” public house built on the Market Place - now St. Mary’s Close - in 1527, to prevent ale from being consumed in the church on Market Day. He was indicted by the Puritans and a copy of the charges was taken by The Court of Star Chamber. In 1866 the Corporation of the Borough purchased the Lamb Inn to pull down for public improvements.

Nicholas Stratford, the son of a worthy shoemaker in Hemel Hempstead, born here 1633, was consecrated Bishop of Chester, 15th September, 1989 and held that See until 1707. He preached a sermon at St. Mary’s Church on Sunday, 14th April, 1700, published and printed at The Lute, St Paul’s Churchyard. The introduction or dedication in affectionate terms is addressed “to my beloved friends the inhabitants of the town and parish of Hempstead”.

The church clock was given in 1783 by Lord Marchmont obit 1797, and faces were repainted in 1987 and 2018.

The Gilded weathervane weighs seven pounds and was brought down to be repaired and regilded in 1954 and in 1987.

The church plate includes an engraved silver chalice of Elizabethan design, 1563. This item is now on display in the Silverware case in the Forum Building in the Marlowes.

As part of the 800th anniversary celebrations in 1950 the Side Chapel was enclosed and adorned by the Masonic Brethren of the Borough. The bells were re-hung on steel frames with completely new fittings and the bells were originally a ring of five, but of these ancient bells recorded in the inventory of Edward VI not one remains. The present peal is of eight, and all bear inscriptions, with the exception of the 5th, from between 1604 and 1767. The Tenor 47in diameter, weighs 19cwts. 1qr.4lbs., was cast in 1767. The total weight of the full peal is 76 cwt. 0qr. 23lbs.

Early prints of the interior of the church show horsebox pews, a three-decker pulpit and a choir screen. An early print of the exterior shows the Tower as being battlemented. Re-seating took place in 1819, and it may be assumed that the large private box-pews were then taken out.

Close to the South Porch there is a stone coffin, discovered in 1808, mistakenly thought to be that of Offa, King of Mercia (Ossabones). On the wall above is a memorial to a member of the Combe family. Tradition or legend records an underground passage from the Church to the Bury, now blocked up. It was probably a culvert.

The present organ was installed in 1910 and had a major refurbishment in 2006.

A number of pews have been removed from the West end of the church and the area has been carpeted. This area offers greater flexibility for informal services and meetings. In 2012 four pews were shortened to allow easier access for wheelchair users.

The window at the west end of the south aisle was designed and made by a local glass artist Jane Campbell and was commissioned to commemorate the start of the new millennium in 2000. It was paid for by public subscription and located, as it is, above the children's area, suggests something of the playfulness of God. The window was dedicated by the Bishop of Hertford, the Rt. Rev. Christopher Foster, at the St Mary’s Patronal Service on 8 September 2002. It was paid for through an Appeal launched in 2000 by the St Mary’s Millennium Committee (1997-2002). In that year the Millennium Committee also sponsored and organised the two-week long Exhibition of the Methodist National Collection of Religious Art. This was the precursor of the occasional and highly successful ‘Art in the Nave’ exhibitions in St Mary’s. Another major initiative in the Summer of 2000 were the workshops for schools, the theme being ‘Crafts Through the Ages’, as demonstrated by the building and the fabric of St Mary’s. Craft skills by craftsmen and women were demonstrated over several days. On one of these, 13 July, in series seven schools visited with 362 children passing through the church. The new Millennium Year which was celebrated by a service in the church at the turn of the century was followed by fireworks in Gadebridge Park. Then towards the end of that year St Mary’s celebrated its 850th anniversary at its annual Patronal Service on 10 September.

Children's window by local artist Jane Campbell commissioned for the new millennium in 2000

The Church Register and the Churchwardens’ Accounts

These are well preserved, and truly fascinating documents full of human interest. The first register of births, marriages and burials, in one volume dates from 1558, written on vellum, bound in pigskin. The register of baptisms was opened in 1566.

There are records of the visitation of the Plague, so severe, in 1594, that entries were suspended, to be added on the last page at a later date.

The house of “Henrie Smithe, Clerk” was smitten. Hence this note in the register, “Here some be wanting yet dyed in plague time. See last page”.

Januaire the 27th day 1617-I buried today Robert whose name was not known, a journeyman shoemaker”.

Visitation of the Bishop of Lincoln -

A sermon preached at the Triennial Visitation of the Bishop of Lincoln, 22nd July, 1752, at St. Mary’s, Hemel Hempstead. Preacher: Francis Ayscough. Rector of Northchurch.

Extract from Churchwardens’ Account, 1752

Paid by Sylvanus Parrott (Churchwarden) to Thos. Rickson at Bishop’s Visitation


Paid for fitting the Pew for the Reception of the Bishop’s Chancellor and Archdeacon


Paid by James Higgins (Churchwarden) Visitation and Court Fees


Paid for Communion Wine



Rogantide - Beating the Bounds (two days procession)-

The records show the following expenditure: -

In         1757     -           £6        0          1          for refreshments 

In         1766     -           £3        4          0          for refreshments 

In         1771     -           £17       15        4          for refreshments

In         1776     -           £16       16        8          for refreshments

The parish covered 12,440 acres and perambulation includes plating of the Gospel Oak and identification of parish boundaries.

Between 1771 and 1775 the Churchwardens expended for sparrows caught in the parish - £30.2.10 in accordance with – 24 Henry the Eighth (1532) – repealed 1863.

The register for 1764-1797 carries on the fly leaves at the back a full account of the preparations made to withstand the threatened invasion of Napoleon. There follows at length a detailed account of the formation of The Loyal Hemel Hempstead Volunteers and of the Dedication of their Colours in St. Mary’s on Sunday, 4th December, 1803, together with a précis of Dr Bingham’s sermon and special prayers for the occasion. It serves to remind us how the corporate life of this place was centred upon the Parish Church, which was the one focal point in times of national upheaval as well as rejoicing.


Charitable Bequests

An historic building such as St. Mary’s Church is a heritage and is a responsibility to maintain. Gone are the days when: “October 27th, 1610. We present Robert Coleman for his irreverent sitting in the church with his hat on at the Gloria Patri. He alleged that he put it on by reason that it raineth upon him as he sitteth in his seat. Dismissed with pious admonition”. Also, “Against the Guardians (Churchwardens) of Hemel Hempstead that it raineth into their church, specially into R. Coleman’s seat”. Also “Mr Taylor, the Vicar, is to repair the Chancel”.

As indicated earlier over the centuries St Mary’s has benefited significantly from gifts and legacies, for which we have been very grateful. Our Funds include the Buckley Benevolent Fund, the Buckley Fabric Fund, and the Children’s Training Fund. These Funds have restricted  purposes and only the income is allowed to be used; but they nevertheless  support the parish in maintaining our buildings and in charitable giving. Continuing this giving tradition, Dick Hoare and Richard Salisbury  have left significant legacies in recent years and these have been used to help maintain and develop our Christian presence in the Parish and St Mary’s Church as well as to do essential repairs - including to the organ - and to provide better disabled access and facilities. 


Notes about the Living

The earliest record of a presentation to the Living is 1244 by the Earl of Cornwall.

In 1290 it had passed into the hands of the Rector of Ashridge. At the Dissolution it passed successively to: -

  1. The Bishop of Lincoln
  2. The Crown
  3. The Dean and Chapter of St. Paul’s
  4. The Lord Chancellor.

Bovingdon and Flaunden became separate parishes in 1833, Boxmoor 1874 and St. Paul’s 1869 (now absorbed within the parish of Hemel Hempstead).

The population of the Parish in 1801 was returned at 3,680, and in 1831 at 6,037 inclusive of Bovingdon and Flaunden


St Mary’s List of Clergy


Bernard de Gravelegh


James Wilson


Guy De Palude


Edward Brocklesby


Bernard de Gravelegh (second term)


Gregory Garth


Henry de Eston


William Storen


Roger de Pettelawe


William Herne


Geoffrey de Castro


Richard Gawton


Robert Chyddut


William Dyke


John of Grantham


Thomas Taylor, M.A.


John Crok de Way


John Taylor


John Eveyt


George Rendell, M.A.


Alan de Cotesford


James Ashton


John de Berkhampstead


John Warren


Ralph ate Chereley de Brotton


Matthew Carr


Hugh de Calk


Joel Jones, M.A.


Henry Drury


Robert Brabant, M.A.


John Wyrteser


Cornelius Price


Robert Page


Henry Topping, M.A.


John Bedying


Henry Lambe


Thomas Wilsford


Rowland Johnson, M.A.


Richard Daventre


Rice Hughes, B.A.


John de Missenden


William Bingham, M.A.


William Chesterton


Jacob Henry Brooke Mountain, M.A.


John Baysin


William Henry Mountain


Edmund Thrayston


George Acklan


John Baldock


Thomas Palmer Hutton, M.A.


John Herenyt


James Baldwin Pugs, M.A.


John Ordeway


William Oswell Thompson, M.A.


William Stranger


John Robbins, D.D.


John Tayland, M.A.


Charles August Leveson, B.A.


William Field


Lawrence Gee


William Tuke


Archibald Frances Robson, M.A.


Hugh Matling, M.A.


Augustus Malley, L.Th


John Eggerton, B.D.


Gordon Hope McNeill Shelford


John Rogers


Charles Henry Plummer


John Holland, M.A.


Christopher Wynne Newton, M.A.

In 1970 a Team Ministry was created in the Parish under the Pastoral Measure. The Incumbent became the Rector of the Parish and the Priest in Charge of the Church became a Team Vicar.




Team Vicars


Christopher Wynne Newton, M.A.


Brian Keith Andrews, M.A.


Keith Appleby Arnold, MA


Stuart Alexander Beake, MA


Roy William Henry Kingston


Ian Clive Cooper, M.Th., F.C.A.


Nigel Douglas Blayney Abbott, B.A.


Sally Rogers, B.A., B. TH


Peter John Cotton, B.A.


Jennifer Clare Hill, B.Sc., FBCO, Dip Th.

In 2003, the Team Rector took direct responsibility for St. Mary’s.

In 2005, the Team Ministry was re-organised and four parishes created amongst which was the ‘Parish of St. Mary and St Paul’.


Rector Peter Cotton and Vicar of St Mary’s within the Hemel Hempstead Team


Rector Susan Allen and Vicar of Grovehill and Woodhall Farm within the Hemel Hempstead Team


Rector Jennifer Clare Hill and Vicar of the Parish Church of St Mary & St Paul, Highfield, within the Hemel Hempstead Team Ministry


Rector Canon John Keith Williams and Vicar of the Parish Church of St Mary & St Paul, Highfield, within the Hemel Hempstead Team Ministry




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