Come and explore the 900-year history of this beautiful building – which may have once been the site of a Saxon chapel.
St Leonard’s Church is set in a traditional churchyard at the centre of the lovely Hertfordshire village of Flamstead. It is the focal point of the village conservation area, with a history stretching back over 850 years to Norman times. Even before then, it is possible that a Saxon chapel occupied the same site. This is living heritage: valued, cared for and passed down the generations of people who have looked after the building. Now it is our turn to ensure that the heritage enshrined in St Leonard’s is protected and sustained for future generations to enjoy.
When first constructed from 1140 onwards, the church wasn’t this big: the tower was shorter, the building narrower without the side extensions, and the East end did not have a chancel. The main Nave did not have the “double decker” row of upper windows forming the clerestory.
The first major remodelling involved replacing the side walls with rows of arches, known as arcades, as early as the 13th century. The East end extensions to form the chancel and the building beside it known as the sacristy were completed in the 14th century, giving us the quaint and appealing eastern view which is still preserved today. The narrow vertical windows in the sacristy look like arrow-slits. Its loft contained the clutter of centuries, including many old photos which are being digitised.
Later builders extended upwards. In the 15th century the upper clerestory windows were added, and the tower heightened. To support the extra weight, massive angled buttresses were planted firmly beside it for added support. In 1664 five of the six bells were made by Anthony Chandler, from a well-known family of bell-founders, and may have been cast on site. The sixth bell was added in 1729, and all are hung in the tower from where they still ring out today. They have been described as “the sweetest peal in Hertfordshire”.
At the same time as building the clerestory, a spiral staircase (the “rood stair”) was constructed inside the wall next to the north altar, most likely leading to a minstrels’ gallery which is no longer present. This tiny stairway now ends in a doorway in mid air. Another intriguing piece of heritage is the tomb effigy only recently attributed to Thomas Frisby, who died in 1410, and his wife. We can tell by his clothes and the style of his beard that Frisby was a “serjeant-at-law” – a legal pleader who represented people in the central courts. The story of how his identity was tracked down reads like a historical detective novel.
Arches and pillars in the church bear a rich collection of engraved signs, symbols and inscriptions, ranging from simple scratched initials and enigmatic signs to more carefully presented memorials, some of them dating back to the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries. These are known as “medieval graffiti” and will be the subject of a detailed study as part of discovering more about our heritage.
Most fascinating of all are the medieval wall paintings which were covered up with whitewash plaster during the Reformation. They lay forgotten for hundreds of years until being uncovered again in the 1930s. We have an important series dating from the 13th-19th centuries, praised by Pevsner (the renowned architectural historian) as being second only in the county to those at St Albans Abbey. Valuable heritage indeed to find in a rural village church. Once we have repaired the roof and made the building weatherproof, these paintings will be restored.
Apart from all its heritage, St Leonard’s is special to the community. Not only is it in regular use for services, it’s the only place in the village where weddings and funerals can be conducted. Community events such as flower and art festivals, book festivals, singing, bell-ringing, historical talks and parish meetings take place in the church.
The building is true to its locality, walled with flint facing and Totternhoe stone dressings from the nearby quarry in Bedfordshire – see the Beds Archives link. And being set on a hill, its “Hertfordshire spike” spire is a landmark for miles around. In the churchyard, the 1811 tomb chest of Thomas Pickford, founder of the celebrated firm of carriers, is a grade II listed monument in its own right.
St Leonard’s Flamstead houses heritage treasures of significant national significance, within an attractive building which has retained its beauty and architectural integrity down the ages.
It is our responsibility to ensure it is cared for and preserved for future generations to use, to enjoy and to marvel at.
Read more about our Flamstead Heritage project