The Parish Church

Times Remembered – The Church of St Mary the Virgin

Originally the construction would have consisted of a nave and a chancel separated by a central tower with transepts to north and south and semi-circular apses between chancel and transepts.  As we know, a Norman tower was prone to collapse, resting as it did upon semi-circular arches with insufficient abutment.  St Mary’s tower was no exception.  As a result the south transept was damaged by a partial collapse of the tower in the thirteenth century and remained in a state of increasing decay and eventual ruin in the eighteenth century.  In 1298 an earth tremor in the locality caused another partial collapse of the tower, which completely destroyed the north transept.  Neither apse was replaced.  Contrary to popular belief the tower has never completely collapsed in its long history.  By 1876 it was in danger of collapsing and it was then taken down and rebuilt in its original form.

East Herts Archaeological Society plan

Anyone entering the church prior to the fourteenth century would not have done so via the porch because until then there was no porch.  To the right of the door would have been a holy water stoup, into which the faithful dipped their fingers and made the sign of the cross as a remembrance of their baptism.  In our church traces of such a stoup were still evident during the last century.

The interior of the church would have been much darker than it is now.  The present windows are of fourteenth and fifteenth origin.  Twelfth century windows were often only about twelve inches wide but with splayed jambs to let in as much light as possible.  The outline of such windows can still be seen on the north and south walls of the nave.  Stained glass, which contributed further to the gloom in later centuries would not have been present in a village church in the twelfth century.  More likely there was no glass at all or oiled canvas in the windows.

The earthern floor of the nave would have been strewn with rushes, renewed annually, on which the villagers stood throughout the service.  The somewhat rank atmosphere engendered by the rushes, the congregation and the dogs that often attended them was made less offensive by the smell of incense.  This too was the purpose of brides’ bouquets.  There would have been no pews, but along the walls were stone benches for the aged.  Hence the saying “The weakest go to the wall.”

Since the Mass was recited by the priest in Latin, the congregation of unlettered people could take no part but stood, often conversing with each other, peering through the rood screen, as witnesses only to the Mass.  English was only used on the rare occasions when the priest gave a sermon.  Instead, the villagers occupied their time gazing at the wallpaintings, depicting scenes from the Bible and the lives of saints.  Part of one such painting was uncovered in our church during the restoration of the nave at the end of the ninteenth century.  It depicted the head and shoulders of a person emerging from a tomb, above which is a foot, maybe all that was left of Jesus raising the dead at Judgement Day.  The vicar’s wife, Mrs Loughborough, did a drawing of it, which hangs in the church.  How many more may lie hidden still?

By the fifteenth century, following the partial collapse of the tower, the church would have presented a different aspect from its original construction, both inside and out.  One transept and both apses had disappeared and a porch had been added.  In those days weddings took place at the church door and the happy couple only entered the church to receive Holy Communion.  A relic of this is seen in the modern progression of the bride and bridegroom from the nave to the chancel.  No doubt village families were delighted to have their new porch as a protection on inclement wedding days.  The roof of the nave was by then much flatter than the twelfth century roof, as evidenced by the original apex stone which has survived on the west face of the tower.

Inside the church there would now have been more colour from the stained glass windows, fragments of which still remain.  The altars which had previously stood in the apses’ chapels now stood where the present pulpit and lectern stand.  In 1507 Thomas Pyrton left in his Will ‘forty shillings to make a statue of the Virgin Mary and a tabernacle to stand in the church.’  A tabernacle is a cupboard, usually on the High Altar, in which the Blessed Sacrament is reserved for administering to the sick or dying.  There is often confusion between a tabernacle and an aumbry, which is a cupboard in the wall for storing sacred vessels or holy relics.  We, in our church, add to the confusion by keeping the Sacrament in a cupboard in the wall and calling it an aumbry.

At a time when vestments, ornaments and books were lavished on the Church, Pirton was comparatively poor.  It possessed one chalice of silver gilt, one crimson velvet cope, a vestment of Bruges satin (colour unknown), a vestment of ‘black chanlett’ (for funerals), two altar cloths, two linen towels (purificators), and a Sanctus bell, to be rung at the Consecration in the Mass.  This was to gain people’s attention at the most solemn part of the service and stop them sauntering about and talking.

Little did the people of Pirton know in 1507 that the religion they had practised for centuries was to come to an untimely end not so many years later, at the hands of King Henry VIII.

Two hundred years later Protestantism was firmly established in England but the village church of St Mary the Virgin was in a sorry condition.  In 1728 Nicholas Salmon, the County historian, wrote that “the church contains a dark passage connecting the nave and the chancel and a low, small arch in the north wall, an ansty, containing a sort of miniature, half the size of a man which may be the founder and a building on the south side of the tower with a flat roof named St John’s House.” (Most likely what was left of the south transept made into a chapel).

By the middle of the 19th century the building was in a deplorable state.  Outside and inside unsightly brick buttresses supported a tottering tower deprived of the transept’s support.  The bricks, small and about two inches thick appeared to date from the end of the 17th century.  These also partly filled the two remaining east and west Norman arches, reducing their width from fourteen to seven feet (the dark passage recorded by Salmon) so that the priest at the altar could only be seen by standing in the centre of the nave, whilst his voice was inaudible to the congregation which sat under a leaking roof.  The stonework of the windows had been repaired with cement and a general air of decay pervaded the building.

Digging clunch to repair the church from the pit on the road to Holwell

Fortunately the Victorians instituted a programme of revival for English churches.  Between 1876 and 1914 St Mary’s tower had been dismantled and rebuilt, a new roof had been installed, the brick buttresses had been replaced by stone equivalents and the south transept had been rebuilt, presenting the building we know today.




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