Friday, 2 September 2011

Hertingfordbury, Hertfordshire

St Mary stands on a prominent site, probably that of the original bury or burgh (a fortified place) from which Hertingfordbury derives its name. The bury (of the people of Hertford) would have originated in all probability during the early Saxon period. The church itself dates from the thirteenth century. The church underwent two restorations in the nineteenth century the first in 1845. The second, in 1888-91, was a virtual rebuilding. This restoration, at the expense of Earl Cowper, was carried out by estate workmen, with some outside help from stonemasons. As was only too common in Victorian restorations, much of the ancient character of the church was lost in the process. The exterior walls had been plastered prior to the restoration. The plaster was removed and the un-worked flints and pebbles cleaned and, where necessary, replaced. The original window and door dressings were of chalk-stone, a Cretaceous limestone sometimes called clunch. Clunch is not an ideal stone for exterior building work, and it was replaced where badly eroded by harder, creamier-coloured sandstone and limestone ashlar.

In the course of the 1888-91 restoration many of the monuments in the chancel and elsewhere of earlier distinguished local families were moved, presumably, among other reasons, so as to create space for the Cowper mausoleum. The altar tomb of Sir William Harrington (C16 /17, MP for Hertford, lived at Hertingfordbury Park) and his wife, situated on the south side of the chancel, was removed to the south wall of the tower. Similarly, the fine tomb of Lady Calvert, a daughter of George Mynne, was taken from the north side of the chancel to the north wall of the tower. Her parents fared less well-the monument to George Mynne (died 1581) kneeling with his wife, Elizabeth, has completely disappeared. On the north wall of the tower are brasses recovered in the recent past which commemorate (in Norman French) the de Louthes, who lived in Hertingfordbury Park from C13 to C15, and Thomas Ellis and his wife, of Amores. They lived together, ‘xlix yeares and vii months and odd dayes’.

The Cowper Chapel or mausoleum was created during the C19 rebuilding and houses a number of Cowper monuments. The most distinguished sculpture is that of Spencer Cowper (1668—1727), a Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, and is by Roubiliac. It is regarded as one of Roubiliac’s most important small masterpieces and was originally prominently displayed on the north wall of the chancel. It is a sad commentary on both architect and patron that this outstanding work should have been re-sited without proper consideration having been given to its artistic beauty and historic importance. It depicts Spencer Cowper, robed as a judge, seated between the female figures of Wisdom and Justice. Justice seems to have triumphed over Wisdom, being represented as a gloriously voluptuous woman. The massive monument of William, 2nd Earl Cowper, may have suffered through having been sculpted in Italy by a Scot and brought to this country in sections. It fails to make a coherent statement. The tomb-chest of the 7th Earl, by Henry Poole, 1909, dominating the centre of the chapel, adds little to its aesthetic pleasures. Contrariwise, the memorial to Lady Desborough, with incised lettering designed by Laurence Whistler, is a delight. Lady Desborough, who died in 1952, was the last of the family to live at Panshanger, which was demolished after her death. The crypt of the Cowper family lies beneath the floor of the mausoleum and is now closed. The mausoleum is separated from the church by good C19 ironwork.

ST MARY. All 1890 in outer and largely C19 even in inner appearance. W tower with diagonal buttresses and recessed spire. Chancel, nave, and N aisle, C19 N chapel. The chancel actually dates from the C13, and the group of three lancets with the middle one higher than the others, nook-shafts and elaborate inner arches is the best piece of medieval architecture the interior has preserved. - BENCHES with carved ends in the Rococo taste by the celebrated Joseph Mayer of Oberammergau. - PLATE. Covered Cup, standing Paten and Flagon, 1675 ; Cup and Paten. 1706. -- MONUMENTS. Lady Calvert d. 1622, standing wall monument with recumbent effigy and a kind of overmantel back. - Sir William d. probably 1637, and Lady Harrington, both recumbent, in shrouds. One daughter kneels at their feet turned towards the altar. Attributed to E. Evesham, but not of any striking quality. - Spencer Cowper, a judge of the Common Pleas, d. 1727, an early work by Roubiliac; only a smallish epitaph but the relief with Cowper in his judge’s robes and the graceful figures of Faith and Justice standing to his l. and r. are of great fluency and charm. - William Earl Cowper d. 1764. A seated life-size allegorical figure with wings, dull in her face and classical in her draperies, points to cherubs and rays up against a pink marble obelisk. To the r. a putto holds the Earl’s portrait on an oval medallion. - Thomas Francis de Grey Earl Cowper d. 1905. Tomb-chest with recumbent efligy, by Henry Poole, 1909. - The high iron railings of the Cowper (N) Chapel are dated 1891. - In the churchyard big plain raised sarcophagus to Sarah Lady Cowper d. 1719.

Sir William Harrington (4)

Lady Calvert (2)

Spencer Cowper 1727 (2)

Hertingfordbury. With its pleasant 17th century manor house and the school where the village children have learned their lessons for 300 years, it is an arresting picture by the River Maran, whose waters saunter through Panshanger Park, home of the Cowpers for two centuries and of Lord Desborough when we called. The much restored church, with its 13th century chancel, 15th century tower, and its copper spire, overlooks the village from a hill just high enough for us to see the Bayford woods across a wide valley. A line of yews links the porch with a 19th century sedilia removed from the church to make a seat in the churchyard, and six chestnuts rival the height of the tower. Inside the tower are two altar tombs with figures from Stuart days. On one is Anne Calvert, in a ruff and a richly embroidered dress; on the other are Sir William Harrington and his wife, white figures in shrouds, with their little daughter kneeling by them in Jacobean dress.

The Cowper Chapel, entered by gates of delicate hammered ironwork, was added last century, and handsome woodwork and marble tell of rich benefactors in more recent years. Most of the oak seats were carved by Joseph Mayer at Oberammergau. There is no monument to William, first Earl Cowper, who was buried here in 1723, but he lives on in fame as the Lord High Chancellor who made himself unpopular by refusing the customary gifts offered to the new occupant of the Woolsack. Though the Chancellor has no monument, his brother Spencer, the only British judge to stand in the dock on trial for murder, is here in striking relief by Roubiliac, dignified in his judge’s robe and wig. It was when he was a barrister that he and three other lawyers were charged with murdering Sarah Stout, a Hertford girl who had lost her heart to him; but the trial proved that she had drowned herself because her love was not returned. He was the grandfather of the poet, whose father is also buried here.

The second earl has for his monument an angel ten feet high pointing to his portrait in relief. In the centre of the chapel is an altar tomb with the stately bearded figure in marble of the last earl, who was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland during the stormy period of Mr Gladstone’s Ministry in the early eighties, but was happier as a student of literature, or when beautifying Panshanger Park. Another angel, standing with a tall cross under a yew in the churchyard, mourns the last Countess Cowper.

Sir Frederick Ouseley, the composer, who also made Panshanger his home, laid his father Sir Gore Ouseley to rest in the church in 1844; his tablet tells us that he was Ambassador to Persia, but he was much more than that, for to him we owe much of our knowledge of the literature of Persia and India. It was he who in 1813 arranged a peace between Russia and Persia, and helped Henry Martyn, the missionary from Truro, to produce his Persian translation of the New Testament. When Sir Gore Ouseley brought his son to be baptised in this church the Duke of York and the Duke of Wellington were the godfathers.

Panshanger House is of last century, rather unimpressive in spite of its battlements, but with grounds of rare beauty crossed by avenues and abounding with trees of every kind. There is a giant oak on the lawn. Gilbert White came from Selborne to see it; Arthur Young described it in 1709, when it was reckoned to contain over 300 cubic feet of timber, which had increased to 1000 cubic feet when it was engraved in a book on trees a century ago. Though it now shows signs of wearying from its age, its giant boughs form a circle of over 100 yards round the 20 feet trunk, and its foliage rises in perfect symmetry.

To Hertingfordbury came Jane Wenham of Walkern, the last woman in England sentenced to death for witchcraft, for the kind-hearted Squire Plumer of Gilston supported her in a cottage here after Queen Anne had pardoned the poor woman, and when the squire died Earl Cowper continued to look after her.

It was one of the strangest murder trials on record in which Spencer Cowper found himself involved, standing in the dock at the assize court at Hertford in 1699 to answer for the death of a young Quaker lady named Sarah Stout. Charged with him were two lawyers and a scrivener, who were alleged to have aided him in the crime.

Cowper had attended the March assizes of the same year as a barrister and went to visit the Stouts, to whom he had to pay the interest on a mortgage he had arranged for them; and he agreed to stay the night. Although he was married, pretty Sarah Stout was in love with him.

That night the two lawyers and the scrivener went from their lodgings to a Hertford inn, and made a night of it, and one was heard to say, "Marson, Sarah Stout was an old friend of yours." "Aye," replied he, "but she has cast me off, but I reckon by this time a friend of mine has done her business. I believe a friend of mine is with her by this time."

Meanwhile Cowper was at the Stout’s and after supper sat talking to the young lady till 11 o’clock when, according to the prosecution, orders were given to the maid to warm his bed. The girl went upstairs to do so, but suddenly heard a door slam and on returning to the sitting-room found that Cowper and Sarah Stout were gone. Neither returned that night. Next morning Sarah Stout was found dead in the river near the mill, floating on the surface. There was a crease round her neck and she was bruised about her ear. The prosecution said the girl was not drowned, but had been first murdered and then thrown into the water, and they asserted that Cowper and the three men charged with him were the murderers.

Doctor after Doctor swore that none but a drowned person would sink; and two sailors fresh from sea battles and wrecks, with experience of hundreds of bodies alive and dead in the water, were called to give similar testimony.

The defence was that the woman was drowned, that her body did not float but was held up by stakes in the river, that a coroner’s jury had already found a verdict of suicide. There was no crease round the neck, they said.

But to counterbalance the doctors and sailors Sir Hans Sloane and other famous doctors from London proved that dead bodies, animal or human, do sink in water. Cowper had left the house long before the poor girl went out and drowned herself.

The summing-up of the judge was as strange as anything in Shakespeare or in Dickens. "Truly, gentlemen (he said), these men have given great cause of suspicion by their talking, but whether they or Mr Cowper are guilty or no, that you are to determine. I am sensible that I have omitted many things, but I am a little faint and cannot remember any more of the evidence." All four were acquitted, and it has since appeared that the whole secret was that the Tories of Hertford wished to hang a member of a famous Whig family, while the Quakers, to clear their community of reproach, had done all they could to clear the girl’s name. The entire county was stirred by pamphlets, and the excitement was increased when relatives of the demented girl appealed and demanded the right of Ordeal by Battle. The issue was in doubt for a year, when the court held that the whole prosecution was malicious and fined the under-sheriff of Hertfordshire heavily, sending him to prison for a gross irregularity in the proceedings. Cowper attained high honour in his profession, and the poet was his grandson.


  1. Very nicely done. I am looking for any account of the removal of Anne Mynne Calvert's body to her tomb at St. Mary's. She was first buried at St. Martins in the Fields until her tomb was completed. If you should run across any thing about the Funeral procession to St. Mary's which I believe happened in late 1622 or 1623, I would be most interested.
    Ed Papenfuse,

    1. Thank you for the compliment however I'm unlikely to follow up on the Calverts since I have no family connection or further interest in them.