Book one 750-1539. Chapter one: The Church

  • Posted on: 22 September 2009
  • By: David Thrale

In the eighth century there were seven kingdoms in England. Sandridge was in Mercia , the kingdom which occupied that area now known to us as the Midlands. The Church of England was then, as now, divided into the two provinces of Canterbury and York , but in the year 787 King Offa secured the elevation of the Bishop of Lichfield to be another archbishop over the seven dioceses in the kingdoms of Mercia and East Anglia.

This arrangement lasted only fourteen years, during which time Offa died owning the parish of Sandridge1. Egfrid his son gave it2 in 796 to the church of St Alban by the name of Sandruage,

So denominated by the Saxons from the soil of the place, and from the service by which the inhabitants held their lands, for the soil is sandy, and age signifies the service of bond servants3.

Such is the earliest known mention of Sandridge.

Evidence of a Saxon church at Sandridge is supposedly given by the flint rubble walls with quoins of Roman tiles, visible in the exterior of the east end of the nave, and also by the chancel arch of Roman bricks. The latter probably came from some adjacent Roman villa and not from Verulam, for some of them are of the thick variety which, though common at Colchester and Uriconium, are rare at Verulam4.

Herbert, Bishop of Norwich , consecrated the first Norman church of Sandridge5, dedicating it to the glory of God and in honour of St. Leonard. Leonard was to become the patron saint of over one hundred and eighty English churches. Son of an army officer and godson of Clovis , king of the Franks, he was the patron of prisoners, being diligent in obtaining releases for many poor wretches. Thus he is often depicted holding a chain. This church consisted of a nave without aisles, and solid walls where the arcading now stands. These walls were pierced by narrow Norman windows splayed out from the outside to the inside. The eastern wall was pierced by a round arch of Roman bricks supported by pillars of the same material. Through the arch was a short chancel, probably ending in an apse which contained the altar. The western wall was perhaps pierced by another round arch, opening into a low Norman tower. The only remains of that fabric today are the north and south angles at the east end of the aisleless nave, with the abutments of the later arcades, the thick walls at the west end of the same nave, and the chancel arch6.

About the year 1160 the nave was widened by the addition of the aisles; the side walls of the nave were taken down for almost their whole length, and the two arcades of octagonal pillars, with their bold and beautiful capitals, and the six round arches of Totternhoe stone, were erected in their place. A clerestory was raised over this arcading and the north and south aisles were added in flint work, with Norman windows; the north and south doorways of the nave were transferred to the aisles. The cylindrical font also belongs to this period. It is surrounded with an arcade of intersecting arches, rising from a plain plinth. The arches, eighteen in number, do not, as is usually the case, lie over each other in crossing, but are quite flat. Above the arches is a hatchet or saw tooth ornament. The capitals and bases of this miniature arcading make it not unlike the main arcading of the nave. To protect the soft limestone the inside of the font is lined with lead. The present lining was fixed in 1945, when the old one was burnt out.

Late in the twelfth century a tower was built, or rebuilt, on to the west end of the nave, with a lofty Early English arch opening into it. The bases of the nave piers already foreshadowed the Early English style of water-holding moulding. There is no evidence of further alterations to the church for about two hundred years.

John de la Moote, the thirty-first abbot of St Albans, elected in 1396, did much for Sandridge and its church. He …

made at Sandrugge a new gateway and a suitable stable for heavy and light horses. He also built a mill at Sandrugge”;7.


he rebuilt the chancel of Sandrugge from the foundations”;.8

The chancel was not quite in line with the nave, but bent slightly to the north. The north door of the chancel also belongs to this period. It used to lead into the churchyard, but now leads into a vestry. There were paintings on the walls, traces of which could still be seen in 19009. The roof timbers rest on six buckle corbels carved in stone.

The famous Sandridge stone screen has an original tie beam of the chancel roof stretching right across; the other timbers were inserted in 1886. Two years before, the old chancel arch was revealed by the removal of plaster. The crown is about two feet below the bottom of the tie beam. Below the arch in the middle of the wall is a well moulded, pointed doorway which is flanked on each side by a three-light window opening. The brick arch above is partly filled in by rough stones and Roman bricks, the latter probably coming from the supports of the round arch. Ornamentations here include the arms of the abbey and perhaps those of abbot John10.

On either side of the doorway, on its eastern face, is a low stone seat end, with figures carved on them. That on the south side is of a priest with his hand to his ear, the other hand holding a necklace of beads. The figure on the north side is that of a woman with her face obliterated. It has been suggested that the priest is hearing her confession11. To erect all this new stonework, the masons must have begun by taking out for some eight feet in height the two pieces of wall on either side of the old round arch, and of course the uprights of the arch itself. They must have shored up the great mass of thick wall above with strong timbers whilst the new work was being put in. The western side of the window opening of the screen shows jambs very much splayed, and surmounted by depressed arches. But generally speaking, the western side of the screen is bare and plain, and must have almost certainly been faced by carved and painted woodwork. Judging from cuts at one time visible in the capitals of the two eastern piers of the nave, about four feet west of the screen wall, a beam here crossed the nave and supported the front of the rood loft6. This beam was presumably supported by two uprights resting on the floor, on each side of the doorway, thus forming recesses for side altars, one on each side of the chancel arch. The two wooden slabs which can now be seen represent the back portions of these lost altars. There is mention of altars to St. Catharine, St. Nicholas and St. Andrew in 15th and 16th century wills, and of lights to the same three 'saints, and also to St. Leonard, the patron saint. There are obvious places for four altars in the nave, two against the screen, as described above, and one at the east end of each aisle. From the middle of the nave the high altar of St. Leonard and the four other altars could be seen.

In order to light the screen side altars, small windows were cut diagonally through the east angles of the nave, that on the north side is now built up. This did not sufficiently light the rest of the nave, so the fifteenth century saw square-headed windows replace the Norman ones in both aisles. There are six of these, two east, two south, and two north. Like the chancel side windows, they are of two lights with heads cusped with five foils. In the same century the south doorway was rebuilt and the south porch erected. Floor tiles in the chancel and vestry gathered from the various parts of the church also belong to this period. They have a red body with impressed patterns filled in with white slip. Finally, it must be mentioned that the nave walls as well as the chancel walls had paintings on them, but the only picture of which there is any record was one over the north door, which represented St. Michael the Archangel weighing souls, with the Evil One standing by.

Thus was Sandridge's church of St. Leonard at her greatest architectural glory.

Historic Sandridge by Edward Giles and Richard William Thrale, with sketches by R. Giles. Published 1952. Reproduced with the kind consent of the late Richard Thrale.