The history of Clophill, Bedfordshire, UK
Including historical descriptions, maps and statistical analysis.

Old St Mary's Church pre-1848

This page attempts to show how the original church looked before the new church was built in the High Street in 1848.
Click on coloured hypertext for more details. Click on images to see larger versions.

What did the church look like on the outside?

The sketch on the cover of Mary Phillips' book is probably the earliest representation of the church. It is built of local sandstone (Iron stone) which is quarried in the Greensand Ridge area.

St Mary's Church 1800s. The Clophill Story, Mary Phillips.

St Mary's Church. (The Clophill Story, Mary Phillips)

As Nicolaus Pevsner said in The Buildings of England 'A strange building, very unconventional in that it has in the nave just one large five-light S and one large five-light N window and no others'

The church consisted of a nave with a tower at the west end, a chancel at the east end and a south porch.

In the north and south walls of the nave were were the two large windows in the perpendicular Gothic style. This style spanned the period from the mid 14th until the early 16th century and was characterised by strong vertical lines, seen most markedly in window tracery and wall panelling.

There are buttresses to strengthen the wall, required because of the large window openings.

Old St Mary's

Old St Mary's 2013

The parapets at the top of the walls were crenellated. In the SE corner is a stair turret that had a crenellated parapet.

The tower has diagonal buttresses at the SW and NW corners, an angle buttress at the NE corner and a spiral staircase at the SE corner. The parapet was crenellated.

St Mary's Church Plan 1823 (Grant)

St Mary's Church Plan 1823 (Rev Grant)

The belfry has four bell louvres, the window-like openings at the top of the tower, that would have had angled overlapping slats to provide protection from the weather while not impeding the sound of the bells.

The chancel at the east end of the nave appears to have been a simple structure with a half-hipped roof. In the east wall was a large window with plane rectangular glass in three lights constructed of wood.

The porch in front of the south door seems to have been a simple construction with a simple pitched roof.

St Mary's Church SE view 1844

St Mary's Church SE view 1844 (Lewis Allen)

There is a marked difference between the magnificent appearance of the nave and the tower with the perpendicular Gothic windows and crenellated parapets and the simple appearance of the chancel and the porch.

What did the graveyard look like?

St Mary's Church Burial Ground

St Mary's Church Burial Ground

Above is a plan of the churchyard as it was before it was cleared in 1977. It was used to record the positions of and monumental inscriptions of the gravestones.

The inscription and the positions of the graves can be seen here.

St Mary's Church Burial Ground

St Mary's Church Burial Ground

The above modern aerial photo shows how it looks now.

St Mary's Church Grave Boards

St Mary's Church Grave Boards

An interesting feature were the grave boards (shown above) which were commonly used to mark graves at this period, and earlier. These consisted of an oak board carrying an inscription and supported by oak posts at the head and foot ends of the grave. The widespread use of these grave markers, which were cheaper than stone, stopped in Victorian times.

The Lych Gate which once stood at the entrance to the graveyard, was moved to the new church in the High Street where it can be seen.

St Mary's Church Lych Gate

St Mary's Church Lych Gate

Lich is Old English for 'corpse'. It was a requirement in the 1549 Prayer Book that the priest, 'metyng the corpse at the church style', should here commence the Order for the Burial of the Dead. So the Lych Gate was the place were where the bearers could have a welcome rest after carrying the corpse across Town Shott and up Church Path. This Lych gate bears the inscription "In the Glory of God and in memory of Mary Ann Crouch wife of Edward Crouch of Cainhoe".

St Mary's Church Lych Gate

St Mary's Church Lych Gate

Mary Ann Crouch died in 1905, aged 83. She was the wife of Edward Crouch, farmer, of Cainhoe Farm who died in 1915, aged 91.

What did the church look like on the inside?

There seem to be no surviving photos of the inside of the old church before 1956 when lead was stolen from the roof of the nave and the decline of the church started.

St Mary's Church Interior 1844

St Mary's Church Interior 1844 (Lewis Allen. BHRS)

The above sketch gives an impression of how the interior of the church may have looked in 1844, just before the old church was abandoned and the new church built on the High street. The walls were whitewashed.

The nave is full of wooden pews with kneeling mats. Two of the pews are box pews, the one on the left has a curtain on a rail to give some privacy. The one on the right has rails around it. They would have been owned by well-to-do families.

The raised pulpit possibly has a small sounding board above it. Hanging on the wall is a religious text; probably the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer or the Creed.

The plan shows the layout in 1850. Unfortunately, the original plan is lost and all that remains is a photograph of it so it is hard to see the detail. The Rev Grant appears to have made a copy of the ground plan for his book which is clearer.

In front of the pulpit was a desk of deal with a cushion for the clerk. To the side was the reading desk presumably with a Holy bible. Behind the pulpit in the chancel was the Rector's seat and a side entrance.

The altar was at the east end of the chancel with a Communion rail in front of it. The window in the east wall of the chancel was later described as an 'ugly window' by Sir Stephen Glynne in 1854.

The benches in the chancel are unusual. (Most chancels would have had inward-facing stalls for the choir). Perhaps this is because of the increasing size of the congregation which lead to the building of a larger church.

The roof beam had a vine carved on it and has been preserved and installed in the new church.

St Mary's Church plan 1850

St Mary's Church plan 1850 (BHRS)

In the south wall of the nave near the pulpit is shown a spiral staircase which appears to be blocked off. See below for an explanation of its former use.

At the west end of the nave were two galleries. Again probably installed to accommodate an expanding congregation. The lower gallery was accessed by a staircase in the north west corner of the nave, where stood the font, and was used by the men. Above it was a smaller gallery used by the boys and accessed by another staircase in the tower arch.The porch at the south door seems to be a light structure compared to the rest of the church. The plan shows a substantial recess where there is now a buttress (with no sign of a recess).

The spiral staircase in the tower led up to the belfry and the roof.

Carved beam

Carved beam

What did the interior walls look like?

Before the Reformation (16th C), the interior walls of medieval churches were covered with wall paintings depicting biblical events. When most people were illiterate the wall paintings served as illustrations for religious study. But during the Reformation churches were ordered to whitewash the walls to cover the wall paintings.

St Mary's Church Castle Mural

St Mary's Church Castle Mural

The photo above shows a mural of a castle which used to be visible on the interior wall above the south door. Although there is a fine view across the valley to Cainhoe Castle it is nothing to do with that. It is probably part of the background to a religious mural depicting something like St Christopher or St George.

Also before the Reformation there were no pews in churches. The nave would have been an empty space. There may have been benches around the walls. There may also have been a Rood Screen separating the nave from the chancel.

There were also Consecration Crosses incised and painted on the walls. There would have been twelve of them. They symbolised the support given by the Apostles to the Church. The crosses were positioned at the various places that had been anointed with blessed water or chrism during the consecration of the building. Typically, a sconce was positioned just beneath each cross to hold a candle which was lit on certain festal occasions.

If you look carefully on the north wall you can just make out the incised circles of two of them. (Click to zoom in.)

Consecration Cross 2013

Consecration Cross 2013

Consecration Cross 2013

Consecration Cross 2013

This is how they looked in 1981. You can make out the red pigment if you click on them to zoom in.

Consecration Cross 1981

Consecration Cross 1981

Consecration Cross 1981

Consecration Cross 1981

There are similar ones at St Andrews, Langford, Bedfordshire, in good condition.

As Consecration Crosses are a feature of mediaevel pre-Reformation Catholic churches this may help date the church.

What is behind the bricked-up doorways?

The spiral staircase in the south east corner of the nave gave access to the Rood Beam (or even a Rood Loft). The Rood Beam spanned the chancel arch and supported the Great Rood. The Great Rood was a carved and painted crucifix erected on a pedestal on the Rood Beam and flanked by the figures of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist. There may have been a Rood Screen which separated the chancel from the nave. The Great Roods were taken down and dismantled by order of the Privy Council in 1548 as part of the Reformation. Thus not a single mediaeval Rood survives in Britain

Rood staircase

Rood staircase

Great Rood

Rood beam carved by Johannes Kirchmayer in 1913, located in the Church of the Saviour, Syracuse, New York.

The photo above shows the Great Rood at the Church of the Saviour, Syracuse, New York, which may have been how the Great Rood at Clophill looked.

When was the church built?

There is no record of when the church was built.

Was it built in the mid 14th century as the windows are of the Gothic Perpendicular style and that is when the style started? Was it built later on in the Gothic Perpendicular period? Was it built earlier and had the windows inserted later?

Who built the church?

Nobody knows!

Why was the church up on the hill?

The original church of St Mary the Virgin stands high on the Greensand Ridge looking south over Clophill. It is 0.4 of a mile from the High Street and over a mile from The Green. We are used to seeing churches in the middle of villages so why was the Clophill church built so far from the village?

Old Church from Cainhoe Castle

Old Church from Cainhoe Castle

As the Rev W.A.M. Grant says in The Cleft in the Hills 'It is probable that our county came under the Christian influence of the old Celtic Church of Britain. It was their custom to raise a stone cross on rising ground to the north- east of a township or village and later to build a small church upon the site. To name but a few, Ampthill, Maulden and Clophill have churches that have been built in accordance with that principle.'

On the Clophill Lodge Website at (which has since been taken down) there is speculation that the village was originally clustered around the church on the hill and moved down to the Flitt valley after the Black Death. It says:- 'As is common with many other villages that were wiped out by the Black Death, the village moved away from the site of so much recent tragedy and horror.' and 'Even in the Wrest Park Map of 1716 there are still shown a few small cottages on the east side of the church, and a larger cottage to the west. Field and place names clustered around the church, like "the Inlands", "Well Spring" and "Spring Close" all are suggestive of settlement there.'

It seems unlikely that the plague survivors would have abandoned the existing village and start another one else where. They would be more likely to move into the bigger and better empty houses. The map shows only two houses and what looks like a large agricultural barn.

It looks like the Rev Grant's view that the church was built on an already holy site explains why the church lies a distance from the main village.

Wrest Park Map of 1716

Wrest Park Map of 1716

Why was the church abandoned?

The population of Clophill grew from 706 in 1801 to 1,066 in 1841. Most people attended church on Sundays and this increase in the congregation was difficult to accommodate. Several attempts were made by the Rector, William Pierce Nethersole, to increase the available seating. A men's gallery was added at the west end of the nave and above this was added a boys' gallery. Pews were also installed in the chancel. A proposal for a 'Transept carried out from the north window' came to nothing.

In 1844, on the death of William Pierce Nethersole, John Mendham, assistant Curate became the new Rector. He put all his efforts into getting a new church built in the village which he succeeded in doing in 1848.

The Old Church was converted for use as a mortuary chapel.

The following quotes are from "The Cleft in the Hills" by Rev Grant.

In 1826 the Archdeacon directs that 'The North Window be restored unless the parishioners with the consent of the Bishop enlarge the Church in that quarter .... ' He also states that 'Mr. Nethersole offered £50 if the inhabitants would enlarge the Church, and £100 if the parishioners could obtain a new church below the hill, where the village. is situate.' This appears to be the first reference expressing the needs of a larger if not a new church.

An attempt was made at Easter in this same year to obtain £30 from the parish by way of the church rate to effect an alteration in the way up to the men's gallery, by which about thirty additional sittings would have been secured. It was resisted by Mr Taylor, who would allow no more than £15 to be advanced. It came to nothing.(1832)

In reality the ultimate fate of the old church dates from this period. The increase in population necessitated a larger church, and all attempts to enlarge the existing church were frustrated not by the authorities concerned but by the inhabitants of the parish. A readiness to co-operate at this stage might have preserved for us an old and historic church set upon a hill. Archdeacon Bonney writes in his register under the year 1839: 'Plans to enlarge the church were seen, which I found to be practicable, and approved by building a 'Transept carried out from the north window'; it was raised again in 1841, but 'nothing done on account of the alarming illness of the Rector'.