The Church of St Lawrence The Martyr

The History and Development of Abbots Langley Parish Church

Stuart Little

August 1999


The site of Abbots Langley Parish Church was probably originally occupied by a Saxon Church. A Norman nave and aisles were added between the years 1140 to 1150 and the Church was dedicated to St Lawrence the Martyr in 1154. The tower was built between 1190 to 1200 and the tower arch shows the change in style to the Transitional before the complete development of Early English Gothic architecture.

The south east Corpus Christi Chapel was built between 1307 to 1327. The Saxon church fell into decay and in 1400 was replaced by the present chancel building. In addition, the chancel was linked to the Corpus Christi Chapel by a two bay arcade. In 1450 the aisle walls were rebuilt, the clerestory raised and the nave and aisles reroofed.

In the 16th century the Chancel became a Mortuary Chapel and the Corpus Christi Chapel became the Chancel with the new Skew Arch providing access to the nave. In the mid 19th century the Mortuary Chapel was changed back to a Chancel. The Victorian spiritual revival and the love of all things Gothic led to a period of continued internal alterations and additions many of which remain today.

In 1969 the Church suffered from a serious fire which destroyed the organ, choir and much of the roof. During the restoration works after the fire, the Chancel and Corpus Christi Chapel were completely rearranged along with the pew layout in the nave and aisles.


St Lawrence Church: 1815

The oldest parts of the present building are the remains of the 12th Century Norman structure which replaced an earlier Saxon Church.

The Nave: 1830

Various architectural styles are displayed throughout the Church; these chart the many additions and alterations with the most noteworthy taking place at the start of the 15th Century. The main fabric of the building is constructed from Totternhoe Stone, flint and chalk lime binder; these being the materials available locally in the Chiltern Hills.

"Langley" derives from the Anglo Saxon word meaning long "ley". A ley was a clearing in a region of woods and swamps. Farms and later villages grew up in this "long clearing", and during the reign of Edward the Confessor the area was given to the Abbot of St Albans – hence "Abbots Langley". "Langlei" is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 as having among its people, a priest. A Saxon Church therefore probably existed at that time.

Abbots Langley Parish Church was then closely linked to the Monastery at St Albans and some aerial photographs taken during a period of very dry weather, have revealed a direct path from the Abbey Church to the Church at Abbots Langley. Links with the Abbey were severed following the reformation and St Lawrence Church became part of the Diocese of London. The Diocese of St Albans was formed in 1877 and St Lawrence Church was transferred back to St Albans in 1906.

The present building was largely constructed in 1150 and dedicated to St Lawrence in 1154. Nicholas Breakspeare, from the Parish of Abbots Langley became the only English Pope, Adrian IV in 1154. These two facts are probably purely coincidental.


The main walls of the Church consist of flint with clunch dressings, some brickwork, tilehanging and rendering. Very few of the flints to the tower and Nave have been knapped; however great care has been taken with the knapped flints to the Corpus Christi Chapel. There are also some large flints and good examples of Hertfordshire Pudding Stone within the tower walls. All of the stone and rubble walling has been bedded in a lime mortar; in certain places the lime mortar has been repointed with modern cement based mortar.

The stone and flints have been used in a simple chequer pattern in the walls of the South East Chapel; elsewhere the walls are predominantly faced with flint and some isolated stone. There is brickwork at the top of the tower and bricks or tiles have used as a replacement for defective stonework. Elsewhere Bath or Portland stone has been used in new openings, alterations to openings and some repairs to chequered walls. The walls to the Nave were originally rendered with Lime mortar; this was removed in the restoration of 1932 although some sections of the North wall and the north and South Aisles still have a rendered finish. Some areas of defective render have been renewed with a modern cement based render and a pebble dashed finish.

Chalk is the most widespread of the Cretaceous Limestones and Clunch is the name given to stone quarried from the compact beds of the Lower Chalk. In practice this term is often loosely applied to all forms of chalk stone. Totternhoe near Dunstable in Bedfordshire is a well known source of Clunch and the quarry still provides stone for building conservation work. Clunch is easy to carve but not very weather resistant; polluted acidic atmospheres pose a very great threat to all limestones. If the stone is allowed to become saturated, frost will also be a very great hazard. Because Clunch weathers so badly it must be protected by skins of lime-wash which need to be applied regularly. This regular application of a thin coat of lime-wash is a very old method of stone preservation; it is particularly effective with limestones and contributes to the long life of the buildings.

Hertfordshire pudding stone is a conglomerate composed of fragments, generally rounded by contact with water, of previously existing rocks, held together by natural cement. Flint is a hard dense, fine grained stone; it is a form of silica, and occurs within chalk. Flints may be broken, known as knapped, and the broken surface used as the exposed finished face. Where panels of knapped flint are used with freestone the result is called flushwork; this is evident in the walls of the Corpus Christi Chapel.


The Nave together with the North and South Aisles are the oldest parts of the existing Church building and were originally built between 1140 to 1150. The Nave has North and South two bay arcades, with circular columns and square scalloped and foliated capitals. These round arches were built in the 12th century and have inner zigzag and outer billet mouldings. There are scalloped capitals to the North arcade with bead ornament on round piers and responds. In the South arcade there is a scalloped capital to the round West respond and a central round pier with foliate capital; probably 13th century. The South pier to the East is octagonal with a moulded capital; probably 14th century. There is a sharply pointed 13th century tower arch with roll moulding and responds with foliate capitals. The North arcade from the nave to the aisle stops short at the East end with a supplementary small arch inserted in the late 19th century.

The South East corner of the arcade between the nave and the South aisle was originally separated from the Corpus Christi Chapel. In the 16th century a broad four centred skew arch was inserted opening up the junction of the nave, aisle, chancel and chapel; this also linked the South nave arcade to the chancel arcade. In 1975 the Skew arch was reinforced with a central pier forming two pointed arches. The semi-circular arches to the nave arcades, are good examples of late Anglo-Norman style. The foliate capitals are foreign in origin, but form the rough model of the later more delicate English Gothic architecture. The pointed tower arch and associated mouldings are late Norman or Transitional in character; prior to the Early English Gothic period of architecture.

The aisle walls were largely rebuilt, the Nave walls raised and new aisle and clerestory windows inserted during the restoration work between 1396 and 1401. There is some evidence of earlier clerestory windows at a lower level; these were discovered when the external plaster was removed in 1932. The present porch is a building of brick and stucco and was rebuilt in a gothic style in the early 19th century. It consists of a moulded pointed arch with square hood mould, diagonal buttresses, parapet, inner pointed arched entrance, arms in spandrells and quatrefoil ornament on the ceiling.


The original Saxon Church, which probably had an Apse end, became the Chancel after construction of the Norman Nave and Aisles. The Saxon part of the Church fell into disrepair in the 14th Century and was rebuilt during the restorations of 1396 to 1401. There was probably a Chancel arch to the Nave and the two arches to the South East chapel were constructed at this time. This two bay arcade from chancel to chapel has double chamfered pointed arches with hood moulds, moulded bases and caps to octagonal piers and an East respond.

New and larger windows were installed in particular a fine calvary east window consisting of three lights, early rectilinear tracery and rendered quions to the North return. The dark Victorian glass to this window was replaced after the fire of 1969, however the figure of Jesus Christ on the cross was retained in the new lightly stained glass window. This allows far more light into the re-ordered sanctuary area and gives a clear central focus on the cross.

The present Sacristy is attached to the North wall of the chancel. This was originally built as an organ bay in 1911. It projects from the chancel with a lean-to roof. It has two square headed two light windows, with a pointed arched two light window on the East return. The organ and fittings were destroyed in the fire of 1969; in the subsequent restoration works, the arched opening to the bay was infilled and the windows blocked off internally to provide a secure room.

The original chancel arch having been removed in the early 15th century was replaced in 1607 with a new false arch. This consisted of plaster false work in the form of a wide shallow arch that was described as peculiarly mean in style and detail. Following the discovery of death watch beetle the church was restored in 1932; it was then discovered that the chancel arch and wall above it were only plaster. All the false work was removed and in so doing the original principal was discovered. This rood beam is now exposed and has been enhanced by some additional carved timber work.


This is a large finely appointed building and some historians think its origins may be older than the church itself. Previous research established documentary evidence which showed that it was a separate building belonging to the Guild of Corpus Christi; one of the many religious guilds which from Saxon times played an important role in the lives of the church and the people. In the early 14th century the chapel passed out of the hands of the Guild and was converted into the Lady Chapel.

The architecture of the present building all dates to the early part of the 14th century and is of a higher quality work than the rest of the church with clunch and flint chequer work and good Decorated windows. The two windows to the south elevation each have two cusped lights with cusped spherical triangular heads in pointed chamfered arches. There are brick and stone angle butresses that to the west have been rebuilt in flint.

The west gable end is tile hung above a 14th century window that was blocked when the south aisle was rebuilt. To the east end of the south elevation a door was inserted in 1911 with an outer pointed arch and inner segmental head. The large 14th century window to the east end of the chapel has three lights with curvilinear tracery and is slightly off centre. This off centred window could be consistent with suggestions that in the early 14th century the original walls remained and were faced with the stone and flint.

In the 16th century, the Chapel was provided with a rood loft, which was taken down shortly afterwards by order of Edward VI. At a similar time the Lady Chapel was converted to a Chancel and the original Chancel became a Mortuary Chapel. Possibly to facilitate these changes a suitable opening was required from the Nave into the Lady Chapel; some of the walls in the north west corner were demolished, together with the original Chancel arch; the new Skew Arch was inserted but provided rather dubious support to the structure above.


The extensive alterations carried out between 1396 and 1401 included the reroofing of the chancel and nave. These new roofs consisted of dark oak rafters and plaster with an embattled cresting to the tie beams and arched presses below which spring from stone corbels carved with friars faces in all types of grotesque attitudes.

In 1932 after the discovery of death watch beetle the plastered finish to the underside of the barrelled ceilings was removed. After treatment of the timbers, the plastered ceilings were reinstated on top of the arched presses to expose these members as feature timber work. In 1969 there was a major fire which destroyed the majority of the original timber roof structure. Today there is a horizontal ceiling just above the level of the original tie beams; the roof is now supported by a modern timber structure with very few of the original timbers remaining in position.

The original roof support framework in the Corpus Christi chapel survived the fire and today the dark kingpost structure is exposed with the sloping plastered ceilings following the roof line.


The tower consists of a low two stage structure with 13th century lancets in the North and South walls of the lower stage. In the West elevation there is a 15th century pointed arched entrance with an upper square headed two light window. There is also a small square light to the intermediate bell stage. The main belfry has a two pointed two light opening to the West and a similar window and clock to the South elevation. There are simple pointed openings to the North and East. There is a cornice below the 20th century brick parapet and there are 15th century diagonal buttresses to the West and South corners of the tower.

The tower was certainly added after completion of the nave in the early years of the 13th century. The massive walls of the ground floor are approximately 4 feet thick; the windows and tower arch are obvious indications of an advance in architectural style from the semi-circular arches of the nave. The top of the tower was rebuilt and raised in 1498 using ten loads of freestone left in a Will.

The third bell standing at handstroke

The church bells were mentioned in an inventory of 1552. Records show that in 1734 five bells were cast at the Whitechapel foundry; all possibly in memory of Lord Raymond who died in 1732. Further records show that a tenor bell was cast at the Whitechapel foundry in 1809. The ringers gallery was added and the bells rehung in 1891. In 1973 additional structural support was provided to the bell frame and today there is a recently refurbished ring of six bells with the tenor bell weighing 11 cwt.

Between 1700 and 1853 the tower had a small spire known as a "Hertfordshire Spike". The remaining stub was still evident during the aireal survey immediately after the Second World War. In 1935 a Faculty was granted for the construction of a new spire. These proposals were cancelled in 1937, after the resident of the Manor House advised the Vicar of a previous objection. Battlements were added to the tower and porch between the years 1815 to 1830; these were later removed in 1935.


There have been many changes to the interior of the Church. The first major change occurred when the Norman nave was added to the original Saxon Church. In the late 14th century the two bay arcade linked the rebuilt chancel to the existing chapel. In the 16th century the Chancel became a mortuary chapel, the Lady Chapel became the chancel and an enlarged opening was formed between the nave and the Lady Chapel.

The Revd. Richard Gee presided over the Parish from 1844 to 1878 and he brought with him the views of the Oxford Movement. At this time the Church of England was undergoing a spiritual revival and a return to Gothic architecture. This began with Pugin (1812-52) who believed passionately in the superiority of medieval over all other architecture. With this background the Revd. Gee converted the Mortuary Chapel back to a chancel as it had been in medieval times. Later he also had the church reseated and a stone pulpit added.

Plan view of the Church: 1870

There followed a whole series of alterations to the seating, choir and screens. The major changes occurred in 1911 when the choir was reseated and the pulpit relocated; then later in the 1930’s with further alterations to seating and additional screens. The latest changes occurred as a result of the fire in 1969; the altar was moved forward, the font relocated to the East end of the North aisle and the choir moved to the Corpus Christi Chapel.

Plan view of the Church: 1999

The church organs have been in various positions including the East end of the North aisle at the end of the 19th century. Later it was positioned in front of the East window in the Corpus Christi Chapel. With the construction of the organ bay in 1911 the organ took up position on the North wall of the chancel. Later in the 1950's, with funds raised from the Octocentenary celebrations, the organ was rebuilt, raised and electrically powered; the Sacristy was located under the organ pipes and the console was relocated to the West bay arcade behind the pulpit. Following restoration after the fire the organ is presently located infront of the West wall of the Corpus Christi Chapel.


There are many interesting features in and around the church. There is a large marble monument to Baron Raymond of Langleybury, Lord Chief Justice of England from 1724 to 1732. This was erected during his life time in the Mortuary Chapel; it is now located at the west end of the south aisle. At the west end of the north aisle there is a similar monument to Lord Raymond’s son; this was erected in 1756.

The Font - The Font was moved to the East end of the North Aisle in 1970 during the restoration after the fire. It dates from 1400 and is regarded as one of the best of its period in the country. The eight sides are decorated alternately with the symbols of the four evangelists and symbols connected with baptism.

On the east end of the north wall of the north aisle by the font, is a fine brass of Stuart times showing Thomas Cogdell, who died in 1607, with his two wives. In the same location there is The Table of Commandments; an Act of James I required that such a table be set up in every church. On the wall to each side of the east window of the Corpus Christi Chapel, are medieval wall paintings which were uncovered during restoration work in 1935. Other wall decoration was also uncovered at this time, but was found to be in a very dilapidated condition.

Norman Pillar and Arches - The central pillar in the Nave North Arcade was built in the 12th century; it has a circular column with a square capital which in turn has a plain abacus and a scalloped necking. The arches are semicircular and composed of a label or hood mould and two receding orders; the outer order has a row of horizontal zigzag and the inner order is plain. The under surface of the label has a series of billets disposed at regular intervals round the arch.

There is a small fragment of 15th century English glass showing the patron saint, St Lawrence, this can be seen in the east window of the north wall to the chancel. Over the south door is a Stuart coat of arms, dating from 1678 in the reign of Charles II. This was originally located over the false chancel arch; an Act in the time of James I decreed that churches should have a royal coat of arms in this position.

The Skew Arch - This was a single 16th century arch, originally built to connect the nave with the Corpus Christi Chapel which was then the chancel. The walls of the nave and the present chancel are out of line so the connecting arch was built on the skew. In 1975 it was discovered that the Skew Arch was unsafe; the reinforced concrete pillar in the centre was designed to harmonise with its surroundings.

A tablet to Nicholas Breakspeare is located in the South Aisle; it shows the arms of Breakspeare, the Papal crown and the arms of St. Peter. It is believed that Breakspeare was baptised and made his first communion in St Lawrence church. He was born within the Parish, was refused admission to the Monastery of St Albans due to lack of learning, studied in Paris and became the only English Pope in 1154 when he was appointed Pope Adrian IV.

The Norman Lancet in the North Aisle - This Norman Lancet is located at the west end of the north aisle. It has been blocked off on the inside and is concealed by the monument to Lord Raymond’s son. This is probably the oldest window in the church and is built in a section of Norman wall.

A monument to Mrs Anne Coome is located in the Corpus Christi Chapel and bears the date 1640. It shows the stone figure of the "praying lady", flanked with Corinthian columns of Purbeck marble, the capital gilded and the monument decorated with an illuminated coat of arms. This lady lived in the Manor House, and was the wife of Francis Coombe, who left the Manor of Abbots Langley to Sydney Sussex College, Cambridge and Trinity College, Oxford.

Exfoliation of Clunch - A photograph of 1897 shows the stonework in perfect condition. The walls have not been limewashed since 1911. The lime mortar was repointed in cement mortar in 1935. The impervious cement mortar has prevented evaporation through the lime mortar joints and has caused the moisture in the walls to migrate through the stone resulting in severe frost damage to the face of the stonework. This deterioration is ongoing. The present damage is due to the previous erroneous repairs. Repointing should have been in lime mortar and the stone should have been protected by regular coats of limewash.

Located in the north aisle is the Armstrong Memorial, in carved and gilded wood, framing two sculptured and painted panels showing the "Flight into Egypt" and "Jesus in the Temple". It was designed and executed in 1900 by Thomas Armstrong in memory of his son, Ambrose George Armstrong, whose portrait is in the centre of the work.


The Church of St Lawrence the Martyr is a beautiful building that is much loved by all who use it particularly the regular congregation. The long history, the clergy and the bright and new open layout all help to create a warm friendly atmosphere when entering the building. The fire in 1969 was nearly a complete disaster, however this did create an ideal opportunity to remove many of the enclosed and dark internal features that had been introduced during the previous 150 years. But the price was the near complete destruction of the early 15th century roof.

At the present time St Lawrence Church is faced with a major new challenge regarding the erosion of the Totternhoe Stone (see previous picture). The original traditional methods kept the walls in a good condition for over 750 years upto the early 20th Century. The photographs from 1897 show the walls in perfect condition, however, the last recorded time the walls were Limewashed was in 1911 and the cementitious repairs started in 1939 or earlier. The current problem is caused by these cementitious repairs and the failure to protect the face of stone with Limewash.  In addition, since late Victorian times it has become fashionable to scrape off the render which previously covered the other rubble and stone walls and even today more walls have recently been exposed.

The joints in the chequerwork walls to the Corpus Christi Chapel were repointed with a very hard cement mortar; this has prevented the walls from breathing through the mortar joints. Any dampness within the walls is unable to evaporate out through the lime mortar joints and therefore has to migrate through the permeable Totternhoe Stone to the surface. The moisture, and salts in solution, within the stone are then exposed to frost damage which is causing the rapid exfoliation to the face of the exposed Totternhoe Stone.

The Church walls were never intended to be left unprotected as they are today. All exposed Totternhoe Stone to window tracery, chequerwork and other areas were protected with Limewash. The other original flint and rubble walls were protected with lime render and limewash. Sadly the weathering of the exposed Totternhoe Stone which we now see is the direct result of the failure to protect these materials with limewash and lime render and lime wash. This is the price of the fashion, from Victorian times onwards, of seeing and exposing stone within the external walls.

The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings describes ancient buildings as expensive to look after and needing continual regular maintenance if the structure and fabric is to be preserved for future generations. The principle concern is the nature of the buildings "restoration" or "repair", because misguided work can be extremely destructive. The skill lies in mending the buildings with the minimum loss of fabric and so of romance and authenticity. Old buildings cannot be preserved by making them new.


This report has touched on many areas all of which could be researched in far more detail. In particular the Monastic records held in St Albans; with a knowledge of Latin, far more may be waiting to be discovered especially in relation to the earlier Saxon Church. Much of this material was dispersed with the dissolution of the monasteries, however most has been traced, some to the far corners of Europe.

Many repairs and renewals have already taken place externally to the weathered stone; these have mainly consisted of tiles or a substitute stone in lieu of Clunch. If this continues over a long period of time all the original exposed Clunch may eventually be replaced. Portland or similar stone, to isolated areas may be effective in some ways but as this replacement continues so it is gradually removing the authenticity from the building. Clunch is still available for building conservation work so defective stone should be replaced with new Clunch.

The medieval practice of using lime mortar, lime render and limewash materials was very effective for 750 years; however the last 100 years has seen their gradual replacement . The scraping, exposure and use of cementious materials thoughout the building has caused erosion, exfoliation and dampness problems. The use of cementious materials should now be avoided both externally and internally in order to prevent further damage. Lime mortar, lime render and limewash are very effective forms of protection which allow the building to breathe; these materials should now be used during regular routine maintenance. Basic limewash made from pure lime can be startlingly white; however the careful use of limes containing slight impurities or a suitable pigment can provide an acceptable finish to the exterior of the building.

Regular maintenance is required; this is the most practical and economic form of preservation. Limewash was originally applied regularly to the clunch chequer work with the coating brushed off the face of the flints on completion. This was evident in a faculty of 1911. These old crafts had largely died away but thankfully they are making a welcome return as people are once again becoming aware of the value and effectiveness of the traditional methods of preserving buildings.

William Morris founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877. This is the largest national society fighting to save historic buildings from demolition, decay and destructive restoration. The Society is concerned with how buildings are repaired; experimentation is a dangerous option, old buildings are not the place to test unproved materials. Responsible methods should be used; a repair done today should not preclude treatment tomorrow, nor should it result in further loss of fabric. In the words of William Morris: "We are only trustees for those who come after us".


1086 Saxon church metioned in the Domesday book
1140-50 Oldest parts of existing church built; Saxon church enlarged; pillars arches, nave, north and south aisles built
1190-1210 Tower arch and tower built
1300's Chancel including probable apse, fell into decay
1307-27 Lady Chapel built on south side of chancel
1396-1401 Work started on new chancel and start of church restoration
Clerestory walls to nave raised; west window of Lady Chapel infilled; aisle walls rebuilt and raised; two arches built to link chancel to chapel; new roofs to chancel, nave and aisles; tower buttresses added
1402 Font installed
1498 Top of tower rebuilt and raised; 10 loads of free stone left at quarry
1500’s Chancel arch and chapel walls removed; skew arch inserted
Chancel becomes mortuary; Lady Chapel converted to Chancel
1538 Parochial Register started - in the 30th year of Henry VIII’s reign
1607 False chancel arch added
1700 Spire in position
1700’s Porch added or rebuilt
1734 Five bells cast at Whitechapel foundry
1757-60 Top of spire straightened
1809 Tenor bell cast at Whitechapel foundry
1838 Porch structure rebuilt
1844 Mortuary Chapel reverted to Chancel
1845 Leaded light into Chancel East window
1853 Spire removed
1866 Major restoration work started; vestry added North of Chancel window
1867 Church reseated and stone pulpit added
1886 Choir stalls installed
1890 East window to Chancel renewed
1891 Ringers gallery added in tower; bells re-hung
1907 New vestry screen added below ringers gallery
1911 Internal alterations; extension to form organ bay north of chancel; new east window to north aisle; new south east door to Lady Chapel
1924 Oak choir stalls added in chancel
1926 South aisle lead roof recovered with copper
1931 Death watch beetle discovered in roof timbers
1932 Barrel vaulted ceilings removed and roof timbers exposed
External plaster to nave walls was removed
False plasterwork removed from chancel arch; principle rood beam timbers exposed and details added
Wall paintings uncovered in Lady Chapel
1935 Battlements removed from tower and porch; faculty for new spire
1937 Proposal for new Spire cancelled due to previous objections
1969 Fire destroyed roof, organ, screens and choir stalls
1971 Church rehallowed after fire
1973 Structural support work for tower bell frame
1975 Central support added to skew arch


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St Lawrence Church

Stuart Little