The Building - a History Paper given in 1902

The text of the History Paper given by the then Rector, Edward Ryley, in 1902 at Holy Cross before the St Albans & Herts Architectural & Archeological Society. 

"The ancient church is dedicated to the Holy Cross and its structure well fulfils its name as, till the restoration in 1865, it was in the form of a true Greek Cross. 

On the site of the church there was said to be a monastery, probably a chantry, and we are now in the archdeaconry of St. Albans as well as under its Bishop. The Archdeacon may be safely put down as a representative of the old Abbott of St. Albans and we in Sarratt were good enough in the eleventh or twelfth century to support that venerable institution by the pleasant and no doubt acceptable gift of lands to Abbot Hall, by one old fellow of the name of Syret.

The name of the village was then spelt Sarrett or Syret, from a Swedish family of three brothers who came over in the 8th century, as tradition had it. Chancy says “Offa, King of the Mercians, granted this vill of Syret now called Sarratt to the Monastery of St. Albans, anno 796 33 Regni sui, so called from Syret, a Saxon, who I suppose was an ancient possessor of it. King Ethelred confirmed the gift by that name and though no mention of it is made in Domesdi Book (Salmon say, for what reason I know not), King Henry I and John confirmed it again by the same name to that church.” Some explain the name as meaning the road by the water as, in treading the parish boundaries a man called the water-dog used to wade through the middle of the stream, the river Chess, which separates Sarratt from the county of Bucks. Others derive the word from the Saxon Shiregate, or Shire Gate meaning the parish approach to the county of Bucks. The exact date of this church, which is considered to be the most interesting in the Rural Deanery of Watford, is uncertain. As soon as I was instituted here in 1859, I tried to find out the approximate date and for that purpose went to the reading room of the British Museum. I consulted and took extracts from the Histories of Clutterbuck, Salmon, Chauncy and from other histories, e.g. from a printed portion of Cox’s Magna Britannica, date 1725. In one history reference is made to an old MSS in the British Museum, folio 178 of Mr. Cox’s MSS., and in the Cotton MSS. Folio 263 but there I had to stop short.

However, this church has a reputation of being 800 years old, according to archeologists who style it transition Norman: but you see there is nothing decidedly Norman about it, though that lae prince of modern architects, Sir Gilbert Scott, who restored it during my incumbency in 1865-6, traced by the abaci mouldings in the chancel the remains of Norman architecture; and the west window in the tower, he distinctly told me, was of older date than Westminster Abbey. The walls are of flint throughout and three feet thick with the exception of the mouldings of arches and windows which are of Totternhoe stone.

The church in 1859 was in a most dilapidated and deplorable state but Sir Gilbert Scott, who worshipped in this church as a boy and who, in consequence, naturally took a great interest in it, kept to the original details as much as possible, keeping to the old massive structure and introducing nothing tawdry or florid. It was formerly in the shape of a true Greek Cross but two side aisles were added to accommodate 75 people to compensate for the loss of seats which had been provided by two hideous modern galleries which were taken down. A large vestry which had been used for Sunday schools was also removed. The pulpit and reading-desk were in the centre or entrance to the south transept, the clerk’s and reading desk being on a level and next to one another. The pulpit was removed to where it is now but the pedestal of cherry-wood which supported it was lowered three or four feet, while the sounding-board was retained. I have an opinion that this old pulpit is unique both as to structure and size and that it is older than the well-known one at St. Michael’s, St. Albans. It is jacobean and the carving on the body on it is designated as the linen pattern; this, together with the sounding-board is worth examination. It is, I believe, a specimen of one of the oldest pulpits in England – an order in Council for the erection of pulpits in every parish being made, I believe, in the earlier part of the reign of James I – and I should not be surprised if it were erected in 1606 or soon afterwards as, apparently at that time some extra loving care was bestowed upon the old church; cf. the date of the oldest bells, viz. 1606. In 1864 I determined to have a thorough restoration as the roof and ceiling, of barrel shape, which I had had temporarily repaired to keep out the rain and daylight, were in bad condition. The walls were green and dangerous and the floors all in holes and uneven and an extended or opened-out cheese box was used to keep out the draughts through the front door. All the oak beams and rafters were brought to light and repaired and new ones inserted where necessary both in the body of the church and chancel. The entrance to the north transept which was blocked partly by a large board of the parish charities and by lath and plaster between the abaci of a former arch was opened; several new arches were erected and the supporting pillars were built on a gravel foundation nine feet deep. Two old windows of the 15th century were restored and several new ones inserted in the walls for necessary light. The original arch of the east window was discovered and a two-light window was designed in place of a small so-called churchwarden one. The old Norman font bowl, which had been supported by mere bricks and let into the chancel arch, was too decayed to be kept and a new one of Purbeck marble was erected following the pattern of the old one. The plinth of the old one was perfect and is retained for on it were found the bases of five Norman pillars which gave the pattern to the present font.

In the chancel you will see the interesting effigies in alabaster of Sir William Kingsley and his wife and five children, four boys behind the man and one girl behind the woman, in the act of prayer; underneath which are four laudatory Latin lines about the husband and wife. The date of the erection of the effigies is painted 1502 but Cussans, the modern Hertfordshire historian, says it is a mistake for 1602 on account of the dress of the period. Below this are two sedilia of very early English date, judging the columns between; and rear them, two piscinas. On the other side of the chancel is a niche and a supposed Easter Sepulchre.

The north side was covered with yellow frescoes of fruits and flowers, pomegranates and pineapples but too friable for repair. On the chancel arch in the body of the church an old bricklayer told me he had whitewashed numbers of Kings and Queens, as he called them; these I have not attempted to uncover, the wall is too decayed; but on the east wall of the south transept I did attempt some work with my pen-knife and brought to view what may be called the life of our Lord from His birth to his ascension. There are horns of cattle in the manger, an old shepherd with his sheep and bearing a staff; a boy blowing a double horn, one or two good heads, several figures – one carrying the flag emblem of the Resurrection while underneath are the heads of the eleven Apostles watching with their raised hands the feet of our Saviour ascending into the clouds and in the corner behind a monument may be seen, by the aid of a ladder, the fine, beautiful head of a high priest in the act of blessing.

During the restoration and enlargement, when any foundations were dug, I had the gravel carefully sifted and there were found one little bit of a painted window and two small coins of Charles I’s time. This leads me to the fact that this church was built on the site of a Roman cemetery. The Romans often loved a spot with a fair view on the brow of a hill and I have constantly unearthed pieces of cinerary urns or vases while in one deep grave I found a true Roman key and a small Roman brooch. Under the new porch were found portions of a stone coffin of Purbeck marble and a coffin lid of free stone is placed on the ground near the vestry window which has a floriated cross on it and is considered as belonging to the 13th century. I may mention that there are three bells: the oldest 1606, with the inscription “Knight made mee in 1606”, the second “Chandlers made me in 1719”, and the third by Mears and Stainbank, 1865; this last took the place of on old one that, unfortunately, before my incumbency, was taken down and sold for old brass at Chenies where there was a foundry.

And now let me allude to the principal peculiarity of Holy Cross Church – I mean the almost unique tower with its so-called saddle-back roof; there are, I believe, only three other churches which have the roof of the tower facing north and south. The foundation stone of the tower is a fine specimen of conglomorate so-called Hertfordshire pudding stone or breeding-stone and there are others like it hard by. Though the tower is a brick one at the top, it is considered to be the original.

In 1859 there were no foundations, the church rested on the ground; so at the restoration the whole church was under-pinned and water pipes placed three feet under as drainage; spouts or gutters also were added. The entire restoration cost £1400 and the architect expressed himself afterwards as well satisfied with the substantial work. The church was re-seated throughout with well-seasoned oak seats, copied from two or three original ones in the north transept which are supposed to be coeval with the church. I omitted to mention that there are large Roman tiles in one of the walls near the vestry door.

Originally the old church must have presented internally a stately appearance with its beautifully frescoed walls and well-tiled flooring. You will see I have preserved a few of the best of the ancient tiles and placed twelve of these relics of departed glory in the chancel in front of the communion table. The old register dates from 1560 or the second year of Queen Elizabeth’s reign".