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A short history of the parish church of St Mary, North Mymms


ostcard of the parish church of St Mary, North Mymms in the 1900s Image from J Potter, part of the Images of North Mymms Collection
Postcard of the parish church of St Mary, North Mymms in the 1900s
Image from J Potter, part of the Images of North Mymms Collection

The original version of this booklet about the history of the parish church of St Mary, North Mymms, was compiled by local historian and teacher Dorothy Colville in 1962. It sold for 6d. It was revised and reprinted in 1977 and 1983, with a revised price of 3p, and updated and reprinted again in 1990. The North Mymms History Project has transcribed the booklet and embedded the original below. The booklet is from the Peter Miller Collection and was digitised by Mike Allen.


The first written record of North Mymms occurs in Domesday Book, 1086. There it is called Mimmine and was the property of Robert, Bishop of Chester. The entry is careful to record that Mimmine was the Bishop's personal property and, that being so, it is safe to assume that there was a church, with a manor house nearby, possibly near the site of the present church but no trace of any ancient building has been found. There is a scratch sundial on the north side of the church which may be a relic from the Saxon building.

The next recorded date is 1237 and by that time there must have been a more permanent building, for in that year, Thomas de St. Albans was instituted vicar of North Mymms. His little church was probably on the site of St. Catharine's Chapel and some authorities are of opinion that parts of his church are incorporated in the present chancel walls.


It was about 1316 when Simon de Swanland, a wealthy London merchant, acquired the manor of North Mymms. Within twelve years he had built a chantry chapel, dedicated it to St. Katharine, and endowed it for the maintenance of a priest. Another twelve years went by and his plans for a large church with transepts and central tower were being modified. Though no plan is in existence, traces of the original design are to be seen in the heavy construction of the chancel arch and in the filled-in arch in the east wall of the south aisle. Perhaps the de Swanland fortunes, and those of the parish too, declined, affected by the Black Death and consequent shortage of labour.

The de Swanlands were followed by the Knolles family and it was probably Thomas Knolles who built the tower some time between 1430 and 1450. He used the existing west doorway, after carefully dismantling it, as the entrance to his addition. Thus we have a rare example of a decorated church almost entirely as its builders left it with scarcely a trace of an earlier building.


The west door-way with its triple shafting and foliated capitals is the most beautiful feature in the fabric of the church. There is much of exceptional merit inside the church although the memorials vary in interest and attractiveness and in the materials used. The little slate tablet in the south-east corner of the chancel is the memorial to the baby daughter of Andrew Fountaine of Brookmans. Theophila "dyed March the 19th Anno 167', aged six months" and the beautifully incised elephants' heads above the inscription are part of the Fountaine 'Arms.'

The dating on this slab as on the ledger stone in the churchyard to the memory of Thomas Huxley of Skimpans who died in the eighy-ninth year of his age in March 1696 remind us that until 1752, the Church's calendar began on March 25th. The Civil Year began on January 1st but it was usual to state both years involved for events between January 1st and March 24th. This is known as the "old style" of dating.

Altogether different is the marble figure of Justice on the opposite wall. This is the memorial to a great man, Lord John Somers, Baron Evesham, Lord Chancellor of England during the reign of William and Mary, and fiend of Dean Swift whose "Tale of a Tub" was dedicated to him. In 1700, Lord John Somers bought Andrew Fountaine's new house at Brookmans.

Somers had played a leading rĂ´le in drawing up the Bill of Rights in 1688. In agreeing to accept this, William III recognised that the political power of the Crown had been drastically limited and must remain so if the constitutional liberties of the people were to be guaranteed. It is thought that the scroll which Justice flourishes represents the Bill of Rights. Somers died at Brookmans in 1716.

North Mymms has two interesting altar tombs. That in the chantry chapel is early 16th century and is probably the tomb of Elizabeth, daughter and heiress of Henry Frowick, of South Mimms, and his wife, Anne Knolles of this parish. Elizabeth Frowick's first husband, whom she married in 1530, was John Coningsby and they founded a family which lived in the parish for more than 300 years. Their grandson, Ralph, built North Mymms House which is one of the best examples of the late Elizabethan style in the county. Their great-grandson was a famous Royalist who suffered imprisonment in the Tower because of his adherance to King Charles I. The last descendant to live in the parish was Charles Coningsby Sibthorp who in 1875 gave ground to enlarge the churchyard.

Until 1979, the Lord Lieutenant of Hertfordshire, Major General Sir George Burns, owned the House. He still lives within the parish.

A window recess in the north aisle contains one of the church's greatest treasures, a type of memorial rarely found in this part of the country. It is an altar tomb of Derbyshire alabaster which has a charming figure of an Elizabethan lady incised upon its top. The outlines are filled in with black wax, and shields "all charged with the arms of Beresford of Bentley" decorate the side and ends. The raised inscription round the edge is almost obliterated but from records it is known to be a memorial to two sisters who died in the summer of 1584. One sister was "Marie the Wife of ... Roper of Kent, esquyer" and it is thought that the Roper mentioned may have been a brother of William Roper who married Margaret the daughter of Sir Thomas More. The Beresfords were early benefactors of the parish, leaving land for the use of the parishioners. The church school stands on this site.

The parish has close connections with Sir Thomas More whose father built Gobions House. Part at least of "Utopia" was written there, for Sir Thomas found the house a retreat from the wrangles of Henry VIII's Court and the clamour of Chelsea. At Gobions he grew the Christmas roses which he loved and St. Mary's must have been dear to him because, until the Reformation, it was staffed by Carthusian priests from the Charterhouse. As a young man he had seriously contemplated joining that order himself and always wore the Carthusian's rough hair shirt next to his skin to remind himself of the fleeting vanity of this world's pomp. Gobions was confiscated by the Crown following More's execution.

Except for fragments of 15th and 17th century glass inserted in the windows of the chantry chapel all the glass is comparatively modern. The east window, replacing a war-time loss, is from a design by Martin Travers. The lovely Nunc Dimittis window in the north aisle commemorates a family who lived in the parish at the turn of the century. Its subject is comparatively rare in windows.


The tower contains a peal of eight bells, six of which were re-cast in 1806 by John Briant, the famous bell-founder of Hertford. The bells were then probably more than 100 years old for when Sir Henry Chauncy of Ardeley visited North Mymms towards the end of the 17th century he found here "a ring of five bells."  In the process of re-casting it is assumed that Briant made six bells out of the metal at his disposal. In the moulds he incorporated the inscription "John Briant, Hertford, Fecit 1806." The tenor bell which weighs 13 cwts. has an additional inscription "Gloria deo in Excelsis" and the names of the churchwardens of the time, Joseph Sabine and Richard Mason. With the additional two bells given by Lord and Lady Clauson at the end of World War I, the peal is one of which the ringers are very proud. The tower contains another little bell. This is the "Sanctus" or Saints' bell, possibly as old as the tower itself and can be identified in the Inventory of 1533. "A Saunce bell in the Steple." (sic.) This bell was repaired by one of the present bell-ringers and is now rung as the "five minute bell" at every service.


What is perhaps the church's most unusual possession is the unique Amber Tankard of German workmanship, made in Nuremberg in 1659. The panels of amber, set in silver-gilt, are carved with female figures representing the Virtues. The tankard was left to the church by Dame Lydia Mews who died in 1751. Her instructions were that "it was to stand upon the altar" but it is not recorded if these instructions were ever carried out. The tankard has been deposited, on loan, with the British Museum since 1901. Dame Lydia lived at North Mymms House for many years, renting the property from its owner, the Duke of Leeds. She was an early parochial benefactor, leaving £200, the interest from which was to be used to buy "bread to be distributed every Sunday to such poor as shall attend Divine Service at the Church of this Parish". A marble memorial tablet to her is on the wall of the north aisle and not far from it is a "likeness" of her father, George Jarvis of Islington, a typical Stuart gentleman with curling wig.

The oldest silver cup was made in London 1568/69. It is rare to find chalices of this Elizabethan period because of the growing Puritan influence. A copy was made in 1849. The silver flagon of 1707 and the silver paten of 1717 both bear the device of six ostrich feathers enclosed in a lozenge, being part of the Jarvis arms as shown on the shield below the effigy. The paten was obviously used as an ordinary salver before it was given to the church.

The pair of richly chased lidded chalices date from 1614. They were secular in origin and each bears the inscription "This Kup is my gift to thee. When ye raise it to thy lips, pray ye, think of me". There is fine Jacobean strapwork on the lids and only two hallmarks instead of the usual four. One shows crossed spoons - very unusual - and its meaning is being investigated.

The lovely silver candlesticks were made by Johann Wolfgang of Augsburg. They bear his mark (a cone) of 1654–50. They were the gift of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Burns of North Mymms Park between the years 1919 and 1926. The silver altar cross probably originates from South Germany too and its style is certainly that of the mid-seventeenth century but it was presented by Miss Cecily Gaussen in 1926.

There is also a tall covered cup of silver-gilt made in Nuremburg about 1601. This was given to the church by Charles de Laet who lived at Potterells from 1753 until his death in 1792. A silver and walnut processional cross of modern restrained design was the gift of Mrs. F. Brittain in 1954 and a modern ciborium and chalice were presented in 1968.


Various "Charity Boards" may be seen in the porch. Although the Charities to which they refer have been consolidated, the boards make interesting reading. One refers to "a field called Wants lying near to Muffets." We can no longer identify this particular field but the location of Moffats farm in the parish is well-known. It derived its name from Dr. Thomas Muffet the owner during part of the seventeenth century. His research opened the way towards the science of entomology. His book "Insectorum Theatrum" was published posthumously. He had a little daughter, Patience, and it is thought she was the original "Little Miss Muffet" of the nursery rhyme although the first known written record of the rhyme did not appear until 1805 in a book called "Songs for the Nursery."

Preserved in the vestry is a framed seating plan drawn up in 1859 at the time of the Victorian restoration. Seating arrangements for the families and staff of the great houses of the parish had long been a problem for the vicar and his wardens. During the 1859 restoration the unwieldy box pews had been removed and the present pews installed. One parishioner complained about the new seating plan and the quarrel was resolved only after a visit from the Archdeacon of St. Albans.

A handsome oak board bears the names of the vicars since Thomas de St. Albans was instituted in 1237. One had as his curate Henry Peacham who had a son, also Henry. The young Henry, who was born in 1576 was "versed in all the arts" and from him we learn that John Heywood, one of the earliest of English dramatic writers was born and lived in North Mymms for part of his life. Peacham himself was well known in his time as a collector of madrigals. Another vicar, John Clark, was evicted and transported to the West Indies because of his loyalty to King Charles I but after 15 years returned to North Mymms in 1660 to serve the parish for a further twenty-two years.


North Mymms has been in the diocese of St. Albans since 1877 when the diocese was formed. Prior to that date, North Mymms was part of the diocese of Rochester, though for centuries it had been in the huge diocese of Lincoln. This part of the county was reckoned as being in Kent - hence the number of "gentlemen of Kent" associated with the parish.

The Royal Coat of Arms on the front of the gallery is that of George III. It was put there in 1774 by the Duke of Leeds and other important parishioners. George III was a tragic figure in his declining years because he suffered from prolonged periods of profound melancholia. Little could be done to help him and he was considered insane. It was during a brief time of restored health that the Coat of Arms was placed in the Church as an act of loyalty and thanksgiving.

The most recent additions to the Church are the new kneelers. The designs, the tapestries and their making up have been carried out by ladies of the parish. They are in all the pews and at both altars. A book recording their making is in St. Catherine's Chapel.

1966 saw the retiling of the roofs of the Church and a few timbers have been replaced while others have been strengthened. In 1969 the tower underwent a major restoration while in 1971 the stone of the east window was renewed. In 1978 the Parish Room was built and dedicated to further God's work in this place.


The churchyard contains some interesting memorials. Southwest of the porch is that of "Mr. John Cobourne, serjeant in the North Mimms Company of Volunteers - Jan. 2nd 1806, Aged 23 years" - a reminder of the threat of invasion by Napoleon. Nearby a ledger stone marks the burial place of Sir Jeremy Sambrooke who lived at Gobions, 1700–1754. He is thought to have built "Folly Arch" which has been scheduled as an Ancient Monument. A group of headstones, east of the chancel, in the style of the 17th century, shows some delightful cherubs. The splendid Renaissance tomb of the Rev. John Alkin who died in 1749 can be found in the south-east corner of the churchyard. The oldest legible inscription in the churchyard is that on a ledger stone to the memory of Thomas Huxley of Skimpans and has already been mentioned.

To the south of the fine Giant Redwood can be seen the memorial stone of Joseph Hawkes who died in 1798. It bears an epitaph which though not unique is unusual and worth reading.

Dorothy Colville


Since this leaflet was printed nearly ten years ago, there have been many changes in the parish and in the fabric and treasures of the church. Some of them are recorded below.

The Church School no longer stands on its original site. In 1980 the Junior School merged with the State Infant School on the Bush wood site to form the new 'St Mary's School' which now has over 150 pupils.

The Bells had a major 're-fit' in 1985. The old wooden bell frame was replaced by a new cast iron and steel frame and the bells, after being tuned, were re-hung in new bearings.

The Crimson Dossal to be found in the case on the wall of the south aisle is not mentioned in the leaflet. This silk damask hanging was presented to the Church by the late Mrs Walter Burns for use as a dossal curtain.

It served this purpose until 1971 when it was sent to the Victoria and Albert Museum for cleaning and repair. Here it was recognised that the material was Italian and dated from the 16th century.

Its original use must have been as a tester (bed hanging) of the Della Rovere family, one of the noble power groups in Renaissance Rome. The oak tree motif was their symbol.

To this family belonged Pope Julius III, the patron of Michaelangelo, and it is probable that the hanging once belonged to him. Because of its fragile state, it is now kept in the wall-case presented to tne Church by Mr and Mrs Richard Colville.

Until 1979, the Lord Lieutenant of Hertfordshire, Major General Sir George Burns, owned the House. He still lives within the parish.

The Statue of The Risen Christ above the pulpit was presented in 1975 Dr Noel and Freda Harris as a thanksgiving for their happy family life and as an expression of their love for the church. A contemporary Italian artist carved the statue which is believed to be of olive wood from the Holy Land.

The Book of Remembrance in its case near the pulpit contains the names of those whose ashes have been interred in the garden of rest. The Book was inscribed by a parishioner, Mr Albert Thom.

The Silver Font was made by another local craftsman - Mr Arthur Cooke - and was given by him to the Church in 1979. It is regularly used for baptisms.

The West Door is referred to in the leaflet as "the most beautiful feature in the fabric of the church". Sadly this is no longer true. Due to the ravages of time - and almost certainly, in the last few decades, the effect of acid rain - the stonework has decayed to the point where it is no longer practicable to restore it to its original state. Nevertheless, the doorway is still a notable feature and has to be repaired and made safe. Part of the proceeds of the Flower Festival (1987) will be going towards this restoration work.

August 1987

This site would like to thank the Peter Miller Collection for the source material for this feature, and the advice and guidance given regarding the background information contained in the introduction.

1 comment:

  1. Hello and thanks for the fascinating information. I'm just in the throes of writing the second volume of the history of Colney Heath and I understand that Vice-Admiral Sir Joh Fellowes is buried your churchyard and he was a church warden. He lived in Colney Heath so he is very relevant. Any information or direction to a source would be greatly appreciated.


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