St Nicholas Church
General Introduction and Architectural Tour of
the Parish Church of St Nicholas, Berden, Essex
Welcome to the Parish Church of St Nicholas, Berden. Berden is an old English name meaning ‘Swine Pasture Valley’, and an East Saxon settlement was recorded here in the Domesday Book of 1086. The current chancel was built in 1270 although it is believed that a wooden chapel may have existed before this time.
The Church is named after St Nicholas, who was born during the 3rd century in Patara, a village in what is now known as Turkey. He dedicated his life to help those in need and became known for his love of children.
Many stories and legends have been told about St Nicholas and he is most well known as Santa Claus. In addition to this he is also the patron saint of children, marriageable maidens, bankers and victims of judicial mistakes! He died on 6 December, AD343 and the anniversary of his death became a day of celebration, which is celebrated in various ways around the globe, including Boy Bishop ceremonies held in England and the filling of children’s slippers by the fireside with sweets in Germany.
England has more than 400 Anglican churches named after St Nicholas, and Berden became well-known for celebrating his feast day with the ‘Boy Bishop’ custom. This still continues in places such as Hereford and Canterbury Cathedrals and a handful of parish churches. To find out more see Berden’s village website: www.berden.org
We hope that you find this leaflet a useful guide whilst looking around our village church.
LOOKING AROUND THE CHURCH
The following notes are provided to help explain some of the history of the church and the people who used it.
The chancel was built c.1270 and the first recorded rector was Anselm Golmin, who was here between 1279 and 1292. Essex has no good building stone, so most medieval churches were built from flint and pebbles found in the fields. The nearby church of All Saints in Rickling was built in a very similar way and David Hills, in his analysis of the building, has established that the flint walls are dressed with Totternhoe stone quarried in Totternhoe, Bedfordshire, near Dunstable. It is known to absorb water. The stone must have been carted 37 miles from the quarry to this part of Essex and it would have been an expensive process. It is quite reasonable to suggest that St Nicholas’ Church was built with the same stone.
On the western face of the chancel arch, above the candle stand, is a corbel with the words Gefrai Limatun cut in Latin; which translated means ‘Geoffrey the Mason’. The chancel was dated according to the style of decoration that was used and the heads seen on the western wall of the chancel could well be members of the Rochford family who were the Lords of the manor at this time. The fine wood rafters appear to date from the 16th century.
In 1868 the eastern end of the chancel was completely rebuilt by J Clarke (along with the west wall of the south transept). The main, east-facing, window is Victorian but the two side/light windows are original.
High on the south wall of the chancel is an alabaster monument to Thomas Aldersey of Berden Hall who died in 1598. It is thought that the Alderseys were the first inhabitants of the present Berden Hall.
There is a brass on the floor of the chancel inscribed with the details of Ann Thompson: Ann, wife of Thomas Thompson who had 9 sons and 3 daughters in 1607, who was one of Thomas Aldersey’s children, but sadly died aged 31 in 1607 due to an infection during childbirth, leaving behind 12 children.
To the left of the altar is a slab dedicated to Dame Mary Scott, another of Thomas Aldersey’s daughters, who died aged 89 in 1678 and the V&A museum stores a silver chalice which was given to Berden church by his other daughter Elizabeth around 1603.
In the chancel there is also a memorial to Henry Parker who died in 1550. He was Henry VIII’s Chamberlain and was granted Berden Priory after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536.
Around the west-facing chancel arch there used to be some text from the Bible:
‘The prayers of a righteous man availeth much’ James 5
‘For as many as are led by the Spirit of God they are the sons of God’ Romans 8
but this was removed between 1938 and 1943 when Patrick McLaughlin was the vicar.
The tapestry, as displayed in the chancel, was made to commemorate the Millennium, with many people in the community getting involved to create this fantastic work of art. NB - Postcards of the Berden Millennium tapestry are available in the church.
THE NAVE and WEST TOWER
The Norman nave was built next and you can see the blocked windows on the north and south sides when the west tower was built in the 15th century. By this time the church was part of the Walden Abbey estate. It would have been constructed at considerable expense, so it may have been built during a particularly profitable period for Walden Abbey. The roof beams in the nave are mainly 15th century and along the aisle is the old under floor heating covered by iron grating. NB - The vicar’s wife or young members of the congregation would tend to this and keep the stove hot.
At the end of the nave is the font. NB: In 1783, villagers had to pay 3d for a baptismal entry (unless they were very poor). This was abolished in 1794. The purpose of the tax is unknown, but on 25 July, 1783 a devastating storm occurred in Berden with hailstones of up to 6 inches in diameter causing vast damage to the local area, ruining crops, buildings and killing cattle, so perhaps this was the reason for the tax.
On the south wall of the nave is a tablet in memory of Colonel John Bury who was Churchwarden between 1946 and 1967. He was known for turning up at 7 am on a Sunday and preparing the church for its service, along with driving the vicar over from Manuden. He also started the envelope fund that we still use today. NB: For more information on Colonel John Bury please refer to the website or see the leaflet ‘Key People in the History of Berden Church’.
On the north wall of the nave is a brass tablet to Harold Russell aged 33. He was killed at Arras in 1918.
On the north wall of the nave is a tablet in memory of Revd Hudson, dated 1898–1937, and a cross and staff that he made that were used in the Boy Bishop ceremony, which lasted from 1901–1937. The ceremony was reinstated briefly in 1955-56 and 1961-66. The Revd Herbert Hudson made a huge impact on village life and his reintroduction of the miracle play that led to the crowning of a Boy Bishop made national headlines in the Daily Mirror in 1935. NB: For more information on Revd Hudson please see the section ‘Key People in the History of St Nicholas Church’.
The bells in the west tower are from the 17th and 18th centuries:
No1 W and P Wrightman of London 1695
No 3 J Keen 1631
No 4 Robert Oldfield 1613
No 5 Thomas Newman of Cambridge 1723.
NB: Revd Hudson was known to play the organ and lead the service and on some occasions rang 3 bells at once, two with his hands and one with a piece of string tied to his foot!
The organ has been dated to 1780 and is reputed to have belonged to Samuel Sebastian Wesley. It used to be in the north transept and the space in the west tower was used as a vestry. A curtain divided this off from the nave. NB: The vicar’s wife or young members of the congregation would be responsible for blowing the organ.
The pulpit has been used since the late 17th century when Paul Wright, Matthew Field and Arthur Trollope were chaplains here. If you look closely at the pulpit today you can see tacks in the wood. These remain from the early 1900s when Reverend Hudson would take the children from Sunday school to Battles Wood on Good Friday to collect primroses and daffodils, which would then be displayed on the pulpit.
THE NORTH TRANSEPT
The north transept (known as the Priory End) was built after the nave; its doorway can be dated to the 13th century. This area had been used as a private chapel for the occupants of Berden Priory.
There is a stone slab to George Mickley of Berden Priory in 1803 who died aged 63. Nearby is an interesting coffin lid with a sword shaped cross of Loraine. According to Mrs Cherry this was used as a doorstep at the west door and was moved to its present position in 1868.
One of the most significant brasses is that of William Turnor and his wives, Margaret and Margery, in 1473. His family may have owned Turner’s Field, the site of the present vicarage. Over the brick tomb of William Turnor is part of a stone coffin lid, possibly used as a plinth for a crucifix or statue.
There is also a memorial to Judith Hammond and her infant son who died in 1739. Her husband lived until 1762 and on the eastern wall is a tablet for him.
‘Buried near this place lies the body of Joseph Hammond died June 1762 aged 61 years.
He was a tender husband, a kind master and true friend. A sincere Christian’
Thomas Meade, son of Richard and his wife Thomasina, have stone memorials dated 1653 and 1666 respectively. His brother was the Revd Joseph Meade who was born in 1586 at the Priory in Berden and wrote an influential book for its time, the ‘Clavis Apocalyptica’. He left nothing to the church but he certainly made his mark in academia. For more information on the Meades please see the section ‘Key People in the History of St Nicholas Church’.
In the far corner of the north transept is a 13th century piscina, used to wash the chalice and paten during Holy Communion.
THE SOUTH TRANSEPT
The south transept (known as the Hall end) was built slightly later in the 13th century with a smaller arch. An altar may have been close by, and this was used as a private chapel for the residents of Berden Hall.
Its windows were added in the early 14th century, perhaps before the Black Death of 1349 when up to half the population died. The Chaplain at the time was Henry Saleman, who came to Berden in 1333 and remained until 1362, possibly a victim of the second wave of this plague.
The church would have seen a lot of activity during these times and many residents who stood in the nave would have wanted some reassurance from Saleman during his sermons. Latin masses would have been held on a frequent basis and burial space may have posed a problem which may have been why the now demolished Cumber Hill, meaning burial place, was created in a field close to Easingwell Pond, further along The Street towards Brick House End.
THE SOUTH PORCH
The south porch was built in 1868, but you can see on the right-hand side a 13th century holy water stoup into which worshippers would dip their fingers and make a sign of the cross before entering.
OTHER POINTS OF INTEREST
The two Native American style armchairs seen in the church were a gift from Colonel Plowden, a resident of Berden Hall. A 15th century linen fold door was stolen in April 1977, but the oak screen remains and can be found re-located in the Vestry - this has also reputedly come from Berden Hall.
Our Church continues to change, and in 2000 a clock was installed in the west tower and a magnificent tapestry was hung in the chancel. In 2009 the vestry was re-ordered in the north transept and a kitchen and toilet were installed. We now use the south transept as a chapel and meeting area.
OUTSIDE THE CHURCH
In the 1960s Nicklaus Pevsner conducted a survey of the Church and described the walls as being made from flint rubble with clunch and limestone dressing. You may also notice the odd red tile on the outside; these are Roman and thought to have come from the site of a Roman settlement in Dewes Green.
Over the door of the north transept from the outside you can see a niche, possibly for a statue or image and you may have noticed from the outside that the south transept entrance has been filled in at some stage: the reason is unknown. There are stone slabs dedicated to the Grove family in 1669 and a 14th century piscina.
As you leave the churchyard, along Vicarage Lane there is a huge sandstone block at the corner of the road up towards Stocking Pelham, this was also known locally as Judas Hill, it may well have been brought here in the last Ice Age, some 10,000 years ago. Mrs Cherry suggests that it was a possible location for a statue or wayside cross – the footpath being a link with the church and Priory.
In the western part of the churchyard you can find the grave of Henry Trigg (the tilted gravestone) who was murdered in his father’s shoe shop along The Street by two intruders from Bishops Stortford. Henry was the local parish constable for Berden. The inscription on the stone reads as follows:
‘In memory of Henry Trigg of this parish aged 36 years, who was murdered March 25th 1814 endeavouring to protect his property. March 13th 1815 Wm Pratt, Thos Turner both of Bishops Stortford, Herts, were executed at Chelmsford for the above offence on their own confession’.
In recent years selected areas of the graveyard have been designated as areas where the grasses and flowers are allowed to grow. These have become a haven for native flora and fauna.
BERDEN CHURCH TODAY AND LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
The Rev. Canon Christopher Bishop has been the Vicar of Berden, Manuden, and workplace chaplain at Stansted airport since 1986; since 2003 he has also had charge for Quendon and Rickling.
We have a small but active congregation and hold services each week and introduced a popular All Age service on the 4th Sunday of every month at 9.30 which blends a traditional service with songs and activities for children, making it a family friendly event. For more details about these services and other events in the church please see the notice boards and Parish Magazine.
Finally we hope you have enjoyed your visit to our church today. If you are interested in becoming a Friend of St Nicholas Church, please contact the Churchwardens.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS AND THANKS
I would like to acknowledge here the excellent books written by Mrs C. I. Cherry (1980) and Maurice Ancell (1993) on which much research has been based. However any mistakes are entirely my own and corrections and additional information will be warmly received.
Berden Local History Recorder