The borough of Bedford: Churches

Pages 24-29

A History of the County of Bedford: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1912.

This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.



The church of ST. PAUL, the largest in Bedford, consists of a chancel 60 ft. 4 in. long by 23 ft. 5 in. wide, with north organ-chamber and vestries and a south chapel 52 ft. 8 in. by 19 ft. 2 in., a central tower 18 ft. 8 in. square, surmounted by a tall spire, north and south transepts, a nave 77 ft. 11 in. long by 19 ft. 10 in. wide, with north and south aisles of a like width.

A great deal of rebuilding and alteration has taken away from the historical interest of the church, but it is a very fine building, well proportioned and imposing; and the modern work, which includes the tower, transepts, north aisle and vestries, has been made to harmonize with the old. The chancel seems to have been rebuilt in the 15th century, and the south chapel is probably of that date; but the nave and south aisle, and originally the tower and transepts, belong to the beginning of the 14th century; and the oldest work now in evidence is the south door of the nave, which is of the second half of the 13th century. Nearly all the window tracery in the church is modern.

The chancel has a large modern east window of six cinquefoiled lights in 15th-century style, and near the east ends of the north and south walls are restored 14th-century windows of three lights, probably old work re-used at the rebuilding of the chancel, which is wider than the tower or the nave.

On the north side of the chancel two modern arches lead into the organ-chamber, and a 15th-century doorway, with a moulded head dying into splayed jambs, opens into the vestry; on the south side a modern arcade of three bays, like that opposite, leads into the chapel. There is a clearstory with four windows in the north wall and five on the south, each of three trefoiled lights; and the roof, in six bays, is a fine piece of 15th-century work, repaired, with cresting at the plate level and fourteen wooden figures below the braces of the tie-beams.

The vestry is in two stages, and is 15th-century work much repaired; its position accounts for the blank bay of the clearstory on this side.

The tower, which is rebuilt, stands on four piers, with hollow-chamfered arches and clustered responds; it has angle buttresses above the roof of the church, and an embattled parapet, above which rises a tall stone spire with three sets of spire lights. There are two windows on each face of the belfry stage, each of two trefoiled lights with tracery under pointed heads.

The south chapel has a modern east window of five cinquefoiled lights under a four-centred head, and in its north jamb is a 15th-century canopied niche with a moulded corbel for an image. In the south wall is a window of three cinquefoiled lights, of which the sill forms sedilia, and in the east jamb is a 15th-century piscina with two chamfered arches resting on a detached octagonal shaft having a moulded capital and base; to the west of this are a similar window, the tracery of which is now being replaced by one of a modern design, and two modern windows of three lights and a modern south doorway. The chapel roof is restored 15th-century work with moulded timbers in four bays.

The south transept has a large south window of five cinquefoiled lights, with tracery under a pointed head; the arch opening into the chapel is modern, in 15th-century style. The north transept is of the same character, but has a clearstory window at the south-east. Both transepts open to the nave with wide arches of the same detail as the tower arches, and built at the same time.

The nave has a south arcade of five bays with tall arches of two hollow chamfers springing from slender quatrefoil shafts with early 14th-century moulded capitals and bases; the north arcade is modern and not quite an exact copy of the south. The west window of the nave is modern and consists of five cinquefoiled lights with tracery under a four-centred head; the nave roof is 15th-century work repaired with moulded timbers in five bays and wooden figures standing on the backs of eagles below each tie-beam. Under the west window is a modern doorway similar to that in the south aisle, and near it are two rain-water pipes with heads dated 1671 and 1715.

The south aisle has a 13th-century south doorway with three moulded orders and two shafts in each jamb, with moulded capitals and bases. At the west end is a large window like that in the nave, and in the south wall are four three-light windows, with modern tracery of 15th-century style inserted in the older wall, and having above them a range of five threelight clearstory windows, one of which is blank, being blocked by the roof of the south porch.

The south porch is of the 15th century in two stories, and the outer arch is four-centred under a square head with spandrels ornamented with foliage in which are a portcullis and a ragged staff on a shield with a cabled border. There are blocked three-light windows in the upper story on the east and west sides, and on the south a like window, flanked by niches containing figures of St. Paul and St. John the Evangelist. The windows of the lower story are of three uncusped lights under a square head. The porch has an embattled parapet, diagonal buttresses, a plinth panelled with quatrefoils and a stair-turret in the north-east angle. The ceiling of the lower stage has moulded beams and carved bosses and is contemporary with the porch.

The north aisle and porch are modern, but the doorway of the porch contains a few 15th-century stones.

The font, which is in the south aisle, has a modern octagonal bowl resting on a 14th-century octagonal shaft and having small engaged columns at the angles and ball flowers and rosettes on the base.

In the north-east corner of the south chapel is a part of a large stone canopy of 15th-century date, elaborately panelled, and probably belonging originally to the high altar.

At the west end of this chapel is a screen partly of 15th-century date with open tracery in three bays on each side of a central doorway. There are some 15th-century stalls in the chancel with carvings on the arms; they have several old misericorde seats, mostly badly damaged; one shows the front of a castle and another has the central part defaced, but bears a shield each side: (1) a cross engrailed, with a label of three points; (2) three roundels, with a similar label.

In the chancel is a fine mural tablet to Thomas Christie 1697 and his wives Alice and Anne, and opposite is the monument and effigy of Andrew Dennys, rector of St. John's, standing in his pulpit; he died in 1633. In the south chapel is the brass of Sir William Harpur, Alderman and once Lord Mayor of London, who died in 1573, and his last wife Margaret; he was the founder of the Grammar School and his coat is Azure a fesse between three eagles or with a fret between two martlets azure on the fesse. On the walls of the chapel are mural monuments to Thomas Hawes, 1689, and to Grace wife of John Elstow, 1699.

Over the south doorway of the church, formerly in the chapel, is a monument to John Paradine, 1686, his wife Martha, 1717 and their daughter Capell 1718, with the arms Sable two bars ermine between three griffons' heads razed sable. There are several indents of brasses, and under the tower a fine slab with a 14th-century marginal inscription, 'Muriel Calt gist issi de sa alme [dieu eyt merci et ki pur] lealme priera xi jours de pardun avera.'

There are ten bells; a ring of eight by Lester of Whitechapel (1744), some of which have been recently recast, and two trebles added by Taylor in 1897.

The plate consists of a silver chalice and paten dated 1570, a silver plate, 1698, a silver chalice, 1718, two silver-gilt chalices and patens, 1842, a silver-gilt flagon, 1842, and a silver plate, 1824.

The registers previous to 1813 are in five books and date from 1565. There is also a collection of bishops' transcripts for the archdeaconry.

The church of ST. CUTHBERT is cruciform, built in the 11th-century style on the site of an earlier church about 1847. The aisles were added in 1865, and the nave extended westward and an organ chamber built in 1877. The present vestry and a second organ chamber were added in 1886 and the porch to the north transept built.

There is one bell by Taylor & Co., hung in 1900 to replace a smaller one of 1831 by T. Mears.

The plate consists of a small Elizabethan chalice, a cover paten of 1569—the former is inscribed 'SENTE COUDBERD' and the latter with the date 1570 —a chalice, possibly of 1774, although the date letter is almost entirely obliterated, and a set consisting of a chalice, a paten, a salver and a flagon, which were presented to the parish in commemoration of the dedication of the new church by Thomas Wooldridge in 1847; they are all of that date. There are also a paten of 1896 and a modern plated one.

The registers previous to 1813 are in five volumes: (1) all entries 1607 to 1737, with a break between 1672 and 1679; (2) the same 1737 to 1802, marriages stopping at 1753; (3) marriages 1754–94; (4) marriages 1794 to 1812; (5) baptisms and burials 1803 to 1812.

The church of ST. PETER DE MERTON consists of a chancel 23 ft. long by 17 ft. 9 in. wide, a central tower 16 ft. 9 in. square, nave 63 ft. 6 in. long by 23 ft. 6 in. wide—the north and south aisles 14 ft. 3 in. wide—the north aisle extending eastward to form an organ-chamber and vestry—and a west narthex. The nave has been rebuilt in modern times, the rich 11th-century south doorway—removed from the church of St. Peter de Dunstable when it was demolished in 1545—being retained. This is in three orders, the inner order being square-edged with a cheveron ornament, the middle order having a quirked bowtel with a spiral band on which are small pellets, and the outer order a plain bowtel; each jamb has three shafts with scalloped capitals and diapered abaci, and one of the shafts in each jamb is worked with cheveron-shaped bands with pellets. The old nave was much smaller than the modern one, and though apparently mediaeval formed no part of the early church to which the tower and present chancel belong.

These are the west tower and nave of a small aisleless church, the chancel of which has been destroyed. They are perhaps of the 10th or 11th century, built of small limestone rubble without wrought quoins or window dressings, except in the belfry windows, which are now for the most part in modern stone, and the western angles, which have long and short quoins or the traces of them. There is a good deal of herring-bone masonry in the tower walling, but as far as can be seen this does not occur in the chancel, which has quoins in long and short work at the north-west and south-west. In its north wall, near the east end, is a blocked round-headed window which is probably as old as the wall; it is double splayed and built in small stones. The east wall is probably of late date, and contains a modern three-light window; the old nave has evidently been shortened and was probably some 10 ft. longer. In the north wall in addition to the early window are three others, a 13th-century lancet filled with fragments of old glass, a plain two-light window of uncertain date, perhaps 14th-century work, and at the north-west a plain square low-side window. The south wall contains a two-light window near the east end, which is a copy of that opposite, and below it is a piscina of two trefoiled arches and a pierced trefoil above, copied from one discovered during the restoration of the church; further west are a modern door and a two-light window with new tracery of 15th-century style. The east arch of the tower is plain 14th-century work in three chamfered orders with moulded half-octagonal capitals and responds.

The tower has a modern corbel table and embattled parapet, and belfry windows in modern stonework on the south-east and west, with round-headed arches inclosing two sub-arches with a central shaft and early capital. Below on the north and south are a pair of plain round-headed windows, all now blocked except one on the north side, and on the east face is a triangular headed doorway formerly opening to the roof of the old nave. One of its stones is a piece of interlaced carving re-used. The tower arch opening into the nave is modern, but on the north side—now opening into the organ chamber—is a roughly cut round-headed arch of early appearance but doubtful date; it may have been cut through the wall after building, but nothing can be certainly said on the point. Nor is it clear into what it opened. In the south wall is a two-light window with modern tracery, apparently an insertion of no great age. On the west wall of the tower are to be seen the lower stones of the western angles, and on the north angle several courses of the upper long and short quoins; those at the south angle have been taken out.

The font at the west end of the nave is 14th-century work, with an octagonal bowl panelled on each side and resting on an octagonal panelled shaft and base; the panels are enriched with well-cut conventional flowers, and there appear also a cross flory and the letters I.H.S.

The old glass in the lancet window of the chancel is stated by Parry (1827) to have been collected from various places in Bedford; it is of various dates, 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, the later glass being Flemish.

The ring of six bells was recast in 1894 by Taylor. The communion plate consists of a cup and cover paten, the cup having the date letter for 1683, two modern cups, a flat paten of 1807, a modern paten and flagon and a Georgian Sheffield-plate flagon.

The registers prior to 1813 are in five books: (1) all entries 1572 to 1648; (2) 1649 to 1707; (3) 1708 to 1743; (4) 1744 to 1812, marriages ceasing in 1753; and (5) marriages 1754 to 1812.

The church of ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST consists of a long chancel 49 ft. 10 in. by 20 ft. 7 in., with a north vestry and an organ chamber, a nave 48 ft. 10 in. by 16 ft. 5 in., and a west tower 11 ft. 11 in. by 10 ft. 5 in.

The building has lost much of its interest through the work of restorers (fn. 1) during the 19th century. In 1869–70 considerable alterations were made. The organ chamber was added, and the chancel arch rebuilt in its somewhat awkward position. The vestries were built later, and have been twice enlarged, first in 1889 and again only two years ago.

The walls of the church are of rubble with worked dressings, and are plastered over on the interior. This fact, together with the work of the restorers, make the history of the building difficult to trace. Although the earliest detail is of 14th-century date, the nave is no doubt that of an earlier building, to which a large chancel was added about the year 1330, while the tower was not built until early in the 15th century; the building stood thus until the alterations of the last century already referred to.

The east window is modern and of three lancets, set within the jambs of an earlier window, which can be seen on the inside. In the north wall of the chancel, just to the east of the rebuilt chancel arch, is a modern pointed doorway opening into the vestry, while beyond the arch is a blocked 14th-century doorway.

During the restoration of 1869 a fine 14th-century piscina and three sedilia were brought to light in the east end of the south wall of the chancel. The sedilia are separated from one another and from the piscina by small attached shafts with moulded capitals and bases supporting trefoiled ogee arches, the whole under a horizontal moulded label dropping vertically at either end, on the east to a carved head stop immediately above the capital of the east respond to the piscina, and on the west and over each shaft to the capitals themselves. Cut in the spandrels between the arches and the hood moulds in quite an irregular manner are a number of small trefoils. The piscina basin is circular, and has been restored on the front, as also are the bases to the four westernmost shafts and part of the upper portion of the sedilia. The seats of the sedilia are about 18 in. lower than the piscina basin. Over the sedilia is a modern two-light window, the sill of which appears to be original 14th-century work. To the west of the cross arch are two modern lancets, the westernmost set within a wider blocked window, whose jambs only are visible inside.

The original chancel arch is pointed and of two orders; the angles of the inner one are wave moulded, while the outer one consists of a splay and hollow chamfer. The responds are shafted and have moulded capitals and bases. In its present position, the arch not being the full width of the chancel, small openings have been cut through the modern walls on either side to allow passage along the north and south. The modern inserted arch between the chancel and nave is pointed and springs off corbels. Modern buttresses have been built along the north and south walls of the church, while at the south-east corner of the chancel is an original but restored diagonal one in two stages, and a similar one is built at right angles to and at the north end of the east wall. A modern string course runs round the inside of the chancel at varying levels, but the external string is apparently in the main original.

The nave is lighted by six modern lancets, three in each wall. Between the two westernmost lights on the south can be seen on the outside the east jamb of an original window. Under the west window in the same wall is what appears to be the line of an original door jamb.

The tower stands on a panelled but much restored base, and is divided externally by string courses into three stages and crowned by an embattled parapet, most of which is apparently modern. On the south-east corner is a stair-turret, containing a vice having solid oak treads, entered from the inside through a doorway which still has its original door, and on the western angles are five-stage diagonal buttresses which stop at the level of the bell chamber floor; buttresses of the same description, only built at right angles to the respective north and south walls, strengthen the north-east corner of the tower and the south-east corner of the stair turret. The tower arch is two-centred and of two orders; the outer with ogee angles is continuous, but the inner, which is chamfered, is carried by semi-octagonal responds having moulded capitals and bases, now restored.

The west doorway, which is four-centred within a square head, has also been completely restored. Over it, lighting a gallery dividing the ground stage of the tower internally into two, is a 15th-century pointed window of three cinquefoiled lights with a vertical traceried head under a moulded hood-mould.

Below the string course marking the ringing chamber, on the west front, is a small modern panel carved with the Paschal Lamb, while above the string is a niche containing the modern figure of St. John. The ringing stage is lighted from the north and south by small four-centred lights; the bell chamber from each side by a window of two cinquefoiled lights with a quatrefoil under a pointed head, having a moulded label. At the corners of the string below the parapet are grotesque heads.

The pulpit is modern, but part of the font is apparently of 13th-century date. The bowl stands on a central circular stem and four small shafts, one at each angle. The central stem is original, as are all the moulded bases, though the step on which they stand is quite modern.

On the floor of the chancel is an inscription to Paul Faldo, rector of the church and master of the Hospital, who died in his fifty-first year, 12 April 1714, cut on an old slab having the matrices for a head and shoulder brass, an inscription and a cross paty. By the side of the slab are two others, one to Edward Bourne, another rector of the parish and master of the Hospital, who died 28 June 1713; the other to his wife Susanna daughter of John and Mary Robins of Buckingham, who died 25 September 1698, aged fifty-nine.

There is one bell by T. Mears, 1827.

The plate consists of a chalice and cover paten, inscribed 'FOR THE PARISHE OF S. IOHN THE BAPTIST IN BEDFORD 1726'; a paten of 1726 inscribed 'THE PARISH OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST IN BEDFORD 1726,' and a modern flagon.

The registers previous to 1813 are in four volumes: (1) all entries 1669 to 1719; (2) 1720 to 1789, marriages stopping at 1754; (3) marriages 1755 to 1812; (4) baptisms and burials 1790 to 1812.

The church of ST. MARY consists of a chancel 37 ft. 3 in. by 21 ft. 6 in., a vestry and organ chamber to the north of the chancel, a central tower 12 ft. by 13 ft. 2 in., north transept 13 ft. 8 in. by 12 ft. 6 in., south transept 12 ft. 3 in. by 12 ft. 9 in., nave 61 ft. by 20 ft. 8 in., north aisle 10 ft. 8 in. wide, and south aisle 9 ft. 3 in. wide.

The earliest details belong to a fine cruciform church of 12th-century date, consisting of chancel, central tower, transepts and an aisleless nave of the normal length of 60 ft.; the tower and south transept are still fairly perfect, and masonry of the same date remains in the north transept and nave. The great irregularity in the plan of the tower and transepts, and the fact that the former is narrower than the nave, suggest that this work, early as it is, is not the first on the site, and that the tower is probably set out over the lines of an earlier chancel, round which, after a common form of enlargement, transepts and a chancel have at the same time been added. The west wall of the south transept is in the same line as that of the tower, set obliquely to the axis of the nave, instead of being at right angles to it, and the east wall of the transept seems to have been set out parallel to its west wall. The east wall of the tower, however, is very nearly at right angles to the axis of the nave, so that the tower is wider on the south than on the north. The chancel was rebuilt in the 14th century outside the lines of the older chancel, and it seems that a north chapel, narrower than at present, was added at the same time. There is no evidence of any enlargement of the nave until the north aisle was added in the early part of the 16th century, and the south aisle is modern. Nearly all the old work is obscured by 19th-century alterations, and the entire church, except the chancel, has been plastered and whitewashed internally. The chancel has been much repaired and its walls stripped of plaster; the east window is modern, consisting of five cinquefoiled lights set within the jambs of a 14th-century window. Beneath it is a modern reredos of carved stonework. The south wall is divided into three bays by buttresses, in each of which is a three-light window of 14th-century style, the tracery being modern but the jambs and heads in part of 14th-century date. Beneath the western of these three windows are a trefoiled lowside window, its inner jambs being probably of 14th-century date, and a doorway of which the stonework is all modern. The sill of the south-east window is carried down to form two sedilia, with the bowl of a piscina, the canopy of which has been cut away, to the east of them. In the north wall is a like window till lately blocked up; a modern credence was set in its blocking. The large organ chamber to the north of the chancel has been rebuilt with old rubble walling, and has in its north wall a window of two lights, the inner label of which seems to be re-used 14th-century work belonging to the same time as that of the chancel. The four arches under the tower have been mutilated and plastered; they are now of a single order with plain round arches, but may have had an inner order originally. The west arch has an ugly modern label with an attempt at dog-tooth ornament and a modern chamfered string at the springing. Over the east face of the east arch is a small modern lancet with a carved label, and in spite of the modern pointing which disfigures the chancel the bonding lines of the early chancel walls are plainly traceable. The north transept has been much altered and its east wall is entirely modern. Its north wall, which is probably in part original, is plastered externally and gabled, but was probably once as high as the south transept. In it is inserted a new squareheaded window of three lights with plain threecentred heads. On the west side is a two-centred drop arch into the north aisle. The south transept retains its original proportions, being very tall for its width, and has heavy ashlar angle dressings and rubble walling, a good deal of which is set in herringbone fashion. It has a modern south window of three cinquefoiled lights of 15th-century style, and high in the east wall an original round-headed window, quite plain, and now blocked with masonry. Below it to the north is the south jamb of what seems to be a 13th-century lancet, its north jamb being overlapped by the present chancel wall. There is also on the east wall an external staircase, the only approach to the tower, leading through a modern door to a door in the south wall of the tower. The nave arcades are in four bays and much modernized; the arches are of two moulded orders separated by a hollow, springing from slender piers, consisting of four shafts attached to a square with the angles chamfered off, each shaft having a semi-octagonal moulded capital and base. The north arcade is of 16th-century date, and the south is a modern copy of it. The east bay of the latter has a half arch only butting against a deep east respond, which is part of the south wall of the aisleless nave, and was perhaps left to support the tower. The north aisle has plain square-headed and uncusped four-light windows and a north doorway, the inner arch of which is in two orders, facing inwards, with a square head and carved spandrels, inclosing shields bearing a heart and crossed keys. The west end of the nave is embattled with crocketed pinnacles and gargoyles at the angles and square buttresses in three stages between it and the aisles. The wall probably contains 12th-century work, but has been refaced. The west window has been rebuilt and consists of three cinquefoiled lights with moulded jambs and tracery of 15th-century style under a four-centred head. Under it is the west doorway with similar jamb-moulds, the inner order of which has a four-centred head and the outer a square; in the spandrels is carved foliage with plain shields; on each side is a square buttress. The south aisle is modern, built of ashlar walling, terminating in an embattled parapet, like the north aisle; it is divided into four bays by buttresses, in each of which is a square-headed window of four cinquefoiled lights. In the west end of each aisle is a window of three lights like the window of the north transept. The central tower is a very interesting piece of early masonry in rubble walling with heavy ashlar quoins. No herring-bone masonry is visible. It is of four stages, the second stage being hidden by the roofs, and has lost its original finish, now ending with an embattled parapet having crocketed pinnacles and gargoyles at the angles of 15th-century date. The walls have a marked batter, and the top stage seems to have had two or perhaps three small plain roundheaded windows on each face. The middle window, if such there were, on each face has been destroyed by the insertion of a two-light 15th-century window. The third stage is architecturally the most important, with wide round-headed openings on each face inclosing two smaller openings, whose arches spring from a central shaft and shafted responds. The capitals are of plain cushion type, with tau crosses or Greek crosses on the vertical faces; the capitals of the responds are much weathered, but have in one case at least a spiral volute. The tower walls set back at the springing line of these openings so that the face of the main arch is some inches behind that of its jambs. There is a modern wood screen across the west end of the nave forming a western lobby and supporting a gallery. At the west end of the nave is a modern painted octagonal font with traceried panels. In the chancel are three 17th-century chairs in oak, with the date 1652 on one of them, and in the vestry is a 17th-century altar table. To the south of the altar table in the chancel are two 13th-century coffin lids set in the floor, and there is one on the north side. On the south wall are brasses to Dr. Giles Thorne, formerly rector and chaplain to Charles II and Archdeacon of Buckingham, 1671, and to his wife, 1663. Her brass is in the style of the early part of the century, with badly engraved kneeling figures of herself and three daughters, surmounted by a shield bearing on a cheveron three lions' heads razed. Above is a small brass plate with a Latin inscription to William Thorne, who died in infancy in 1640. On the east wall of the organ chamber is an alabaster and black marble monument to Bridget wife of John Barbor, 1660, on the south wall a monument to Mary Lysons, 1682, and William Farrell. A large modern altar tomb to Francis Greene stands here, and on the north wall of the nave is a marble slab to John Beaumont, 1698.

Plan of St. Mary's Church, Bedford

There are six bells: the treble by J. Eayre of St. Neots, 1748; the second by Richard Chandler, 1682; and the third by Newcombe of Leicester, 1604. The fourth bears six shields, with no inscription or date. The fifth is by Richard Chandler, 1682, and the tenor, of 1609, is an alphabet bell by Hugh Watts.

The plate consists of a communion cup of 1569, with the inscription 'The Paryshe of Saynt Maryes in Bedford, J. C. T. W., 1570,' a cover paten of 1721, and a standing paten of 1684 inscribed 'Ex Dono Oliveri St. John Armigeri 1685.'

The registers previous to 1813 are in ten books: (1) all entries 1541 to 1636, the first two years of this are now missing, but are included in a published volume; (2) 1558 to 1645; (3) 1653 to 1698; (4) 1699 to 1720; (5) 1720 to 1757; (6) marriages (printed) 1754 to 1802; (7) the same, 1802 to 1812; (8) baptisms and burials 1757 to 1789; (9) the same, 1790 to 1812; (10) baptisms and burials (stamped) 1790 to 1794.


  • 1. a J. H. Matthiason, Bedford and its Environs (1831), 32.