Hemel Hempstead has an incredibly rich history, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times when it originated as a settlement called Henamstead. During William the Conqueror’s reign in the 11th century, the town was known as Hemel-Amstede.
Today, it is full of historical features and buildings, including St Mary’s Church, the parish church of the town and the oldest place of worship in Hertfordshire. But what interesting history hides behind its walls?
The construction of St Mary’s Church began in 1140, but the reason for such a large church being built in an area which was at the time a very small hamlet is still unknown.
Over the years, the church has seen many additions, but its base is constructed from local clunch stone and Roman bricks. The architecture is Norman throughout, apart from porches added in the 14th and 15th centuries.
The spire – one of the tallest in Europe at 200 feet – was added in the 14th century and topped with a gilded weathervane.
A ring of five bells was recorded at the church during the reign of Edward VI, however none of these remain. The present ring includes eight bells dating from 1590 to 1767.
In 1950, as part of the church’s 800th anniversary, the bells were retuned by Gillett & Johnston of Croydon and rehung on steel frames with new fittings.
Memorials and grave diggers
The church is home to several memorials, including one for local doctor Sir Astley Cooper.
Dr Cooper was best known for pioneering limb amputation surgery and founding the infirmary in Piccotts End in 1826, re-established in 1878 as the West Herts Hospital. Rumour has it that Dr Cooper would pay grave robbers to dig up cadavers to further his medical studies.
King Henry VIII
The church’s Charter Tower is said to have been where King Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn stayed in 1539. During their stay, Henry handed down a Royal Charter for Hemel Hempstead’s market from the upper window, as a mark of gratitude for the hospitality he had received. The tower was named after this incident.
Secret tunnels and cellars
The ground beneath the church contains a number of tunnels and pathways that make their way from the churchyard of St Mary to the south under the rear area of the old vicarage.
Local folklore states that the escape routes and tunnels were initially built for monks. Some stories also suggest that the tunnels were used by King Henry VIII to frequent his female suitors in secret away from the public eye.