The Mediaeval Graffiti of St Nicholas’ Church Stevenage
by Angela Batten and William F. Leigh
This research arose from a Cambridge University Board of Continuing Education course entitled ‘Church and Town’, tutored by Margaret Ashby and held in 1997-8 at St. Nicholas’ church, Stevenage. Members of the course were encouraged to investigate aspects of the building which were of particular interest to them and I and a fellow student, Bill Leigh, became fascinated by the large quantity of mediaeval graffiti in the church. When we realised that most of it was undocumented, we decided to undertake its systematic recording. The full report of our study, together with the work of other students on the course, was published in 1998 by the Friends of St. Nicholas’ Trust, under the title St. Nicholas’ Church Stevenage: Recent Research I. 1
Sadly, Bill Leigh died in 2002. This article is dedicated to his memory.
The word ‘Graffiti’ has been defined as “inscriptions and drawings cut or incised upon the stone or woodwork … and other fabric of secular and religious buildings...” 2
The urge to leave one’s mark upon buildings for posterity is by no means a recent phenomenon. The pillars in St. Nicholas’ Church Stevenage contain a great number and variety of graffiti from mediaeval times which are important as they help to give us some insight into the minds of the mediaeval inhabitants of Stevenage.
Dating the graffiti
Studies of the pillars 3, 4 indicate that the chancel pillars are more recent than the nave pillars, possibly early 14th century when the chancel was lengthened. The original 12th century Norman nave was rebuilt in the 13th century with wider nave isles which suggests that the earliest date for inscriptions on the nave pillars is early 12th or more probably 13th century.
The older nave pillars have relatively few graffiti, predominantly geometric designs, in comparison with chancel pillars. These are richly adorned with inscriptions, faces and shields, and may also have marked the position of nave altars, making them an especially tempting target for graffiti by worshippers and pilgrims.
Who may have carried it out?
The sure lines and fine detail in some graffiti indicate that it was carried out by skilled persons used to drawing and using tools.
The mediaeval Latin inscriptions also suggest the work of an educated person as the majority of people at that time could neither read nor write. By about the time of the reformation, the fashion for writing on the fabric of churches seems to have died out, suggesting that some graffiti could have been carried out by church officials. Curiously, the Eastern facing pillar surfaces have no graffiti. A possible explanation is that this side would have been in the direct view of any clergy officiating in the chancel.
The church pillars are constructed using ‘clunch’, a form of limestone which is easily scratched. Inscriptions and drawings, especially fine writing may have been incised with a stylus or carved with a fine chisel 5, while geometric graffiti using circles was probably done using mediaeval dividers which were also one of the symbols of the stone masons. Thick layers of paint applied to the pillars of the church over the years make it now very difficult to see the graffiti.
Locating and recording graffiti
A variety of methods was used to record details: rubbings taken using thin paper and heel ball, tracings taken from rubbings, computer scanning tracings and rubbings for further manipulation and reconstructions to scale of certain geometric designs. Some of the best results were obtained by taking black and white photographs using side illumination.
The exact location of each graffito found on the church pillars was recorded using a method whereby pillars were numbered from 1 – 7 from East to West and each face of the octagonal pillars was given a compass direction, N, NW, W, SW etc, e.g. N2/NW indicates the second pillar in the North aisle, North West face. The exact height of each graffito above the pillar plinth was also recorded. In this way, we hoped that future visitors and researchers should be able to locate each graffito quickly and accurately.
Descriptions of Graffiti (Fig. 1 a-h) Note: drawings are not to scale.
For each graffito described, the exact location on the pillar is given e.g. N2/NW
One of the most striking graffito in the church is a most delicately drawn image of a crucifixion surrounded by a canopy (N2/NW) (Fig. 1a). The facial expression is finely drawn, the pyramidal heads on the three nails are visible, and the legs are unusually thin with the feet crossed. These features help to date the graffito as it was only during the Twelfth century, that Christian art began to show the crucifixion with the feet crossed and a single nail securing them 6.
The SW face of the same pillar contains a very finely drawn head of a bishop or abbot wearing a short mitre. This figure could have been a visiting abbot or bishop or even an early representation of St. Nicholas himself as the saint is usually represented as a bishop in Christian art.
Higher up the same face of this pillar is a devil-like graffito showing a crudely drawn head with what appear to be three spiralling horns on top. The face has eyes, a flat nose and a roughly drawn mouth and what look like large ears (Fig. 1b).
An interesting group of three heads (S2/NW) shows different styles of drawing. The upper, small head depicting a bearded man is reminiscent of the head in the crucifixion. The central figure, however, is very crudely drawn with lines radiating from the head. This figure is in a similar style to a graffito in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Gamlingay, dated around 1400, depicting a female head crowned with a three-pronged coronet 7. The lowest of the three heads is almost cubist in the way the nose is drawn. This could represent the Virgin Mary or even a knight.
The North face of this pillar has what appears to be a skull with two deep depressions looking like eyes but with additional shapes at the side and top of the figure.
Geometric designs using interlocking and intersecting circles and arcs have been etched on a number of different pillars (N2/N) (S2/SE) (S3/SW) (S4/SW) (S5/SE) (S5/S), using a compass or dividers. Some designs have a strong similarity to the Triquetra, an ancient symbol with three equal and interlocking circles expressing the Trinity and eternal life 8 while others are incomplete and may perhaps have been trials (Fig. 1c).
The majority of the designs are at eye level, however, at the base of a pillar in the North aisle (N6/SW) are two very striking patterns one above the other. The complexity and accuracy suggest the trained hand of a mason or apprentice. Both graffiti show deeply etched patterns of interlocking circles and may possibly be rough drawings for window tracery. The points where the compass or divider has been inserted are still clearly seen so that we can reconstruct the design today. It is even possible that the stone was being re-used from another building and may already have been inscribed.
Inscriptions from different periods can be found on two chancel pillars.
An inscription overlapping the shield on pillar (N2/S) may be that deciphered by Hine and others as “Hic Helen Sedet” (‘here Helen sits’) (Fig. 1d).
The initials ‘MB’ appear on pillar (N2/N) but the style of writing gives no clue to its date. Just below this are the initials ‘JB’ in a style which indicates a 17th or 18th century date. The two graffiti are very close so could MB perhaps be related to J.B.?
Another well-formed inscription (S2/NW) appears to start with ‘St.’, perhaps the short form of Saint, but the rest of the inscription is not decipherable (Fig. 1e). This inscription is preceded by three interlocking circles, which may perhaps be a reference to the Trinity.
A variety of crosses have been carved on the church pillars, possibly for different purposes.
A simple cross enclosed by a diamond shape with rounded corners on pillar (S4/S) may be a re-consecration cross. An identical graffito in St. Martin’s Church, Wareham, Dorset has been identified as a consecration cross and as extensive rebuilding was carried out in St. Nicholas’ church in the late 14th century this strengthens the possibility.
Two crosses and a deeply incised line have been carved on the NW face of pillar N2 (Fig. 1f). The larger cross has four deeply incised dots at its angles. On the North face of the same pillar and at the same level as the other crosses is a larger cross with eight dots surrounding it. These may have been votive crosses for petitions or in thanksgiving or to mark the visit of a pilgrim.
There are four shields on pillars (N2/N, N2/S, S2/NW) all having a shape similar to those of the late 13th early 14th century. Three of the shields have indented patterns, but despite extensive searching it has not been possible to determine either ownership or family association of these arms (Fig. 1d).
Mason’s marks can be found on pillars (S2/SW, S2/NW and S4/SW) (Fig.1g). The function of the mason’s mark is not fully understood, but was an identification mark, perhaps originally used in task work where a mason was paid according to the amount of work he did 5.
There is a design in the chancel (N2/SW) just above the bishop’s head which is reminiscent of a Celtic pattern with four three stranded loops enclosed in a roughly drawn square.
On the same pillar, just below the bishop’s head is a picture of an animal resembling a hound, but with a strangely pointed head (Fig. 1h). It is well drawn with deeply incised lines and depicts the animal moving fast. Although the style of drawing is very different, the question arises are the bishop and the hound connected? Perhaps this is a favourite hunting dog?
The same pillar has a leaf-like graffito on its NW face with marks resembling veins and a stalk-like projection at the base. The central cross is similar to the cross graffito on the (S4/S) which may indicate a re-consecration cross.
On pillar S2/NW is what appears to be a window of the Decorated period, maybe one in the church which has since been replaced. The lower marks could be mason’s marks or, if they have a religious basis, it could be a representation of Chi and Rho, although it is not usually written in this form.
Perpendicular style tracery appears engraved on S2/SW and is similar to that around the crucifixion graffito. An image above the tracery appears to be contemporary and may represent a hand or head.
A graffito resembling an egg in an egg cup can be found on S5/S. this could be a crude representation of a Chalice and Host and the angular shape of the Chalice would give it a 16th century date.
Conclusions and Further Study
It is surprising that with such a wealth of graffiti, so few detailed studies have been published. Although the graffiti of St. Nicholas’ church receive a number of mentions in the literature for example, 6, 9,10, the exact locations in the church where they can be found are rarely given and there are some fascinating graffiti described earlier which in spite of thorough searching, we have failed to locate.
We hope that this description of the graffiti in St. Nicholas’s church will provide a basis for further study and encourage future researchers to explore this fascinating subject.
The full report of this research may be found in St. Nicholas’ Church, Stevenage, recent Research I, ed. Margaret Ashby, 1999, price £5 from Stevenage Museum or from Barbara Pilcher, Chairman, Friends of St. Nicholas’ Trust, 8, Granby Road, Stevenage, Herts. SG1 4AR.
- A. Batten and W. F. Leigh, “The Graffiti”, St. Nicholas’ Church Stevenage, Recent Research I, ed. M. Ashby (1999), pp 35-52
- D. Jones-Baker, editor, Hertfordshire in History (Hertfordshire Local History Council, 1991)
- W. Millard, “The Church of St. Nicholas, Stevenage, Herts.” Royal Institute of British Architects Journal, 3rd Series, 16 (1909), pp 397-401
- Clarkson S. Flint, “St. Nicholas Church Stevenage”, St. Albans Architectural and Archaeological Society Transactions (1890-1891), pp 48-62
- N. Coldstream, Masons and Sculptors, (British Museum Press, 1993)
- V. Pritchard, English Medieval Graffiti, (Cambridge University Press, 1967)
- The Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Gamlingay, INTERNET site: www.ely.anglican.org/parishes/Gamlingay/chgraff.htm
- Automobile Association, Treasures of Britain (Symbols in Churches) (Drive Publications, 1976).
- D. Jones -Baker, “The Stevenage St Nicholas legend”, Hertfordshire Countryside, 36 No. 272, December (1981)
- R. Trow-Smith, The History of Stevenage (The Stevenage Society, 1958)
- M. Ashby, Stevenage Past (Phillimore, 1995)
- T. Woodcock and J.M. Robinson, The Oxford Guide to Heraldry (Oxford University Press, 1990)
- L.J.T. Marsh, The Parish Church of St. Nicholas, Stevenage, Hertfordshire; a short guide (Compton Press, 1985)
- Victoria History of the Counties of England: Hertfordshire (HMSO, 1912)
- J.W. Whitelaw, Hertfordshire Churches (Oldcastle Books, 1990)
- H.A. Roberts, 1966, “St. Nicholas’ Church, Stevenage”, Hertfordshire Countryside, 20 (1966) pp 242-245
- E. Duffy, Stripping of the altars (Yale, 1992)