St Michael’s Church

Although the occupying Romans had embraced Christianity by the 2nd century AD, the invading Saxons who took their place in the 5th century were pagans. In a quest to spread the Christian faith and convert the English – as they had become known – Pope Gregory the Great sent a party of 40 missionaries to these shores in 597 AD, led by an Italian monk named Augustine. Helped by the fact that the King of Kent, Ethelbert, had a Christian wife, conversion of the King and the southern English was a fairly rapid affair and in 601 Augustine was enthroned as the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Conversion of northern England was due to Irish Christians based on the Scottish isle of Iona. Early on they argued with Rome over Church practises and organisation, but finally accepted Roman Christian rule in 664 AD, unifying the country in its faith.

All sites of pagan worship were gradually replaced by Saxon churches and it is more than likely that a priest, as well as a church built of timber and thatch dedicated to St Michael, was in place here by the 7th century. Domesday Book (1086) records that the town had a priest and two knights, but not until 1237 were bishops compelled to ensure that every parish had a resident vicar. The first recorded priest here was John De Stratherne in 1332.

Early in the 12th century the Normans began to build a substantial castle in the valley to guard and control the river crossing (See Guide 8 – Waytemore Castle), at the same time erecting a substantial new church on this site. All that remains of that original structure is the vault and a font made of Purbeck marble dating from about 1150, both of which were discovered during building work in the mid 1800s.

The Manor of Stortford, including its church, had been the property of the Bishop of London since about 1060, and though it remained in the see of London after the Conquest it was appropriated to the Precentor of St Paul’s sometime in the mid 13th century. In 1352 Edward III gave licence for the appropriation of Stortford to the bishops instead of the Chantership, as he considered St Michael’s value wasn’t great enough for an official of the Precentor’s importance. The change, however, was never made because the advowson remained with the Precentor until 1867 when the manor was passed to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners to be sold.

The Norman built church survived until the end of the 14th century, by which time it was in a particularly poor state of repair. There were two possible reasons for this; the first being the consequences of the long, drawn out war with France known, later, as the Hundred Years War (it actually lasted 116 years – 1337–1453). To increase the size of his army Edward III drew many of his levies from southern England, and Bishop’s Stortford no doubt contributed many men. The second reason for neglect was possibly the Plague of 1348, which reduced Britain’s population by as much as a third and left very few craftsmen to carry out any building work.

But when life did eventually return to normal and the town’s population began to grow again, the crumbling Norman church was pulled down and work started on a new St Michael’s in the early 1400s. It was built in the Perpendicular Style of English Gothic – far less decorative and having many more windows than usual – and at 171 ft (52 metres) in length was much larger than most parish churches. The probable reason for this was that it was the central parish church serving a large area of east Hertfordshire and west Essex. Outer and inner walls were constructed of flint with a stone dressing and then plastered over, and embattled features at rooftop level were not dissimilar to the style of the previous Norman church.

The work was paid for by local fund raising events and voluntary contributions from members of the town’s two guilds associated with the church. These guilds, each with their own altar, were dedicated to St Mary and St Michael, but in 1485 a third altar was added dedicated to John the Baptist and served by a chantry priest paid for by endowment (See Guide 5 – The Chantry).

Like all English churches at that time, St Michael’s administered to the Catholic faith but when Henry VIII broke away from Rome on 15 January 1535, making himself Supreme Head of the Church of England, the Reformation began. At first the Church retained many of the basic tenets of Roman Catholicism, but this was soon to change and St Michael’s, like every other church in the Kingdom, was affected by the event.

Since the 14th century the Church had had the legal right to own property, a privileged position that made it an extremely wealthy institution and one that greatly irritated Nobility. For example, in 1530 Bishop’s Stortford’s population was about 600 and the churchwardens of St Michael’s were the largest landlords in the area, owning 70 tenements. Of these, 35 were described as ‘messuages’ – a term that normally implies dwelling houses. Additional revenue came from renting space to stallholders in the market place and fund raising at regular religious and social events.

That same year Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, a protestant zealot, suggested to Henry that monasteries were a vast source of revenue, and that sale of the land on which they stood would greatly increase the diminishing royal coffers. Desperate to keep Nobility and the middle classes on his side, Henry declared them as centres of corruption and vice and, under the direction of Cromwell, the Dissolution of the monasteries began. Between 1536 and 1540, licenced vandalism destroyed 852 monasteries, nunneries and friaries, making over 15,000 nuns and monks homeless. Demolition of these properties was followed by sale or lease of the land to the landed gentry and mercantile classes, raising over a million and a half pounds for the Crown. The money, however, was quickly devoured in financing government projects including education, and vast amounts were spent on improving coastal defences. Later in Henry’s reign the Dissolution of the Chantries was begun as yet another means of ‘redistributing’ the immense wealth of the Church.

By 1538 the Reformation had gathered pace and all clergy were ordered to provide, by Easter of the following year, one book of the whole Bible that was to be placed where all people of the parish might access it and read it. The Bible referred to was Myles Coverdale’s Great Bible – a revised edition of his original Bible translated into English by William Tyndale in 1526 and first published in 1535. There were, however, too few copies available and the government had to commission hundreds of English Bibles to be printed in Paris. These appeared in 1539. A Royal Injunction followed in 1540 stating that all clergy should purchase a copy of this Bible before All Saints Day the following year or incur a 40 shillings (£2) fine for each month’s delay. St Michael’s records show a cost of 6s. 1d. (31p) ‘for the buying and bringing home of the new Bible’, which became available to the people of Bishop’s Stortford in 1542.

When Henry VIII died in 1547 his nine year old son Edward VI came to the throne, the result of which was even more zealous protestant reforms carried out in his name by the Lord Protectors – firstly his uncle Edward Seymour (Duke of Somerset), then John Dudley (Duke of Northumberland) following the disgrace of Edward Seymour shortly after his brother’s execution. The Dissolution of the Chantries started by his father was completed in this year and as a result the local Baldwyn Victor Chantry was disbanded and the priest pensioned off (See Guide 5 – The Chantry).

Two Kings Commissioners were dispatched to take stock of St Michael’s goods and furnishings, the later sale of which amounted to £51. 14s. 8 1/2d. (£51. 73p). That same year the Rood Loft at the top of the medieval screen that supported the figures of Christ on the Cross, St Mary and St John was hacked down, the Paraphrases of Erasmus (his translation of the New Testament) were ordered to be placed within the church, and the interior was refurbished and the walls painted white.

When the Act of Uniformity was passed in 1549, all books written in the usual Latin had to be re-written in English, and a uniform Protestant service was introduced based on Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer written that same year. This was to be read at morning and evening prayer and, under the Act, any clergyman failing to do so was to be ejected from his living. In the event, some 2000 members of the clergy were subsequently removed. St Michael’s copy of the book was bought in London at a cost of 3s. 8d. (18p). More church goods were sold in 1550, including the town’s ‘fabric’ Dragon, but among the few things Commissioners allowed churchwardens to keep were the bells and the church clock. Two years later a more radical version of the prayer book transformed the Latin Mass into a communion or commemorative service.

When Edward VI died of tuberculosis in 1553, aged fifteen, it precipitated a crisis of succession. The rightful heir, under the terms of the 1544 Succession Act, was Edward’s step-sister, Mary. But she was a committed Catholic, and the Duke of Northumberland and Cranmer, both committed to safeguarding the Protestant faith, had already conspired to have Edward’s will name Lady Jane Grey (Northumberland’s Protestant daughter-in-law) as his heir. There was, however, little support for her claim among the populance and when Northumberland recognised this he bowed to the inevitable that Mary was the rightful Queen.

Wasting no time in fulfilling her ultimate ambition of a reunion with Rome, she immediately re-introduced Catholicism as the primary religion of England. Lady Jane Grey was executed in 1554, Archbishop Cranmer and dozens of other notable Protestants were burned at the stake, and Catholic bishops were reinstated. That same year new Mass books were bought for St Michael’s, the altar restored and the Rood Loft re-erected.

Mary’s reign lasted five tempestuous years but her attempt to reverse the Reformation ultimately failed. When she died in 1558 her protestant half-sister, Elizabeth – born to Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn – took the throne and immediately ejected all Catholic bishops. An inquiry into religious matters soon followed (those affecting the county of Hertfordshire being held at Bishop’s Stortford) and at its conclusion the Queen compromised between the two faiths, the Acts of Supremacy and Conformity being passed in 1559.

In an effort to pacify Catholics, Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer – revised in 1552 – was used as a handbook to the new style of worship and, for the most part, they were happy with Protestantism. In 1563 the definition of Church doctrine was set out in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, based, ironically, on Cranmer’s first draft completed years earlier during the reign of Edward VI.

St Michael’s was then refurbished to suit the Anglican faith, the queen herself ordering that a table replace its altar and that the Rood Loft, re-erected under Mary’s rule, be taken down. The timber from this was later sold off and it is a part of this that is said to form the mantelpiece of the fireplace in the bar of the Boar’s Head Inn opposite the church.

In 1563, John Foxe (1513–1572), a former Oxford don, published Acts and Monuments of these latter and perilous days touching matters of the Church, better known, perhaps, as the Book of Martyrs. When it became a best seller its propaganda value was realised and in 1572 churches throughout the land were ordered to display it as a reminder to people of the many protestants who died for their faith under Queen Mary’s rule. After the Bible this was to become the most widely read book in the land, and because these books were so valuable and expensive to replace, St Michael’s churchwardens bought a lock and chain in 1585 so both could be secured to a shelf here.

On one of her many tours of the country to observe the progress being made, Queen Elizabeth visited Bishop’s Stortford and was warmly welcomed by the ringing of St Michael’s bells. Sadly, in March 1603, those same bells tolled at news of her death – the last and, arguably, the greatest Tudor monarch.

During the first Civil War (1642-1646), brought about by Charles I’s struggle for supremacy over parliament, the town supported the parliamentary cause and a small garrison was stationed in St Michael’s church. But with little regard for religion, parliamentary soldiers removed the cross from the altar in 1643 and used the church as a barrack room as well as a stable for their horses. By the end of the conflict the church was, understandably, in a terrible state. Churchwardens’ accounts for 1648 show that 16s. 4d. (82p) was paid to one Thomas Warman for ‘cleansing the church and for sweeting it and washing the seats after the soldiers and for mending the chimes and wires that the soldiers broke‘.

Charles I was executed in 1649, and under the Commonwealth and Protectorate – with Oliver Cromwell as head of state – Puritanism flourished. The altar cross was once again taken down and not replaced until the Anglican Church was re-established under the Act of Uniformity in 1662.

It is known there were two vicars at St Michael’s before the first was recorded in 1332, and up to the present day (2007) there have been 57 in total. Among the many notable names was Richard Fletcher (c.1523–1586), one of the first clergymen ordained according to the protestant ordinal. A Cambridge graduate from York diocese, he (along with John Foxe) was ordained deacon by Nicholas Ridley, bishop of London, in June 1550, and priested in November the same year.

He became vicar of Bishop’s Stortford in 1551, but under the rule of Mary Tudor was forcibly removed by bishop Bonner in 1554 because he was married. There is no evidence to support the tradition that he took his family abroad to escape further persecution: indeed, in July 1555 he and his son – also Richard Fletcher (1544–1596) – witnessed the martyrdom of Christopher Wade at Dartford, Kent, subsequently both signing an account which John Foxe included in the second edition of Acts and Monuments (1576).

After Elizabeth’s accession both Richard Fletchers gained the patronage of Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury, who in 1561 collated the elder Richard to the vicarage of Cranbrook, Kent, and in 1566 to the nearby rectory of Smarden. The young Richard was admitted pensioner at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1562, and scholar in 1563, graduating BA in 1566. He became a fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge in 1569, being ordained deacon and priest that same year.

In 1583 he was installed dean of Peterborough and was intimately involved in the trial and execution of Mary, queen of Scots at Fotheringhay in 1586/7. He was made bishop of Bristol in 1589 and bishop of London in 1595. Fletcher’s life-long addiction to tobacco finally ended his days on 15 June 1596. After returning to his Chelsea home and smoking his familiar pipe he suddenly exclaimed to his servant, ‘Boy, I die‘ and did so. He was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral without any memorial.

*Richard Fletcher jnr’s son, John Fletcher (1579–1625), was one of the great dramatists of Jacobean London. His contemporaries included Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and Francis Beaumont – all of whom produced works still performed today.

Born at Rye, in Sussex, and educated at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (as was Christopher Marlowe), Fletcher first collaborated with Francis Beaumont (1584–1616) producing romantic tragicomedies. It is thought William Shakespeare (1564–1616) may well have supervised and edited their early work, and is known to have admired Fletcher’s style. He also collaborated with him on his last three plays, Cardinio, The Life of King Henry the Eighth, and The Two Noble Kinsmen – all written and produced in 1613-14. In the 1612/13 season, he shared Shakespeare’s fortune at Court; Shakespeare having had nine plays performed and Fletcher having eight.

Beaumont married in 1613 and ceased writing, but Fletcher continued to have great success collaborating with Johnson and Massinger. It is estimated that between 1609 and the time of his death, Fletcher was involved in writing forty-two plays. He died of the plague in 1625 and is buried in Southwark Cathedral, London.

Francis Burlye (1590–1604) was vicar of both St Michael’s and St James at Thorley, and was one of a group of scholars who helped produce the Authorised Version of the Bible for King James I. John Payne (1651–1662) was removed in 1662 for refusing to subscribe to the restored religion. The most memorable name from the 1800s was Francis William Rhodes, father of Cecil Rhodes the founder of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Of vicars in the last century: *Edgar Killick had played cricket for Middlesex and was twice selected for England against South Africa; Charles Hooper became Archdeacon of Ipswich, and David Farmbrough became Archdeacon of St Albans and later Bishop of Bedford.

In 1845 the church was transferred from the Diocese of London to the Diocese of Rochester, and in 1867 to the newly formed Diocese of St Albans where it remains to this day.

*Rev Edgar Thomas Killick was ordained in 1936 and came to St Michael’s in 1946. Aged 46, he collapsed and died in May 1953 while playing cricket for St Albans diocese in a match against Coventry diocese.


In the 18th century alterations were made to the interior of the church and minor repairs to the outside, but by the 19th century major restoration work was urgently required. The original lofty spire and part of the 15th century tower was in imminent danger of collapse and an Act of Parliament was needed, and granted, for the work to be carried out. Between 1812 and 1819 a new belfry was added to the tower and a new slate-clad spire erected. Those same slates were removed in 1970 and replaced by a lead covering. The spire, standing 185ft (56 metres) high, is still the most prominent landmark in Bishop’s Stortford, seen from virtually every part of the town and surrounding area. But not everybody, it seems, was happy with the new tower. 19th century graffiti inside it reads: ‘This tower was built by Parish expense, but a mean Parish that gives the workers nothing to drink’. In the following years many other alterations were made including, in 1863, the removal of the external plaster to reveal the original flint walls.

It isn’t known when there were first bells in St Michael’s but churchwardens’ accounts for 1439 show the tower contained five at that time. These were later replaced by five new ones, ordered in 1489 from a foundry in Bury St Edmunds at a cost of £42. Up until 1530 the bells were repaired and sometimes replaced by a foundry in London. It was those bells that rang out when Queen Elizabeth I was crowned in 1558, and again when the Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588. On the latter occasion, ringers were rewarded with ale and candles. Throughout the 17th century they rang out loud and clear to celebrate any event of national or local importance, including the coronations of James I in 1603, Charles II in 1661, and James II in 1685. In 1629 and 1630 they were rung to celebrate a visit to the town by Charles I and the fact that he ‘dyned at ye George’ in North Street.

In 1671 a sixth bell was added to the peal but by the 18th century, after so much use, all had to be recast. This task was carried out in 1713 by John Waylett (See Guide 5 – Bells Hill), a local bell founder who re-cast three of them and with the metal of the remaining three, cast five new bells making a ring of eight. He also cast a new bell in 1730. Another bell founder, John Briant, of Hertford, renewed two of the bells in 1791 and another in 1802. He also cast a funeral bell that same year. When the tower and spire were rebuilt in 1819, the bells were put into storage and a new wooden frame constructed in the belfry to accommodate ten bells. John Briant cast two new bells in 1820 and rehung all ten, the largest of which weighs 17cwt. It is these ten bells that constitute the present ring.

The first mechanical clocks appeared in this country during the 14th century, and a church clock was in place on the tower of St Michael’s in 1431. Not being the most reliable of timepieces, however, it was replaced in 1494 by one with chimes. It must be remembered that in those days people didn’t have watches and the church clock was very important to them. Nor was there such a thing as ‘Greenwich Mean Time’ so clocks would only show an approximate time, which could differ by some considerable margin in towns throughout the country. What we now know as ‘Standard’ time wasn’t available everywhere in Britain until the BBC started broadcasting the ‘six pips’ GMT time signal in 1924.

The same John Briant who cast six of the current church bells, also made and installed the clock on the east side of the tower in 1820. Those on the other three sides (all 5ft 6ins in diameter) were added by John Yardley in 1846, and were paid for with the aid of public subscription. Known as a ‘bird cage’ clock, and housed in a wooden casing on a floor between the belfry and the bell-chamber, the mechanism was originally driven by a pendulum 80 ft (24 metres) long and a lead weight weighing a quarter of a ton. It required winding by hand three times a week. The clock was regularly serviced, but on 5 August 2005, was totally removed for the first time in 185 years for repair and overhaul. The work, undertaken by A. James (Jewellers and Horologists) of Saffron Walden, took four weeks to complete and the cost of over £6,000 was funded by Friends of St Michael’s. When reinstalled, the clock was fitted with an automatic winder.

A weathercock was erected during Queen Mary’s reign (1553-58) at a cost of 21 shillings (£1. 05p), and in 1796 a large sundial, still in place, was erected high up on the south wall.

Anglican St Michael’s and neighbouring catholic church, St Joseph’s now share a new £1.3m church hall, built behind the old monastery in 2010. Two storeys high, the Anglican and Catholic churches have individual halls, each with a kitchen, offices, meeting room and playroom. The cost of building the centre was borne by the two churches, which raised some of the money by selling their old halls in Apton Road to the town council and to private developers. Former parishioner Maxwell Charnley, left £500,000 to St Michael’s when he died in 2008. The Anglican hall was named The Charnley Hall in his memory. The building was officially opened in October 2010 and the following year won the Bishop’s Stortford Civic Federation’s Curry Award for architecture.

Listed 18 October 1949, St Michael’s church is the town’s only Grade I listed building.