St Leonard’s is a church on the road elsewhere.
That’s not to say that it is merely a pit stop, or that it is not worthy of exploring in its own right.
However, it cannot be denied that this is a church sits amidst several highly-trafficked routes. In that sense, it is the perfect place to begin my journey.
St Leonard’s sits in the middle of Flamstead, Hertfordshire. Nearby is Watling Street, the old Roman road leading to from Dover to Leitwardine in the Welsh borders. This road persisted as a thoroughfare through the Middle Ages, when the area would have seen a steady stream of pilgrims heading for the Shrine of St Albans. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as paved roads begun connecting villages, travellers between London and the North would have seen the steeple as they pulled to one of the coaching inns nearby.
There has been a church in Flamstead, it is thought, since Saxon times. That makes sense, considering the location of several large towns nearby. It was, by standards of the era, a densely populated area. The church as we see it today dates from the twelfth century, along with its dedication – St Leonard of Noblac’s cult was very popular at the time.
(St Leonard, by the way, is the patron saint of political prisoners. A close friend of Clovis, founder of the Merovingian dynasty, Leonard was able to secure the release of many prisoners. As his cult grew, prisoners who invoked St Leonard were said to have their shackles burst before their eyes.)
Most people who seek St Leonard’s out come to see the wallpaintings. These date from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Over the chancel is what is known as a ‘Doom‘ – a depiction of the Day of Judgement. At St Leonard’s, Christ sits on a cloud, in front of a rainbow. He is flanked by two angels, holding the instruments of the Passion – whips and such.
Above the arches of the nave stand an array of Saints. We can only be sure of the identify of one of them, St Christopher. We can tell it is St Christopher due to the large staff he is holding, one of his most distinctive symbols.
St Christopher is the patron saint of travellers. He is a very, very popular subject for wallpaintings. This may be linked to the belief that gazing upon his image once a day prevented sudden death, or at least an unshriven death.
The wallpaintings at St Leonard’s today are a uniformly ochre colour, but in order to understand their significance, you need to restore the glorious washes of colour that must have once adorned them.
At St Leonard’s, under candlelight, these paintings must have blazed. For the congregation of St Leonard’s and passing travellers, they must have been a constant, welcome reminder of a better life somewhere else, away from the labour of the fields or the depredations of the road.
St Leonard’s is also covered in graffiti.
The majority of the graffiti at St Leonard’s comprise simple scratched symbols – crosses, circles and daisy wheels. While the meaning of these symbols is the subject of constant debate (although Matthew Champion’s ‘Medieval Graffiti‘ is a fantastic guide), we can be reasonably sure that they were apotropaic in nature – that is to say, an attempt to ward off evil or ensure good favour in whatever endeavours the medieval and Elizabethan congregations busied themselves with.
There are other treasures at St Leonard’s. The Saunders monument, erected in 1690, is a tearjerker of a memorial to the local landed family, five of whose children died in infancy. A sixth stands, hand outstretched to their deceased siblings. It exudes a mourful baroque theatricality.
Perhaps my favourite treasure at St Leonard’s is one that you might never come across unless you were told about it. In the North Aisle, hidden behind a Mother’s Union banner, lies a little alcove. Inside the alcove can be found a small wooden figure.
In church materials the figure is identified as Mary and is German in manufacture, dating from the early sixteenth century. While the provenance and movements of the object is mostly lost to the centuries, it is clear that this is something brought back from the Continent, most probably on return from pilgrimage.
At this church, located on a busy road, it seems only right that it has something of the road within it. It is a token of travels far across a world that must have seemed so tremendously big to the St Leonard’s congregation.
There are many coincidences in my life, too many to mention. I can’t count the number of times I have walked into long lost friends, thousands of miles away from where we grew up. The same numbers, symbols and images are thrown up in my life time and time again. Most of the time I put these coincidences down to chance moments of synchronicity in a vast, random universe. At other times, I feel I almost get a glimpse of something else, something bigger than pure chance.
Finding this little token of a pilgrimage on display in a small country church, having survived centuries of religious strife and persecution, seems to me to be an example of the latter.
With this in mind, I look forward to seeing where my path takes me next.