Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, Part III

Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire

Part III:  A look around town

This is the last of three parts dealing with Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire.

St Peter’s Church from Castle Street

St Peter’s Church

I made my way back to the High Street along Castle Street, the original access route to the castle.  It used to end at the South Gate, the main entrance to the castle.  However, both the gate and the moat in that part were knocked down to make place for the railway in the 19th century.

I walked past Berkhamsted School to St Peter’s Church, at the corner of Castle Street and the High Street.

There are indications that an earlier parish church dedicated to St James existed, though this was probably located St. John’s Well Lane.  The annual fair was held on the feast day of James (25 July).

In the early 13th century, St Peter’s was founded, probably by Geoffrey Fitz Piers (see Part I). Once it was completed, it was the second largest parish church in Hertfordshire, reflecting the status and prosperity of the town which was growing since Henry II’s charter of 1156.  (The largest church seems to be All Saints’ in Hertford, if we leave out St Albans Cathedral, which after all was also a parish church for part of its long life.)

St Peter’s was dedicated in 1222, which makes it the oldest surviving building in the town.  It is thought that at that time the church consisted of a chancel, central tower, transepts and a long nave, though no aisles yet.  Some of the tower piers bear mason’s marks, which resemble those on stonework in St Alban’s Abbey, which are from approx. the same time.  A few of the original 13th century windows survive, but most are from the 14th century or Victorian.

Nave of St Peter’s Church

From Geoffrey Fitz Piers onwards, the rich patronage by the occupants of the castle played an important role for St Peter’s.  This was particularly obvious when Cecily held Berkhamsted Castle as well as the advowson of this parish church.  The arms of both Cecily and her husband are included in windows, hers are in the west window of the north aisle and her husband’s in the Lady Chapel.

Cecily stipulated in her will that she wished to be buried next to her “moost entierly best beloved” husband at Fotheringhay and she got her wish.  However, she did not forget St Peter’s in her will, and left the church a very valuable cope: “Also I geve to the parishe church of Much Barkehampstede a coope of blewe bawdekyn, the orffreys embrawdered”.[i]  Translated into modern English:  I give to the parish church of Great Berkhamsted a cope of blue baldachin with embroidered orphreys (front facings).  Baldachin is a fabric woven of silk and metal thread; a rich brocade.[ii]

Burials in St Peter’s Church

Robert and Katherine Incent

Throughout the church there are a number of brasses and tombs, some going back to the 14th century.  In the context of visiting Richard III’s mum, those of Robert and Katherine Incent are of particular interest, now mounted on a pillar in St John’s Chapel.  As already mentioned, Robert Incent was Cecily of York’s secretary.  He came from one of the most prestigious local families, which has been linked to Henry of Berkhamsted (see Part II).

Above Robert’s brass is a plaque with the text:

Here lyeth buryed und thys stone the body of Robert Incent Gentylman late svant unto the Noble pryncess lady Cecyle duchesse of Yorke & mother unto the worthy kyng Edward and Richard the thyrde whych sayd Robert dyed of the grete swetyng sykeness the first yere of the reygne of kyng Henry the VII upon whose sowlys Jhu have mercy amen.

In modernised spelling:

Here lies buried under this stone the body of Robert Incent, gentleman, late servant to the noble Princess Cecily, duchess of York & mother to the worthy king Edward IV and Richard the third, which said Robert died of the great sweating sickness the first years of the reign of King Henry VII, upon whose soul Jesus have mercy. Amen.

Let’s have a look at what this plaque tells us.  It explains that Robert died of the sweating sickness in the first year of Henry VII’s reign.  Henry VII began in 1485, this disease first appeared in England in the summer of that year but disappeared when winter came.[iii]  Robert therefore died in the autumn of that year.

The plaque was only installed several years after his death, probably only during Henry VIII’s reign, as the style is identical to the plaque for his wife, who survived him for 36 years.   Clearly even then, Cecily was remembered with fondness and a lot of respect, as Robert’s service to her was regarded as the most important aspect of his life.  The loss of Cecily’s patronage probably continued to be keenly felt in Berkhamsted, where her death led to a gradual economic decline in the early 15th century.

While it is interesting that Richard III gets a mention at all, so long after losing his crown to Henry VII, Joanna Laynesmith draws our attention to an even more intriguing detail.  Generally, sources transcribe the plaque as “mother to the worthy king Edward IV and Richard the third” [emphasis mine].  This would mean that Edward IV, who was after all the grandfather of Henry VIII, was a “worthy king”, while Richard III was just mentioned in passing.  However, the word “king” ends in a curious little swirl, which could be interpreted as an abbreviation for ‘s’.  If the word was indeed the plural “kings”, that would mean that the Incent descendants regarded not only Edward IV as worthy, but Richard III too.  Laynesmith speculates that this lack of clarity might very well have been deliberate.  After all, during the Tudor reign it was courageous enough to be proud of your service to the mother of Richard III, but to openly declare him a “worthy king” would have been very brave indeed.

The word “king” with the curious swirl

Next to Robert’s brass is the one of his wife Katherine, who died in March 1521.   Her inscription does not contain any reference to the house of York, but shows her pride in her son:

Here lyeth buryed und thys stone the bodye of Kateryne sumtyme the wife of Robert Incent, gent father and mother unto John Incent docto of ye lawe who hath done many benyfyt & ornament given unto thys chapell of Saynt John whyche sayd Kateryne dyed the XI day of Marche ye XII yere of the reygne of kyng Henry the VIII.

In modernised spelling:

Here lies under this stone the body of Katherine, sometime wife of Robert Incent, gent, father and mother unto John Incent, doctor of the law, who has done many benefit & ornament given unto this chapel of Saint John, which said Katherine died the 12th day of March the 12th years of the reign of king Henry the VIII.

Henry of Berkhamsted

Another tomb worth mentioning is one thought to be of Henry of Berkhamsted, the Black Prince’s constable of the castle (see Part II).  The tomb is made out of Tottenham Stone and dates to c.1375.  On top is the figure of a knight in full armour.  Next to him is a woman in an elegant dress.  The inscription is missing, so it is not certain whether this is indeed the tomb of Henry and his wife.  Its design is similar to that of the Black Prince in Canterbury Cathedral. Along the base are crests of the Incent and Torrington families, indicating that either he or his wife were related to the family of Cecily’s faithful secretary.[iv]

Richard and Margaret Torrington

The Torringtons were another important local family.  In the church there is the brass of Richard and Margaret Torrington, which dates from c. 1356.   There is another link to the Incent family.  Their coat of arms is shown above her, so Margaret was probably a member of that family.  Her husband Richard might have been involved in the 14th century building work at St Peter’s, as it is known that up to the 19th century the building and especially the corbels supporting the nave roof were decorated with the Torrington arms.

Berkhamsted School

Robert and Katherine Incent had a son, John[v], who was probably born in 1480.  That means he would have been only 5 years old when his father died.  He might have first been educated by the clerics in Cecily’s household.  He then went on to study at Cambridge.  He then became a fellow of All Souls’, Oxford and eventually received the degree of Doctor of Civil Law. In 1519, he became canon and prebendary of St Paul’s Cathedral, where he was elevated to dean in 1540.

The most interesting detail of his life is that he was allegedly involved in the murder of a Robert Packington in 1536.  This is at least the accusation made against him by John Foxe approx. 30 years later,[vi] though there is no supporting evidence.  In the tumultuous religious situation of that time, Foxe and Incent were on opposite sides.  Foxe was very progressive, while Incent was more conservative, though by all accounts also prepared to compromise.   In Berkhamsted though, he is best remembered as the founder of the already mentioned school.

The two hospitals founded by Geoffrey Fitz Piers seem to have merged by c.1500 and had voluntarily closed in 1515/16.  The members of the local brotherhood of St John the Baptist, led by their president John Incent, agreed to use the money they had previously donated to the hospitals to pay off the London foundation and to start a school instead.

The aim of the school was to provide a free education.  John gave land of his own to endow the school.  His mother had made a donation to the scheme in 1518 and also left money to it when she died in 1521.  Queen Catherine of Aragon had also contributed, presumably while holding Berkhamsted Castle.  The school began in 1523, probably in the old hospital buildings, though these were not in good repair.

Berkhamsted School

In 1541, John received a licence from the king (Henry VIII) to found a chantry in St Peter’s Church and to build a new schoolhouse.  The new school building was finished in 1544. The main building was an open hall.  Its crown-post roof still survives.  The school is situated on Castle Street, just next to St Peter’s Church.   The chantry is St John’s Chapel, where his parents’ brasses are. As we have seen, his mother’s plaque praises him for “many benefit & ornament” he did for the chapel.  It also served for many years as the school chapel, until the one in the school grounds was built in 1894/95, in Tudor style.

John Incent died just one year after the new building was opened.  As he did not leave a will, a second Act of Foundation was passed in 1547, which named Edward VI as the founder.  This had the benefit that the school now had royal protection.  It is said that John was also buried in his chantry.

129 High Street

Opposite from the church, in a prominent position is another building connected to the Incent family.  No. 129 High Street is a half-timbered building with a sign saying that this was Dean Incent’s house.   Actually, the house had already belonged to John’s parents, Robert and Katherine Incent, their son might have been born there.

Incent Family House

The south-west wing is the oldest part of the house.  Tests confirmed that this part dates from the 15th century, i.e. the time of Robert and Katherine.  The original building might have extended to the street.  The present frontage, however, only dates from the late 16th century, after John Incent’s time.

Along the High Street

As I walked along the High Street back to my car, I saw several other buildings of note, though they don’t have a connection to Cecily Neville, even if only in a roundabout way.

The Old Court House

Old Court House

Right next to St Peter’s Church, a bit back from the High Street, on Church Lane, is the Old Court House.  The building dates from the 16th century, but it is thought that it is in the same site where from medieval times the Borough Court was held.  The ground floor is built of red brick, whereas the first floor is half-timbered. [vii]

107 High Street

A plaque on No. 107 The High Street informs the passer-by that it had been the home of Clementine Churchill, nee Hozier, wife of Winston Churchill, when she attended Berkhamsted School for Girls from 1900 to 1903.  The girls’ school was amalgamated with the boys’ school, founded by John Incent, in 1997.

173 High Street

While walking along the High Street, it’s easy to overlook no. 173.  The pretty, but otherwise unremarkable 19th-century shop front does not stand out among the far grander buildings.   Dendrochronological tests of timber structures revealed that the timber dates from the late 13th century.  The structures seem to have belonged to a domestic aisled hall. This means it is the oldest urban building which has so far been discovered in Britain.  It must have belonged to someone quite wealthy.  As the most important trade in Berkhamsted was the wool trade, it is likely that it was the residence of a wool merchant.

Old Town Hall

Across the street stands the Old Town Hall[viii], which with its Gothic-style frontage is certainly eye-catching. It was built in 1859 and extended 1888-90. Its architect was Edward Buckton Lamb.  It is also known as the Market House, as it replaced a Tudor market house, which burnt down in 1854.   This earlier building had been nearer St Peter’s Church on the same side of the High Street.

Market House

By the 1970s, the present building had become derelict and might even have been demolished, if it hadn’t been for three 16-year-old schoolboys.  They formed a Rescue and Action Group, initially to stop further deterioration of the building.  In the end it was due to this group that the building was saved and restored so that it could be used again.

Before my parking ticket ran out, I still had enough time for my coffee, in a nice café in the High Street.  Unfortunately, Cecily was unable to join me.  This might have had something to do with the fact that I was more than 500 years late!


[i] Nichols, J.G. & Bruce, J. (eds), ‘Cecily Duchess of York, 1495’, Wills from Doctor’s Commons.  A Selection from the Wills of Eminent Persons Proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury 1495-1695.  Camden Society, 1863, pp. 1-8

[ii] My thanks go to Heather Falvey for her explanation, based on the Oxford English Dictionary.

[iii] Bridson, E., ‘The English ‘sweate’ (Sudor Anglicus) and Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome’, British Journal of Biomedical Science, vol. 58, issue 1 (2001), pp. 1-6

[iv] ‘Henry of Berkhamsted’s tomb (18)’, The Parish Church of St Peter Great Berkhamsted.  URL: [last accessed 6 Dec. 2018]

[v] Marshall, P., Religious Identities in Henry VIII’s England.  Routledge, 2016

[vi] The acts and monuments of John Foxe, with a preliminary dissertation by the Rev. George Townsend, Vol. 5, ed by Stephen Reed Cattely.  London, 1838, p.250

[vii] ‘The Court House’, British Listed Buildings.  URL: [last accessed 17 Oct. 2018]

[viii] ‘A History of Berkhamsted Town Hall’, Berkhamsted Town Hall.  URL:  [last accessed 28 Nov. 2018]

Part I:  Historical background & References

Part II:  Berkhamsted Castle


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