We have a beautiful and historic building, and our nave shows a good example of Saxon “long and short stonework”. We have six historic bells, including the oldest ringing bell in Hertfordshire which dates back to 1350.
St. Mary The Virgin, Westmill
The current parish of Westmill is a merger of the medieval parishes of Westmill and Wakeley. Wakeley is a lost medieval village, which had its own church prior to the Reformation. Westmill was mentioned in the Domesday Book as having a church and a priest. The church mentioned is probably the church that still stands today!
The nave of the current building has distinctive Saxon long and short stonework on the South-East corner. Only two churches in the whole of Hertfordshire have this distinctive construction – Westmill and Reed (which is just up the A10).
The proportions of the nave are typically Saxon. This is evident from its height and the thickness of the pillars on the medieval north aisle. (This would have once been part of the original north wall). The chancel is also of a Saxon layout and so may also be Saxon.
The building materials used at Westmill
The Saxon Long and Short stones are “Barnack Stone” from Lincolnshire, which was popular with the Romans. In medieval times it was used to build the great abbeys at Peterborough, Crowland, Ramsey, Sawtry, and Bury St Edmunds. Barnack stone was also used in building Peterborough and Ely cathedrals.
We don’t know whether the stone was brought here when the church was built, although that seems given that Westmill was neither a major nor a rich settlement, it is more likely that the church came first followed by the village.
It is more probable that, as with St Alban’s abbey, the stone was taken from a local ruined Roman building. (There is also Roman brick in the East gable). Thus far, no Roman building has yet been found in Westmill. It may be that the church replaced a pagan Roman Temple on the same spot and that those original Roman materials were used for the rebuild.
Later phases of building
The oak roof timbers in the church are medieval and the North Aisle was added around 1190. The tower is probably 15th Century. However, if that is the case, at least one of the bells predates the present tower! Westmill has six bells including two of the oldest bells in Hertfordshire. The oldest bell still used for ringing in the county was cast in 1350 and the other is either 14th or 15th century.
Mounted on a wall near the font is one of the oldest surviving gravestones in Hertfordshire, dating to the 13th century.
Westmill at the time of the Reformation
At the Reformation, when the Church of England broke away from Rome, it appears that the gentry of Westmill sided with the Roman Catholics. The font is roughly incised with Roman Catholic Recusant graffiti of an intertwined VV, and there is a priest’s hole in the village.
Two less well-off local families were however Puritan. The Richardsons and Wymans emigrated to Massachusetts in the early Seventeenth Century. US President Herbert Hoover traced his ancestry back to these families from Westmill.
Some Nineteenth Century Events
At the beginning of the 19th Century, the 4th Duke of Roxburgh and his son and heir lived in a garrett in what is now the Sword inn Hand Pub next door. Sadly the Duke, his son, and daughter all died here of smallpox. They are buried underneath the altar at the front of the church. The Greg family, who owned Quarry Bank Mill in Styal, Cheshire had their London seat here at Coles Park. Several members of the family are buried or commemorated in the church and churchyard.
In July 1800 an army officer was on his way from London to Cambridge down what is now the A10 with money to pay the troops encamped at Newmarket. His post chaise was stopped by two highwaymen. One, placing his pistol in the window said: “I thought you said you wouldn’t be robbed”. The officer replied: “I would not now if it wasn’t for that fellow looking over your shoulder”. The man turned and was shot dead at once; this was the last highwayman to be killed whilst committing highway robbery.
His body was buried on the north side of the churchyard in an unmarked plot. The local tradition is that a fortnight after the internment a lady whom no-one knew, young, beautiful and richly attired – accompanied by two servants who by their manner and conversation seemed to be gentlemen in disguise – bribed the sextant to exhume the corpse. When the coffin was opened, they recognised the deceased, and quickly departed, giving no clue as to who they or the deceased were.