The Friends of St James the Great, Thorley

The scallop badge of St James the Great

The scallop badge of St James originated in Santiago de Compostella in Northern Spain.
It became the emblem of pilgrims in the Middle Ages.



12th Century 13th Century 14th Century 15th Century 16th Century

17th Century 18th Century 19th Century 20th Century


Further Illustrations

Additional Information



St James during the Reformation


This guide to St. James the Great, Thorley is designed as a series of descriptive cameos to encourage the onlooker to wander and to wonder how this historic parish church developed over nearly 1000 years. The guide is not intended to be a comprehensive history, but rather a straightforward account of a few of the many fascinating features set within their historical context. Few churches can boast two Queen Elizabeths as patrons for two of their Rectors, an inscription with a reference to the Koran and a stained glass window containing the star of David. 

The compiling of this guide has been a co-operative effort and I therefore gratefully acknowledge the valuable advice and assistance of many people for their help.

W.F.N. Hardy, B.A.(Hons.)

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12th Century

 The  Norman doorway in the south porch with its double arch containing prominent 'dog tooth' carvings

Our historical trail starts outside the southern doorway with a fine strong example of Norman architecture. The classic double 'dog tooth' zig-zags of the decorated arch, supported by simple, cable columns, indicate an early Norman building. The Norman landowner responsible for rebuilding an Anglo-Saxon structure was probably Geoffrey de Magnaville. William of Normandy granted him the manorial rights of Thorley (Torlei) in 1086 - no doubt the fortunes of war following the Norman Conquest.


The Norman font

The marble font, of the same 12th Century period proved big enough for its original use - the complete immersion of the infant child during baptism. It was later discarded from the church - possibly during Cromwell's puritan purges - and used as a drinking trough in a local farmyard. In 1855 this ancient font was restored to its present situation complete with a new base and cover.

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13th Century

By standing at the font and facing east towards the altar the original shape of the 13th Century church can be seen. This would have been a rectangular hall with an arch and screen segregating the priest from the people, the chancel from the nave. The original roof would have been wooden protected outside with thatch and run at the same level over the nave and chancel. In the right light a shadow line of the original lower nave roof can be made out above the chancel arch.

The lancet window in north wall of nave with glass in memory of Mary Ann Fowler of Thorley Hall who died in 1864

 The narrow lancet windows in the nave and the chancel are the oldest in the church. These splayed windows slope inward so as to let in maximum light. As glass was so expensive in the 13th Century, the lancet windows would have been covered with parchment or oiled linen as a protection against the inclement weather. The stained glass in these windows is a later 19th Century improvement.

It is interesting to speculate whether this Early English 13th Century replacement for the Norman church was built in two distinct stages. The piscina or holy washing basin, set into the east end of the south wall of the nave suggests that an altar or chapel was originally located in this corner. With the growing influence at this time of the clergy, their more elaborate services and an increasing population, more room would be needed. The chancel could therefore have been built as a second stage extension in the latter part of the 13th Century with the nave altar relocated within this enlarged separate chancel and sanctuary. 

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14th Century

Thorley in the early 14th Century was a relatively affluent settlement being a neighbouring parish to the important and prosperous market town of Bishop's Stortford. This period saw another necessary enlargement of the parish church. The roof level of the nave was raised and wider windows incorporated. The nave in these mediaeval times had many uses apart from those of worship. As the village hall it would have been used as a centre for meetings, market transactions and storage purposes. The separation from the chancel, however, would have been quite obviously emphasised by a wooden screen with a heavy cross above. There would also have been locked doors to this rood screen to keep out animals as well as people. The screen would be strong enough to support a balcony with access from the small side door in the north wall, up the staircase to an upper door. The impressions of the fixings for this large screen to the chancel arch can still be made out by the indentations in the plaster around the chancel arch. This spiritual and physical barrier between the priest and his people would have been removed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and thereby opened up the church services to all.

The triple stepped sedilia or priests' seats in the chancel


Moving through the now open arch into the chancel other 14th Century alterations become apparent. The higher chancel arch supported by slender piers symbolises the enlarged church as required for the increasing population. Recessed into the south wall of the chancel is the remarkable feature of a three seat sedilia. These stone seats of varying heights were allocated to priest, deacon and sub-deacon according to rank. A later piscina is also set into the wall alongside the sedilia.

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15th Century

Around the turn of the next century, the 15th Century, Thorley Manor acquired one of its most illustrious Lords, Sir Richard Whittington. As the legendary Dick Whittington, three times Lord Mayor of London, he made most of his fortune lending money in the City of London. His name, however, now lives on at Richard Whittington School and on Whittington Way. Popular folk lore likes to adopt the successive cats that frequent the church as the local descendant of Dick's famous cat!

The west end of the church - the upper stage contains the belfry

No doubt like most communities in the middle of the 14th Century, Thorley suffered ravages from the infamous Black Death and so it would not be until the 15th Century that the village would be able or would require to add to its parish church. The most prominent feature added at this time is the church tower, built in the Perpendicular style. The evidence that church towers were still thought of as defensive locations is shown by the ornamental battlements and the extra height provided by successive storeys. Thorley's design of tower with a thin eight sided spire or spike rising direct from the tower is a church feature peculiar to Hertfordshire. Other ornaments of this Perpendicular-Gothic period style may be seen at several levels on the tower on the drip stones over the arches. These stone reliefs protect the windows and doors by throwing the rainwater off the mouldings. The carved ends or corbels of the tower drip stones have characters which give an added personal interest. The use of the top of the tower as a vantage point has a modern significance. It was used in the Second World War as a look-out place to watch for the night-flying Lysander aircraft returning to Sawbridgeworth airfield at Allen's Green less than two miles away.

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16th Century

The written records of the church date from 1539. This was only one year after Henry VIII decreed that each parish should keep registers to record weekly details of baptisms, weddings and burials. Our records are housed in the County Record Office in Hertford, protected in surroundings which ensure that the fragile materials, on which hundreds of personal details are preserved, will not deteriorate.

 On public view in the church is the record of successive Rectors, who have been responsible for the parish since 1327. This list, a copy of which is to be found on an oak panel inside the base of the bell tower, contains two entries which together may constitute a unique ecclesiastical record. At the time of the appointment of two of the incumbents the responsible Bishop's See was vacant, so two Rectors have as their patron Queen Elizabeth. In 1594 the Reverend Francis Burley's appointment was signed by Queen Elizabeth I, and then more recently, the Reverend Alan Cole was appointed under the patronage of Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth II as the then Bishop of St. Albans, the Rt. Rev. Robert Runcie, had been translated to the Archbishopric of Canterbury.

 Two Rectors on the roll deserve further mention as they attained a wider 'national' reputation beyond our small parish of Thorley. Francis Burley is credited as being one of the translators of the King James' Authorised Version of the Bible in 1611. Samuel Horsley, after a short time in the living at St. James the Great, Thorley, went on rapidly to appointments at St. Albans and St. Paul's Cathedral, and from there to become Bishop of St. David's, Rochester and St. Asaph's, North Wales. Samuel Horsley and his father, John, who was Rector from 1745 - 77, have memorials on the north wall of the chancel.

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17th Century

The substantial tower with walls at least three feet thick has been used since the seventeenth century as a belfry. St. James now has six bells each with its own inscription. The oldest is the Number 6, tenor, 8cwt. 2qrs. and dated 1628 with "God Save the King" (King Charles 1) inscribed. The most recent is the Number 1, treble, 3cwt. 2qrs. with the inscription "In memory of Laurie and Maud Frere of Twyford House, Thorley given by their daughter Beryl Laurie Frere 1946".

In the middle ages, bells would have had many uses apart from summoning the parishioners to worship. The curfew bell, or 'couvre feu' bell, was rung in the evening to remind the local population to put out their house fires as a safety precaution. A bell could be used as a public clock as the sound would travel widely from such a prominent landmark. At harvest time the gleaning bell was rung at 8 o'clock in the morning and then at 6 o'clock in the evening to indicate the daily period when gleanings from the corn left by reapers could be legally gathered. Nowadays, besides the regular ringing on Sundays and at weddings, special notable occasions are commemorated by special changes. These celebrations are remembered on plaques in the ringing room in the tower. Two recent occasions were the Silver Jubilee of her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 7th June, 1977 and In Memoriam of Sir Winston Churchill, 30th January, 1965.

Situated in the churchyard beyond the south porch is a symbol of immortality, an ancient yew tree. It has been dated as being at least a thousand years old. Poisonous yews act as a deterrent to cattle straying on to the sacred burial grounds surrounding the church. King Edward 1 (1272 - 1307) decreed that yew trees should be planted in churchyards to protect church buildings from storms. He may also have had in mind the ideal use of the yew's wood for making longbows, to equip the growing armies of the Middle Ages. 

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18th Century

By the 18th Century sermons were playing an increasingly longer part in a church service so benches, pews and 'horse-box' pews became necessary to support the long-suffering congregation. Prior to this the only benches that existed would be placed against the side walls of the nave. These were reserved for the old and the infirm and hence the expression 'the weakest to the wall'. There is no obvious evidence of the 18th Century seating arrangements at St. James before the present furniture which is Victorian. We may presume that the Lords of the Manor and other landowners would have had their own personal family pews and benches towards the back of the nave. It is also likely that, being a country church, space would have been left at the back of the church reserved for the shepherds with their dogs.

A possibly unique example of a pair of gravestones erected to successive tenants of Thorley Hall by successive landlords

 The earliest memorials in the churchyard date from the 18th Century. To the right of the south porch are two ancient gravestones which were erected to tenants by their landlords - a most generous 18th Century gesture. Like most churchyards, the shape of the burial ground is lopsided with most of its area lying to the south and west of the church. There was a long-held prejudice against being buried on the sunless north side. At one time, when the churchyard was not so full of graves, an area would have been available for village fairs and archery contests. To accommodate the wishes of parishioners who chose to be buried at St. James the churchyard has had to be extended twice in the past 100 years, in 1888 and 1946. Today the Parochial Church Council has entrusted the tending of the churchyard to the Friends of St. James. New members and other volunteers are always welcomed to help maintain this large area in the respectful manner which it deserves.

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19th Century

The 19th Century saw many changes to the overall fabric of the church that are still obvious today. Substantial restoration took place in 1855 consisting of rebuilding many crumbling walls, providing new stonework around windows and a complete new roof over the chancel and nave - the thatched roof had been burnt down in 1832. The whole floor was repaved and the nave and chancel provided with new seating. At the same time the vestry and the south porch were added. The cost of these very necessary repairs and additions were largely borne by the Lord of the Manor, Lord Ellenborough and by Mr. B.J.L. Frere of Twyford House, whose family have continued to endow the church for over a hundred years.

 The church is rich in stained glass windows all dating from the latter half of the 19th Century. Various benefactors have seen fit to remember members of their families in this colourful way. All these windows depict biblical scenes and trying to make out their inscriptions is an interesting exercise. The east window deserves a special mention as old photographs exist showing a window with five lights or divisions. This was replaced by the present one with its three lights in 1868, presumably to allow more light into a somewhat dark sanctuary and chancel.

 The stone Reredos that extends across the east wall behind the altar was erected by grateful parishioners in memory of the Reverend Frederick Vander-Meulen, Rector 1853 - 1882. It was during his incumbency that the valuable outside restoration work, interior refurbishment and necessary additions were completed to ensure the sound structure and shape of the church that is apparent now.

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20th Century

The Lychgate at the north-east corner of the churchyard

Perhaps the most attractive addition to the church in the twentieth century was the Lychgate. This was erected in 1921 in memory of John Matthias Proctor who was Rector from 1883 - 1909 - only the third Rector of St. James the Great in a period spanning over a hundred years. This fine example of a roofed main gateway was built in a much older style that served a most practical purpose. 'Lychgate' is the old English for 'corpse-gate' and so called because the priest used to meet all funerals at the gateway to the churchyard and so the wide Seats provided a waiting place for the coffin bearers.

Twentieth century parishioners more than fulfilled their responsibilities in maintaining their 800 year old church. The century witnessed a succession of necessary repairs, replacements and improvements such as replacing the old lamps with electric lights (1947), installing an oil-fired central heating system (1957), renewing the roof (1959), the floor (1962) and the wobbly spire (1966). The organ had at least two renovations, in 1964 and 1981. The outside stonework had continual attention particularly the west door in 1976.

Our church should not be regarded only as a memorial to the heritage of the past. It has to serve as the living, spiritual focal point for the expanding parish of Thorley. Parishioners who lost their lives in the century's two World Wars are remembered on the war memorials inside the church and similarly, tended graves outside are indications that loved ones are not forgotten. As well as the regular church services, christenings and marriage ceremonies will ensure that parishioners will worship here and so continue to proclaim the Christian message from their historic building.

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The conclusion of this guided tour through the nine centuries of history of Thorley church strangely leads back beyond its starting point in the 12th Century. When the foundations for the flint wall on the northern boundary were being excavated in 1986, pieces of Roman pottery were found which dated back to the 2nd and 4th Centuries A.D. Obviously this prominent hilltop site has had a settlement here with, likely as not, a centre of worship, not just for 800 years of recorded history, but for at least 2,000 years!

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