There are many ancient and beautiful churches across the British Isles, many of which are now Anglican churches. From the time of the Reformation to the late 18th century, Catholics were not allowed to build churches. It was only until the mid and late 19th century that a number of fine Catholic churches were built in Britain, usually commissioned and paid for by wealthy individuals. Holy Rood is one of these churches, commissioned by Stephen Taprell Holland, a Hertfordshire businessman and Catholic convert.
Taprell Holland bought land on the “Rose and Crown Meadow” site at Watford and commissioned John Francis Bentley to build and furnish a church, with no expense spared. Bentley was a fine architect who was also a talented designer, capable of working in metalwork, woodwork, textiles and stained glass.
It has been described as “One of the noblest examples of the refined, knowledgeable and sensitive Gothic Revival of that time”, by Nicholas Pevsner (in his book “Buildings of England”).
The church occupies an almost square site in the centre of Watford, bounded on three sides by the roads Market Street, Percy Road and Exchange Road.
The exterior walls are finished in knapped flint facing and stone dressing (a local traditional style). The roof is finished with red tiles and lead (again, following local tradition), and the north west corner of the church contains a splendid flint tower. The church has a complex exterior, with many gables, many varied levels, differing window heights and sizes as well as contrasting stones and dark flint. These different aspects are in keeping Holy Rood’s environment, particularly its neighbour, the 14th century Anglican church of St Mary in the town centre.
Inside, the rooflines indicate a cruciform shape, in keeping with the church’s dedication to the Holy Rood (Holy Cross).
The church has two public entrances, both at the western end of the building. The main entrance opens onto Market Street while another entrance opens onto Percy Road and leads into the base of the tower.
The single feature that dominates the church is the magnificent rood loft that runs between two interior towers, across the front of the chancel. The left bears a great crucifix that rises some 6 ft (about 1.8 m) above it, with attendant figures of Our Lady and St John.
The church is not large, but is ideally proportioned with a total interior length of 98 feet (about 30 m), a third of this being the chancel. The nave is 65 feet (about 20 m) wide (including its aisles).
The church has a plain, but elegant nave, with celestory windows above arcades which continue across the trancepts. The western end of the church consists of a plain wall enclosing a huge window of twelve lights.
The nave’s south wall contains two four-light windows which produce a mellow golden light due to their tinting. The staining on the windows contains images of Old Testament figures including Jacob, Zacharias, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Moses, David, Ocee and Malachias. These windows were designed by Bentley himself, while George Daniels drew the cartoons and John Sears painted the glass.
The north trancept is larger than its twin on the south of the nave. This is because the church is extended on the north side by the choir that is to the left of the Lady Chapel. This trancept contains a commanding window that stretches tall and slim almost from floor to ceiling.
The Holy Ghost Chapel
A Pentecostal theme inspires the painting of this vaulted ceiling, being painted in deep red, adorned with golden tongues of fire.
High grade coloured marbles make the altar an arrangement of great beauty, into which is set a coloured tile panel depicting the descent of the Holy Ghost in the form of tongues of fire upon Our Lady and the Apostles. Above the altar is suspended a silver dove representing the Holy Ghost.
The north wall contains three windows and an arched recess, originally intended for Stephen Taprell Holland’s tomb. However, various changes to the law prevented this occurring and the founder is buried some distance away in the village of Aldenham.
The Baptistry is situated at the north west corner of the church, at the base of the church’s tower. At the centre is a carved column, above which is set an angel carrying a shield emblazoned with the head of John the Baptist.
The ceiling of the Baptistry is another painted barrel vault. The Baptistry also has a splendid central column and rib vaults, similar in design to a medieval chapter house (such as those at Wells or Lincoln).
The Sanctuary is often to be considered to be a focal point of Bentley’s genius within the church. A wide variety of materials, colours, textures and patterns blend into a harmonious whole, the eye being drawn to the crucified Christ on the great rood and the golden tabernacle on the altar.
The chancel is an interesting architectural feature. The whole north and south are taken up by triple arcades, supporting a gallery lit by large clear windows. Taken as a whole, it is a structure of great interest in that there seems always to be further depths and distances than first meets the eye.
The chancel is also superbly decorated. The lower arcade columns are adorned with ballflowers and have carved capitals with vine leaf and grape relief of high quality. Both sides of the chancel have notable panelling. The north side has a projecting wooden aumbry painted in gilt and deep red, decorated with golden pomegranates. On the south side there is an alcoved piscina (stone basin).
The wall above between the panelling and the gallery’s balustrade is plastered and covered in mural painting. On the north pier of the chancel is placed the fine carved wooden pulpit and sounding board (both made of oak). The pulpit rests on a stone corbel which tapers down to a carving of a squirrel among oak leaves. The church’s relics (of St Domitilla and St Constantia) and the church’s foundation stone (laid by Cardinal Manning in 1889) are both set into the pulpit.
The chancel’s south pier hosts a mural of two winged angels and forms a background to the shrine of the Sacred Heart. The statue of the shrine is considered to be a piece of considerable merit in its own right.
The chancel arch is set very high in order to allow for the height of the Rood. The Rood displays the agony and tragedy of the crucifixion but in immediate contrast, the altar and east window form a joyful statement of the triumph of the Victory of the Cross.
A single slab of red marble forms the altar frontal, edged with a pearl, gold and green mosaic. The reredos is canopied and pinnacled in typical 14th century style, with its four main panels painted with white robed angels carrying the emblems of the four evangelists.
Filling the space between the reredos and the vault is the east window, a window of seven lights. In the centre is Holy Rood surrounded by flowers representing the world, with apostles grouped right and left. Above the Rood sits Christ with rays of light beaming from his crucifixion wounds, while Our Lady kneels to his right and St Joseph is on his left.
The altar steps are of pure white marble and the sanctuary flooring is partly marble and partly encaustic tile, some of which bear Bentley’s favourite motif, a lion’s head with its tongue sticking out.
As a complete work, the chancel can be described as a celebration of Bentley’s architecture, design and his workmen’s crafts.
Chapel of St John the Evangelist
The altar of the chapel is modern and is dedicated to those who died in the two world wars. Bentley deliberately left the two chapels without altars so that the parish could involve itself in the furnishing of the church.
There are two windows in the south wall of the chapel: the nearest to the altar is concerned with the Apocalypse and the events of St. John’s life; the second window represents Jesus calling John, James and Simon from their fishing boat. The attractive tiled floor includes the curious device of armorial shields with lions rampant divided by a continuous band of blue.
The Lady Chapel
Like the St. John’s Chapel, the Lady Chapel is screened from the ambulatory by a gilded ironwork grille, this one being a particularly fine example of the blacksmith’s craft.
The modern altar has two carved panels, one on either side of the central statue of the Virgin and Child. The window, like that in St. John’s Chapel, is of three lights. In the centre light Our Lady sits enthroned with Christ the Child on her knee. The side lights carry representations of the old Testament Characters Moses, Jacob, David and Gideon. Just outside the chapel is the shrine of the Blessed Virgin.
This then is the church that Stephen Taprell Holland gave and John Francis Bentley built. Holland lies buried at Aldenham, Bentley at Mortlanke, but of both men it might be said in Holy Rood, as it is said of Wren at St. Pauls, “If you seek of my memorial look around you”.
(Adapted from “Church Of The Holy Rood, Watford. A History and Description of the Church” by R. Bennett and J.E. Wright, 1989, ISBN 0-9515046-0-6)