The pattern of history has determined that the vast legacy of ancient and beautiful churches in England should, with rare exception, serve the Protestant and not the Catholic community. These churches were a product of the wealth and devotion of the nation and endowed with the care and benefactions of generations, but were denied to Roman Catholics from the time of the Reformation. When, in the late 18th century, Roman Catholics in the United Kingdom were allowed by law once again to build churches, they were few in number, a fragment of the total community, and for the most part poor. The churches they built reflected their means and not many had aesthetic or architectural merit.
The spiritual value of the Mass is, of course, totally independent of its surroundings and Catholics were glad enough to be able freely to attend Mass; they did not worry much about the buildings. But they were deprived of a great deal. For over 1500 years Christendom had sought to honour God by giving of its best to the design and adornment of the churches in which He was worshipped. Throughout Europe Christians attend divine service in churches which have seen the worship of generations and contain material evidence of the faith, art and history of their community. The cultural value of this is immense, and as the number of Catholics in England increased so also grew the instinct to provide church buildings in the tradition of the past. In the mid and late 19th century several fine Catholic churches were built, some of them commissioned and paid for by wealthy individuals. e.g., the churches at Arundel, Norwich and Cheadle. In this category too is Watford’s Holy Rood.
In 1888 Mr. Stephen Taprell Holland, a Hertfordshire businessman converted to Catholicism, bought land on the Rose & Crown meadow site at Watford and commissioned John Francis Bentley to build and furnish a church with no expense spared. The man was worthy of the commission. Not only was Bentley a talented architect, he was a gifted designer of metalwork, woodwork, stained glass and textiles. Aged 50 and at the peak of his career, the commission enabled him to give free rein to his genius and to employ craftsmen capable of giving full expression to his superb sense of design and colour.
Holy Rood remains today very close to what Bentley meant it to be. Sir Nicolaus Pevsner, author of the incomparable “Buildings of England”, calls it “One of the noblest examples of the refined, knowledgeable and sensitive Gothic Revival of that time.” The architectural writer H. S. Goodheart-Rendell thought that Holy Rood had a strong claim to be considered the most lovely church that the 19th century gave to England.