Ecclesiastical - The Foundation of Holy Cross


Although 1190 is regarded as the date when the present church building was founded, Jesus Christ had been worshipped in the hamlet of Sarratt long before then, probably on the same site.

Most Norman brick and stone churches replaced smaller wooden Saxon field-churches or chapels, without leaving trace of the latter, and there is no reason to suppose that Sarratt was an exception (there is a report of 1866 suggesting that a church was erected in the 11th century). Moreover, the site, within the cluster of domestic dwellings that comprised the hamlet, was a prominent ridge position and the name `Holy Cross` could well indicate that originally a cross stood there as the first public sign of a Christian presence. It was common practice in England from about 800 to erect a cross as a high landmark, manorial boundary, or place of worship. Not only is the Sarratt site very close to a manorial and county boundary but also is said to have once been a focus for pagan worship; if so, a cross could have represented a Christian claim to the ground. The area around a cross was a place of sanctity where travelling priests or monks would teach, celebrate mass and baptise converts.

Alternatively, the name of Holy Cross might not have been applied until the Norman church was built, influenced possibly by the prominent cross on Crusaders` uniforms in their popular struggles against Islam, for it was in July 1190 that Richard I set out on the 3rd crusade, one that fired the nation`s imagination more than any other.

The likelihood of there having been a Saxon cross and/or chapel derives from the fact that Christianity had been established in the west of the county for about 100 years before the hamlet was first settled in the 8th century. Accordingly people needed a local place of worship. Kings of Mercia had granted to St Albans Monastery a number of manors - including Sarratt in 796 - covering what then was a densely forested area. In about 948 the first three `parish districts` on the monastery`s estate were created, that nearest to Sarratt being St Michael`s, just outside St Albans. The three parish churches depended on the monastery and were served by monks, some travelling round the parishes ministering to isolated populations such as Sarratt, and conducting services. Although monks must have been active earlier, the first reference to them in Sarratt is 1100, with a cell, founded by the monastery, known to have existed by about 1150. A cell was a monk`s base: a small, rough structure typically made of branches and trees wattled together.

It was not until about 1050 that the monastery authorised a systematic clearance of the forest. A short time later William I stipulated that a church must be built in every place with a population of at least 100. Although Sarratt was not included in the Domesday Book of 1087 settlement generally increased and early in the 12th century the district of St Michael`s was sub-divided. New parishes in Rickmansworth and Watford were created, with Sarratt and its environs probably part of the latter. The 11th and 12th centuries were a time of intensive building of churches, usually by a lay person and typically adjacent to a manor house.

It is not known when Sarratt became an ecclesiastical parish, though its manor was one of those that comprised the Liberty of St Albans, set up in 1161 by papal statute. In 1163 the abbot, who was a bishop with the right to appoint the archdeacon of St Albans, was exempted with his dependent manors from control by the diocesan bishop, by then residing in Lincoln.

Soon, Sarratt had its own permanent church building, probably built on his own land by a lord, perhaps living in neighbouring Goldingtons, and given to the abbey as a sign of the new spirit of the age. It was an unpretentious cruciform building, with only a small chancel and nave, lacking foundations and a tower, although probably there would have been a tiny wooden turret containing a single bell to drive away devils and summon the people to service. A permanent church enabled Sarratt to become a separate parish, although there was no correlation between parochial and manorial boundaries.

The present church building`s foundation date of 1190 derives from a leaflet by Gilbert Ryley, a former rector. In it he mentions the lord of the manor `about 1190 erecting a house of prayer.` Compatible with this is the Victoria History of Hertfordshire which states that `there is nothing in the architectural features to suggest a date earlier than the last decade of the 12th century, to which time... the main part of the fabric seems to belong`. That such a comparatively large church should be built for the small community is unremarkable: agriculture had prospered during the 12th century and God was a dominant influence in people`s lives.
Much of the historical material included in these sections has been obtained from: Sarratt: Historical Aspects of a Parish and its Church, published in 1990.

Other sources include the Victoria County History of Hertfordshire; A History of Hertfordshire by John Edwin Cussans, 1870; Social History of England by Asa Briggs; and The History and Antquities of the County of Hertford by Clutterbuck..