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  • Michael Smith, printmaker, Mythical Britain

The Mediaeval Graffiti at Anstey, Hertfordshire

Image of Anstey Church in Hertfordshire

Anstey church in northern Hertfordshire is rightly famous for its graffiti, and well repays a visit. The graffiti takes a number of forms, including mediaeval helmets, shields, carved figures and hexwheels (or apotropaic) markings.

I first visited Anstey over 20 years ago; at the time, the church was in a state of some decay and much of the graffiti, though potentially threatened, was nonetheless crisp and visible as many of the stones had been untouched for centuries. Recent repairs at the church, including considerable interior washes of lime, have sadly minimised the impact of the graffiti, causing some to be barely visible.

Graffiti of Mediaeval Jousting Helmets.

There are two major helmet graffiti in the church, both of which are at the crossing in the centre of the church on the right.

Both helmets are ceremonial, rather than military, and most likely are jousting helmets, bearing significant crests with decorated lambrequins. One of the helmets features a horse crest with reins and a motif, possibly a hunting horn, on the lambrequin. A (much damaged) shield to the left of the helmet appears to repeat the horse motif.

The other helmet carries a crest in the form of a ragged staff. This crest is repeated on the lambrequin and on the accompanying shield, More of this crest was visible 20 years ago than can be seen today.

Graffiti of Heraldic Shields

The pillar featuring the two helmets also boasts an array of shields in addition to those cited above. Pritchard (English Medieval Graffiti), draws a link between them and the famous poem of the Siege of Caerlaverock.

The shields include one of a chevron between three stars (possibly John de Cretinges who served under Edwards 1 and 11). Two other shields carry the design of a Fess dancetty (jagged horizontal bar) and a Fess wavy (the same but with rounded curves). We also see the form of a shell, representing James the Great, a badge commonly worn by pilgrims.

A further shield comprises a chevron decorated with bezants between three hunting horns, next to which are three letter Ms.

Graffiti of Writing

The three Ms may well be in an invocation to Mary. On the same pillar, we see (now very faint) the words Our Ladi help. Near the font (now incredibly indistinct) are two lines of finely inscribed mediaeval words. It is hugely disappointing that recent restoration of the church involved a repainting of the pillars which has rendered features once visible now only barely seen.

Wagons and People

On the pillar opposite that of the helmets, we find two drawings of mediaeval wagons, one of which is drawn vertically, which may reflect a re-use of the stone at some stage. Here we also find a crudely drawn cross and the image of a woman's face.

Elsewhere in the church, on one of the window sills in the South wall, we find a stylised figure of a human form; in the porch, on the right hand jamb of the outer entrance, we see the form of a man, possibly from the late mediaeval period.,

The challenge of conservation

Following the recent renovation and conservation works at the church, much of the original feeling has been lost and many of the graffiti have either disappeared or been covered up. This is most unfortunate. The challenge of conservation is knowing how best to conserve features which are not immediately evident. It is hoped that future work at this wonderful church will be more thoughtful in its execution.

About the author

Michael Smith is an historian, printmaker and author, He is currently writing and illustrating a translation of the fourteenth century Alliterative Morte Arthure (King Arthur's Death). The book is being crowdfunded by the publisher Unbound; if you would like to pledge support - and have your name in the back as a patron - please click here.

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