The material usually employed in the construction of the churches of this county, was the stone drawn from the quarries of Totternhoe, (a village in the southern part of Bedfordshire;) it is of soft quality, admirably adapted for all purposes of carving and internal decoration, but, as offering little resistance to the weather, its substance quickly perishes when applied to external uses; hence there is generally in this district an absence of that out side grandeur and elegance of form which meets the eye in other localities, though within there is no deficiency either in features of interest, or beauty of detail and execution.
Among the most ancient churches in this county is that of Clapham, supposed by Mr. Rickman to be anterior to the period of the Norman Conquest, and a small portion of St. Peter’s, Bedford; among those which exhibit portions of Norman work, the most rich and considerable are the remains of the priory church of Dunstable, and the eastern portion of Elstow, which probably terminated originally in an apse; Meppershall is a specimen of a Norman cross church, though altered in subsequent times; and in various others there occur arches and doorways assignable to this era. As examples of Transition from the Norman to the Early English style may be noticed the northern side of the nave of Harold, and some portions of Elstow.
In the next style, the Early English, we have in Felmersham a most rich and perfect specimen of a cruciform church, of a character seldom surpassed; of the same period are also the south aisle and most elegant doorway and door of Turvey, the nave of Eaton Bray, some portions of Keysoe, Pertenhall, Tillbrook, and Arlesey.
Many churches may be assigned to the period between the decline of the Early English and the establishment of the Decorated styles, such as the nave-arches of St. Paul’s at Bedford, of Wootton, Carlton, Oakley, Stevington, &c, combining details of both styles, which renders it often difficult to say to which style they belong.
Of pure Decorated churches, the most complete and rich are Yielden and Wymington; Salford has also many curious portions; Higham Gobion is a simple Decorated chapel; and amongst others, Houghton Regis, Tilsworth, Sutton, and some parts of Luton, present good examples.
Of the Transition from Decorated to Perpendicular, Shillington is a fine and interesting specimen.
The Perpendicular churches are very good; among the most considerable are Colmworth, Tingrith, Marston Moretaine. Sandy is a cruciform church of this date, and Willington late in the style, and Cople rather earlier, both present excellent models, and might be copied with ad vantage.
Spires are a feature very rare in this district, a circumstance readily accounted for by the difficulty of procuring durable stone requisite for such constructions; they are, with two exceptions, confined to the churches of the northern division of the county.
The prevailing form of Plan is oblong, consisting of a chancel, a nave with aisles, and a tower at the western extremity of the nave, which arrangement, unless specified to the contrary, may be understood to have been followed in the churches hereafter described; the eastern ends of Shillington, Great Barford, and of Wymington, have the peculiarity of turrets at the eastern angles.
The roofs are often very finely enriched, as at Marston, Dean, &c.
The ecclesiastical furniture is often worthy of notice; there are many good examples of open seats, rich remains of stalls, as at Luton, St. Paul’s Bedford, Northill, Leighton Buzzard, and Cople, while of rood-lofts may be instanced the celebrated specimen at Felmersham, one equally perfect at Tillbrook, and another at Pertenhall. Clifton has also the front of a magnificent rood-loft; there are fine remains at Marston, Oakley, and several others; besides these there are often richly carved parclose screens, as at Luton, Shillington, Sharnbrook, Cople, &c, and most churches have more or less good carved work.
There are good Norman fonts in Poddington and Houghton Regis; Early English in Eaton Bray, Harold, Turvey, Streatley, Keysoe, Studham; Decorated in St. Paul’s Bedford, Houghton Conquest, Kempston, Stagsden, Stevington, &c.; Perpendicular in Elstow, Arlesey, Harlington, Caddington, &c.
The sedilia are often highly enriched; amongst the finest examples are those in the churches of Luton, Sutton, Turvey, Sharnbrook, Pavenham, Clifton, Caddington, Barton, Wymington, &c.
The remains of Domestic work in this county are inconsiderable. Of ecclesiastical domestic, Elstow, Bushmead, and Dunstable have each one small portion, and of Harold, Newenham, Stevington, and Warden, will be found notices under the names of the parishes to which they belong.
Of the early secular domestic can be cited traces only, whilst farther on the examples are confined to some late remains at Willington, a brick gate-house at Sommeries near Luton, and the old George Inn, Bedford.
Few churches are without one or more piscina, some richly crocketed and carved; it is also common to find a piscina in an angle of the wall, and the jamb of the south east window, with a small opening to the two sides, and a shaft between them. There is often a southern porch with a room over it, and in some cases a north porch also; sometimes the original vestries on the north side of the chancel are of two stories, as at Toddington, Marston, and St. Paul’s at Bedford.
The monuments present a numerous class; there are some effigies of cross-legged knights under stone canopies at Salford and Pertenhall; a lay figure at Oakley, and priests at Dunstable and Tilsworth; the altar-tombs at Salford are highly curious: there are good tombs and effigies of the fifteenth century at Chalgrave, Toddington, Apsley, and Luton: and of a later period are those at Willington, Eyworth, Sutton, Bromham Turvey, Holcott, and Blunham. Nor may it even here be out of place to mention as a favourable specimen of modern art, the re cumbent figure of Sir Hugh Inglis, in Milton Bryan church, by the late Sir F. Chantry.
The monumental brasses are numerous, and will generally be found noticed under the churches wherein they exist. Wymington, Elstow, Bromham, Shillington, Luton, Marston, Biggleswade, Sutton, contain the most fine and curious; whilst Aspley, Barton, St. Paul’s Bedford, Little Barford, Biddenham, Blunham, Cardington, Clifton, Cople, Dean Dunstable, Eaton Bray, Goldington, Lower Gravenhurst, Cockayne Hatley, Holwell, Houghton Conquest, Houghton Regis, Leighton Buzzard, Lidlington, Maulden, Poddington, Salford, Stevington, Tillbrook, Turvey, Wilshampstead, Yielden, possess specimens, nearly all of interest.
As examples of scroll iron-work on doors, the south doors of Turvey and Eaton Bray are most rich and fine.
An ancient tile pavement is found at Willington, and at Norhill; these are good tiles, with the patterns impressed into them: such occur also at Elstow, where, and at Barton, there are also some figured tiles of the usual kind, having the pattern in yellow, on a red ground. At Chalgrave are some tiles of this latter class, having a Dutch inscription: and a small curious piece of tiling, probably of Elizabethan date, consisting of one square tile in the centre, with four others of diamond shape round it, the whole forming an octagon. The pattern is principally blue, on a white ground, but there are small portions of green and yellow colour also.
The remains of stained glass are very scanty, and these are nearly confined to quarries, which exist in St. Peter’s church at Bedford, Bolnhurst, Chalgrave, Dean, Eaton Bray, Felmersham, Langford, Sharnbrook, and Tilsworth. At Edworth are some portions of D. glass. At Eaton Socon are traces only of fine P. glass, much mutilated; at Luton is a good figure of St. George, and a window partly filled with very curious quarries, bearing the word Hola, and a figure of a rudder alternately.
Source: The Ecclesiastical and Architectural Topography of England. Bedfordshire. John Henry Parker. 1848.