St Mary the Virgin, Kensworth, Bedfordshire

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Feature Sets (3)


The church has a late 11thc. or early 12thc. aisleless nave and chancel, both with plain round-headed windows on the N. The chancel was extended in the 15thc. and the W tower was probably also constructed at that time. Late 11thc. to early 12thc. sculpture is found on S and W doorways, the chancel arch and W tower arch.


The Domesday Survey does not mention a church at Kensworth, but records that the Canons of St Paul's, London held land there. Both Kensworth and nearby Caddington were held by St Paul's until 1872 when the Eccesiastical Commissioners took over responsibility for them. (VCH, 231)

The parish of Kensworth was transferred to Bedfordshire in 1897, but was originally in the hundred of Dacorum in Hertfordshire.


Exterior Features


S doorway, nave

Round-headed, of two orders.

h. of opening 2.92 m
w. of opening 1.28 m
First order

Plain square jambs with a slight roll on the angle. No capitals, just impost blocks chamfered in their lower half, with a groove immediately above the chamfered edge and carving on the face as follows.

L impost S face: on the upright an irregular circular interlace, terminating on the L in a canine head, its muzzle obscured by the E facing impost block of the outer order.

L impost E face: on the upright a simple pattern of diagonal interlace with U-bends, no termination.

R impost S face: the upright bears a pattern of Saltire crosses with pellets in the interstices.

R impost E face: as S face.

The soffit is plain but many of the 13 voussoirs are decorated on the face with saltires, with a pellet in the interstices, some of the pellets drilled in the centre. Voussoirs 1, 3, 4, 10 and 13 each have two crosses, one outside the other, while 2, 5, 11 and 12 have four crosses, two outside, two inside, forming a rough square. 5 has additional incised diagonal lines as does 9. 6 has irregular abstract patterning but can be seen to be divided into 4 rough sections. The keystone, voussoir 7 is carved with an equal armed cross with drilled holes along its arms, and crude spiralling patterns between them. 8 consists of three circles, one outside the other, bisected by a single vertical line, with each circle then bisected by a horizontal line. The remaining space is filled with abstract shapes.


Plain square jambs, imposts chamfered in their lower half, with a groove immediately above the chamfer, supporting a plain round arch.

The E impost has a dense pattern of close cross-hatched lines.

The W impost is decorated with a line of linked circles, forming a simple chain ornament.

Second order

Moulded bases (roll, hollow, roll), the R base severely weathered. Plain nook shafts supporting carved block capitals with plain roll necking.

L capital S face: The relief carving shows a bird standing on the back of a crouching beast, both creatures with their heads turned E. The beast's head is upturned and the bird's long beak is between its open jaws. The beast's tail curls forward over one rear leg and under the other, then curls up behind its body and terminates in a fork above its rear legs.

L capital E face: Carved with a bird standing on the back of biped. The bird faces the angle confronting the bird on the S face. The biped has its two forelegs upon the ground, and its body becomes a thick curving tail which terminates in a fork. Its head is twisted back to bite one leg of the bird. On the lower L of the carving is a small hollow triangle.

R capital W face: On the lower half of the capital are two rows of Stafford knots. Above this there is a row of four rings with a line passing through them as if they were hoops on a rod.

R capital S face: The Stafford knot pattern continues across the angle onto the S face of the capital. Above this design on the S face is a single horizontal line with a wavy line passing over and under its length. Modern imposts.


N wall, chancel

Two windows with arcuated lintels with a shallow sunken roll in the arch.

N wall, nave

Three windows, round-headed, with arcuated lintels, decorated with two sunken rolls, with lightly incised diagonal lines on the outer roll. The two W windows have been restored.

Interior Features


Chancel arch/Apse arches

Chancel arch

Round headed, of two orders to W and E. The imposts are chamfered with a groove immediately above the chamfered edge. The arch is cut into on the N (W face) by the doorway to the rood stairs.

First order, shared.

Bases with alternating concave and torus mouldings (three torus, two concave), the N restored. Round half-shafts support double scallop capitals with angle tuck. These have single shields on the W and E faces and plain necking.

The arch has a soffit roll.

Second order, E face

Plain and square with imposts as above. Chamfered along the angle of the jamb with stop chamfers.

Second order, W face

Attic bases on a square plinth. Engaged nook shafts, plain necking below cushion capitals.

The arch has a three-quarter angle roll, followed by a hollow.

Tower/Transept arches

Tower arch

Round-headed of two orders. Originally the W doorway before the W tower was built. This doorway is much taller than the S doorway, approximately 4.00 m in height. The doorway has been widened towards the nave by cutting back the jambs of the rear arch.

First order

No bases, the jambs sit directly on unmoulded modern blocks. There is an angle roll along the length of the jambs as on the S doorway. The R jambs are modern apart from the top course. The imposts, which continue to the second order are chamfered with a groove along the upright.

L impost W face: Loose cable ornament with a small pellet between each loop created by the loose strands, partly obscured on the L by the second order impost blocks.

L impost S face: Irregular interlace. Similar to that on the interior E impost of the S doorway.

R impost W face: two-and-a-half four-pointed stars, the third star is lost behind the second order impost. A lozenge lies between each pair of stars.

R impost N face: A crouching bird with its long neck stretched forwards, facing E.

There are seventeen voussoirs decorated with a variety of abstract geometrical designs:

1. The springer has parallel diagonal lines (almost vertical) on its lower half and an upside down zoomorphic form on its upper half, the form has a long crocodile-like mouth with an upper and lower row of teeth.

2. Abstract geometric design composed from a number of symmetrical elements, also with drilled holes.

3. Lattice design with lozenges and pellets within the lattice.

4. Two vertical bands of zig-zag, each band made up of three fine bands. These mirror each other forming a lozenge in the centre of the voussoir which has a small upright cross in its centre.

5. Divided into quarters, with lattice design with pellet, lozenges and drilled holes. Combining elements of voussoirs 3 and 4.

6. Abstract geometric design composed from a number of symmetrical elements.

7. Divided into four sections, decorated with groups of parallel diagonal lines. The upper sections forming a herringbone pattern

8. Zoomorphic form (bird-like) with protruding tongue, decorated with drilled holes and incised diagonal lines.

9. The keystone, placed sightly off centre, is carved with a cross with drilled holes along its arms, between the arms of the lower half of the cross are vertical lines, while between the upper arms are triangles with the apex pointing downwards, also with drilled holes.

10. Divided in two lengthways and with two rows of parallel diagonal lines forming a herringbone pattern

11. Divided into six roughly square sections with lozenges at top and bottom and two diagonal crosses in between with pellets between the arms of the crosses.

12. Two diagonal crosses placed one outside the other with a horizontal line bisecting each cross. With pellets between the arms of the crosses.

13. Divided in four, each segment with what appears to be a standing bird with its head turned back so that its beak rests upon its back.

14. As 12. but the cross arms each are made of three incised bands

15. Divided in half vertically and with four rows of two- or three-banded semicircles. The two outer rows of semicircles lie with their flat surface facing outwards, whilst the two inner rows lie with their flat surfaces facing inwards, although the inner ones are irregular in size and placed together do not form circles

16. Abstract geometric design.

17. Lattice-like design though square rather than diagonal, with pellet within the squares.

Second order.

The bases are bulbous, with a double torus. The three-quarter nook-shafts appear to be coursed, but may be detached. The L base, shaft, capital and part of the N face of the impost are modern, in yellowish sandstone. All other repairs are in a pale, pinkish sandstone. There are carved capitals above necking. The L capital has been described as it probably follows the carving of the original.

L capital: carved in relief, a circle containing a lozenge, bisected by a cross on each face with small heads in the upper angles.

R capital: a recessed circle, containing a six-pointed star/flower, carved in relief, with hollowed petals, on each face with heads in the upper angles and angle tuck.

The L impost is restored apart from a small section on the E side of the N face. It has an elongated version of the carving on the first order impost on the W face and a row of chevrons alternating with straight lines on the N face. The R impost is as the first order, L impost, W face, but more elongated

The arch has a thick angle roll, followed by a fine double roll, and a hollow chamfered label.

The interior (E face of the arch) is restored. It has plain jambs and restored imposts with intersecting lozenge on the S and cable on the N.


Although no architectural features suggest a date earlier than the late 11thc. much of the sculpture at Kensworth has its origins in pre-Conquest traditions and the church may be described as Saxo-Norman Overlap.

The carving on the S doorway (L capital S face) probably represents the wolf and crane story from Aesop's Fables, whilst the carving on the L capital E face could be the story of the Kite and the Serpent.

VCH likens the four carved birds on voussoir 13. of the tower arch to those found on pennies of Edward III. (VCH, 233)

In 1911, whilst repairs were being made to the N wall of the chancel, the remains of a ground-level window were discovered below the easternmost chancel window. A fragment of the window arch survived, which was carved with a shallow roll, as were the two chancel windows above. Smith suggests that this low window was an anchor-hold. (Smith, 74). In support of this he noted that the window arch fragment made no allowance for the insertion of glass, and that fragments of a wooden shutter were found in the rubble. The arch fragment was reset in the window opening when the area was refilled and stabilised.

Cussans records that when 'Oldbury' a building adjoining the church, was rebuilt in 1877, stones with 'dog tooth moulding' were found in the walls.

In 2002 when Kensworth was revisited, all windows in the N wall had been completely restored.

VCH suggests that the plain font may be 12thc.


  • Domesday Book: Bedfordshire, Ed. J. Morris, Chichester, 1977, E2.
  • The Victoria County History: A History of the County of Hertford, London, 1908, 2:232-33.
  • J. E. Cussans, History of Hertfordshire, London and Hertford, 1879, XIII-XIV, 97
  • N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England, Bedfordshire and the County of Huntingdon and Peterborough, London, 1968, 105.
  • W. G. Smith, 'Kensworth Church, Hertfordshire', Archaeological Journal, 1913, LXX, 69-82.
General view.


Site Location
National Grid Reference
TL 031 191 
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales): Bedfordshire
now: Bedfordshire
medieval: London
now: St Albans
now: St Mary the Virgin
medieval: not confirmed
Type of building/monument
Parish church  
Report authors
Hazel Gardiner