Piccotts End Wall Paintings
The Grade I Listed 15th Century cottages at Piccotts End, just outside Hemel Hempstead, house unique and historic wall paintings whose fascinating story lay hidden for over five hundred years.
In a row of 15th century timber-framed cottages, set back from the road at Piccotts End, seven colourful panels with religious themes still exist, more than 500 years since they were first painted. The artists are unknown, as are the reasons for their existence.
The Medieval Panels
For years, the Pre-Reformation Catholic paintings lay hidden behind a sheet of coarse hand-woven linen until they were discovered in 1953 by Arthur Lindley, who owned the cottages and ran a petrol station which operated on adjacent land. The medieval panels include impressive scenes of the Baptism of Jesus, Christ in Majesty, St Catherine of Alexandria, a Pieta, St Clement , St Peter and St Margaret.
They are arranged like an ‘iconostasis’, or screen with icons, set in tiers and with the artwork carried out indiscriminately over plaster and timber studs.
It is thought that the murals originated as early as 1470-1500, but they could only have been on view for about 50 years due to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. This could also account for some of the faces being obliterated.
The nearby Monastery or College of the Bonhommes at Ashridge may be a clue to their existence, since the cottages may have been used as a pilgrims’ hospice. Ashridge was on the ‘pilgrim trail’ because it housed a supposed holy relic - a phial of the blood of Jesus - and such hospices were part of the medieval scene. The Abbey of St Albans, the shrine of the first English Christian martyr, attracted many pilgrims and it is possible that they combined a visit there with one to Ashridge, staying overnight at Piccotts End.
The five panels of the paintings in the upper part of the wall and two panels in the lower part can be clearly seen. According to E. Clive Rouse, an expert from the British Museum, “The whole background is completely covered with free, running leaf scrollwork and shaded in orange-red, grey or blue and white and with yellow fruit or flowers, the whole in a black or grey outline.” There is also a curious blank oblong space in the lower wall which suggests that there must have been some kind of permanent fitting here, such as an altar.
There are many unusual and mysterious signs and symbols in the paintings, relics of a time when religion was a powerful influence in people’s lives and when few could read or write. The faces have been obliterated on some of the figures, probably as a result of the Reformation. It has been suggested that there was a connection with the Cathar movement, of Southern France and adjacent areas of Catalonia and northern Italy (viewed as heresy by the Catholic Church of the time), but it has yet to be proved if this was true.
In the centre panel is a painting of Christ in Majesty or in Judgment, blessing with one hand and holding the Orb in the other, with the Sacred Monogram instead of the Cross in the Halo. He does not show any wounds. On the right is the Baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan by St John, with an Archangel in the background holding Christ’s garments, since Jesus is wearing only a loin-cloth. On the left is the Pieta (the Virgin Mary holding the dead Christ) in front of the yellow Cross. In the extreme left-hand panel is St Peter with the Papal Tiara, Triple Cross and two Keys. In the bottom left-hand corner is a large star. On the extreme right, more damaged, is St Clement (the third successor to St Peter) with his symbol of the Anchor on each shoulder and also the Holy Father’s sign of the Triple Cross. A large flower corresponds to the star in St Peter’s panel.
The two lower panels contain figures of St Catherine of Alexandria with her wheel and sword and St Margaret of Antioch emerging from the belly of the dragon. Their gabled head-dresses link with the early Tudor date of the paintings.
St Catherine lived in the early 4th century and was reputed to be a scholar who tried to convert the pagan Emperor Maximinus Daia. He had her imprisoned and later executed. She was condemned to death on the horrific breaking wheel, but when she touched it, the legend says it broke and so she was beheaded instead.
St Margaret is sometimes known as the patron saint of pregnant women, since she is said to have escaped from a dragon’s belly (i.e.Satan) by the strength of the Cross she carried. She was tortured and put to death in AD 304, having refused to give up her Christian beliefs and marry the Governor of the Roman Diocese of the East.
The original building was constructed of wattle and daub on a heavy oak frame with a thatched roof and a sloping ground floor made of reeds. The layout consisted of two bays with rooms above, a medieval Great Hall open to the roof and with double doors at one end, perhaps leading to kitchens.
After the Dissolution of the Monastery, the Ashridge estates reverted to the Crown. The building was converted into a Tudor house with the creation of a second floor in the old hall. Rooms were built along the entire rear of the building, inglenook fireplaces installed, the roof raised and gable ends and windows inserted – a complete new look, culminating in the conversion of the building to four cottages in the early 1700s.
Nine years after the discovery of the murals, the adjacent cottage became vacant and was found to contain an Elizabethan painted room, a priest’s hide in the gable end and a medieval well, while under the garden was part of a Tudor cobbled courtyard.
In 1825, the renowned surgeon, Sir Astley Paston Cooper, came to the district and lived at nearby Gadebridge House. He attended upon royalty and was made a baronet after removing a tumour from the head of George IV. He was so plagued by people seeking his professional help that he resolved to found the first ‘cottage hospital’ in the country on the site of these cottages at Piccotts End.
The hospital, known as the West Hertford Infirmary, opened on 1 January 1827 and the surgeons operated without the use of anaesthetics, specialising in developing new techniques for limb amputations. There was no charge for the patients – “the necessitous poor”. Cooper obtained corpses for dissection fairly openly from body-snatchers, paying them 10 guineas a body and when the body-snatchers were caught, he paid their fines.
In its third year, 35 in-patients and 426 out-patients had been treated. It served such a large area that by 1831 it had proved inadequate in size and a new West Herts Infirmary was built in Marlowes, Hemel Hempstead, opening in 1833 (now known as Cheere House).
In more recent times (2002), the cottages and adjacent Georgian house were sold to a local developer and then in 2011 the cottages were sold at auction to two private individuals, Alison Wright and Karen Murphy, who are trying to raise the funding to preserve this unique building and the paintings as a museum for the future. There is no other building like this in the country and it deserves preservation and study, to understand its purpose and its context and to interpret the symbolism of the paintings.