Churches and Chapels

St Nicholas is the parish church, but Harpenden did not become a fully separate parish until 1859.  Until then it lay within the parish of Wheathampstead (Hwaethanstede) which was a gift from King Edward the Confessor in 1060 to Westminster Abbey, as part of the royal endowment for the rebuilding of the Abbey.  It is doubtful if there was a church in Harpenden at that time, but in the following century a separate ‘chapel-of-ease’ was dedicated to St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra and patron saint of travellers.  A papal deed of 12 December 1319 granted the right to hear “Masses and other Divine Services” in the parochial chapel of St Nicholas, and to bury the dead within the precincts of the chapel out of consideration for the difficulty they had in carrying the corpses all the way to St Helen’s in Wheathampstead, particularly in bad weather because of floods “and other dangers of the roads”.

At the Reformation, Harpenden received its own charter in 1537; the ‘Great Bible’ in English arrived here in 1541 and in 1543 the English litany was introduced.  There is no way of knowing how parishioners felt about the confiscation of images, shrines, rood lofts and other aspects of ‘popery’ during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI, but Protestantism was firmly established when Elizabeth I came to throne in 1558.

With Dissent growing during the seventeenth century, there is evidence in family and other records of families of Quakers, Baptists, Anabaptists, Methodists and other nonconformists in the area.  The Toleration Act of 1689 provided for the licensing of dissenters’ meeting houses. 

During the mid-nineteenth century the Anglican parish church founded missions which developed into the churches of All Saints, Coldharbour, St Mary’s, Kinsbourne Green, and St John the Baptist.  Methodist, Congregationalist (Independent), Salvation Army, Catholic, Quaker, Brethren, and Evangelical places of worship became established in Harpenden from the early nineteenth century and into the twentieth century.

The history of Church and Chapel is more fully described in Vol.3 of Wheathampstead & Harpenden (WEA 1975 – see the Local History Society’s Publications).