*  Of interest to Family Historians - Hertfordshire Church of England Parish Registers from 1538 are now available online - only most recent registers are held at the church   *
Mass Dial


As you walk towards the church, have you ever looked high up at the corner of the church near a large tomb? You may not have noticed what appears to be a rather damaged corner stone. If you look carefully you can make out what appears to be a circular incision at the top of this stone. This is a Mass Dial, and was used before the Reformation to mark the time of the mass and other services. These are to be found near the church entrance for obvious reasons, on or near the south door, and are usually a complete circle. Some of the dials date from Saxon times and these can still be seen on many churches. Many are only a few scratches.

Circles are usually about six inches in diameter, with lines radiating from a central hole. A wooden or metal peg, called a gnomon, was put in the hole, and its shadow marked the time of day; a primitive sundial, but one with a specific purpose. There were marks which gave the times for morning mass, noon and vespers (evensong) to make sure that both the priest and people were in time for services in the days before clocks and watches.
Occasionally, the line for mass is thicker, or identified by a short crossbar.

The dial at St Mary’s has a double circle, above which is an inscription. It is very difficult to read this, as it is badly weathered. It consists of some signs under a curved line, below which is a line of letters. The date is 1584, well into the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The lower part of the circle is missing, but at about ‘eight o’clock’ there appear to be numbers.

In the 17th century churchyard crosses had to be reduced in size, and many of the stumps had a horizontal plate put on the top, and were used as sundials. Later, in the 18th century, most churches were given clocks, which are usually high up on the tower, in order to be visible from a distance.


Some years ago, Patricia Cook, a former Churchwarden at St. Mary's, wrote a series of informative articles on interesting aspects of the fabric of St. Mary's for the Parish Magazine. These are reproduced here, together with line drawings by Jean Atkinson, a well known local artist, who has been closely involved with St. Mary's for many years, including serving on the PCC.

Index of chapters  
The Amber Tankard Holy Water Stoup The Mass Dial
Seating over the years A hidden gem Gargoyles, Corbels or Label-stops?
Decalogue Board A rare tomb Elephants and Royal Arms
Pulpit Kesteven Brass The Somers Memorial
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