St Mary's Church – Hertfordshire, England - Atlas Obscura

Hertfordshire, England

St Mary's Church

Home to one of the tallest church spires in Europe, this historic church once played host to King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.  

Found in the center of historic Hemel Hempstead is the Norman-styled St Mary’s Church. Built more than 850 years ago, St Mary’s is topped by one of the highest spires in Europe and is said to house secret tunnels.

The church is home to a memorial of a local man by the name of Sir Astley Cooper, who pioneered limb amputation surgery. It is said that Dr. Cooper—rather unethically—would pay grave robbers to dig up cadavers to further his medical studies. 

According to locals, St Mary’s also holds secret cellars and tunnels that connect the old town hall to the crypt beneath the church. Older residents have described exploring the tunnels when they were open as late as the 1960s. Now many have had their entrances blocked off for safety reasons, although the arched tops of some tunnels can still be seen on the outside wall of the churchyard.

The local folk law says that they were built as escape routes for monks of the church. More famously, the tunnels are said to have been used by King Henry VIII, who was known to frequent the area as a holiday destination so that he could visit female suitors out of the public eye.

The church’s Charter Tower is said to have been where King Henry VIII and the ill-fated Anne Boleyn stayed in 1593. During their stay, Henrey handed down Hemel Hempstead’s market Royal Charter from the upper window, as a mark of gratitude for the hospitality he had received there, which is why the tower is named as it is. 

Know Before You Go

Free parking is located nearby at the Gadebridge Park.

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