I visited Tyttenhanger during Residents First Weekend and was intrigued by the chapel located on the second floor. Why did Sir Henry Blount have this built integral with the house and two floors up? With a background of research into religious dissent in the seventeenth century, my first thought was that its purpose might have been to hold secret religious meetings. So I set out to discover more about Sir Henry.
He was born at Tyttenhanger on 15 December 1602 and baptised in Ridge Church. He was the son of Sir Thomas Blount and Frances Pigot. He attended St Albans School and later Trinity College, Oxford, from which he graduated with a BA on 18th June 1618. He travelled widely from 1629, visiting Spain, France, Italy, Egypt and Constantinople. His book A Voyage into the Levant was published in 1636 and won royal acclaim.
Supporter of the King, the Commonwealth and then the King
Blount supported King Charles I during the conflict with Parliament and as a result was awarded a knighthood, but, at the beginning of the Interregnum, Blount changed sides and in January 1652 was appointed by Oliver Cromwell to serve on the Hales Commission for the reformation of the criminal code. At the Restoration he switched allegiance again and supported the King.
He had inherited Tyttenhanger House in 1639 and about 1654 he decided to pull down the existing house and build a new one, which is that standing today. The architecture of the chapel is interesting. It is more like that of a dissenting church than a chapel of an English stately home. Two features which suggest non-conformity are the almost total wood panelling and the dominant pulpit, the size of which is out of proportion to the small room. The mainstay of the Puritan philosophy was preaching and this pulpit would symbolise and accommodate this.
My theory is to some extent upheld by the biography of Nathaniel Vincent who was a dissenter and served for three years as chaplain to Sir Henry following his ejection from the established ministry in 1662. After leaving Hertfordshire in 1665 Vincent was very active in London; so much so that he was arrested in 1670 and imprisoned for his radical activities.(1) Sources say that the house was built during the Interregnum and at that time there would have been no need for secret meetings, but the chapel could have been an afterthought and it does give the impression that an existing room in the house was adapted for the purpose. Knowing of Sir Henry’s passion for freethinking, I would like to suggest that when Vincent was ejected from his ministry Sir Henry provided him with shelter and accommodation. In my imagination I see the local non-conformists, perhaps the Aylewards, yeoman farmers, whose lands bordered Tyttenhanger Park, sitting in that room absorbing the intense and perhaps even hot-headed sermons.
Possible influences on Sir Henry’s views
So what was behind Sir Henry’s diverse allegiances? He was born into the aristocracy who held the living of the local church. The family tombs are at Ridge. Yet he did not follow the traditional route. An insight into Blount’s mind is revealed in his book describing his travels where he said that his purpose in travelling had been to gain knowledge by means of personal experience without the constraints of national and religious history and that he was eager to learn from the non-Christian world.(2) Whilst abroad he studied different faiths and in the light of his experiences he gravitated towards an independence in his opinions and beliefs. Yet he was not alone in switching sides from royalist to parliament and back again. Many people of note did so including our local squire, Harbottle Grimston of Gorhambury.
My feeling is that Sir Henry accepted the tradition of monarchy and possibly attended the local church (he was after all buried there) but at the same time he thought people should be allowed freedom to think, study and worship as they chose. It would appear that Henry’s son Charles was a ‘chip off the old block’, described as a “freethinker and author” in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. He was a member of a political group of Whig activists. He wrote books attacking priests and cast doubts on some assertions in the Bible. We owe to him the freedom of the English press – he campaigned against the Licensing Act, condemning censorship as the “greatest affront to learning”. The Act was struck off the statute book by 1697. Another clue to Sir Henry’s character is revealed in his will:
First as my chief concern I joyfully resign my soul to the good Spirit of God on whom it was created. My body I return to the earth whereof it was composed, willing it with all possible privacy and in the night time to be interred in the churchyard of that parish where I shall happen to dye unless at Tittenhanger and then to be interred in the vault at Ridge Church as near my deceased wife as may be and there shall be no invitation of or staying for friends no sermon no eating or drinking no monument no heraldry or other pageantry at my funeral. (3)
(1) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: Sir Henry Blount
(2) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: Nathaniel Vincent
(3) TNA PROB/11/372 February 1683 (modernised spelling and punctuation)