The church is dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary*. Click here for a map showing the church and surrounding landholdings in 1800. The earliest record of a church at Harlton is dated 1155; no trace of this building seems to survive.
The present church dates from between the mid to late fourteenth to the mid to late fifteenth centuries; architecturally the period when the Decorated style gave way to the Perpendicular(a transition which is reflected in the architecture).
The earliest surviving parts of the church date from the period of the greatest flowering of all forms of art in the English Middle Ages, during the reigns of Edward III and Richard II. When the chancel was being built Geoffrey Chaucer was writing The Canterbury Tales, an unknown master was painting the great Wilton Diptych now in the National Gallery in London, in France the composer Guillaume de Machault was coming to the end of his career (a fragment of fourteenth century music is scratched on one of the pillars of the church) and the anchoress Julian of Norwich was writing the Revelations of Divine Love, the first surviving work in English known to have been written by a woman.
In 1516, at what must have been the church’s most flourishing point, immediately before the Reformation, when the screen was probably being inserted, there were two guilds* in the village, dedicated to the Holy Trinity and the Assumption, which suggests a high level of religious activity centred on the church — a suggestion reinforced by the large numbers of graffiti which still survive, many of them religious in character.
Over the centuries the church has lost most of its original decoration, although traces of red paint — recently confirmed to be mediæval — may be seen high on the west side of the chancel arch and at the east end of the south aisle, notably on the south side of the east window (the black paint still visible on the nave pillars may be the result of a post reformation attempt to cover the graffiti, or may be part of the original decoration). The figures which once adorned the stone screen can be traced only by the scars where they were once situated (the fragments of sculpture which are set into the north wall of the chancel, including the base of a figure, probably an angel, emerging from some conventionally represented clouds, and the mutilated, although obviously once beautiful seated figure – probably the Virgin – which is resited in the north porch (inaccessible) date from the fourteenth century and cannot belong to the present screen).
There is little stained glass left in the windows, and of the sumptuous equipment recorded in the late fourteenth century —
‘A fine Missal* and one other Missal. One Troper*, another with Graduals*, and a third with other Graduals. A Martyrology* and a Psalter* given by the rector. An Ordinal*. A Manual*. A fine Breviary*. 2 Psalters. A third breviary. 2 Antiphonals*. 3 sets of vestments. 3 coverings [presumably the various covers for the vessels used during Mass] with their accessories (the corporals* and the cloaks for the choir the gift of Randulph Lovel [holder of Ludes manor c. 1279–c. 1291]). 15 surplices. 2 rochets*. 3 adequate chalices. 6 phials. A good thurible*. An adequate chrismatory*. 2 crosses. A good veil*. 4 banners*. 3 [altar] frontals. An adequate pyx*. A [sanctuary] lamp. 6 towels. 3 sets of corporals. 2 good Antiphonals. 2 books of legends [of the saints]. Item 1 good vestment and one good chalice, the gift of William Bateman [holder of the manor 1376–83, in conjunction with the then rector William Potton, so this chalice may have been presented to mark the building of the present church]. 2 legends [of the saints] in 2 volumes. 2 graduals. And item 1 vestment, the gift of Richard Kellishill [presumably the judge Richard of Kelshall who held the manor between 1346 and 1365] and an alb*, amice*, stole* and maniple*, the gift of Lord Henry Dalgy. … [translated from Latin]
— there is no relic. By 1552 the church was much poorer, and deprived of even these few remaining glories by the Protestant reformers of Edward VI:
This is a trewe & perfect Inventorie Indented made the iiide day of Awgust Anno RR. Edwardi Sexti vito, By us Richard Wylks clerke, Henry Gooderycke, John Huddleston and Thomas Rudston, Esquyres, Comyssioners emongst others Assigned for the Surveye & view of all manner of goodes, Plate, Jewells, bells & Orniaments as yet be remayninge, forthcomynge & belonginge to the [parish] church there, as hereafter foloweth. PLATE. Fyrste one Chalyce of Sylver with the [paten*] & i litle box per ounce — xviii ounces. ORNAMENTS. Fyrste one hole sute of vestements of clothe of Tyssew*. Item certein other olde vestments of lytle value for every daye. BELLES. Item in the steple there iii Bells. All which parcells aboue wrytten to be delivered and comytted by us the saide Comyssioners unto the salue kepinge of Wylliam Alfelde, Robert Ames, Wylliam Stewerde & Robert Turman, parishioners there, to be at all tymes forth comynge to be answered. Except and reserved the saide Chalyce & one of the said olde vestements delyvered to Richerde Hatley & Richard Alfelde, Churchwardens there, for thonlye mayntenance of dyvyne servyce in the saide [parish] churche. [Signed] Henry Goderick, Rich Wilks, Thomas Rudston [Slightly modernised, contractions silently expanded]
The destruction of the screen decoration and the windows probably dates from the Tudor period, but besides this deliberate destruction, the church also suffered from neglect. In 1844 it was described as being until recently ‘very dilapidated’, and the repairs that were then undertaken have not lasted well. The 1844 Camden Society report commented on the fact that the Roman cement with which the church had just been covered was already crumb ling, adding, in words which are still relevant:
We do not … wish to throw blame where none is justly due. Probably the architect had no other course to pursue, and the parish no more money to expend upon the restoration. But an important lesson may be learnt from such cases: that wherever a parish has, from long apathy and neglect, suffered a noble ancient church to fall into all but complete decay; when means are at length taken for repairing it, the work must either be so badly and cheaply done as to entail a mutilated and poorly-patched church upon posterity, or (which however is by far the better alternative) the parishoners must half ruin themselves for a time, to restore it to its original strength and beauty.
There were further restoration works in 1912 and the 1960s. In recent years there has been a vigorous programme of restoration, still under way, and various benefactors have added to the beauties of the church. A photographic record of the works carried out from 1994 to 1996, presented by Peter Gilding (Rector 1989–96), is displayed in the church.