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Friday, 11 September 2015

St Mary's, Ewelme

St Mary's, Ewelme, church, Oxfordshire, almshouses

I was looking for Geoffrey Chaucer’s Granddaughter – as you do.  In the process, I discovered a unique church and the last resting place of Jerome K Jerome.

Let’s start with Chaucer’s granddaughter, Alice de la Pole.  Alice was quite a lady, a duchess, with extensive lands in the Thames Valley, East Anglia and overseas.  She was born in 1404, the daughter of Thomas Chaucer and Matilda Burghersh.  Thomas inherited some of his father’s excellent connections and had a pretty illustrious career, serving as, among other things, Chief Butler of England, Constable of Wallingford Castle, a Member of Parliament and Speaker of the House of Commons.  His marriage to Matilda brought him the manor of Ewelme, in Oxfordshire.

Alice de la Pole, Chaucer's granddaughter

As a child, Alice was betrothed (some sources say married) to one of Henry V’s captains, Sir John Phelip, but he died of the flux (dysentery) at the siege of Harfleur in 1415.  She went on to marry Thomas Montacute, Earl of Salisbury, a renowned soldier and commander, who left Alice a widow when he was hit with a cannon ball at the siege of Orleans in 1428.  In 1430, Alice married her 2nd (or 3rd) husband, William de la Pole, Earl (later Duke) of Suffolk – who had actually been serving with the Earl of Salisbury, which was probably how he and Alice met.  William went on to negotiate the marriage between Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou.  He was an early victim of the squabbles which led to the Wars of the Roses and was murdered at sea – beheaded with a rusty sword, according to some accounts, in 1450, his body dumped on the beach at Dover.  William is the Suffolk in Shakespeare’s Henry VI Parts 1 and 2, and also features in Conn Iggulden’s excellent novel Wars of the Roses – Stormbird.  In any event, he and Alice appeared to have enjoyed a happy marriage until his death.  Their son, John, went on to support the Yorkist cause and marry Elizabeth Plantagenet, sister of King Edward IV and Richard III.  But the de la Poles fell from favour under the new Tudor dynasty and Alice’s grandsons were the last of the line: Edmund, 3rd Duke of Suffolk, was beheaded on the orders of Henry VIII in 1513; Richard was killed at the battle of Pavia in 1525 and William died in the Tower in 1539.

Thomas Chaucer, Matilda Burghersh, St Mary's, Ewelme

You’ll find Alice, though, one of the great ladies of one of the most turbulent periods in British history, in an amazing alabaster tomb at St Mary’s Church in her home village of Ewelme.  It was actually my mate Dave who put me on her track.  Dave’s a far more erudite chap than I am and the inspiration behind other notable visits, such as Swinbrook and Fox’s Pulpit.  “If you’re ever in the Oxford area and have time,” he murmured over a pint of fermented Gnat’s Spit one evening, “Pop into Ewelme Church.  Impressive tomb.”

Ewelme, church, doors, north entrance

Ewelme is an ancient place, possibly with Celtic origins.  It was recorded in the Domesday Book (1086) as Auuilme, from the old English (Saxon) meaning ‘place at the river source’.  I have seen variations on the theme, including Lawelme – ‘a spring source’, Aewhyme – ‘water whelming’ and even the Latin Aqua Alma – ‘sweet water’.  The village pond – a deep pool where fairies are said to play and which is reputed to have restorative powers – feeds watercress beds and thence flows into the Thames.  Legend has it that Henry VIII bathed in the pond (or was playfully pushed in by Katherine Howard) when staying at Ewelme Manor; hence it is known as King’s Pool.  Elizabeth I is rumoured to have dallied with her favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in the surrounding lanes.

Ewelme church, east end, chequerboard, Suffolk

The road to the village took me past the drear, slightly sinister, fences of RAF Benson into an attractive, but vaguely straggling, settlement past the watercress beds.  Only an idiot would miss the church completely and end up making an unplanned excursion round south Oxfordshire.  Note to self: next time, follow Parson’s Lane to the right – the clue’s in the name.  Finally, I pulled up by an old wall and got out.  There wasn’t a soul around and a sudden commotion a few feet above my head made me start.  Red kites, with their distinctive v-shaped tails, swooped; a lone crow seemed to be taking them on.

English flag, St George, church tower

The church is large, and pretty much rectangular, with a hefty central nave and a tower to the west, from which the English flag flutters proudly in the breeze.  Brick battlements enclose the roof and there is an attractive chequer-board pattern of stone and flint surrounding the significant windows on the east end.  The building is manifestly late medieval, squarer in shape than earlier styles.  It was built on the site of an earlier church by Alice and William sometime in the 1430s (parts of the tower are older).  They also built the adjoining almshouses for 2 priests and 13 poor men, as well as the nearby school; both are still in use.

Ewelme church, nave

The style of the church is, apparently, East Anglian; William undoubtedly brought craftsmen over from Suffolk.  The interior is still largely 15th century; it is beautifully light and relatively plain – except for the chancel and, to the south, a chapel dedicated to St John the Baptist.  Both seem surprisingly ornate, for an Anglican church; the walls are decorated with repetitions of the IHS Christogram, in black and red gothic lettering. In fact, there is something of interest wherever you look.  Throughout the church are various stone carvings in almost pristine condition – one, apparently, representing Edward III, Geoffrey Chaucer’s patron.  The elaborate wooden font cover – a gift from John de la Pole on Alice’s death - is 10.5 feet high, crowned with a figure depicting St Michael.  There are many 15th and 16th century brasses in the church and, in front of the ancient rood screen, the grave of Michael de la Pole, briefly 3rd Earl of Suffolk, who was one of the few English nobles killed at Agincourt in 1415.  We owe much of the preservation of St Mary’s to a Colonel Martyn, a Cromwellian commander who prevented the destruction that so many churches suffered at the hands of Puritan troops during the Civil War. 

Ewelme, font, font cover, church carving, Edward III

Within St John’s Chapel is the alter tomb of Thomas Chaucer (d 1434) and Matilda Burghersh (d 1436).  Brasses of Thomas in full armour and his wife are let into the marble top.  Around the sides of the tomb is a remarkable and colourful display of medieval shields of arms.

Chapel of St John, tomb, Alice de la Pole, IHS, Christogram, Ewelme

But I had come to see Alice, the indomitable duchess, who mixed with kings and queens and who died, aged 71, in 1475.  Her tomb is one of the most incredible pieces of artwork I have ever seen, with an elaborate canopy and the life-like carved figure of Alice resting on the chest that contains her remains.  Her head, wearing a coronet, rests on a pillow flanked by angels.  She wears her wedding ring on the third finger of her right hand and the order of the Garter on her left arm.  Beneath her tomb is a ghastly representation of the Duchess in death.  These carved memento mori (a reminder that you will die) were relatively common for the tombs of the very wealthy in medieval times – but they were extremely expensive and exclusive.  Ironically, the idea was to demonstrate humility - and hope that people would pray for the soul of the departed.  Many show astonishingly accurate anatomical detail and it is believed the sculptors can only have achieved this by using real bodies as models.

Alice de la Pole, Chaucer, granddaughter, tomb, Oxfordshire

Alice de la Pole, tomb, decoration

Alice de la Pole, memento mori, transi

Mentally breathless, I stepped outside.  It seems discourteous to visit a church without spending time in the churchyard too.  Just beyond the south door of St Mary’s Ewelme is the modest grave of Jerome Klapka Jerome (1859-1927), one-time teacher, actor, journalist, humourist and writer.  He is best known for his book Three Men in a Boat, which amusingly tells the story of the author’s adventures during a Thames boating holiday with his friends George and Harris – to say nothing of the dog, Montmorency – in the 1880s.  Inevitably, I have been prompted to re-read it; it tells, of course, of a vanished world, but the humour is gentle and Jerome periodically wanders off in a droll way on diversions to vaguely illustrate some point or other.  It was, so it is said, based loosely on his honeymoon - though I like to think not entirely.  I seem to recall that Three Men on the Bummel was quite funny too.  J K Jerome was born in Walsall and lived in later life at Gould’s Grove, a farmhouse south of Ewelme which is still there, though has been renamed ‘Troy’.  And there in Ewelme he rests, with his wife Georgina (known as Ettie), his sister, Blandina, and step-daughter, Elsie, beside him.


Jerome Klapka Jerome, grave, burial place

Isn’t it astonishing what you can get out of a visit to a church? 


 

Check out InSpired Sunday for other places of worship around the world.

50 comments:

  1. Fascinating but not all that history came just from the church. I'd say you must have done your research well or are well versed in historical facts, possibly the obscure ones too. I recall the de la Pole surname in something I've read recently. It would have had to be a historical fiction maybe the Boleyn Inheritance? I know in visiting the churches in the Cotswolds we were enthralled by the graves that had the reposing figures on top.

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    1. Yes, the de la Poles are bound to crop up in fiction based around 15th century in particular.

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    2. Marcia, There is a whole lotta history 'attached to little Ewelme and its surrounds, I would say' as it was once a part of the honour of Wallingford. The Old Palace(only a small part remains) was where King Henry 8th stayed as did Queen Elizabeth 1st when Robert Earl Leicester.had the honour and there is a road they call Love Lane ,supposed to be where they dalllied . Of course, there is Thomas Chaucer, son of the famous poet Geoffrey, whose wife Matilda was a rich heiress of the Burghersh family of Ewelme too.: See Bartholomew Burghersh. What's more, the school is one of the oldest in England which has been in use since the time it was built by Lady Alice with her Arms of Roet Nowhere is there such a place remaining. .Health & Safety issues did this little school any favours. RAF Benson admin. centre is almost in Ewelme and some of it is in our Parish as it is a couple of miles from Benson village.It was headquarters of Photo Recce in WW2 and from where those brave Pilots, some alone in Spits,flew over the Ruhr dams and war torn Europe to take that famous pic of the busted Mohne dam. How would that operation by the Dambusters been achieved without them.?They had a tipples at the Skinny Dog(Greyhound now a house) and Shepherd's Hut pubs..I live where their films were processed in Ewelme.. From Bartholomew Burghersh to WW2 and after with the Queen's flight to where the body of Duke of Windsor was flown to. All of this is quite a bit of history for a very small village. The headmaster of Ewelme C of E school was appointed by Oxford University and lived in a tiny room in the school itself..Cow Common past the school at one which leads onto valley of Swyncombe is still lovely with blue bell woods.May it always be so. Benson or Bensington on Thames(I consider it our twin village) is where King Offa had a Palace and in the distance one can see the Wittenham clumps a landmark once is said to be a sacred grove of Druids..So we dip our toes into water which feeds the Thames or Isis and Oxford is our City.Wm. Lord Suffok and his descendants, Wars of the Roses,the honour of Wallingford with its very strong castle,(Cromwell destroyed it) was buillt by Robt' D'Oyley for the King William too .Roman swords etc were found in the river at Wallingford said to called after the Waleis . We have not got a Henge but I would say this area reflects quite a bit of our Island's history for those who care to find it..Whoever researched the history, you done good.! Thanks

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  2. That's a heck of a tour. Having just spent a week in Norfolk it does seem strange to see that flint chequerboard pattern all the way over in Oxfordshire.

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  3. One of my husband's favorite books, will have to look for this church next time we're in England.

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  4. It certainly is, of course so much more in your country than mine. I enjoyed your journey of Alice, what bad luck for each new hubby though. I'm curious about the book Three Men in a Boat, I'm sure it's an excellent read, (I'm printing out 7 pages of the wikipedia description of it as I write this. I also walk about the graves in a churchyard too, and have gone on various searches of a good many too. Excellent photos you've shared with us too, this was again a worthy and engaging adventure with you.

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  5. This is such an amazing tour, Mike! The church is beautiful, I love the architecture, and the old wooden pews, which you don't see too often these days.

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  6. A beautiful church, and what a magnificent tomb Alice has.

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  7. That is a very unusual looking church with fascinating history. The artwork on the tomb is stunning.

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  8. Another wonderful tour, Mike!

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  9. I can't imagine living in a building built in the 15th century. I would like to compare the English and US civil wars one day. Can't imagine the carnage. The waste.

    Have a great weekend

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    1. Trouble with us Brits is that we've had so many civil wars..!

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  10. What magnificent photos. Beautiful places loaded with history. You are fortunate.

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  11. The Duchess in Death sure grabs your attention! The other is simply an exquisite sculpture. There is so much to see in churches in your neck of the woods. Thanks for taking us there. If I were Jerome, I'd use just my middle initial as well. I'll have to check into the book.

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  12. A splendid looking church, and I agree that the tomb would be worth a detour, or even getting lost for! I'm not sure it strikes me as particularly East Anglian - those churches always seem to be reaching for the sky- but it is certainly a most handsome one from the outside too. I can't even bear to think how horrid it must have been to live in the 15th century - if that was what life was like for the rich, life for the poor hardly bears imagining! Thank you for another very interesting post, Mike.

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  13. What an interesting church, Mike! I think the interior is beautiful, and the outside is quite unique with the checkerboard pattern around the windows. It sounds like Alice had quite a full life and lived to a fairly old age (quite an accomplishment in those days). I love to visit and photograph old churches, although none here are so old as the ones in your country. I almost forgot to mention; I love the English flag with St. George's Cross flying from the church tower. Just beautiful!

    Thanks for sharing your visit with us and have a great weekend!

    Denise at Forest Manor

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  14. wow what a building and amazing history. hard to believe people died of the flux back then, medical science sure has come a long way.

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  15. It's wonderful to see a church like this, old yet wonderfully maintained. Stepping into a building like this is the closest thing we have to a time machine.

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  16. You make me feel so inadequate. I visited a St Mary's Church on our last camera club outing. I just tried to get pretty pictures and didn't do much research on it. But it is on my blog.

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  17. Alice's story is certainly an interesting one, well worth of being turned into a book. Her tomb truly is impressive, but the picture that attracted me most in this post is the one of the old door. I have a "thing" for doors and doorways and have a whole collection of photos dedicated to that subject only (and wrote a post about it a year or two ago).
    The chequer-board patterned wall is very unusual, I've never seen anything like it on a church.

    Thank you for reminding me of Jerome K. Jerome. I love "Three Men in a Boat"!

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  18. It is always an excellent adventure reading your posts, Mike. So much history packed into one rather beautiful little church. Love that font cover... And Alice's story is very interesting, and she was obviously quite a personality. The tomb is very beautifully carved and ornate, but then the shock of what lies beneath! Oh dear...

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  19. Er you were only just down the road from where I live when you visited this place

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    1. If I'd known, I'd have popped round for a beer..!

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    2. You could have read my blog as well http://graveplace.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/three-men-in-boat.html
      TBH you did a better job than I did and the history you told was top notch most I never knew about. Must go back with my tripod next time

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    3. Checked it out, Bill - great post - found I'd left a comment on it at the time! I've never got a tripod with me - should do, really!

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  20. Another very interesting post. I'd certainly not come across Ewelme, until I'd read your post.

    Thank you.

    All the best Jan

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  21. Another very interesting post. I'd certainly not come across Ewelme, until I'd read your post.

    Thank you.

    All the best Jan

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  22. What a delight. I would be hard pressed to find this in this area.

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  23. Another fantastic adventure. I must find that book and re-read it. :)

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  24. Thanks for another excellent post.
    Always is a pleasure to continue their visits and guides. Have a nice day

    Graciel·la
    (I have come here through Inspired Sunday)

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  25. Alice was quite a woman!!!! Fabulous post with a lot of historical detail. The tomb sculpture is quite horrible, wouldn't like to have to look at that too often!
    Liz @ Shortbread & Ginger

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  26. I am glad you didn't miss that church. We would have missed out on a tour, too. So much history, so many gorgeous images. Thanks for the English Education!!

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  27. Mike-- you take us on the most fascinating travels... Places I would never dream about visiting..
    I try to catch up on your blog every couple of weeks.. Just don't have much time to comment. I look forward always, to the places you visit. This was incredible... I'd love to just tag along with you on your travels across beautiful Britan. Thanks ever so much for the great pics and historical background info...
    Vicki

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  28. This post...did you write it just for me? I feel as if I was just beside you, the photos and descriptions are perfect.
    I love "Three Men In A Boat" and to see the gravestone of Jerome K. Jerome is something I am thankful for!
    (Not likely to get to that part of England.)

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  29. This is fascinating ~~ thank you so much for sharing.
    Helen, Bend Oregon

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  30. Very interesting post. You take excellent photos. Thanks!

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  31. i love the angle of your 1st shot. very cool. looks like a great place to just enjoy the day. read a good book or what not. ( :

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  32. I love your posts Mike, it's like stepping straight into history. You make me want to write better posts and delve deeper rather than focusing just on the frivolous.

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    1. Hey - thank you. Your writing is just fine - wish I had your knack for the absolute hilarious!

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  33. Great post, beautifully captured and researched. I loved reading about its history and what a marvelous place to spend some time. Thank you and thank you also for stopping by. You are right in the fact that if we go back far enough we are all connected.

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  34. Wow, Thank you for this history lesson. You do a great job.
    Carla

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  35. I had no idea who that Alice was, but she seems a fascinating character in one of my favourite historical period, so thanks for introducing me to her!

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  36. How beautifully preserved this church is. That must be a rarity.

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  37. Thanks for this fascinating tour Mike. Another amazing trip into history and what a gal Alice was! The architecture of this church has been preserved so well. Thank you.

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  38. I love that you take us with you when you wander--intentionally, or not. The histories are fascinating as well as the photos. I do appreciate them as I can only dream of seeing places like this for myself,

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  39. I really enjoyed this tour and your lovely photos Mike. I giggled about Elizabeth I and Dudley dallying in the lanes - do you think she removed that very uncomfortable ruff from her royal neck? Dalliances in constrictive clothing must have been very difficult methinks!

    Thanks for another great history lesson Mike - you are the best storyteller.

    Mary -

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  40. Lovely details in your photographs - I especially like the little angels making an effort to arrange Alice's pillow "just so."
    When I visited the Louvre I came upon one of those double-representation tomb sculptures. On top, a beautiful young woman, with a book, if I remember correctly, and also a little curly-coated dog. Beneath, a representation of the decayed remains of the woman. The work was excellent, and I was transfixed for quite a long time, just as I imagine the sculptor and the client intended every viewer to be. "Viewer" doesn't cover it, really...it was both a visceral and evocative experience.
    And then, back outdoors into the sunshine under a blue sky...alive, alive, alive!

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Hi - thanks for dropping into A Bit About Britain. New material is now being posted to www.bitaboutbritain.com and most of the material here will gradually be updated and moved over to that new site. Please drop in there, click on the blog page, and take a look round. TTFN - Mike.