Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Brent Pelham, Hertfordshire

St Mary the Virgin is pleasantly situated on a rise to the NW of the village and is a nice enough building but spartan inside.

Its claim to fame is that it is purportedly the resting place of Piers Shonks. Piers Shonks, the Giant squire of Pelham (apparently he was 23ft tall), was a mighty hunter who was always accompanied on his expeditions by his groom and three faithful hounds. One day, whilst out hunting, he encountered a ferocious dragon and following a long and bloody fight, in which Shonks himself was badly wounded, at last the dragon writhed in its death agony at the hero's feet.

This beast was in fact the devil's favourite and in outrage the devil swore that he would have Piers' soul whether the giant was buried inside or outside of the church. When Piers was finally on his deathbed, he fired an arrow to determine where he would be buried. The arrow sailed through a window in the church of St Mary the Virgin at Brent Pelham and embedded itself in the wall. Thus Piers was buried in the wall of the church and cheated the devil as he was neither inside not outside of the church. Piers' tomb remains to this day.

Sounds highly plausible to me.

ST MARY. Essentially mid C14, save the C15 W tower (with diagonal buttresses and Herts spike). The restoration of 1861 added the S porch and renewed the S, N, and chancel E windows. In the chancel the N and S windows are original. But the most interesting tracery is that of the preserved S DOOR: early C14. The interior is wide, tall, and bare. Tall tower arch with big shafts with capitals and thin diagonal shafts without. - SCREEN. Some of the tracery of the C15 rood screen used in the tower screen. - PLATE. Chalice, 1628. - MONUMENTS. C13 black marble slab With foliated cross, angel above it holding a soul in a cloth and around him the symbols of the four Evangelists; a very remarkable work. - Brass to the two wives of F. Rowley d. 1625 and 1627, two seemingly identical women with ruffs and hats.

Brent Pelham. Through all its changes (and the church has seen much rebuilding in our own day) Piers Shonks the dragon slayer has slept undisturbed. We find his tomb in the church among great trees, with the stocks and the whipping post beside it and one or two old thatched cottages. The nave and the chancel are 14th century; the tower with a small leaded spire is just as it was added in the 15th, and in it hang three bells 300 years old. Two deep crosses cut on a nave buttress may be the original consecration marks. There is a new porch worthy of the fine building, with some 14th century tracery from the old door fixed on to the new. Some later medieval tracery is used again in the screen to the high tower arch. Near the tower are the brass portraits of Mary and Anne, the young wives of Francis Rowley, pictured exactly alike with wide-brimmed hats and ruffs. The first died in 1625, the second two years later, and the disconsolate husband wrote over their grave:

Thy sting, 0 death, most sharply here appears, To take them both away in their prime of years.

Then we come to the curious tomb in the wall, which looks 13th century, though an 15th century inscription painted behind it says it is the tomb of Piers Shonks, a noted dragon-slayer of 1086. To give reality to the legend, here is a dragon breathing out fire, carved in relief on the black marble top, together with the winged creatures of the evangelists and a dog peacefully asleep on its side. Tales of this dragon-slayer were told for centuries in the village and his name has been given to one of the moats in the neighbourhood, Shonks's Moat. We may wish the true story of this village St George could be found in some old record.

To the east of the church is Brent Pelham Hall with a stone giving its date as 1608. The patterned chimney stacks prove its age, but its timbering was cased in with brick later in the 17th century. The hall stretching from wing to wing has a Tudor arch for a fireplace. The mantelpieces and panelling are Jacobean, some brought from The Beeches, the 17th-century farmhouse about a mile off which used to be the manor house.

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