Saturday, 9 March 2013

Cheshunt, Hertfordshire

I'm going to try hard to be impartial about St Mary the Virgin but it's quite difficult when it was the only church, out of twelve visited, that was open...

Is it a great church? Not really but it is interesting when compared with the other churches of the trip. I saw no sign of the brasses mentioned by both.

ST MARY. Built between 1418 and I448 by the then Rector of Cheshunt (who was also a Baron of the Exchequer), and important as a dated example of the Perp style in Herts. All-embattled. W tower of ashlar stone with taller SE stair-turret and low buttresses, W door with spandrels decorated with shields and three-light W window. The aisle windows have depressed arches, three lights, and elementary panel tracery. The five-bay arcade inside on piers consisting of four shafts and four hollows in the diagonals. Broad two-centred arches. Two-light clerestory windows. The stencilled and painted decoration of the nave belongs probably to the restoration of 1874 under Bodley. - PLATE. Chalice, 1638; Flagon, 1638; Paten, 1672. - MONUMENTS. Unimportant Brasses E end of N aisle and E end of nave, C15, 1609, and 1449. - Robert Dacres d. 1543, tomb-chest in recess in the chancel, the superstructure remodelled by Sir Thomas Dacres in 1643. - Henry Atkins d. 1638, physician to James I and Charles I, under arch similar to the previous. one, but with draperies tied round the flanking columns. - Margaret Watton d. 1675, small standing wall monument crowned by an urn. At the foot an inscription in Greek. - Daniel Dodson d. 1747, life-size figure nonchalantly leaning on an urn, back wall with garlands hanging down to the l. and r. By the younger W. Woodman.

St Mary the Virgin (3)

S aisle window (2)

Dodson memorial from 1689 (4)

Cheshunt. We should come to it in rose time, for its roses are not to be forgotten; but indeed it is a place to draw the traveller any time. Old Temple Bar for one of its gateways, the hall of Cardinal Wolsey’s old home, a noble 15th-century church, several timbered houses from the past standing out among hundreds of new ones, all these it has, and more, for on its outskirts is Waltham Cross, raised by Edward I to mark the place the body of his beloved Eleanor rested on its last journey from Nottinghamshire to Westminster.

Hertfordshire has gathered to itself this famous relic, though Waltham Abbey, with which the Cross is historically linked, is over the Essex border. This is perhaps the best of all the crosses set up to mark the place where the body of Queen Eleanor rested on its way to Westminster, where she lies in the Confessor’s Chapel, her lovely tomb protected by the beautiful grille made by one of the famous craftsmen of this countryside, Thomas of Leighton over the border. Twelve crosses were set up to mark her resting-places, the first at Lincoln, the last at Charing, and Waltham Cross and one outside Northampton are still monuments of splendour. It is believed that  Waltham Cross was designed by William Torel, the goldsmith who made the queen’s tomb. The cross, now in the care of the Ministry of Public Building and Works, stands on modern steps and is fashioned in stone with three stages, the first stage being original 13th-century work, and all above it rebuilt twice in the 19th century from the old materials. The first stage has six panelled and traceried sides with slender buttresses at the corners and a charming sculptured cornice. The second stage is an elaborate piece of carving, with three statues of Queen Eleanor under canopies with carved finials; the queen is holding her sceptre and all the statues are original and complete except for the loss of one head, which has been made new. Rising above the third stage is an elegant pinnacle set on a dainty base and crowned with a cross.

The most ancient of Cheshunt’s national monuments is the church, but curiosity takes most of us first to Theobalds Park to see old Temple Bar. For two centuries it stood across Fleet Street, gate to the City, and even today the monarch must wait where it stood to receive the sword of the City and give it back to the Lord Mayor before he enters. It has been decked with gold for royal processions and hung with black for Nelson’s funeral, and many a gruesome head has been stuck on it for the wind to batter and the rain to beat. But it got in the way of the traffic, and towards the end of last century it came down. Its stones were numbered and after it had lain some time uncared for the owner of Theobalds, Sir Henry Meux, bought it and set it up here. Christopher Wren designed it, with its central gateway and the smaller round-headed doorways through which six generations of Londoners passed, but the statues in the niches were the work of John Bushnell. Between these statues of three kings and a queen are windows into a room in which a City bank long stored its records.

Only a few fragments remain of the old palace of Theobalds, built by Queen Elizabeth I’s Lord Burghley and accepted by James I in exchange for Hatfield House, for the palace was demolished and three houses have been set up in its place; but we may see part of the old garden wall, and farther afield (at Aldbury Farm) is a bit of the wall which ran ten miles round the royal park in which King James and his children lived. By an irony of fate it was within this wall that James I’s son Charles grew into manhood, and from Theobalds he went to Nottingham to set up his standard on Castle Hill, signal for the Civil War; and it was outside this wall Oliver Cromwell’s son Richard dragged out a weary old age in lodgings for which he paid ten shillings a week.

Cheshunt Great House, once the home of Cardinal Wolsey, is a shadow of its former greatness, with only a fragment left of its moat, but it has still the panelled hall with the same splendid 15th-century timber roof under which the cardinal himself used to sit down to dine.

The common, which once covered acres of the high ground to the north, has dwindled to the little green where stands a rather pathetic old figure, a windmill bereft of its sails. The cawing of the rooks among the chestnuts guides us to the handsome church begun in 1418 and completed after 30 years of devoted care by its rector Nicholas Dixon, whose brass inscription is under the altar table. There are brass portraits of some of his flock, William and Ellen Parke and two other 15th-century women without names, and the kneeling figure of Elizabeth Collen on a brass of 1609.

Apart from two chapels and the south porch, the church is much as Parson Dixon built it, and we may wish he could see it with the beauty of the painted angels in the nave. The new roof resting on the old stone corbels is also painted, adding to the splendour. Here is a big armoured coffer with three locks which has served the church for nearly four centuries, and an old barrel organ with ten tunes on each barrel, still treasured though its day is past. The chancel stalls are a memorial to the men of the Great War, whose names are recorded in gold. By the altar is a great tomb of the Dacres family, the first name on it being that of Robert, Privy Councillor to Henry VIII. The monument to Henry Atkins, physician to two Stuart kings, has been moved to one of the chapels, and near it is a graceful tribute in white marble to a young wife of 24, Margaret Whatton “fair as an angel, virtuous as a saint.”

One of the curates here, John Tillotson, son of a Puritan clothier, rose to be Archbishop of Canterbury. Though his marriage with Cromwell’s niece was no recommendation in those Restoration days, his merit was not to be denied, and men flocked to hear him preach.

There lies in a vault in the church one of the half-forgotten great men of that time, whose father also knew Cromwell; he was Nehemiah Grew the botanist, who crowded into his 71 years of life, which ended here, many botanical discoveries which revolutionised the knowledge of flowers and plants and trees. There lie in the churchyard, also, under a square tomb in the north-west corner, some members of the Cromwell family, one of them an Oliver Cromwell (great-great-grandson) and his daughter Elizabeth Oliveria, the last of the family to bear the surname of the great Protector. The Cromwells had long been familiar figures in Cheshunt, and Richard Cromwell himself here lived out the end of his days when his romance was over.

On stepping down from his high office as Protector, Richard Cromwell went into exile and wandered on the continent for 20 years, when he came back (his wife having been dead five years), took the name of Clarke, and lived with his friend Mrs Pengelly at Cheshunt. There was trouble with his daughters, and an appearance in the courts, but in due course they were reconciled and Richard divided his time between Cheshunt and Hursley in Hampshire, where his daughter Elizabeth lived. At Cheshunt he paid Mrs Pengelly ten shillings a week for his board and lodging, but there were evidently extras, for we find among a bundle of accounts charges for tobacco, brandy, pipes, and a loan of £2 “when you had your feast.” A charge of sixpence is for “repairing your breeches,” 30 shillings for a new hat, and there is an entry for £3 18s. 0d., “money you were pleased to give Tommy on his entrance at the Temple, and a guinea towards buying his law books.” Richard appears to have spent half a crown on mourning gloves in honour of the memory of Queen Mary. One of the most pathetic things ever seen in Cheshunt must have been the little shagreen trunk of Richard Cromwell, which he gave into the care of Mrs Pengelly with orders that it should be very carefully treated. It was probably the trunk which contained the addresses of congratulation on his accession to power, sent to him from all parts of the kingdom.

Another notable figure in Nonconformity Cheshunt knew in those days - Isaac Watts, who spent a quarter of a century preaching in the town, and here preached his last sermon in a meeting-house which has now vanished. The Crossbrook Street Congregational church is named after him.

Nehemiah Grew, who lies in Cheshunt church, came of a family rich in brains and character; his father, a schoolmaster parson who had suffered bitterly as a Parliament man, personally interceding with Cromwell for King Charles’s life. Nehemiah passed from Cambridge to Leyden, where he was admitted doctor of medicine at 30, practised at Coventry and in London with much success, and began investigations on the digestive system that led to important results. He was a good astronomer, one of the little company watching the stars from the top of the Monument at London Bridge, till its vibrations made observations useless. But it was as a botanist that Grew astonished his generation. He first recognised system, design, and function in trees, plants, and flowers. He began his study of vegetable anatomy when he was 23, and five years later his first paper on the subject was read before the Royal Society. At 36 he was elected secretary of that unique fellowship of learning. Watching the stars, curing his patients, and devoutly applying himself to religious practices, he studied the growths of field and garden as if he had had the leisure of a dozen men. He had a marvellous eye; only by the aid of the microscope were others able to verify the discoveries he made with his unaided sight.

He first revealed the sex of flowers and explained the purpose of stamen and pistil. He explained the growth of roots and the way Nature builds tree trunks, and he pointed out the resin ducts in the pine. He anatomised leaves and seeds, the composition of fruits, the nature of plant hairs, the sap channels in the vine. In book after book, laboriously written and lavishly illustrated, he poured out new and astonishing knowledge.

Still his professional work went on, still he attended the Royal Society, classifying and describing its rarities in terms of delightful quaintness. He was one of the lesser great men of an age of giants. We sometimes get a peep of him in company with Prince Rupert and John Evelyn, but he could have had little spare time for social relaxation. He worked to the end, and died visiting a patient.


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