Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Monday 22 April 2019

Brent Pelham church, Herts - here be dragons (well, here was once one dragon)

This is my one hundredth Icknield Indagations post. Brent Pelham is the twenty-eighth Hertfordshire church I've written about; I've also written about some other churches in the south-east, and about other subjects such as stained glass, the books I read as a child and teenager, John Surman, Gerald Finzi, and more. Please feel free to browse some previous posts; some of them can be accessed by clicking on the appropriate item in the the list on the right.

Brent Pelham church is most well-known, inasmuch as it's known at all, for one thing: being the last resting place of a dragon slayer. His name was O. Piers Shonks, and his tomb is in the north wall of the nave.

Shonks was the lord of the manor and a giant, a full twenty-three feet tall. A dragon (or serpent) was terrorising the district, and Shonks, with his hunting dogs (which were so swift that they seemed to have wings), went out to tackle it. The dogs attacked first, and while the dragon's attention was diverted, Shonks managed to fatally stab it.

However, as it happened this particular dragon had been a special favourite of the Devil, who was furious at Shonks. (A Devil who has a favourite dragon sounds rather sympathetic.) The Devil told Shonks that he would get his revenge by taking his body and soul when he died, whether or not he was buried in a church.

Many years later, when he was on his (unusually large) deathbed, Shonks fired an arrow into the air, decreeing that he would be buried wherever it fell. It hit the north wall of the church, and so he was interred within the wall, neither in nor out of the church, and thus safe from Hell.

There's an inscription, in Latin with a fairly loose English translation, on the tomb, which claims that Shonks died in 1086. The English version ends:

But Shonks one serpent kills, t'other [ie the Devil] defies,

And in this wall as in a fortress lies.

Nathanael Salmon, who published his History of Hertfordshire in 1728, attributes the lines to the Rev. Raphael Keen, who died in 1614 after being the vicar of Brent Pelham for (allegedly) seventy-five and a half years, so we can assume that they were written in the 16th or early 17th century. Presumably Shonks' story itself is older, and is based on the images on the black marble slab that covers his supposed tomb. This slab, quite apart from the story it inspired, is a remarkable object. (It's also difficult to photograph adequately as it's mostly covered by a low arch.)

It dates from the 13th century and is carved in high relief.

In the middle is a richly floriated cross. 

Above this is an angel (his, her or its face has been smashed) who carries a soul to Heaven in a piece of cloth. (This is a fairly common medieval motif; it can be seen for example on a tomb in Benington.) Around the angel are the symbols of the four Evangelists:

The lion of St Mark.

The (badly damaged) ox of St Luke.

The man of St Matthew.

The eagle of St John. At the bottom of the slab the stem of the cross continues down and becomes a spear*:

The spear stabs the dragon in the mouth. In its death agonies the dragon throws up its tail, the tip of which is elegantly, even genteelly, curled. (You can sort of see why the Devil was so upset.) This symbol of good triumphing over evil is of course the source of Shonks' legend. 

It's not known who the marble slab was intended to commemorate, nor where it came from. It predates the present church by half a century or more. It's possible that an earlier church, perhaps made of wood, stood on the same site, and was burnt down. (It's postulated that the 'Brent' element of Brent Pelham is a corruption of 'burnt'.) My amateur guess is that such a sophisticated object as this carved slab must have come from somewhere of high status, but when and why will remain unknown.

The church as it stands dates essentially from the mid 14th century, though the tower is 15th century and the whole building was, like Westmill, heavily restored in the later 19th century by Ewan Christian. Its most prominent features, externally and internally, are due to him. He rebuilt the nave roof to its original steep pitch (and it must now rival Westmill's in height, reaching all the way up to the top stage of the tower), and his patterns of red and black tiles catch the eye very effectively on a sunny day.

Inside, the aisleless nave topped by Christian's impressive hammerbeam roof (though the hammerbeams themselves are admittedly a bit feeble) feels lofty, if barn-like. But there's not a great deal to see once you've looked at Shonks' tomb. 

Christian removed the 15th century rood screen, but some of it is preserved in the tower screen.

Apart from the tomb, the best thing in the church is the early 14th century door with mouchettes (curved dagger-like shapes). 

Hanging in the church are four monochrome watercolours from the 1840s, by J.C.Buckler, who painted similar pictures of very many Herts churches. (Some hang in the relevant church, and there are four fat volumes of them in the County Archives in Hertford.) They show the church before Christian; in particular, note the box pews, low-pitched nave roof, two-decker pulpit, chancel screen and classical Venetian east window.



There are some enjoyable 15th century grotesques on the tower. The one in the first picture above seems to be wearing the noseband of a bridle. He looks crestfallen, while the one at the bottom looks fierce.

Just outside the entrance to the churchyard are these stocks. It's impossible to date them exactly, but they must be 19th century. The lych gate at Anstey, about three miles away, was converted into a lockup in 1831; perhaps the stocks date from the same period. The 1830s were a time of social and political unrest in England; for example, in 1830 the Swing rioters had smashed threshing machines in a protest against low wages and poor living conditions. The authorities responded harshly; nineteen protesters were hanged and nearly five hundred transported to Australia. These events must have touched Brent Pelham and Anstey, so the stocks and lockup could be part of the same reprisals. They're peaceful places now, but in the past that peace has been disturbed, perhaps by riots, or even by dragons.

Brent Pelham church has always been open whenever I've visited. 

* (Added 6/12/19) At least, this is how I saw it until I recently read Christopher Hadley's outstanding book Hollow Places (2019), which examines the whole of the Shonks story in fascinating and forensic detail. Astoundingly, the conclusion he reaches is that the story does have some factual basis. Shonks was a real person (but spoiler alert: there wasn't a literal dragon). Hadley points out that what I took (and most others take) to be a spear is clearly not something being thrust into the dragon's mouth (my pictures don't show this very clearly, because, as I've noted, it's very hard to photograph the whole of the tomb at once because of the low arch; the next time I'm there I'll try to do better). If anything, it's something emerging from the mouth, stylised foliage or perhaps even flames. I'm convinced by this, as I'm convinced by almost everything in the book. I can't recommend it highly enough.

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