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

Friday 27 November 2020

Tewin church, Herts: a monument to a four times married victim of kidnap and extortion


Tewin church is a little way from the village, and is approached up a long straight avenue from the north. To the south there are only pleasantly green Hertfordshire meadows running gently down to the River Mimram and Tewin Bury Farm (and, less picturesquely, the B1000). 

The driveway terminates in a paved area the central feature of which is the war memorial. This was created by Sir Herbert Baker (1862-1946), who designed (among many other important buildings) South Africa House in Trafalgar Square, the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, the old Grand Stand and Grace Gates of Lord's Cricket Ground,* and (with Lutyens) much of the imperial architecture of New Delhi. He was also one of the four principal architects of the post First World War Imperial War Graves Commission, which was responsible for the design of the beautiful yet monumentally sobering war cemeteries in France and Belgium. Tewin's war memorial depicts what the statutory listing describes as 'the sword of sacrifice' and 'a crusader ship' (the latter looks much more like one built several hundred years after the last Crusade, however). A century ago such symbolism was presumably uncontroversial, but to anyone who's read Wilfred Owen it's rather toe-curling.

The church has a north door, and it would be logical for this to be the main entrance, yet the south door is and apparently always has been the usual entry. This door is sheltered by a pleasingly rustic black-and-white half-timbered porch, probably built in the 16th century. Porches nearly always have their doors on the north and south, yet Tewin's external door is on the west. Go through this door and encounter the church's big surprise.

As you can see, I really wasn't exaggerating when I said 'big'. It only just fits onto the south wall (its presence there explains the absence of a south door). The pyramidal obelisk scrapes the ceiling, and there's only a very little empty space on either side. This monument, commemorating a 1739 death, was first placed in the churchyard (over a family vault) but was moved into the chancel in 1759, then later to the west end of the church, and later still, in 1864, ignominiously crammed into the porch.

General Joseph Sabine, after Sir Godfrey Kneller

It commemorates General Joseph Sabine (c.1661-1739) who had a long military career, including leading his regiment at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. Later in life he became a Whig politician and eventually the Governor of Gibraltar, where he died. In 1715 he had bought and rebuilt Tewin House, which no longer exists (the wall at the east end of the churchyard is a remnant of it). He donated the land on which the long drive leading from the road to the church was built; very public spirited of him. However, at the same time he apparently closed the road leading south from the village down to the Mimram so he could enlarge his gardens, which we can imagine didn't make him very popular locally.

The monument is by Sir Henry Cheere (1703-81); (there's another important one by him in Hertfordshire in Abbots Langley). Sabine is dressed in Roman costume (a fashion in funerary monuments which began in the late 17th century) and reclines awkwardly on his right elbow. In his left hand he holds the remains of a scroll or staff. He looks down with a very serious, almost despairing expression on his face. The carving of the baltea (the dangling straps designed to protect the groin and weigh down the tunic) is particularly exquisite. This grand monument deserves better treatment than being squashed into an unsuitable space and surrounded by clutter, an unwanted guest being made to sleep in the shed.

The church has 11th century origins.** The north wall of the nave dates from this time; the only externally visible evidence of this is a tiny, primitive, round-headed window dwarfed by the two 15th century windows flanking it. It's now blocked, but its jambs are still to be seen inside the church (on the left in the second of the four photos above, by the roof's tie-beam). Some of the jambs of the original clerestory are also visible in the plaster, like ghosts in a negative as they are dark on the white background of the mostly monochrome interior (even the ceiling is painted white).

Late 13th cen piscina with a credence shelf

However, the church as it stands dates mostly from the 13th century. The three-bay arcade with its simple octagonal piers (one of which has a small shallow niche for an image carved into it) and the chancel are of this period, though the chancel arch was rebuilt in the 14th century (it's lopsided, presumably because of subsidence). The tower was built in the 15th century, when some of the windows in the nave were renewed.

18th cen font bowl with gadrooning (a decorative series of convex curves). Stem 1965

The east window, depicting the Crucifixion, dates from 1874 and was made by James Powell and Sons. Untypically, we know the name of the designer, Harry Ellis Wooldridge (1845-1917), who sometimes worked as an assistant to the often excellent Henry Holiday (see his outstanding work in Buckland, Berks/Oxon, for example).

There are also three windows from 1962 by Patrick Reyntiens (born 1925). One is an Annunciation and there are three abstract compositions. I think they're highly successful, worth a trip to the church regardless of anything else that might be worth seeing. Bright colours are used very sparingly - there's even some plain, or nearly plain glass - but this makes what colours there are explode like fireworks (especially in the abstracts). Reyntiens make fine use of texture. The two raised hands gesture of Mary as she hears the astounding news is very touching. (There's another window, very different, by Reyntiens in Hertfordshire in Anstey.)

As well as the imposing Sabine monument in the porch there are several minor but enjoyable (though they may be an acquired taste) 18th century wall tablets which together trace the history of English sculpture from the baroque to the neo-classical.

This cartouche commemorates William Gore, who died in 1709. The design incorporates swags, swirly volutes and winged putti heads.

This cartouche, from 1733, is even more swirly, almost rococo. It is dedicated to Mary Warren, 'Wise, humble, fair, chaste as the Roman dame'. Note the Mannerist animal head at the top.

This, a memorial to James Fleet, who died in 1733, combines elements from the previous two cartouches. What look like snails balanced on the knots of the swags are lamps, symbols of light, and in particular Christ as the light of the world. 

More than half a century later fashions had changed; the exuberance, even frivolity, of the baroque was no longer tolerated, certainly not on funerary monuments. This neo-classical design commemorates Elizabeth, Lady Cathcart, who died in 1789. She had been married to the James Fleet to whom the previous monument had been erected; she was 97 and had outlived him by 56 years. 

In the meantime she had been married thrice more. As she said herself, the first time she was married (to Fleet) she did so to please her parents, the second (to the brother of Joseph Sabine, so monumentally celebrated in the porch) for fortune, and the third for rank. Three times widowed (though childless), aged 53, she married for love. Her fourth husband was Colonel Hugh Maguire, eighteen years her junior. He was the co-heir to the Maguire estates in Fermanagh, Ireland, but was far from a wealthy man, his properties-to-be being heavily mortgaged. So desperate for funds was he that he had spent a period as a soldier of fortune - that is, a mercenary - in the Austro-Hungarian army.

He was poor but he was dishonest, and, dangerously, he was also handsome and very charming. He wormed his way into Elizabeth's affections, persuading her to buy him a commission in the British army (it was standard practice to purchase officer ranks at the time). She evidently fell for his toyboy temptations, and on their marriage endowed him with half the income from the substantial properties she'd accrued from her three previous husbands. (She seems to have entered into this fourth marriage in a somewhat devil-may-care spirit as she wore a ring engraved with the motto "If I survive I will have five.")

Sooner or later he discovered that she was wealthier than she had so far let on, and demanded, allegedly at pistol point, that she surrender everything she'd hidden from him. She may have been besotted, but nevertheless she refused. His response was to effectively kidnap her and whisk her off to Fermanagh, where he locked her up in one of his ancestral homes (possibly Tempo Manor, his birthplace). There he threw opulent parties while she wasted away in a mean attic room with just one small window, and, apart from occasional threatening visits from her husband, and presumably servants bringing meals and so on, only a prayer book, a single old newspaper and her memories for company. This continued for a scarcely credible twenty years. 

The story so far is well attested, but what happened next is the subject of rumour and speculation. The most dramatic, and therefore the most popular, version is that eventually, her mind weak, she gave in to his demands and revealed that the deeds to her properties were concealed in a kind of home-made safe behind a panel in Tewin Hall. Maguire immediately left for England, and on arriving at the Hall tried to break open the lock protecting the long-desired documents with his jack-knife, but in his haste and impatience cut his hand. Blood poisoning was the result, followed by lockjaw. Weeks later, he died. 

Another version is that he died in a duel. In truth, we don't know how or even where he died, but we do know that he made a will in March 1766 and died the next month, which implies that he foresaw his death, probably because he was ill. Nevertheless, the story about the self-inflicted wound is too good not to retell.

His death (or possibly his illness and/or absence) allowed her to leave the room for the first time in more than two decades, aged 75. She was dressed in rags and wore a red wig, and, hardly surprisingly, was overwhelmed and befuddled after her long imprisonment in virtual solitary confinement.

The story has a happy ending. Elizabeth recovered her wits and returned to Tewin, where she lived almost a quarter of a century more and found some pleasure and purpose in life at last. While she never did marry husband number five - her experiences with number four had rather put her off marriage, I should imagine - she engaged in charitable works and enjoyed dancing into her 80s. At her request she was buried near her first husband.***

After all this excitement her monument is perhaps anticlimactic, but it's a handsome and chaste example of its type. There are two small figures, a man and a woman in classical dress, flanking an urn at the top. He holds what I think is a torch pointing down to symbolise death, but looking disconcertingly like a bone. 

Elizabeth's story deserves to be more famous; however, the most famous aspect of the church is not in the building itself but the churchyard. The story that's made it famous is a fanciful concoction, (unlike Elizabeth's, which has a great deal of truth in it alongside the embroidery). 

In the east of the churchyard is a Georgian table tomb, now surrounded by iron railings. It shelters the mortal remains of Lady Anne Grimston, who died in 1713. Most unusually, there are large ash and sycamore trees growing from within the tomb. The widely believed legend (as related here and here) is that Lady Anne was an atheist who scoffed at the prospect of there being an afterlife. She issued a sort of celestial challenge, declaring 'If, indeed, there is life hereafter, trees will render asunder my tomb.' Lo and behold, some years later a tree began to break out from her grave; attempts were made to kill it, but in vain, and ever since then trees have rent asunder her tomb. 'A story, some say, that proves the very existence of God' according to the first of the two websites linked above.

A variation is provided by the Tewin village website (though it immediately debunks this new theory). In this version Anne was a Sadducean and therefore did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. This makes little sense: the Sadducees were a Jewish sect which spluttered out in the 1st century CE, and there's no reason to believe she was Jewish. Nor can I find any reference to a heretical Christian sect going under that name. As the village website wisely points out, all the evidence suggests that she was an entirely typical Christian of her day, and therefore the picturesque story is made up from beginning to end. Our love of a good story is often stronger than our love of truth.

Tewin church has been open whenever I've visited.

* He gave the famous figure of Father Time to Lord's, though it's unclear whether he was responsible for designing it.

** It certainly doesn't date from c.604, as this webpage claims. This is an extreme example of something seen quite often, even in official or semi-official sources: someone finds an early date allegedly associated with the church and jumps to the conclusion that the existing church must have been built then, or at least started building then. (1086 is very often mentioned as that's the date of the Domesday book, frequently the earliest written record of a settlement. However, only a small proportion of all the churches claiming to date from 1086 have any actual structure that old.) Where the date c.604 comes from I don't know, but I do know that nothing of that date is incorporated in the present building, though it's not impossible that there was a church on the site in the 7th century. St Martin's in Canterbury is the only English church with a plausible claim to have any standing structure as early as that.

*** The best online source for Lady Cathcart's story seems to be here, though it quotes no sources. Here you will find an old page from the BBC website with some extra background, though it relates the self-inflicted wound story as if it were fact; we expect better of the Beeb. Tempo Manor's website narrates the story in the style of a bodice-ripping novel, complete with corny dialogue, which is amusing or annoying according to your taste. The story was used as a source for Maria Edgeworth's 1800 novel Castle Rackrent.

Statutory listing

Victoria County History

Royal Commission on Historical Monuments


  1. Fascinating tale, and great photos.

    1. Thanks for your comment. It's heartening to get positive feedback. The church is otherwise only marginally interesting, so I was very glad to come across that story to enliven my account.

  2. Doesn't it cheese you off when you put all that work into a long informative and well illustrated post, to get a one line, 5 word response?

    1. I write mostly for my own satisfaction and any feedback I get is a very welcome bonus! I'm grateful for all responses, including yours, of course. My blog's had 77,000 page views so it has some readers, and two or three of them have become regular correspondents (and one a friend in real life). So I'm not particularly cheesed off when I get little or no immediate response to a post - the fun is mostly in the visiting, photographing, researching and writing. I find it very illuminating, trying to articulate why I like (or dislike) something. Best wishes, David