Category Archives: Essex

Centuries of silence find their voice at Strethall in Essex

Strethall Church in Essex

Strethall Church, Essex: a lonely survivor on a windswept ridge

In wind-swept uplands, just west of Saffron Walden and north of Wendens Ambo, lies a small village once home to thane and freeman, serf and reeve and now but home to none. Strethall by name, the hall on the street, now sleeps silent as pestilence and plague have played among its stones and worms turn bodies into the dusts of time.

Yet not always was it thus and, as it was told to me so I shall tell to you: the story of a village near the Icknield Way whose proud past has slipped away among the whispering winds of these wasted fields…

The king lay at Camelot on New Year’s Day so I, in search of adventure, took le Gringalet and headed north to the Royston Ridge before passing on that ridgeway past the windmill at Great Chishill and past Chrishall again, home – as it has been related – to John de la Pole, an old friend of mine.

Here, in olden times, the road wended west to Great Chesterford if you will but now, with the passage of time, old Roman roads have long since lost their significance and Strethall is but a backwater in the book of time… You need to look hard to find it today.

But as a young knight, I remember a different place. Once, on this high peak – 400 feet above the datum is high in these parts – Strethall was a vibrant village, vehement and vocal. 

Strethall then was already an ancient settlement, in existence long before my time and serving Roman and local alike. And when I last visited the place, it still supported fields, oxen, pigs in the woodland and more sheep than I could count; notwithstanding a mill upon the ridge. Alas, nothing of this part now remains.

Talking with a friendly local, I was informed that when pestilence and plague blew around the place in the 1340s, the village suffered badly; so much so that not one household lived to tell the tale. Today, just the church – St Mary the Virgin – stands lonely on the bluff with just a few barns and a farmhouse for company.

Yet the church, despite its isolation, is eloquent in its solitude. The tower, simply constructed of flints, is bound by iron to strengthen it against the high winds which blow up in these parts. Apart from the iron straps and some later crenellations, I’d say the place is much as I remember it when William and Alwig – and later Hugh – held the lands for the abbot in 1086.

But when you enter the church, if you can scale away the accretions of the years, old stones still sing. The chancel arch is surely, in its simplicity, one of the finest examples of Anglo-Saxon interior arches in a small church anywhere on these islands. Primitive in execution yes, but finely worked notwithstanding.

And then there is the wonderful font, unusual and large. I recall this from a visit I made in the 1100s so I can vouch for its age too. The roof however is fairly modern; I would place it, reader, to between 1400 and 1500, trussed with cambered tie-beams and stoutly made from oak. Not perhaps one of the most magnificent of roofs but somehow fitting to this place.

Look elsewhere and you will find a thirteenth century piscina, some delightful Fifteenth Century brass work and some pews dating, I should say, to what you would call the later middle ages.

I am told by our local friend that this church was on the verge of losing its status as an independent parish in recent years but the locals from the nearby village of Catmere End (which would, it seems, be where a new resurgent community built itself after the Black Death) protested and independence was preserved.

So much so, it seems, that just this Christmas this small church, capable of holding 70 in moderate comfort was packed to bursting when nearly 130 worshippers descended on it to give grace to God at Christmas time.

Reader, should you seek solace in small things, look to Strethall for your guidance. Despite the monstrous predations of an uncaring world, people in small places can wield plenty of power.

The original owners of these lands may now have gone away. But in their spirit and in their deeds they still live on today.

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Filed under British History, British Landscape, English Counties, English History, English Landscape, Essex, Gawain and the Green Knight, Historic Churches in England, Historic places to visit in Britain, Historic towns of Britain, King Arthur, Knights of the Round Table, Sir Gawain and Le Gringalet

A Viking’s skin nailed to a door?

Hadstock church door today

Hadstock Church door - a dark story or something less sinister?

In my travels across this land, one of the many privileges I enjoy is the ability to dip into local stories and legends – none more so than that of Hadstock in Essex.

For those unaware of North West Essex, it is surely one of the most beautiful areas in the kingdom, where small woodlands give way to delicate views over ancient field systems. Country lanes and roads wind themselves through the landscape like eels in a river and, here and there an ancient village reveals itself. One such place is Hadstock.

Today, to my sorrow, little remains of the village I once travelled through in 1411, but the imprint of it on the landscape is still much as I recall, with the church rising above the homesteads and Essex folk quietly going about their business. Yet the village also plays host to a somewhat macabre local story…

It was here, at this church, that a strange legend has grown up of a Viking who was flayed alive and his skin nailed to the door as a warning against future invasions. Indeed, this very flesh ended up in the museum at Saffron Walden, a nearby market town, where for many years it has resided in the museum there. Local legend lives on through the centuries, its tale to tell, so what is the truth of the matter?

I can now reveal, as news readers are so fond of saying, that on Saint Brice’s Day 1002 – over a thousand years ago in your time, dear reader, if not in mine – King Ethelred , fearful of an attempt to assassinate him, ordered the mass killing of Danes. I can also reveal that the door did indeed have a leather covering. Thirdly, it is also true that this door – if not the church – is the oldest in the county. The evidence certainly appears convincing. However, illogical syllogisms – and the finest local legends – oft comprise unrelated facts and so, in this case, it proves to be.

I do indeed remember this church door well from my first visit and while leather was certainly present, this was not an unusual occurrence; such material occurs on other church doors as far afield as Rochester, Copford and even Westminster Abbey. At no time in my memory did the covering look anything like the flesh of a human.

How could I, a mere knight, know such a thing? Reader, it pains me to say that in my travels through the centuries, I have seen many brutal acts – not least the disgraceful flaying alive of Bertrand de Gurdon (although someone there called him Pierre Basile) at Chalus-Chabrol following the death of Richard Coeur de Lion – and I know a flayed skin when I see one. I can, therefore, confirm that the skin on the door at Hadstock was not, and never has been, human – most likely it was that of an ox or a cow.

Of course, it is always makes good reading when a story contains gruesome details but, as a Knight of the Round Table I am duty bound to put honour and virtue above all things and  I have looked into the matter further. I can tell you that not so long ago, Alan Cooper, a DNA expert from Oxford University,  also looked into the matter further. His analysis showed that the skin was indeed that of a cow.

Sic transit gloria mundi we must say; how sad it is that the magic of such a tale can be destroyed by the cold calculation of pure science. But if only they had asked me, I could have told them anyway!

Hadstock church door interior

The interior of the church door at Hadstock. Notice the gaps which the original leather covering would have covered


Filed under British History, British Landscape, English Counties, English History, English Landscape, Essex, Gawain and the Green Knight, Hadstock, Historic towns of Britain, King Arthur, Knights of the Round Table, Sir Gawain and Le Gringalet, Touring Britain, Touring England

A meeting with John de la Pole of Chrishall, Essex

Sir John de la Pole

Sir John de la Pole - an old friend

Left to travel this world in immortality, I find it difficult at times to see what happened to the people and the places I once knew and loved. In my rides on La Gringalet, sometimes we come across places which hold so many ghosts that it causes us both to stand and breathe in silence. One such place is Chrishall in Essex, home of an old acquaintance, Sir John de la Pole.

It’s been many years since I dropped in on Sir John. When last we met in the 1360s, he was a young man in his teens and about to be married to a beautiful woman called Joan Cobham from Kent. Alas, the next time I was to see him was just yestereday – a face now frozen in brass at Chrishall Church on the Icknield Way in Essex.

But he wasn’t always thus, oh no! John was full of life – a huntsman who excelled in arms – a true and perfect knight, whose skill at the horse was renowned and whose good looks were the envy of his fellow knights. Like me, he came from the north country – in his case, his father from Kingston-upon-Hull by that great river Humber.

It is sad now to see his face, staring out at me from the church floor. I can hear his gruff Yorkshire tones now saying  how in the south it was “fair warm and not as gradely as when ‘t’ cold winds blow from the German sea”. A true northerner if ever there was one – he preferred it when it rained to when the sun shone!

I wonder what he would say today about the village he left when his life was so cruelly cut short? When last we talked among the dunnocks and woodpeckers which seem to thrive here, the church was at the centre of the village but now the village seems to have moved up the hill, as if to turn its back on a life long lost. The farmsteads I knew have long gone, even his fair manor has not fared well with the passage of the years – not one stone stands upon another and no more do we hear the recitals of poetry and the laughter that was so much a part of his life.

Alas, poor Sir John, he died so young – living only long enough to father his young daughter Joan with his fair wife, of the same name and buried with him too at this place. But all is not lost to the silence of time, dear reader. If Sir John could know what I know now, he would be proud of what he created.

Joan, his daughter, went on to marry well. Not once but five times,  and sometimes I do wonder whether our great scribe Geoffrey Chaucer didst have her in mind when he created his Wife of Bath? In 1380 she married Sir Robert Hemenhale who died in 1391; then she married the Member of Parliament Sir Reynold Braybroke, who died in 1405; thirdly she married. Sir Nicholas Hawberk, who tragically died only two years later and by whom she had a son (who also tragically died).

I have looked into this matter further dear friends and have found she then went on to marry Sir John Oldcastle who by this marriage appears to have been annointed to Lord Oldcastle before, strangely, being executed by our great king Henry V in 1417. This must have been a cause of great sadness to Joan but she was clearly seen as a true asset: marrying for a fifth time Sir John Harpenden who outlived her on her death in the 1430s, dying in 1458.

Ah Joan, Joan! If your father had known what you had achieved beyond the few short years of his own brief life, he would have been a proud man indeed! On my travels I must visit soon your grave at Cobham and pass on my respects to you, dear child…

The stones and brass at Chrishall are quiet today but their silence is more eloquent than words.

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Filed under British History, English Counties, English History, Essex, Gawain and the Green Knight, Hertfordshire, Historic places to visit in Britain, Mediaeval Graffiti, medieval graffiti, Sir Gawain and Le Gringalet, Touring England