Category Archives: Hertfordshire

Sir Gawain and Sir Walter atte Lea

Image of tomb of Sir Walter Atte Lea in Albury

The much damaged remains of the tomb of Sir Walter Atte Lea, who helped in calming the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381

And so we went riding through dark woods and groves,

Gringolet and myself going slow down wind-ways,

Till we came unto Albury set high on its hill

With eyes over Hertfordshire at sweet summer tide

Where Walter atte Lea lies asleep in repose

In a bier by a window beside a bright light

That shines upon him and his wife lying there.

What now he whispers I wish I could hear

But all of his voice has gone blown with the barley

Along with the words that he spoke long ago

To Richard the boy king who ruled with weak reason

When peasants in Essex and Suffolk and Kent

Did rise up against those grasping greedy for tax!

Walter wanted to walk with his own peasants there

To tackle them himself and not to allow

Central courts to oppress them and cause much contempt

When he had to live there and treat with his men

And help rule his lands without disloyal folk.

Repression he argued had gone way too far

And if it did not stop well then doom must swift follow

For sure.

He talked with his men there

Who knew his local law

Walter saw what was right fair

In talking with the rural poor.

The Church of St Mary at Albury in Hertfordshire contains a variety of monuments and brasses to attract the casual visitor. The tomb of Sir Walter atte Lea, referred to in this post, is now sadly much defaced and has also been moved at some time in the past. Sir Walter atte Lea (also known as Sir Walter atte Lee) himself played a key role during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, attempting to deal with complaints locally rather than to impose harsher penalties from a distant monarchy. He appears to have handled the matter incompetently although this did not stop his further advancement under Richard II, as this link reveals. The location of the church, atop a hill surveying much of the surrounding countryside, means it commands attractive views over the east Hertfordshire uplands.

New Book by the Author: Michael Smith’s new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight will be published in July 2018. To pre-order your special collector’s limited first edition – with your name in the back – please click here

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Filed under British History, English Counties, English History, English Landscape, Hertfordshire, Hertfordshire, Historic towns of Britain, Poetry

Sir Gawain goes to Bygrave, an ancient settlement in aged fields

Image of St Margaret of Antioch, Bygrave, Hertfordshire

The delightful church of St Margaret of Antioch, Bygrave, Hertfordshire, which has Saxon origins.

The rains relented overnight revealing sun to bless the day

And so on Gringolet I ride the rolling road below the ridge

Where ancient men lie buried still in mounds majestic overhead;

And on to this shire’s soft edge I go and down to see Bygrave below.

This place has history as betrayed by boundaries of its bold fields

Which have the centuries survived as Saxon relics still and true

When others all around did under evil threat so ease to be enclosed;

A market place it once was but now more music do we hear

From roaming red kites high above than any padding in this street.

Yet Margaret of Antioch is here mild among this springtime bliss –

She presides in such a place as will most sweetly calm

The troubled minds of those who mingle mid the graves

And by the marshy moats which men once dug upon this mound

When few but brave men felt compelled to make their fortunes here

And those that did played nine men’s morris meekly by the church.

A simple place, blanched white in sun and shining like

A beacon in lands dark, remote, or bleak or bad

And which now are but a less-viewed vestige of a vanished age.

Let ancient Bygrave calm you too and capture in your troubled head

and thoughts

A time when folk did wander free

And played at idle sports

Below the shadow of some tree

In harvest time cohorts.


Bygrave in the county of Hertford is an ancient settlement which today sleeps atop rolling countryside just below the Royston Ridge. The church, St Margaret of Antioch, contains much of interest, including wall paintings, a fifteenth century font and the remains of a mediaeval rood screen. Parts of the building are Saxon in origin. The field system surrounding the village are of particular note; research shows that it was never enclosed. This landscape sensitivity report does give some cause for alarm, given that this ancient landscape has survived for so long. This particular survival is miraculous and it is Sir Gawain’s view that all must be done to protect it for future generations so they can know and understand how our ancestors lived.




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Filed under British Landscape, British Society, English Counties, English Landscape, Hertfordshire, Historic Churches in England, Historic places to visit in Britain, Sir Gawain and Le Gringalet, Uncategorized

Piers Shonks the Dragon Slayer

Image of knight slaying a dragon

Piers Shonks the Dragon Slayer of Hertfordshire (a St George of those far lands!). Original Print available at

When the Devil thinks he’s caught you, a knight can do two things: succumb to the tyrant’s will, or fight back. Now here’s a story of a knight I knew well and whose story lives on today, should you wish to seek him out in a cold vault of an old church: Piers Shonks, the Dragon Slayer.

In olden times the wastelands of upper Hertfordshire, in an area known as the Pelhams, were home to strange men and stranger creatures. Here, when the light is gloomy, the land lies sullen like a great sea creature beached on the sands. The winds can be cold and lonely there, and even the oak and the ash, wayside friends as you seek direction, can suddenly turn silent and stare down at your misfortune.

And so it was a thousand years ago that Piers Shonks, a Norman knight of those fields, came face to face with the Devil’s creature among these fields and stones.

Hunting Dragons with Hounds

What a night that was! Sir Piers with his three fleet-footed hounds set forth into those fields to seek out a winged serpent whose rustlings and beatings among the woods and ungrowth was causing great concern among the serfs and yeomen who tended those lands.

He found the creature soon enough, nibbling and tearing at the carcase of an ox; its scales catching the evening light, glistening in the gloaming. In one move, Sir Piers couched his lance beneath his arm and charged the worm, launching his lance at the reptile’s mouth and splitting its throat asunder.

Its wings did beat and its tail did flap but in minutes the creature’s lifeless form lay draped upon the stubble, it’s eyes rolled to the welkin and its claws sunk in the earth. Plate by plate its armour had been made. Scale by scale the armour now dropped off like leaves on an autumn tree. The giant was no more.

Chased by the Fiend, never to be safe?

But the Devil’s work is never done. Now the Lord of Darkness arose from the earth, chastising Sir Piers for his affrontery and glowering said, “your soul shall know no rest and peace shall have no bed. No church will ever hold your sleep, no holy place your soul to keep”. Whether buried inside a church or without, Sir Piers would never be safe from the Prince of Evil

I knew Sir Piers and knew well how his mind would dwell upon a puzzle. Drawing of his short bow, he placed an arrow and shot it towards the church of Brent Pelham (a corruption, reader, of Burnt Pelham, as it was then known due to the predations of the dragon). There it landed on the church’s north wall and there he intended to be buried – neither inside the wall nor without: safe from Devil’s suction clutches.

And so today, fellow journeyman through time, if you look in the north wall of the church at Brent Pelham, you will still see Sir Piers’ grave and read upon it the words thus placed in more recent times which state:

Nothing of Cadmus nor St George, those names

of great renown survives them, but their Fames;

time was so sharp set, as to make no Bones

Of theirs, nor of their monumental Stones,

but Shonke one Serpent kills, t’other defies,

and in this Wall as in a Fortress lyes.

Is this story true, you ask me? Well reader, I know the truth of it and I shall keep it safe. For sure these stories are embellished with the passing of the years but “Shonkes’ Moat” is still marked upon the maps and in those lands you still meet folk who stand taller for taking the air that once Sir Piers breathed.

And yet still he lies there in his tomb in the wall, a silent guardian against the mischief of wickedness – at peace, slumbering for all time in that dusty vault.

As Byron might have said:

“Shrine of the Mighty! can it be

that this is all remains of thee?”

New Book by the Author: Michael Smith’s new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight will be published in July 2018. To pre-order your special collector’s limited first edition – with your name in the back – please click here

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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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