Category Archives: medieval graffiti

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

The mediaeval graffiti at Anstey, Hertfordshire


Entrance to Anstey

Through the door: the ancient doorway to an older church at Anstey

Ah reader, when you point an old mare like Le Gringalet at an ancient road of the type which criss-crosses Hertfordshire, you are always sure to find a quiet surprise. And no more so than at the quiet village of Anstey in the north of the county. Well, a village now but in my time…

Sheltering below the great mound of the castle is a quite wonderful church. Here, as my anonymous friend wrote in his beautiful poem Pearl, we find something, “sette sengeley in synglere” (always one for the words, my Staffordshire friend!).  Here at Anstey, we have the silent graffiti of long lost souls.

Of course, I knew him well whose hand turned point to stone – but to inform you who inscribed these scratchings would be telling. I don’t want to get them into trouble with the priest: the last person who was caught ended up losing his hand – hardly a fitting end for a friend talking to the future! And besides, Nicolas de Anstie lost a lot more when he sided against King John so I think it’s best to keep quiet on these matters…

So instead, dear reader, I’d just like to affect an introduction to what I see as some of our scribe’s more exquisite creations… Look around and you see some treasures of my age, perhaps the finest of which are some wonderful jousting helms carved into the pillar near the centre of the church.

While these helms may be unfamiliar to you, I can recall well the merry jousters who once played for sport on the fields outside this church – royally entertained by Sir Nicolas himself.

But these shields are somewhat newer – I would say perhaps around 1300. Look closely and you see no idle scratch but the work of someone who knows what he studies: the breathing holes on the helm face, the continental crest with its horse and reins, the flowing decoration to the rear.

If I’m not mistaken, one crest resembles the ragged staff of the Earls of Warwick but without the bear: I don’t recall the knights in question but perhaps he is one of the Balliol family – a long way from home if he is!

Elsewhere, there are scallops – the sign of pilgrims – and pleas for help from Our Lady.And look further, scattered around are wagons, merchants in padded clothes, a three-legged pot – and a curious inscription near the beautiful font with its mermen. Alas, since last I was this way someone has “restored” the church and painted over this writing – it is difficult to decipher now.

But these changes succeeded in preserving the best. Yes, I know the delightful wall paintings I once knew are long gone save for a few remains, but Anstey is a special place. Reader, should you need some time for quiet reflection, come upon Anstey on a lazy day and share its cool shade. You will be richly rewarded with a mirror onto a distant age.

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