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