Let’s start with Chaucer’s granddaughter, Alice de la Pole. Alice was quite a lady, a duchess, with extensive lands in the Thames Valley, East Anglia and overseas. She was born in 1404, the daughter of Thomas Chaucer (d 1434) and Matilda Burghersh (d 1436). Thomas inherited some of his father’s excellent connections and had a pretty illustrious career, serving as, among other things, Chief Butler of England, Constable of Wallingford Castle, a Member of Parliament and Speaker of the House of Commons. His marriage to Matilda brought him the manor of Ewelme, in Oxfordshire. His aunt was Katherine Swynford, mistress, then wife, of John of Gaunt, son of Edward III.
As a child, Alice was betrothed (some sources say married) to one of Henry V’s captains, Sir John Phelip, but he died of the flux (dysentery) at the siege of Harfleur in 1415. She went on to marry Thomas Montacute, Earl of Salisbury, a renowned soldier and commander, who also left Alice a widow, when he was accidentally hit with a cannon ball at the siege of Orleans in 1428. In 1430, Alice married her 2nd (or 3rd) husband, William de la Pole, Earl (later Duke) of Suffolk – who had actually been serving with the Earl of Salisbury, which was probably how he and Alice met. William went on to negotiate the marriage between Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou. He was an early victim of the squabbles which led to the Wars of the Roses, blamed for territorial losses in France, and was murdered at sea – beheaded with a rusty sword, according to some accounts – in 1450, his body dumped on the beach at Dover. William is the Suffolk in Shakespeare’s Henry VI Parts 1 and 2, and also features in Conn Iggulden’s excellent novel Wars of the Roses – Stormbird. In any event, he and Alice appeared to have enjoyed a happy marriage until his untimely death. Their son, John, was briefly married (the marriage was annulled) to Margaret Beaufort, great-granddaughter of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford and mother of Henry VII. John went on to support the Yorkist cause and marry Elizabeth Plantagenet, sister of King Edward IV and Richard III. But the de la Poles fell from favour under the new Tudor dynasty and Alice’s grandsons were the last of the line: Edmund, 3rd Duke of Suffolk, was beheaded on the orders of Henry VIII in 1513; Richard was killed at the battle of Pavia in 1525 and William died in the Tower in 1539.
You’ll find Alice, though, one of the great ladies of one of the most turbulent periods in British history, in an amazing alabaster tomb at St Mary’s Church in her home village of Ewelme. It was actually my mate Dave who put me on her track. Dave’s a far more erudite chap than I am and the inspiration behind other notable visits, such as Swinbrook and Fox’s Pulpit. “If you’re ever in the Oxford area and have time,” he murmured over a pint of Owd Windy at the Ruptured Ducke one evening, “Pop into Ewelme Church. Impressive tomb.”
The road to the village took me past the drear, slightly sinister, fences of RAF Benson. It was from here that Spitfires of No 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit flew during WW2, high over enemy territory, photographing, among other things, the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams shortly after the Dambusters raid in 1943, and the Tirpitz. Until 1995, RAF Benson was also home to the Queen’s Flight. The road turns into an attractive, but vaguely straggling, settlement past the watercress beds. Only an idiot would miss the church completely and end up making an unplanned excursion round south Oxfordshire. Note to self: next time, follow Parson’s Lane to the right – the clue’s in the name. Finally, I pulled up by an old wall and got out. There wasn’t a soul around and a sudden commotion a few feet above my head made me start. Red kites, with their distinctive v-shaped tails, swooped; a lone crow seemed to be bravely taking them on.
Ewelme is an ancient place, possibly with Celtic origins. It was recorded in the Domesday Book (1086) as Auuilme, from the old English (Saxon) meaning ‘place at the river source’. There are variations on the theme, including Lawelme – ‘a spring source’, Aewhyme – ‘water whelming’ and even the Latin Aqua Alma – ‘sweet water’. The village pond, a deep pool where fairies are said to play and which is reputed to have restorative powers, feeds watercress beds and thence flows into the Thames. Legend has it that Henry VIII bathed in the pond (or was playfully pushed in by Katherine Howard) when staying at Ewelme Manor; hence it is known as King’s Pool. Elizabeth I is rumoured to have dallied with her favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in the surrounding leafy lanes. You can almost hear their ghostly laughter, rippling down the years
The church is large and pretty much rectangular, with a hefty central nave and a tower to the west, from the top of which the English flag flutters proudly in the breeze. Brick battlements enclose the roof and there is an attractive chequer-board pattern of stone and flint surrounding the significant windows on the east end. The building is manifestly late medieval, squarer in shape than preceding architectural styles. It was built on the site of an earlier church by Alice and William sometime in the 1430s (parts of the tower are older). They also built the adjoining almshouses for 2 priests and 13 poor men, as well as the nearby school; both are still in use.
The style of the church is, apparently, East Anglian; William undoubtedly brought craftsmen over from Suffolk. The interior is still largely 15th century; it is beautifully light and relatively plain – except for the chancel and, to the south, a chapel dedicated to St John the Baptist. Both of these seem surprisingly ornate, for an Anglican church; the walls are decorated with repetitions of the IHS Christogram, in black and red gothic lettering. In fact, there is something of interest wherever you look. Throughout the church are various stone carvings in almost pristine condition – one, apparently, representing Edward III, Geoffrey Chaucer’s patron. The elaborate wooden font cover – a gift from John de la Pole on Alice’s death – is 10½ feet high, crowned with a figure depicting St Michael. There are many 15th and 16th century brasses in the church and, in front of the ancient rood screen, the grave of Michael de la Pole, briefly 3rd Earl of Suffolk, who was one of the few English nobles killed at Agincourt in 1415. We owe much of the preservation of St Mary’s to a Colonel Martyn, a Cromwellian commander who prevented the destruction that so many churches suffered at the hands of Puritan troops during the Civil War of the 17th century.
Within St John’s Chapel is the altar tomb of Alice’s parents, Thomas and Matilda. Brasses of the two of them, Thomas in full armour, are let into the marble top. Around the sides of the tomb is a remarkable and colourful display of medieval shields of arms.
But I had really come to visit Alice, the indomitable duchess, who mixed with kings and queens and who died, aged 71, in 1475. Her tomb is one of the most incredible pieces of artwork I have ever seen, with an elaborate canopy and the life-like carved figure of Alice laying on the chest that contains her mortal remains. Her head, wearing a coronet, rests on a pillow flanked by angels. She wears her wedding ring on the third finger of her right hand and the order of the Garter on her left arm. Beneath her tomb is a ghastly representation of the Duchess in death. These carved memento mori (a reminder that you will die) were relatively common for the tombs of the very wealthy in medieval times – but they were extremely expensive and exclusive. Ironically, the idea was to demonstrate humility – and hope that people would pray for the soul of the departed. Many show astonishingly accurate anatomical detail and it is believed the sculptors can only have achieved this by using real bodies as models.
Mentally breathless, I stepped outside. It seems discourteous to visit a church without spending time in the churchyard too. Just beyond the south door of St Mary’s Ewelme is the modest grave of Jerome Klapka Jerome (1859-1927), one-time teacher, actor, journalist, humourist and writer. He is best known for his book Three Men in a Boat, which amusingly tells the story of the author’s adventures during a Thames boating holiday with his friends George and Harris – to say nothing of the dog, Montmorency – in the 1880s. Inevitably, I have been prompted to re-read it; it tells, of course, of a vanished world, but the humour is gentle and Jerome periodically wanders off in a droll way on diversions to vaguely illustrate some point or other. It was, so it is said, based loosely on his honeymoon – though I like to think not entirely. I seem to recall that Three Men on the Bummel was quite funny too. J K Jerome was born in Walsall and lived in later life at Gould’s Grove, a farmhouse south of Ewelme which is still there, though has been renamed ‘Troy’. And there in Ewelme he rests, with his wife Georgina (known as Ettie), his sister, Blandina, and step-daughter, Elsie, beside him.
Isn’t it astonishing what you can get out of a visit to a church?
There’s a small postscript. An earlier version of this article prompted a very kind comment, and the information about RAF Benson, from someone living in Ewelme who called herself ‘Marguerite de Sevigne’. Her Ladyship also volunteered the information that the only other Ewelme in the world is in New Zealand where there is an Ewelme Cottage built by a former Rector of St Mary’s, the Rev Vicesimus Lush. There was no means of responding to the Countess, but should she stumble into A Bit About Britain again, I should like to say, “Thank you very much!”