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Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.(Revised February 2012)

Flitting to and from the ancient market town of Kingston upon Thames every fortnight, the Brimstone Butterfly will often alight upon the venerable 1650s wooden staircase, which once adorned the Crown Inn. It lacks the stately splendour of the King’s Staircase at Hampton Court, made for King William III four decades later, but it possesses a singular rustic charm. I believe it has yielded up most of its secrets to me, the latest being the initials FoD, which had been carved into one of the handrails. They look to have been done at a much later date than the others though and somewhat furtively to boot.

 
 
 On my last visit to Kingston I also had a chance to go into the upper council chamber inside the 19th  century Guildhall. A guildhall has stood on this site since the reign of Elizabeth I and its size and shape follows a pattern which can be found up and down England. The panelled wooden doors are rather impressive and the cornicing an elegant touch.  I was disappointed not to find an imposing fireplace set within the council chamber. The chimney piece is still there so it would have been graced with an open fireplace at one stage. All I found was a workman eating his sandwiches on a small set of stairs. He kindly allowed me to take pictures of the room whilst he munched away.
 


 
 
 
 Kingston once had a myriad of public houses and it struck me that other facades with carved wooden bunches of grapes might well have served as inns in previous centuries. It is very difficult for the uninitiated such as me to always work out which facades are authentic and which have been remodelled in the 20th century. So I will simply reproduce some of the more striking facades which took my fancy.
 
 
 Kingston dates back to Anglo Saxon era. Indeed, it was once so central to Anglo Saxon life that seven kings held their coronations in what is now the modern market place, before being carried into the nearby All Saints church to be anointed with holy oil and crowned king. Edward the Elder was the first Anglo Saxon king to be crowned here in 902. He was the grandson of the legendary King Alfred the Great, who was not so great when it came to baking cakes. According to tradition, Alfred managed to burn some cakes a woman has asked him to watch over whist she busied herself elsewhere. I managed to decapitate and burn several gingerbread men and women I made over the weekend using a 19th century Flemish mould of musicians and a Delia Smith recipe, so I shall forbear criticising my regal counterpart.

When the Normans invaded England in 1066 they preferred to choose London as their capital leaving the Anglo Saxon church in Kingston to fall into a steady decline. It was to be another 50 years or so before the Anglo Saxon church was finally replaced with a much larger one by Gilbert the Norman, Sheriff of Surrey, in 1120. Gilbert also established the priory at Merton, which was later to become one of the greatest ecclesiastical buildings in medieval England. One of its most famous former students was Thomas a Beckett, who later became Archbishop of Canterbury. Thanks to Henry VIII I can no longer boast of having such a magnificent ecclesiastical building in my neighbourhood as he had had Merton Priory pulled down in the 1538 and carted off  the masonry to help build his new palace of Nonesuch, which was itself later demolished in the late 17th century by the avaricious Barbara Palmer. The latter was one of King Charles II’s mistresses and persuaded her royal lover to hand the palace over to her so she could pull it down and sell off the demolition material as part of her wages of sin. Poor Gilbert the Norman did not have much success with his churches and little can be seen of his original church at Kingston as major changes were again made to the structure in the 15th and 16th centuries.
 
 
 Inside the church I came across a number of intriguing memorials and monuments.A granite slab denoted the grave of William Cleave, the Alderman who died in 1667 and left money for an almshouse and land to maintain 12 poor people of the parish “for ever.” The almshouses survive on into the 21st century and very charming they are too.
 
 In August last year I had come across some later almshouse bequeathed by Henry Bridges in 1720 in nearby Thames Ditton. I had had to change trains and platforms at the railway station and seen the almshouses from afar and decided to investigate further.  As at William Cleave’s almshouses the fortunate occupants were given their own front door. The same was not true for the denizens of Sir Robert Geffrye’s almshouses at Shoreditch, now better known as the Geffrye Museum.
Despite being grander in scale than William Cleave’s almshouses at Kingston, Sir Robert Geoffrye’s house offered the occupants only their own room, albeit large, as opposed to a small terraced house. 
 Sir Robert and William also have another connection beyond almshouses which I chanced upon on a recent visit. A monument on the wall revealed that Sir Robert’s daughter Sarah, by his wife Temperance, was buried near William Cleave.  
 There are several medieval monuments which have survived he centuries including the brass effigies of Robert Skerne and his wife Joanna, who both look like a more upmarket version of my unbaked gingerbread men and women.. Joanna looks rather fetching in her long draped gown, cloak and elaborate headdress. Her claim to fame was that she was the daughter of Edward III through his mistress Alice Ferrers. Like Barbara Palmer in the 17th century, Alice was determined to make the most of being the king’s mistress and milk him for all she could, not that she had to try too hard. Edward III was exceedingly generous to Alice who became his mistress at the age of 15 in 1363, whilst still serving as a lady in waiting to his queen, Phillippa. On the latter’s death, Edward became even more prodigious in his generosity, endowing Alice with yet more land as well as his late wife’s jewels. Now that he was a widower Edward openly acknowledged Alice as his mistress and had her dress in cloth of gold so she could be presented to the Court in the guise of The Lady of the Sun. Edward’s behaviour made Alice many enemies at court. They seized their chance on the king’s death to have her put on trial for corruption and subsequently banished from England. She forfeited her land in the process. In time the resilient Alice returned to her native country and endeavoured to get back her property. She died at 53 making her the same age at the Brimstone Butterfly, although the latter has never knowingly had an affair with a king nor worn cloth of gold, although her 19th century wedding kimono, the highlight of her tour of her bedchamber, does have gold thread woven through it.
Another brass memorial has fared less well. In the 20th century some shameless thief stole the figure of the kneeling lady's husband as well as the family coat of arms.  
 

I felt a tad sorry for Sir Anthony Benn who died in 1618. You go to all that trouble of having a splendid tomb with a terracotta life size and life like effigy placed on top of it, then someone in the 21st century ruins the entire effect by placing a red plastic swing bin next to it. I could find out very little about Sir Anthony other than he had been a Recorder of Kingston and London and that he wrote a manuscript called “Advice to Amabella” his daughter in 1615. The manuscript now resides in the State Library of Victoria and I would dearly love to know what he counseled. Perhaps it contains the 17th century version of the Vulcan salute: Live long and Prosper. Dying in her nineties after having married two Earls in succession, Amabella certainly lived up to the Vulcan saying.
 In his third edition of his work “Survey of London” published in 1618 John Stowe dedicates his book to Sir Anthony Benn amongst others. A century later in 1720  John Strype used John Stowe’s book as the starting point for his own great work on London :A survey of the Cities of London and Westminster In the latter Sir Robert Geffrye’s almshouses are referred to thus:
“large Extent and Capacity, and well endowed: A great Sum of Money being left for that Purpose to the Company of Ironmongers of London, by Sir Robert Jefferies, Kt. and Alderman. It hath two Wings, and Rooms below and above, very fair and beautifully built. It may contain between forty and fifty Inhabitants, who may be either Men or Women: And have each six Pound per Ann. allowed them; and Gowns every two Years. There is a Chapel in the middle of the Building, fronting the Highway; and a Chaplain, who hath a Salary and Chamber allotted him: He is to read Prayers twice a Day, and to preach a Sermon every Sunday. The Building is not yet quite finished; nor the Court Yard levelled”.
I was rather put off the memorial to Henry Davidson when I  realised he had made his money from sugar and slaves, even if he did leave a widow called Elizabeth Caroline, whose death is recorded on the bas relief Grecian urn..
 
 
 I was charmed by the statue of Theodosia Louisa, Countess of Liverpool, reclining in her chair and in deep though, her dainty foot peeking out from beneath her long skirts. Louisa had been the wife of the British Prime Minister and according to the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1829 she had been interred at Hawksebury in 1821 following her death at the age of 54 ( only one year older than Alice Ferrers)  so why her monument ended up at Kingston I do not know. However, I did admire the inscription that proclaimed she had “kept herself unspotted from the world” as indeed has the Brimstone Butterfly.
 


As well as the stone countess the church boasts fragments of a Saxon stone cross from the original 10th century church. Outside can be seen a reinstated fragment of the original Saxon wall.

Thus ends the Brimstone Butterfly’s perambulation around Kingston’s All Saints Church in the year of our Lord 2012.

Post Script

 On the subject of churches, for the past couple of Christmases the Brimstone Butterfly has spent part of Christmas Day in the company of the celebrated Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his family. Or rather, she has sat in a pew by his gravestone in the central aisle of St Michael’s Church, Highgate. The poet spent his latter years as the house guest of his doctor who owned a fine residence close by the church. In fact, the good doctor added a special wing for his illustrious guest to live in. The 20th century playwright JB Priestley also lived in the house. It is now lived in by a supermodel and given the tendency of modern publishers to pay them huge sums to put pen to paper or at least allow their name to appear above another’s actual scribbling, she will no doubt add to the house’s great literary heritage in the fullness of time.


Kingston Revisited February 2012.
When I returned to All Saints Church on a more recent occasion, graduates from the university of Kingston were popping in to collect their mortar boards and gowns for the graduation ceremony at the Rose Theatre. As their proud friends and families took photographs of them, their presence gave a somewhat festive air to the church and allowed me to take a closer inspection of the surroundings. I immediately discovered that the stone slab top with its brass inlaid memorials was all that survived of the medieval tomb of Robert Skerne and his wife. Not having studied Latin I could not read the text in brass letters upon the tomb. Fortunately a modern translation had been provided nearby. It read:
“He being valiant, faithful, courteous, skilled-in-law,
Noble, ingenuous, did trickery abhor;
Constant in speech, in life, in feeling and then in thought.
That justice freely and to all was due he taught.
The honours of the royal law alone he prized.
To cheat or be deceived he quite despised.”

Another wall plaque is dedicated to George Bate, a principal physician of Charles II. George had served his father King Charles I and then later Oliver Cromwell. At the Restoration George had his friends put the word around that he has used his privileged position to connive at the premature death of the Lord Protector of England. True or not, as a ploy it worked and George was allowed to enter the service of Cromwell’s bitterest enemy.

Edward Staunton had been a minister at All Saints and later became president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. In 1653 he recorded on a wall monument that he and his wife Mary had buried 10 children in the church. The deaths of the children were so numerous that the minister had given many of them shared the same Christian name, perhaps hoping against hope that at least one would survive to embody the other dead siblings: the monument lists 3 Richards, 2 Edmunds, 2 Marys, a Sarah, Matthew and a Francis. As the monument poignantly states to have so many children from the same family buried together was “a dreadful sight.”

 
To cheer myself up I then proceeded to may favourite 16th century staircase, where the mystery of the upper panels was finally solved. On earlier visits I had failed to observe the small notice at the bottom of the stairs which explained that in order to raise the staircase to the new height required of its current location, extra panels had been commissioned by the developers, St George, in the 1990s. Hence the motifs of the patron saint of England on horseback and the dragon. I do not believe the staircase has any more secrets to yield up now that I have examined it with almost forensic rigour.