Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Ewelme, Oxfordshire


Stepping westwards

Alice de la Pole of Ewelme was the grand-daughter of the poet Chaucer and the wife of William de la Pole, who was made Duke of Suffolk in 1448 for his loyalty to the House of Lancaster. It was said that the couple, when not at court or at the de la Pole estate in Suffolk, lived much at Alice’s home village, bringing with them East Anglian retainers whose descendants still live in the area. They probably brought Suffolk craftsmen with them too, because when they rebuilt the church in the 1430s in a rich mixture of flint, stone, and brick, an East Anglian layout was adopted, with wooden screens rather than masonry used to divide the various parts of the building's interior.

One of the treasures of Ewelme church is a font cover built like a staggering spire of wooden tracery. This too looks just like an import from East Anglia, where there are a number of such tall and intricate covers, connected like this one to a pulley, so that they may be raised when the font is needed for a baptism.



In the year William was made Duke, the couple established a chantry, a foundation under which two priests and thirteen poor men were to pray for their souls and celebrate Mass at Ewelme. The priests and poor men were accommodated in an almshouse that William and Alice built near the church and the beautiful south-east chapel of the church was set aside as the place where the cycle of Masses and prayers could be said.

Alice's tomb, now sited in a space between this chapel and the chancel of the church, was installed just before she died in 1475/76. It is one of the most impressive of all 15th-century tombs, with a lifelike alabaster effigy of the deceased, a cadaver beneath (staring at a picture of the Annunciation), a host of angels above, and a row of standing figures – many still with their original painted colour.

Those traces of colour, making vibrant this reminder of mortality, was just one thing that made this building special when I visited it the other day. As the flag flew in the brisk breeze at the back end of April (the Chaucerian month) and the sun blazed through the windows, a group of ringers came to put the bells through their paces, adding music to colour to bring the place sonorously alive.

13 comments:

Thud said...

Now you are talking!...Pax Vobiscum.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you, Thud! One of the great things about England is that two such diverse, and diversely wonderful, places as Easington and Ewelme should exist a short drive away from each other.

Ed said...

Thank you for introducing me to this church - a little bit of East Anglia in Oxfordshire. Is flint found in this neck of the woods or did they bring it there from elsewhere? Also Alice's complexion looks more like alabaster than marble.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Sorry, yes, it's alabaster: brain in neutral there. I'll correct the post.

Yes, flint is found in southern and eastern Oxfordshire (and other parts of the Thames Valley and the Chilterns), often in combination with other stones or brick. The chequered pattern seen here is used in East Anglia, but is also often seen in the Thames Valley and in Wiltshire and Dorset.

Peter Ashley said...

Very evocative, great post. I'm getting my bicycle out now.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter: Good. Better pack some special lights (with snoots and barn doors) in your saddlebag so that you can take a photograph of the paintings inside the tomb; and a big reflector so you can capture the detail in the font cover (a six-footer should do it); plus a few wide-angle lenses; and a good tripod; and a basket for a picnic in the churchyard; oh - and your brass-rubbing equipment, because there are some nice brasses too...

Peter Ashley said...

Hmm. Maybe the Brough Superior with sidecar might be better. Thanks.

Vinogirl said...

Lovely!

ChrisP said...

I used to get dragged round Ewelme as a kid. They used to big up the Chaucer connection and when I pointed out it was only his granddaughter and not the great man himself I got very short shrift. The village is very pretty too.

CMS said...

I grew up in the RAF mainly in the South East(my dad a Sergeant and loved every rocky minute after 27 years) and part of my weekend routine was visiting places like this. I enjoyed it at the time but completely took it for granted. My father (from India) was so enthusiastic, but it's only recently I have begun to understand why - your posts always remind me of that.

Ron Combo said...

What a beautiful church Wilko, thank you. I used to bell ring at St. Custard's until I nearly killed myself breaking a stay on the tenor at St Andrew's (orig. Norman by the way) in Stratton in Cornwall, flying up towards the ceiling of the ringing chamber having forgotten to let go of the sally. Very slapstick, my school chums snorting hysterically as I stared death in the face.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Glad you survived, Ron. John Ruskin recommended hand bells for under-age bell-ringers, before they were allowed to, er, sally forth towards the real thing.

Anonymous said...

If you look up Alice Chaucer Countess of Suffolk on Wikidpedia there is a picture of her face on the tomb, then if look up Margaret Pole Countess of Suffolk there is a portrait of her, there is, I think a strong facial resemblance between the two women. Margaret Pole was executed by Henry VIII in 1541, I have searched the internet, but I cannot find if these two women were related.