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North Mymms - Parish and People
by Dorothy Colville

Chapter 3 - The Parish Church - Background

Set upon a gentle rise and reached by a walk between sweet smelling limes arching overhead to form a cool shade, a more peaceful spot for a church would be hard to imagine. In such a spot is our parish church, away towards the western boundary of the parish. It is not the first church to have been built here, but probably the second, possibly the third.

"Our little village church is such a small cathedral, as it were, in its beautiful proportions and architectural style, wrote the vicar, the Rev. A. S. Latter, in 1879. Consisting of nave, chancel, north and south aisles, chantry chapel, sturdy tower, vestry and south porch, the church of St. Mary the Virgin is an example of the Decorated period of architecture.

The wealth of a London merchant paid for the beautiful church. It was about 1316 when Simon de Swanland acquired the manor of North Mymms, and within twelve years he had built a chantry chapel, dedicated it to St. Katherine and endowed it for the maintenance of a priest. Another twelve years went by and his plans for a large church with transepts and central tower were being modified. Perhaps the family fortunes declined, perhaps shortage of labour due to the Black Death caused the decision to be made, but traces of the original plan are to be seen in the heavy construction of the chancel arch and in the filled-in arch in the east wall of the south aisle. And so the little gem was left and the de Swanland family departed.

A hundred years went by. Another wealthy London merchant, Knolles, lived in North Mymms and worshipped in the little church. He looked at the beautiful west doorway left by Simon de Swanland and, deciding to build a tower, carefully dismantled the doorway and used it as the entrance to his addition; thus it comes about that a fifteenth-century tower has a fourteenth-century doorway.

The church is a rare example of a Decorated church almost exactly as its builders left it. After another generation the Knolles family departed, leaving a brass memorial to Sir Robert, last male member of the family, Elizabeth his wife and two of their children. The figure of Sir Robert is missing.

The exterior of the church is of flint and Totternhoe stone patched in places with harder material. Inside is much of interest. Brasses to the Knolles, Boteler and other families, showing them in the armour and dress of their day, form a picture gallery at the east end of the chancel, but pride of place goes to one that is contemporary with the magnificent Abbot de la Mare brass in St. Albans abbey. This North Mymms brass is of a priest in full vestments and is a representation of William de Kestevene, who died in 1361.

In 1846 Charles R. Manning published a comprehensive List of Monumental Brasses remaining in England. His book was reviewed in the Ecclesiologist for November of that year, the reviewer taking Manning to task, saying "It should surely have been remarked that the Abbot de la Mare and the North Mims and Wensley Priests have the Wafer in their mouths. Again it is a great omission not to notice that the North Mims Priest is mutilated by the loss of the stem on which the effigy was originally supported."

The following delightful story was found among some old papers. It is headed "Cam: Camden Soc: extract on a Priest from North Mims." It is hand-written on two small pieces of thick paper, both of which have been repaired with stamp-edging. The handwriting is firm and thick and the ink is very black. It is undated. Two words are impossible to decipher and in two places the writer used question marks. Blanks have been left and the question marks inserted in the story, which is as follows:

"The property which had descended to him and which he was still in a condition to enjoy, he took the necessary steps for devoting to the service of God. Among these provisions one was to rebuild and endow the church of his birthplace, of which he afterwards became the pastor instead of the patron. Here on the exchange for the gifts of wealth and leisure he tasted the blessedness of him who has authority to visit the bed of sickness and death, or the abode of sin and shame: the courage and oversight of an afflicted flock that took the Word of God from his mouth, and the blessed Sacraments from his hands, replaced the endearments of domestic joys, and as he ministered in holy things to them over whom he might have been Lord, he felt no doubt how much such service was above such sovereignty, and how truly that life was well spent and rich enough in blessings which had kept before his eyes so constant and promising hope of heaven. Such examples even in our days of worldly calculation and selfishness are not without their counterpart, whether we seek it among those who live in collegiate retirement, dedicate their hearts and understandings to God’s service, leaving a busy world [-] out to them an equivalent for that more durable blessedness of which so often it points the attainment; or among those who, mourning over the spiritual destitution of God’s people spare not of their substance or [-] the honours of God in the land. And thus his course finishes, he lies interred amidst the harvest of which he had sown the seed, amongst those his spiritual children whom this brass his only memorial, served to remind of him who had led as well as pointed the way to heaven. Yes (?) his only memorial; for lest the reader of these pages should marvel too painfully as to the sources from which we have penned these particulars, or, more boldly distrustful, should venture to enquire our authority, we think it right at this point to acknowledge that not one word of what we have said has any historical or traditional foundation, and in all probability not one syllable is true. But we may hope it may be pardonable to have penetrated into the regions of fancy in search of shadows of things that were, whereupon to sketch a picture of what might have been: to borrow the lights and shadows from the outline of a character to which some might probably be found in that day to answer, if not he whom it professes to recall, which might on a fair average represent the priest of many an humble village of the 14th century, ‘fit does not in every respect and with perfect accuracy recall (?) the chaliced Priest of North Mims."

Note. The Cambridge Camden Society was founded in 1839 by two undergraduates at Trinity to "promote the study of ecclesiastical art, architecture and worship and to encourage seemly church building and restoration today." In 1845 the society moved to London and changed its name to the Ecclesiological Society.

The brass of Richard Butler (Boteler) and his young wife, Martha, is 200 years later than that of the priest and has a most interesting inscription which reads:

"This tombe enclosed houldeth fast a Martha both by name an life In love sure lynkt while breath did last to Richard Butler spowsed wife, Who did not drawe full twentie yere the fatall lyne of Lachis threede, Yet did in tender youth appeare a matrone both in word and deede: Shee feared God and sought his prayse, a world it was to heare and see How godlie shee did ende her dayes, a myroure surely might she be: In birth to her he gave no place, yet shee for blood a worthie matche, He did discend of knightlie race, and she of whence she sprang did smatch. Of olyve tree she was a braunche cut of, of purpose ye may well say From worldly soyle to make the chaunge, a heavenlie place for to enjoye. And surely what of hir is said no whit to him can be disprayse: In him was such efoundac’on layd as did continue since alwaies. Ech wight in him such vertue found by tried truth to explane, For dew desert yee trumpett sounde, for to pronounce his worthie fame. In earth yt wight have ever care to lyve upright in cyvill sorte, He might of all the standert beare of faithful friendshippe by report: But shee did first begyn the daunce in flowring yeares to pass the way …deathe dothe lyfe advaunce which he since walket and both injoy."

Poor young Martha in her pretty hood and elaborate ruff!

The brass of Henry Covert (1488) shows him in splendid Tudor armour, his feet resting on a lion and with his sword suspended in front of him. Two shields bearing the Coven arms are placed on either side. For many years these shields were missing, perhaps stolen or moved and lost when all the brasses were removed from the floor. In 1955 they were recovered and placed in their rightful positions.

Below the brass of Henry Covert are four small brasses showing a man, his wife and their family of four sons and six daughters. They are unnamed but probably date from 1490, as they are wearing the everyday dress of early Tudor times.

A long narrow brass tablet placed below the piscina bears an inscription to Thomas Hewes and his wife, Elizabeth, of Uxbridge. It dates from 1590.

Lord John Somers

A memorial of an altogether different nature is the marble figure of Justice which dominates the chancel. It is the memorial to Lord John Somers, Lord Chancellor of England during the reign of William of Orange and his wife, Mary, daughter of James II. With the possible exception of Sir Thomas More, Lord John Somers was the most important person connected with English history to have lived in our parish. This great Whig lawyer was one of the seven who invited William to come to England in 1688 and for many years was a close adviser to the royal pair.

Among his friends he numbered William Congreve the dramatist, Sir Isaac Newton the scientist and Dean Swift, who dedicated his "Tale of a Tub" to him. In 1700 he fell into disgrace through becoming involved in the affairs of a notorious pirate, Captain Kidd, and a few months later he bought Andrew Fountaine’s new house at Brookmans, where he died, a saddened, paralysed man, sixteen years later.

On the opposite wall we can read of Sir Davidge Gould, Admiral of the Red, and last surviving captain of the memorable battle of the Nile, who died in 1847 when nearly ninety years old. He lived at Hawkshead, but it is not known when he acquired the property, though it was certainly before 1809, for in that year he gave £10 towards the repairs to the church spire. He was one of the trustees elected in January 1815 to manage the parish charities. His wife continued to live at Hawkshead until her death in 1855. The stained-glass window in the tower is a memorial to her.

There is one other marble memorial in the chancel - interesting because it is to descendants of Lord John Somers and amusing on account of its wording. Lord John Somers, a bachelor, left his property to his sisters Mary, wife of Charles Cocks, and Elizabeth, wife of Joseph Jekyll. Following the death of Lady Jekyll in 1745, Brookmans came into the possession of the Cocks family, who assumed the title of Somers Cocks. From the memorial we learn that Mary Judith Cocks, daughter of Charles, "had lively parts, a good understanding and the best of dispositions" when she died "in the bloom of youth" in September 1785.

The little slate tablet down in the south-east corner of the chancel is the memorial to the baby daughter of Andrew Fountaine. The beautifully incised elephants’ heads, part of the Fountaine arms, should not be missed. The baby girl with the very long name, Theophila, died in March 1671/2 when only six months old.

Alabaster Tomb

The alabaster altar tomb in the window recess in the north aisle deserves more than a passing glance. It is the tomb of the Beresforde or Barford family, who lived in the parish during the sixteenth century. They were early benefactors of the parish, leaving land for the use of the parishioners. A charming figure of a lady, her skirt hanging in graceful folds, her ruff framing her face, embroidered gillyflowers trailing over her sleeves and her long, slender hands meekly clasped in prayer, is incised on its top. This is Elizabeth - or is it her sister Mary, who died three months after her in the summer of 1584? Although the raised-letter inscription round the edge of this lovely tomb is almost indecipherable, the shields, all charged with the arms of Beresforde of Bentley, are in perfect condition. The arms are delightful little bears with chains around their necks.

In the chantry chapel can be seen another interesting altar tomb. It is probably that of Elizabeth Frowick, whose mother was Anne Knolles of this parish. When Elizabeth married John Coningsby of Lincoln they founded a family which lived in the parish for more than 300 years. Their grandson, Ralph, built North Mymms House; their great-grandson was the Royalist who suffered imprisonment in the Tower because of his loyalty to his king, Charles I; and the last descendant to live in the parish was Coningsby Charles Sibthorp, who in 1875 gave ground to enlarge the churchyard. Boundary stones with his initials and the date can be seen in the north-west part of the churchyard.

The stained glass in the east window is modern, designed by Martin Travers to replace a war-time loss. The lovely Nunc Dimittis window in the north aisle is a memorial to the Cotton Curtis family who lived at Potterells at the turn of the century.

A handsome oak board bears the names of all our vicars. Thomas de St. Albans, instituted in 1237, heads a long line of dedicated men. One had as his curate Henry Peacham, who had a son born in 1576. The son, also named Henry, was a brilliant scholar who settled in London, where he translated tracts for James I. John Clarke became vicar of North Mymms in 1640 and had an adventurous life. His neighbour was the Royalist, Sir Thomas Coningsby, and doubtless they had the same political views, for in 1645 John was evicted and transported to the West Indies. At the Restoration in 1660 he came back and served this parish for a further twenty-two years.

Dorothy Colville, 1971

Chapter 4 - The Coat of Arms
Index - North Mymms Parish and People

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