Stuart Templeton at Ratmobile Adventures recently wrote about an impromptu stop and a battle by a bridge. It reminded me of a battle that took place locally…
For some reason or another, I’ve been thinking about the church at Hardwick a fair bit lately, and thinking I needed to revisit. It is not far from home and I run past it every week when I go out to the farm to collect my son’s milk. I went through the photos from two previous visits, trying to find out what was bugging me about the place.
The first time I had visited, on my own, I had thought the place rather bland and uninteresting, even though it technically ticked all ‘our’ boxes… not realising that the missing ingredient was my companion on these adventures. A second visit, in his company, revealed all the details I had managed, on that first visit, to see, photograph… and dismiss. It wasn’t the church that was missing something, it was me.
St Mary the Virgin, Hardwick, is a rather grand church for such a small village, but as with many of these little hamlets, its history was tied to the families and events of a different era. It is thought that the first Saxon church was built here by Saxi, who was a thane… a landholder…under Edward the Confessor. Edward, the last king of the House of Wessex, was born not far away in Islip, just over the border into Oxfordshire, around AD1003.
The current church, though, was built around eight hundred years ago. Part of the nave dates from that time, but most of the church was added over the next two hundred years, with a major redesign and refurbishment by George Edwin Street in 1872.
A plaque on the wall states that the work was completed thanks to the efforts of the Rev. Bigg-Wither, in whose memory the reredos was installed, showing angels holding the instruments of the Crucifixion.
There are a number of memorial plaques on the walls, though the most striking memorial is that of Sir Robert Lee and his lady, Luce Piggott. Sir Robert died in 1616, aged seventy-three, and after fifty-five years of marriage. The couple face each other in prayer, and ranged about them are their eight sons and six daughters.
Little survives to show how the church might have looked in Sir Robert’s day, but there are clues. In one corner, where the banner of the Mother’s Union stands against the wall, are the remains of the stairway that probably once led to the rood loft… which means there would have been a rood screen, separating the chancel from the nave and surmounted by a depiction of the Crucifixion.
There are a couple of piscinae in the walls… little ‘sinks’ where holy water was disposed of, so that it would return to the building. In one corner, now behind glass, is a tiny cruet… a little jug, dating from the fourteenth century and found hidden in a secret chamber in the east wall, during the 1872 restorations.
You have to wonder why it was so carefully hidden… what it contained or what was its significance… and whether it was hidden to preserve it during the Reformation, when Cromwell’s troops destroyed so many sacred objects and art.
The magnificent windows were, for the most part, installed during Street’s re-ordering of the church. Only a few fragments of medieval glass survive, set in a small, circular window in the side chapel… all that is left of the early glass after such ‘idolatrous images’ were smashed by Cromwell’s Parliamentarian troops.
It was Cromwell and the English Civil War that had called me back to Hardwick. The one photograph I did not have from the church was of a memorial, tucked away beneath the corner of the tower. The simple tomb bears a plaque telling how the bones of two hundred and forty-seven men were found in a field by Holman’s Bridge, not far away, in 1818. Given the history of the site and the appearance of the bones, they were thought to be the officers and men who had died in the Battle of Aylesbury, between Cromwell’s Roundheads and King Charles’ Cavaliers in 1642.
The royal forces, under Prince Rupert of the Rhine, had taken and occupied the town. On hearing of the approach of the Parliamentary forces, they sallied out, meeting the enemy forces by the ford where Holman’s Bridge now stands. Rupert’s forces charged the fifteen hundred enemy troops, but was driven back and forced to retreat, leaving five hundred of his men dead on the field. Cromwell’s forces are reported to have lost only ninety.
In 1818, workmen found the graves on the battlefield, including many that seemed to be those of officers. The bodies were collected and buried together in a mass grave at Hardwick, where the late Lord Nugent raised their memorial, where…
“…enemies through their attachment to opposite leaders and opposite standards in the sanguinary conflicts of that Civil War, they were together victims to its fury, united in one common slaughter, they were buried in one common grave, close to that spot where they had lately stood in arms against each other.After a lapse of more than a century and a half, their bones were collected and deposited, together still, in consecrated ground. may the memory of brave men be respected and may our country never again be called to take part in a contest such as that which this tablet records.”
Finding death together in battle, these men had finally found a place of peace. I admit that there were tears in my eyes as I read the tablet. More so, knowing what had happened over the last few years…
There is some controversy surrounding the battle, bolstered by a dearth of documentary evidence. The only document that survives to mention the battle is a Roundhead pamphlet that some now dismiss as propaganda. Prince Rupert is recorded as being elsewhere on that date… though that would not preclude troops nominally under his command from engaging the enemy. The battle that is said to have cost so many their lives has been reduced to ‘possibly’ a skirmish… and that in spite of the Civil War gun emplacements in a neighbouring field and the martial relics found in the area.
The gun emplacements have been called into question… it has been suggested that they may simply be a medieval rabbit warren. If so, they must be the biggest ruddy rabbits ever to have evolved. It has also been suggested that the bodies, in spite of being so carefully interred that they appeared to differentiate between the graves of officers and men, were ‘just’ plague graves. Or even Saxon…
In fact, the only thing anyone can agree on is that an awfully large residential development was built on the site around the time that the hitherto accepted story came into question. This development is twinned with another, a couple of fields across. It abuts the once-great Manor of Quarrendon that belonged to Sir Henry Lee, the Champion of Queen Elizabeth I, of which only an earthen ghost remains. The village of Quarrendon was part of the lands where only the melancholy remains of St Peter’s church still stand, marking the place where St Edburga and St Edith, daughters of King Penda of Mercia, and their niece St Osyth, were born.
While the memory of the dead must indeed make way for the needs of the living, I do have to wonder sometimes at the casual way our history and heritage can be dismissed… especially when money is concerned. Many important sites are under threat from unsympathetic developments…including Stonehenge, that most iconic ancient site.
As to the bodies found by Holman’s Bridge, no matter who they were, at least they now rest far from the bustle of a fast-growing town. I wonder, though, if the new residents know… or care… that so many died and were buried, with their stories, in their back yard?