10 churchyard tales from Hertfordshire

Berlin, Germany. Nikolaivietel. Statue: St George slaying the Dragon (August Kiss; 1853)

Piers Shonks slew the devil's beast at its cave under an ancient yew tree in Brent Pelham - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

From the famous to the fantastical, here's a guide to 10 extraordinary churchyard tales in time for Halloween.

Even in death, mortal remains can hold a power over us and communities. Sites of pilgrimage, plunder and myth, certain burial places have a mystique that deepens through the passing years. Grab your pith helmet and a torch, and let's begin our journey across Herts. 

Dragon slayer
It was the year of the Domesday Book, 1086, when the knight Piers Shonks, dragon slayer, was laid to rest at Brent Pelham.

His tomb, recessed in the wall of the village church of St Mary’s, has an inscription that states that while St George has no monument, 'Shonke one serpent kills t'other defies, And in this wall as in a fortress lies'. 

The legend has it that the dragon terrorising locals was the devil's beast. After slaying it at its cave beneath an ancient yew the devil told Shonks he would take him to hell whether buried in church or without.

The wily knight, placing his tomb in the church wall, defies him still. It's said Shonks' ghost appears to frighten off miscreants, so his community-mindedness goes on beyond the grave. 

Edmund de Langley tomb, All Saints church, King's Langley,Hertfordshire.. Image shot 2008. Ex

The first duke of York, Edmund de Langley's tomb at All Saints church, King's Langley - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Game of thrones
Edward II was one those English monarchs best described as feeble. One of the complaints at court was his reliance on powerful ‘favourites’, of whom Piers Gaveston was the most reviled (yes, reviled government advisers are nothing new). 

Gaveston’s rapid rise to power angered the established nobility, and barons lopped his head off in 1312. His remains were eventually interred in 1315 at Kings Langley Priory, built by Edward adjacent to the royal palace in Langley (today's Kings Langley) where he had spent much of his youth and had lived with Piers, possibly as a lover.

The grand priory fell into decay after the Reformation and was eventually demolished. Piers' burial may lay under the grounds of today's Rudolf Steiner School on the site. 

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One royal tomb that can be visited in Kings Langley is the first Duke of York's. Edward II's grandson, Edmund of Langley, led troops in France and Portugal and was keeper of the realm when his nephew Richard II campaigned in Ireland.

Edmund died in Kings Langley and was buried here in 1402. His tomb is in the memorial chapel of the Church of All Saints. 

Richard II was also buried here for a time after his death (probable murder) in captivity in Yorkshire, before being moved to Westminster Abbey by Henry V. 

St. Albans Cathedral

St Albans Cathedral, saved from destruction in the Peasant's Revolt by the giving up of a number of rights over the community - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Besieged abbot 
Thomas de la Mare was born in 1309 and joined St Albans Abbey when he was 17. Sent to other monasteries (cells of St Albans), including Tynemouth in the north-east where he became abbot, he returned to St Albans in 1349 to take up the abbacy.

Heading to Avignon to have his confirmation endorsed by the Pope he fell ill but was cured by drinking putrid water (not recommended).

A councillor of Edward III, Thomas was forced to give up some rights and privileges of the abbey during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 which saw the local population besiege the town and threaten to burn down the abbey in response to taxes.

Having saved the building, he now rests under it. The ecclesiastical brass that marks his tomb has been described as one of the finest in England. 

Bringing home the Bacon
Philosopher and statesman, Francis Bacon is often called one of the fathers of modern science and was a key player in the founding of the American colonies.

He sought preferment at the courts of Elizabeth I and the early Stuarts. He was knighted in 1603, became Lord Chancellor in 1618 and was raised to the peerage as Lord Verulam, as his estate, Gorhambury, was near St Albans.

Even Bacon’s brilliance and obsequiousness couldn’t prevent a fall from grace however and he was accused of taking bribes, briefly banged up in the Tower, then ‘retired’ to his Hertfordshire estate.

Fittingly for his support of empirical study, legend has it that he caught a chill while stuffing a fowl with snow to discover its preservative powers and died soon after.

He is buried in St Michael’s in St Albans where a life-size monument shows Bacon pondering in an armchair. 

The Grave of Lady Anne Grimston, said to be a Witch, at St Peters church Tewin Hertfordshire

Grave of Lady Anne Grimston at St Peter's church Tewin - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Lady Anne's defiance
The grand early 18th century grave of Lady Anne Grimston in St Peter’s churchyard in Tewin stands out as it has  been tilted over and half engulfed by a sycamore.

The story is that Lady Anne challenged heaven to ‘render asunder’ her tomb if there was such a thing as everlasting life.

As with many a good story it has a tenuous link to facts - she was probably very religious and it was the Victorians who made up the tale when surrounding trees - then an ash as well as a sycamore - moved heaven and earth. 

1st Earl Cowper
Now, we have to be careful here, for we’re not talking about the famous poet William Cowper, son of a Berkhamsted rector, but an earlier namesake. 

Born 1664, the barrister, MP and Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, became Baron Cowper from 1706, was twice Lord Chancellor, and became Earl Cowper in 1718.

He dished out severe sentences on peers implicated in the Jacobite Rising of 1715.

His residence was at Panshanger, a house that was demolished in the 1950s. He is buried at St Mary’s in Hertingfordbury. 

Body snatchers
Henry Trigg, born 1667, ensured his notoriety by demanding to be buried in the rafters of his property.

A prosperous Stevenage grocer as well as a churchwarden at nearby St Nicholas, after allegedly witnessing 'body snatchers' at the graveyard, he had a fear of being dug up himself. 

His will was eccentric in stipulating his coffin should be suspended in the rafters of a barn behind what is now 37 High Street. 

The building subsequently became an inn and later still a bank. When the squeamish Westminster Bank demanded his body be properly buried, it turned out Henry's fears may have been realised - trophy hunters had nabbed most of his bones over the years.

His coffin remains in place behind what is now a dental studio. 

Pieman of Hertford 
In December 1782, the highwayman Walter Clibbon, the 'pie-man of Hertford', was mortally wounded by the roadside near Bramfield.

After attacking a farmer's wagon his gang was tracked down by the farmer's family. 

Clibbon’s Post, in Brickground Wood, marks the spot not only of the fateful denouement but also his interment.

A family affair, it was believed that Clibbon and his two sons were responsible for at least one murder and numerous robberies around Ware.

One son, Joseph, was convicted and executed in March 1783, but the other escaped.

His trade as a piemaker (very Sweeny Todd), selling at Hertford Fair, is thought to have given Clibbon insider information on those travelling with cash. 

The Palladian church at Ayot St Lawrence.

The Palladian church at Ayot St Lawrence. Its creator put his wife's mausoleum at the furthest point from his own - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Divided in death
Sir Lionel Lyde, 1st Baronet, was a tobacco merchant and Bank of England director from the 1760s whose family fortune had links to the slave trade.

Having acquired a country estate at Ayot St Lawrence, the Bristol-born businessman proved to be a bit heavy-handed, part demolishing the 12th century church which interfered with the view from Ayot House, then building a new one in the style of an Ancient Greek temple to house twin mausolea for himself and his wife Rachel.

Having had a rocky marriage, Sir Lionel wrote in his will, 'what the church united in life, let it keep separate in death' - the mausoleums are in pavilions at either side of the main church.

GEORGE BERNARD SHAW at Ayot St. Lawrence Hertfordshire England in his Garden Hut June 1937 P

George Bernard Shaw in his writing hut in the garden of his home at Ayot St Lawrence - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Playwright's passion
Into the 20th century, and remaining in Ayot St Lawrence, George Bernard Shaw, the Irish playwright of more than 60 plays, influential member of the Fabian Society, critic and polemicist, had his ashes scattered in the garden of his long-time home, Shaw’s Corner.

Shaw cut a controversial figure, condemning both sides during World War One, criticising the British over Ireland, and late in life expressing admiration for Mussolini and Stalin.

He was a Nobel Prize winner in 1925 and Academy Award winner in 1938 for the adaptation of his Pygmalion into My Fair Lady.

You can visit his home today, much as he left it (although his cleaner may have rearranged things somewhat) and its lovely gardens where Shaw is scattered, as it is run by the National Trust.

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