Friday, September 30, 2016

One Small Church, Three Stories

Our stay with Tim Sheppard was a perfect end to our first day in England.

We met his lady, Diane, and spent a delightful evening in their garden, hearing about thebadgers, birds and other wildlife that visited even so close to the city, and just talking and catching up. I think the last time I saw Tim was at least 10 years ago at a storytelling conference here in the states. Thank goodness for the internet that allows us to keep in touch with friends in faraway places.

Before we left the next morning, Tim showed us the church on his lane. This is St. Luke's, and it contains a few interesting stories.

First, see those little figures in the tower? Tim told us that it is believed that these represented two members of the De La Warr family, One of this family, Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr, became the governor-for-life of the new colony of Virginia. It was he who took three ships, outfitted at his own expense, to the new colony of Jamestown and arrived just in time at Grapevine Point on the James River to convince the colonists to stay. Surprisingly, I once stood on Grapevine Point--my son was stationed at an Army base in Virginia which now encompasses the site. I have a thick, twisted piece of vine on my porch that came from that place. Strange how our lives can twist and touch, isn't it?

The De La Warr name became the name of the Delaware River, the state, and the Anglo name for the natives who lived in the valley of the river. 

Another odd little tidbit I picked up from my cousin John who writes the blog By Stargoose and Hanglands: you will see many English churches at below ground level, like this one, with the drainage around them. This is because over the centuries bodies were added to the graves, raising the ground level around the church. Indeed, according to some accounts, there was sometimes only enough soil and space to barely cover the corpse! The custom of putting flowers on a grave might have more to do with killing the stench than anything else. Somewhere recently I read or heard that at one church the minister stopped mid-service because the smell of rotting corpses was so overwhelming. Hard to imagine, isn't it? I wish I could remember where I got that bit of information.

This is the market cross, also referred to on the church's website as a preaching cross, It denoted the place where people could gather to sell their goods. Based on the structure of this one, I think Tim's identification is correct as this does not appear to have ever have had a crossbeam as a cross would have had, although I suppose it could have been a symbol to call people to worship. Over the years it also became a favorite place to take group photos. If I remember rightly, Tim said it was moved to its present site many years ago.

And the last intriguing mystery in this churchyard: the grave of Thomas Newman, aged 153 years at the time of his death. The inscription reads: 

Thomas Newman 
Aged 153 
This stone was new-faced in the Year 1771, to perpetuate the great age of the Deceased

Was Thomas Newman really 153 years old? Or is this an old, old joke? 

Paul Townsend posted this about the stone on Flickr: " In Brislington church cemetery there is a grave which states that a Thomas Newman was 153 years old when he died. TWO mysteries surround the grave of Thomas Newman. Firstly, the inscription states that he was 153 years old when he died in 1542, but the record for the oldest person we know of is 120.

So did a local wag, or even the stonemason, add the figure one to the 53 way back in the 16th century and nobody noticed, or did Thomas really live to that great age?  

Secondly, the gravestone in St Luke's states: 'This stone was new faced in the year 1771 to perpetuate the great age of the deceased.' ut the greater mystery is that there is another grave of another Thomas Newman, also aged 153, in Bridlington, Yorkshire, with almost the same inscription. So, is the Brislington stone the one that disappeared from Bridlington hundreds of years ago? Or was a headstone put in each space because nobody was sure where Thomas lived?

But would people living in 16th-century England know that there was both a Brislington and Bridlington hundreds of miles apart? Could there have been two Thomas Newmans who both lived to 153? I doubt if the truth will ever be known.

The celebrated farmer Thomas Parr, who was buried in Westminster Abbey in the 17th century, claimed to be 152! - When the average life span for a male was only 30?" 

A mystery indeed! 

According to the book The History and Antiquities of the County of Somerset by John Collinson, it was all a hoax. According to the author, someone carved in the number 1 in front of 53, to make this man older than another reputed to have died at 152. Truth, or not? Who is to know today? I suppose scientists could dig him up and do tests that might determine his actual age, but then there would be nothing left to wonder about, would there?

So many stories in one small church, and I know that this is only the tip of the iceberg, for any place that has seen human activity for over 1000 years will surely have more stories than we will ever learn. 

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

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