Monthly Archives: February 2016

The story of a ‘biggish’ house

Before I tell you this story I should introduce you to my family:  My name is Albert Forester – not a name that you would normally expect for the owner of a pile like this. It makes sense, though, when you go back over my family tree.

I was born in 1950; my father was born in 1910 and died quite recently; my grandfather was born in 1880 and died in 1943 in an air raid. His father, my great grandfather, was born around 1840 – the illegitimate son of Alice the wayward daughter of Sir William St John and Charles, the young man who looked after the woodlands of the estate – he was the Forester. Match the date with the husband of Queen Victoria and you get the baptismal name of my Great Grandfather – Albert Forester. That has been the given name of the first-born son ever since.

The male line of the St Johns got weaker over the years until the last of the line passed away 9 years ago. The powers that be finally established me as the most appropriate member of the bloodline to inherit the house. I got the house but I didn’t get the ‘Sir’ status. So …. Thornhill Hall is now the legal property of Albert Forester Esq. and his charming wife Samantha. Who will inherit when I pass on? That may be interesting as we have twin boys – Patrick and Robert – and none of us are quite sure which was born first. In fact, there are times when Sam and I can’t tell which is which even now!

Following the death of Sir William the Great House was more like a Great Shell. From the outside it was all there but inside the heart was missing. Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t devoid of buildings, or of occupation. This was all there. Someone returning from 100, 200 or even 300 years ago would have recognised it – would know it. As I said, it was the heart that was missing – and it was now my aim, my job, to get that heart beating again.

What we should do with Thornhill Hall was our first decision to make. Sam’s suggestion was to demolish it and sell the stone.
‘No can do – it’s a Grade 2 listed building.’
Suggestion two was to sell it.

Another ‘no can do’. There’s a nasty clause, according to the solicitors, that says it cannot be sold while a male heir can be found!
There was nothing for it then; we had to make a go of it ourselves.
It was Sam who had the idea – ‘let’s open it to the public. There are lots of places that have done it.’
‘It’ll be hell’, I said but, as usual, I came second in the ‘discussion’.

The first year was exciting though. We visited many houses – mainly the smaller ones – that were open to the public. These gave us ideas – and some worries as well. Late in that summer we made contact with James and Helen who had gone through the process three years before. Their background was much the same as ours. When we arrived the first thing they did was to take us round their ‘public space’ as they called it. There were six rooms and they looked good. James and Helen were positive and descriptive about the things they were showing us – effectively giving us a guided tour as the said they did for their visitors.

We felt buoyant as we went into their private part of the house for coffee.
It was there that their ‘professional’ face slipped. A non-stop stream of negatives hit us. They complained about their volunteer helpers – unreliable and unhelpful. They complained about their visitors – noisy and forever complaining about their entrance fee; the quality of the coffee and how little there was to see. This diatribe continued for 10 minutes or more before Sam interrupted.

‘There must be some plusses’ she said.
‘Can’t think of any off-hand’ said James, almost as a question to Helen.
‘We have had some tax benefits’ she said to him.
Not much of that’ James said.

The conversation struggled on for another half an hour or so. That was enough for me. I twitched my eyebrows as I glanced at Sam and she turned her eyes toward the door – our pre-arranged sign. I glanced at my watch in a way James and Helen couldn’t miss; then looked up at them.

‘I’m terribly sorry. I’ve just noticed what the time is. We have another viewing this afternoon and I’m afraid we really must be on our way. Thank you so much for showing us around and sharing your experience with us. It has been a great help.’
We shook hands and left; waving to them as we headed off down their drive.

‘What a miserable pair of …’ I stopped Sam in mid-description.
‘Forget it. Forget them. Let’s get home.’
‘I thought you said we had somewhere else to go.’
‘I did. We have. We call it home.’

For the rest of the journey we were both quiet with our own thoughts.


This all took place some five years ago. Now we are ready to open up our house, Thornhill Hall, to the public. The first time such a thing has happened. We have absolutely no idea what to expect. For this start we have three rooms of our living area open to view and three of the outbuildings. We have decided not to have a set entrance fee – in fact NO FEE.

We have been dropping little posters in the areas around us. It’s been a bit tough at times but the rain hasn’t been too heavy and the general weather quite mild. The posters have said that we open on Saturday 5th March – with a little nudge that Sunday 6th March is Mother’s Day – and Helen and her friend Sue will be having tea, coffee, soft drinks and homemade biscuits available for children, mothers and grand-mothers. At the other end of this March we have Easter.

We have put together a nice little – free – booklet telling the history of the house and what we have been doing to it over the last 5 years. At the exits of the house and the outbuildings we have put theft-secure opportunities for visitor contributions.

Wish us well. We’ll let you know after April Fool’s Day how we got on!

Domesday, Piers Shonks and Brent Pelham

The story of Piers Shonks, Brent Pelham and the Devil has just been posted.  This all took place at a time when King William I was changing England – both in status organisation.  One of his first actions after taking the throne was to have a full check and valuation of the land and its people.  This was all recorded in what is known as ‘The Domesday Book’.  Many reading Piers Shonks’ story will be know of this book but there are many in countries outside of Britain that read these posts so I thought it sensible and helpful tell what Piers’ community was like.  What follows is the Domesday Book entry detailing the three communities of Brent Pelham, Furneaux Pelham and Stocking Pelham has been transcribed on a separate posting for those who wish to see the detail.

In Hertfordshire in the Domesday Book 44 individuals held land. The most significant land owner was, of course, King William. At number 2 was the Archbishop of Canterbury; 3 was the Bishop of Winchester and 4 was The Bishop of London.  As you will see – the Bishop of London holds the lot!

In [Brent, Furneaux and Stocking] Pelham Payne holds 1 hide of the bishop. There is land for 3 ploughs. In demesne are 2 [ploughs]: and 1 villan has half a plough, and there can be [another] half [a plough]. There are 3 bordars and 3 cottars, [and] woodland for 6 pigs. It is and was worth 40s: TRE 50s. Alfred, a man of Esger the staller, held this manor and could sell.

In [Brent, Furneaux and Stocking] Pelham Ranulph holds 2½ hides of the bishop. There is land for 8 ploughs. In demesne are 2 [ploughs]; and 7 villans with 5 bordars have 6 ploughs. There are 6 cottars and 6 slaves, meadow for 1 plough, pasture for the livestock, [and] woodland for 30 pigs. It is and was worth £10; TRE £15. 2 thegns held this manor. One of them [was] a man of Eskil of Ware, and the other a man of Godwine of Bentfield. They could sell.

In [Brent, Furneaux and Stocking] Pelham Gilbert and Ranulph hold of the bishop 1 hide and 1 virgate. There is land for 3 ploughs. In demesne is 1 [plough]; and 1 villan with 3 bordars has 1 plough, and there can be another. There are 7 cottars, meadow for half a plough, pasture for the livestock, [and] woodland for 100 pigs. It is and was worth 40s. TRE60S. 2 brothers held and could sell. One [was] a man of Esger the staller; and the other of the Abbot of Ely.

In [Brent, Furneaux and Stocking] Pelham 2 knights hold 3 hides and 1 virgate of the bishop. There is land for 7 ploughs. In demesne are 3 [ploughs]; and a priest with 7 villans have 4 ploughs. There are 7 bordars and 6 cottars and 1 slave, meadow for 2½ ploughs, pasture for the livestock, [and] woodland for 100 pigs. It is and was worth £5: TRE £6. 2 thegns held this manor, one a man of Eskil of Ware, and the other a man of Almær of Benington; and, together with these, 5 sokemen of King Edward’s soke had 2 virgates and could sell.

The following list puts meaning to the words/terms:-
Bordars = a cottager; a peasant of lower economic status than a Villan. Since the Domesday Book distinguishes border from Cottar and both from Cotsets, there must have been some distinction between them not now readily apparent. All three are also commonly associated with towns.
Cottars = As Bordar – a cottager; a peasant of lower economic status than a Villan. Since the Domesday Book distinguishes border from Cottar and both from Cotsets, there must have been some distinction between them not now readily apparent. All three are also commonly associated with towns.
Demesne = Land ‘in Lordship’ whose produce is devoted to the Lord rather than his tenants.   (1) Manors held in the Lord’s personal possession as opposed to those granted to his men; (2) that pert of an individual estate exploited directly for the Lord’s ‘home farm’.
Hide = the standard unit of assessment for tax, especially GELD. Notionally it is the amount of land which would support a household: divided into 4 VIRGATES
Knights = A boy or servant – a military retainer. Also sometimes referred to as ‘Vassal or Vassalage
Ploughs = Plowland – the number of plowlands may: (1) estimate the arable capacity of an estate in terms of the number of eight-ox plough-teams needed to work it; or (2) record an assessment of the dues required from the estate.
Slaves = Just what it says in the word.
Thegnland = Was land belonging to a Thegn and was sometime used as the equivalent of LoanLand {land held on a lease, frequently for three lives/generations}
Thegns = A man of noble status as opposed to a peasant (a Ceorl), having a Wergeld of 1,200 shillings. A king’s thegn was commended to the king; a medium thegn to some other Lord.
Villan = a villager; a peasant of higher economic status than a BORDAR and living in a village. Notionally unfree because he is subject to the Manorial Court
Virgate = one quarter of a HIDE; the equivalent of the English YARDLAND
Wergeld = Money. Origininally the recompense paid to the kin of a slain man by the kin of the slayer to avert the blood-feud. The amount varied according to the rank of the slain man. It was 1,200 shillings for a Thegn and 200 shillings for a Ceorl. By the 10th century the weregeld was used to assess the amount of judicial fines.

The St. George of Hertfordshire, England

My week-end postings on ‘talkinghistory2013’ are for factual stories while my mid-week postings on ‘beejaytellingstories’ are intended to be pure fiction. However, there are many stories that sort of ‘falls between these two stools’. Today’s posting is one such situation. It’s a story that I first came across many years ago when we lived in the area. We went to see the site, took pictures and I started some research. What follows is based on the story I found.

The site is the parish church of St Mary in the Hertfordshire village of Brent Pelham. This church is the last resting place of a local hero who is said to have ‘performed a brave deed against a might adversary.’

This is the ‘Legend of Piers Shonks’.
Many years ago, in the time of William the Conqueror so the story goes, a fierce dragon lived in a cave under a Yew tree in the parish of Brent Pelham. This dragon was under the protection of the Devil and wreaked havoc throughout the surrounding countryside, ruining crops and killing livestock.

In the village of Brent Pelham lived Piers Shonks, a landowner of substance, the lord of a Manor in the parish. Everyone knew that Piers was brave – after all he had already fought and defeated the ‘Giant of Barkway’, a nearby community, over land and tenure rights. Piers was also a great hunter.

As they had before, the villagers turned to him for help and asked him to rid them of this terrifying Dragon. Piers listened to their pleas and agreed it was time something was done about the Dragon. He put on his armour, took up his sharp sword, called his three hunting hounds to him and set out on his quest. The hounds were fast and brave and led the hunt. Piers followed resolutely behind. Further back, but determined not to miss the fight, were the villagers.

As they approached the Dragon’s lair the baying of the hounds caused the evil one to stir and come out from its cave to investigate. By the time Piers reached the great Yew that topped the Dragon’s cave near the parish’s boundary the Dragon was awake – and ANGRY. Piers and his hounds had enjoyed many hunts together and were a deadly team. Between them they distracted and outwitted the Dragon so that Piers was able to close in and thrust his sword deep into the throat of the Dragon. At this mortal wound the Dragon slumped to the ground and all went quiet.

Then, as Piers and his panting hounds watched, the body of the slain Dragon changed and the Devil himself stood before the hero ‘all quivering with rage’. He vowed that when Piers’ life on earth was done he, the Devil incarnate, would ‘Have his soul for his own. No matter whether Piers was buried in or out of church, he would collect.’

Piers, an honourable and God fearing man of his time, told the Devil that ‘his soul was his Maker’s, and His alone. With God’s will and protection neither his soul nor his body would ever become the property of one so evil.’

At this the Devil gave an evil laugh and vanished back into the form of the Dragon, just as the villagers came into view.

Time passed, and life in Brent Pelham resumed the even tenor of life. Piers Shonks grew old, and his time drew near. As he lay on his deathbed he recalled the Devil’s vow and gathered his kin around him. They went outside and Piers took up his favourite bow and fitted one last arrow to it. He then told those around him that ‘wherever the arrow landed, there was where he should be buried.’ He aimed at the Church and fired.

The watchers told how Piers’ God, who had stood by him through his battle with the Dragon, caught the arrow in flight and caused it to pass through a window of the church and transfix itself in the wall opposite.
When told where the arrow had landed Piers Shonks said: ‘So be it. Let my body be buried for all time in the wall of my beloved church: neither inside nor out, but there, in the Holy fabric, safe from the clutches of the Devil incarnate.’
With that he lay back and passed into eternal rest – and the legend of the Dragon Slayer of Hertfordshire was born.

The present church is not the one that is told in the story. This church was built around the middle of the 14th century. Piers’ tomb is built into an arch on the North wall of the Nave of the church. Above the tomb there is an inscription attributed to the Rev’d Raphael Keen who died in 1614 after being Vicar of Brent Pelham, it is said, for 75 years. The inscription reads:

“O Piers Shonks
Who Died Anno 1086
Nothing of Cadmus, nor Saint George, those Names
Of great Renown, survives them but their Fames.
Time was so sharp set as to make no Bones
Of theirs, nor of their Monumental Stones.
But Shonk one serpent kills, t’other defies,
And in this Wall, as in a Fortress, lies.”

Cadmus was a legendary Greek hero who founded the city of Thebes. He also killed a dragon and then drew the dragon’s teeth and set them in a field. From those teeth grew a race of fierce warriors.

In the corners of the black marble top are the winged symbols of the four Evangelists of Christ. Piers Shonk’s soul is seen being taken to heaven by an angel. At the foot of a Cross Fleurie can be seen a writhing Dragon with the staff of the Cross, Piers Shonk’s sword, administering the final, deathly, thrust.


This could be fact but it may be fiction

The past few days have been more than a little hectic – on Friday our group of re-enactors were involved in a Commemoration Service for Katherine of Aragon – King Henry VIII’s first wife – who is buried in our Cathedral on this day in 1536.

On Saturday and Sunday we were providing Tudor re-enactments in our local museum and yesterday and half of today [Tuesday] I’ve been involved in a number of bits and bobs. The result is – no fictional story put together for this posting.  All is not lost though. I’ve raided some of my files in the cupboards and found some little pieces that may be fact – but they can equally be faction or fiction. I’ll leave it to you – the reader – to decide what they are.

The first one was recorded in the mid-1930s but probably dated from many years earlier and is about the naming of a baby daughter at the baptismal font.
When the priest asked the father to ‘Name this Child’ the proud father said it clearly and the girl-child was baptised. When, however, the priest began to record the little girl’s name in the Baptism record book he was not too sure how to spell it. He knew what it sounded like but was it to be written ‘Doris’ or was it ‘Dorys’ – but there again, it could be ‘Dorice’. So he asked the father – ‘How do you spell your child’s name?’   The response was of little help when the father said. ‘Naay, master – I’m just like you; I can’t spell it naayther!’ 
The entry in the register is said to list all three spellings!


On a totally different line – with confirmed origin – this is something that we should all remember wherever we live in the world.  This is written by John Ruskin who lived 1819 to 1900 and remains so so true today.

‘It is unwise to pay too much, but it’s worse to pay too little.
When you pay too much, you lose a little money – that is all.
When you pay too little you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do.
The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot – that cannot be done.
If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is well to add something for the risk you run.   And if you do that, you will have enough to pay for something better.


Now – just to round off today’s set of stories – I’d like to tell you one that comes from Derbyshire, probably in the 1800s. You may find the contents useful!
A farmer’s wife was looking to hire a new maid-servant and asked a number of young girls of the village to come and see her. In this way all had the chance to show their skills and for the lady to assess their capabilities. When her husband’s man-servant heard what she was going to do he said he would show her how to select the best of the applicants.
The farmer’s wife was happy to let him do this. He then took a besom brush [a broom made from a bundle of twigs tied to a stouter pole] and laid it across the path that the maid-servant applicants would cross on their way to the house. She and he then watched the applicants as they came for consideration.
The first girl who came kicked the besom aside as she walked up the path. The man-servant said: ‘She is an idle slut and cannot, or will-not, bend her back.’
The next girl to arrive jumped over the besom. The man-servant said: ‘She won’t do; she’ll skip her work.’
The last girl to come picked up the besom and placed it in the corner out of the way. The man-servant said: ‘That is the girl for me. She will be careful, industrious and tidy.’
She was hired – and was perfect in every way!