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.


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