Category Archives: Brent Pelham

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.