Thursday, 27 September 2012

Historical weekend in "Herts and Cambs"

Weekend in Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire : September 2012

We did not have soaring hopes of late summer weather after a soggy summer in England. Instead, as colder nights set in, we await the gas engineer to service our condensing boiler, the frost to wither our flowers and the sweet chestnuts, to start to falling on our heads. So we were both surprised by a bright, warmish and fascinating trip last weekend to “Herts and Cambs”.  I enjoyed recovering the lost stories of medieval women of vision at Cambridge,  1940s costumed drama at National Trust’s Wimpole Hall, a luxury 16th century beamed farmhouse for me filled with the half-echoes of ancient lost accents and a concert delivered by talented local young musicians.

A morning in Cambridge
A chilly morning in Cambridge included pottering round the Cambridge University Press Bookshop, near Kings College, quietly considering the literature, religion and language  sections.It also involved taking in red brick Renaissance colleges and fine gatehouses which still look as Whitehall Palace did, in the days of Elizabeth 1st.  We avoided the impossibility of getting inside King’s College Chapel. Instead we wandered free into Pembroke College with its fine quadrangles and gardens.  

Pembroke College, Cambridge

Pembroke College does not look particularly ancient but it dates from 1347.  Its “new” Chapel was designed by Christopher Wren. The old medieval Chapel, now the Old Library, was frequented by impressive medieval ladies in the 1350s. Here is their story:

The Foundress of Pembroke College, Cambridge and her friend
The story of the foundress of Pembroke College, Cambridge appeals to me as a longtime admirer of her friend, Elizabeth de Clare, main benefactress of Clare College, Cambridge.

These two close friends, Elizabeth of Clare (1294-1360) and Mary de St Pol (1303-1377) were medieval courtly ladies of huge landed wealth and strong religious devotion. They were both widows and spent a lot of time visiting each other often agreeing to wear the identical robes on the same day - possibly to compete with those slightly annoying and all-male “Knights of the Garter”.

When they dined together they ate swan and heron, dishes for VIPs.  They both loved illuminated books, jewels, relics, chapels with organs and minoresses. Both were French-speaking leaders of society in control of their own vast estates.   Both went on pilgrimages to Canterbury.

Both, by a mixture of blood relations, influence and sheer intelligence outwitted the admittedly brave and chivalrous men of their age to leave behind lasting educational establishments which bear their own titles. As elegant landowning descendants of royal lines, these women freed themselves from being forcibly married without their consent (as wards of the King). Elizabeth did this in the only way open to Anglo-Norman women : by taking a vow of chastity and devoting herself to good works.

Elizabeth de Clare, (Elizabeth de Burgh) who gave her name to Clare College Cambridge,  is an ancestor of Elizabeth 1st and Elizabeth 11. She was probably considered “a catch” in her youth since she was married three times, by the age of 27.  As the thrice widowed manager of her ancestral estates in Great Bardfield, Wales and in Suffolk (Clare Castle and Priory), unusually for a woman, she was able to control her money. 
Her main homes were Clare in Suffolk, Great Bardfield, Essex and the Convent of the Minoresses in London where she was buried.

Tonbridge Castle, Elizabeth of Clare’s ancestral home (de Clare living quarters can still be visited in the gatehouse)

Through good husbandry, based on the writings of 13th century Bishops Grosseteste, Elizabeth managed to deliver a surplus from her various estates with which she founded Clare Hall (later Clare College) Cambridge to educate the scholarly including the gifted poor.

Bishop of Lincoln, Bishop Grosseteste, who was an outstanding scholar of Saxon descent, wrote rules on regulating husbandry. Thus, by following them, her estates were a model of best practice, efficiency and economy. She planted her own vineyards at Clare Castle which, like Tonbridge Castle, enclosed a motte and bailey, in the early Norman style, as shown here.

Elizabeth de Clare (de Burgh) was buried in the Minories, London in the garb of a minoress after a funeral vigil involving huge amounts of costly wax candles. We know about her life and close friendship with Mary as her household records have survived (see footnote). Sadly, her grand tomb which noblemen wanted to copy for their own, is now lost. It is a pity she was not buried within Clare College.

Mary de St Pol was brought up in France. She brought lands in France to her marriage to the Earl of Pembroke, Aymer de Valence, when she was 17 in Paris (among them were Oreville and areas of the Pas De Calais). Aymer soon died in his fifties and she provided for “her lord” a magnificent tomb in Westminster Abbey. She remained childless and widowed for 50 years, administering some of her husband’s lands in England and her own in France.

She lived in houses at Bradgate, in Charnwood Forest, Leicestershire  (known as “Anstey”), later the estate of the parents of Lady Jane Grey. She also had a home at St Andrew La Mote at Cheshunt, now ruined. Another manor was in a deer park at Great Braxted and yet another at Fotheringay.  She also lived at Denny Abbey. At Great Braxted in Essex, Mary enjoyed her own deer park and lived next to Great Braxted Church

Great Braxted Church in Braxted Park, formerly owned by Mary de St Pol, Countess of Pembroke

On Christmas Eve 1347, Edward III granted Mary, then aged 44, a licence for the foundation of her own Cambridge College. The original buildings were in a single court now called “Old Court”, with all the component parts of a college: a chapel, hall, kitchen and buttery, Master’s lodgings, students’ rooms. This founding of the first college chapel in Cambridge required a papal Bull.
Marie de St Pol’s Breviary shows the Countess kneeling in prayer and hooded like a nun.

Inspite of still paying off her dead husband’s dues all her life, Mary de St Pol, was just as ambitious as her friend, Elizabeth about "legacy". Mary named her college, the third college founded at Cambridge, after Peterhouse and Clare, “The Hall of Valence Marie”, a name which did not survive. 

Her College was soon nicknamed “Pembroke” possibly as a recognition of her English title, (dowager) Countess of Pembroke. Thus its roots, in female piety, were largely forgotten. Mary gave higher priority to students of French origin since she was herself French-born and was probably always treated as “French” even though she lived most of her life in England. She spent some time visiting her lands in France.
Earl of Pembroke, Aymer de Valence’s tomb in Westminster Abbey created by Mary de St Pol

The Countess of Pembroke oversaw her Hall (Pembroke College) for 30 years, enlarging it until she died aged 74. She even had power to eject students she did not like. She was buried in the Choir of Denny Abbey, just north of Cambridge which Edward III had given Mary, as a young widow. She had built her own accommodation in what had been the church, which she turned into her private lodgings. Then, she built a new church at Denny and gave the remainder of the priory to the  Franciscan Second Order of nuns, the Order of “St Clare” known as the “Poor Clares”. This community moved from their flood-prone monastery in nearby Waterbeach. Mary lived in comfortable quarters at Denny but never herself entered the Poor Clares, who had spartan accommodations suitable for nuns.
Remains of Denny Abbey, north of Cambridge (English Heritage)

Elizabeth de Clare’s daughter employed Geoffrey Chaucer as a page in her household from 1357. No doubt, he knew these two ladies, at a distance. He wrote very amusingly about sophisticated, aristocratic ladies like the ladylike “Prioress” in “The Canterbury Tales” being religious but enjoying the good things of life, too. No doubt, Mary lived in a rather worldly fashion at Denny Abbey, possibly wearing fine clothes and feeding her pets dogs from her table like the Prioress.  We can imagine her being religious in her daily activities but enjoying a few added luxuries, such as dining in the hall of her Cambridge College and holding sway - over scholars.


Illustration of Prioress in Canterbury Tales
Further details of Pembroke College and Mary de St Pol are here:

We enjoyed the still flowering gardens of Pembroke College, which Mary had left as her legacy to her adopted country, England They had clearly laid out by some expert collecting sweet-smelling flowers from all over the world.  

Kentish pottery and “Mr Nobody”
The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge is far too much to see in a morning. A visit needs preparation first, by studying its online collections. I concentrated on pots - see video of some of the English traditional ceramics here

I liked the double or even triple-handled 17th century Kentish “Wrotham” pottery which could have been made by my own ancestors - some of whom seem to have come from Wrotham. 
I was also delighted by “Nobody” - in English delftware.

 Nobody - without his hat

“Nobody” was an imaginary figure in the 17th century who was the “person to blame” for everything that went wrong, a concept based on the Jacobean play “No-Body and Some-body”.

This is a light comedy contemporary with Shakespeare, which has an immortal line which could describe the aftermath of our recent “boom and bust”:

“Somebody receives all and Nobody is blamed for it...”

Wimpole Hall
We were amazed by our visit to Wimpole Hall. The sun came out, in its late summer splendour.

We happened to visit it during its dramatic re-enactment of World War Two.  We soon felt we were inside a colour 1940s film, such as “Atonement”, walking alongside smart RAF pilots getting into polished cars, chatting with ratings in naval uniforms acting entirely in character, following Wrens and admiring some elegant ladies wearing black seamed stockings.

We also watched 40s families making their own fun - before mechanisation turned to electrification.

1940s pinball entertainment - without electricity

Finally two (not one) Spitfires flew low overhead, almost within one’s reach, making the kind of tight turns that Spitfires (fighters) could to escape enemy aircraft machine gunning them. They were clearly “the falcons" of the sky. It was exciting to witness their verve and manoeuvrability.

We saw attic items fast becoming valuable historical items.

My husband noted an excellent 1940s poster with the picture of a railway station on it.
“Is your journey really necessary?”
We might use that line again to support sustainability and the overuse of cars (though we would not have seen it without a car!). See

Wimpole Hall itself was built around 1640 as the seat of the Chicheleys. It is a small Versailles offering formal parterres still in full bloom. The house passed to the Harwickes who were MPs for Cambridgeshire and Lord Chancellors.

There are some memorable portraits, showing Hardwicke “husband and wife teams” from the early 18th century.  The women were bright-eyed and serenely self-confident in their position and wealth, with clean skin and good bone structures. They were not the highest “social rank”. They lacked the presence and allure of Spencer women. However, they were pert and fashionable and had classical good looks and sense.  I felt that Jane Austen would have approved of them!

Ancient English Crafts
I loved a tasselled beret handmade from undyed wool, handspun on a spinning machine, using the estate’s rare breed “whitefaced woodland” sheep.  I had to buy it for £10 as a tribute to sustainable English ancient crafts.

Rare breed with lovely wool : whitefaced woodland sheep

Hinxworth, Hertfordshire
After a delicious meal with our hosts in a beautiful beamed Elizabethan former farmhouse, we attended a lively and memorable concert.  

This was in support of the renovation of St Nicholas, Hinxworth (above). The church is  medieval like Pembroke College and Denny Abbey. In fact, I have identified that Hinxworth once belonged to the de Clare family and also to  Earl of Pembroke, Aymer de Valence, the husband of Mary de St Pol, who founded Pembroke College. There is a slight possibility that the surplus of the farms of Hinxworth helped found Pembroke College, Cambridge. I will leave it to another researcher to see if Mary de St Pol played any part in endowing  Hinxworth Church.  As we know, Mary de St Pol built chapels. See:

See for the history of Hinxworth. Many Roman coins from all over the Empire have been found nearby.  

Concert in St Nicholas Hinxworth
The new tasteful church pews which are both traditional and flexible, enable the audience to face backwards. This forces you to read texts, dating from the time of George IIII, usually meant for the vicar’s eyes only. They remind him that if the preaching of the Word is not joined to faith - it is in vain. So the burden is not all on him.

We enjoyed the music of a talented 18 year old saxophonist and a 21 year old cellist, children of the former vicar. I felt it was almost a “coming together” of their family, as their mother accompanied them. Their programme was a diverting mix of Handel and saxophone music fit for Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London. I was intrigued by the sound of the soprano saxophone.  

I thoroughly enjoyed the young female cellist’s rendition of “Truckin’ Through the South” played here by its composer

Further interesting reading
Marie de St Pol and her books (National Historical Review)
History of Clare College (website)
A study of Elizabeth by Frances Underhill
“For Her Good Estate: The Life of Elizabeth de Burgh”
(The survival of many of Elizabeth de Clare’s household records has been a boon to medieval scholars, particularly those focusing on medieval women) 

Dictionary of National Biography


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