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Friday, 29 March 2019

A graveyard full of ghosts

Welsh Newton is said to be haunted by several restless spirits, including the headless coachman who has been seen many times on the lane from St. Wulfstan’s Farm to the village. In the First week of December a ceremony is held in the ruins of St Faith’s church to still said spirits.

The Church below, on the other hand, is no ruin, and bears witness to some fabulous spirits of its own.

St Mary The Virgin

St Mary The Virgin is a C13th church with a C14th porch and a roof renovated in the C16th.  Up until 1312 it belonged to the Knights Templar and then to the Knights Hospitallers when the Knights Templar was dissolved. The Hospitallers were, in turn, dissolved when Henry VIII destroyed the power of Brussels – sorry – the Church of Rome, and St Mary The Virgin became an Anglican church—and a centre of pilgrimage.

Here is the grave of St John Kemble, the 80 year old priest who was strapped backwards on a horse like a sack of potatoes and taken Newgate prison in London. There he was questioned over his ‘involvement’ in a fabricated plot to assassinate Charles II. After questioning, he was forced to walk the 135 miles to Hereford Gaol, there to be executed  on August 22 1679. Before leaving his cell, he was allowed to say his prayers, smoke his pipe for the very last time, and drink a cup of sherry to steady his nerves.
Legend has it that when the under sheriff, Mr. Digges arrived to take John Kemble to his execution, Kemble asked for a little time to say his prayers, and to smoke a pipe. Mr Digges granted the request and took out his own pipe. When John Kemble had finished, he declared himself ready, but Digges hadn’t finished his and asked him to wait. This story gave rise to a once common custom in Herefordshire of calling the parting smoke ‘a Kemble Pipe.

A nice story, but brutal end.

After his smoke, the 80 year old Kemble was dragged on a hurdle two miles out of Hereford to Widemarsh Common,

The hanging was horribly botched and Kemble took over half an hour to die. So great was the popular sympathy he was spared the butchery of drawing and quartering. Instead his corpse was beheaded and his left hand cut off. It survives to this day as a relic in a local church.

And above is the grave of the great Jake Thackray. Idiosyncratic, perhaps out of his time, he evaded the zeitgeist of the Sixties and Seventies and carved out his own, unique career. Towards the end  he struggled with alcohol and died a devout Catholic, singing at Mass in St Mary’s Monmouth. This can’t do him justice. The link will do a far better job. 

So, graveyard and spirits. What about the Church?

A rare stone Rood framing the high altar. 

In front of the altar is a stone slab bearing an elaborate wheel cross with a long slender stem, thought to be the resting place of a Knight Templar – perhaps the one that sat on that chair.

A Templar's chair  for observing Mass. circa 1250

A more modern but striking stained glass window.

I loved this for the depth of its walls and the peace it frames.

A Norman Baptismal font. 

The priests and vicars of St Mary's The Virgin
Note the vicar of 1892

The mystery

And this is the mystery. Pieter Wilhelm Merkus. The dedication is so detailed and at the same time provokes questions for which there may never be an answer. Why was he born in St Helier Jersey?(and don’t say we all have to be born somewhere) and what route took him from there to the Royal Prussian Field Artillery? And why did he join the Congo Free Army and die at the age of twenty at Nywangwe? And final question, what was his relationship with William Armstrong Willis, Vicar of
St Mary The Virgin, to have provoked such fulsome and heartfelt praise?
Always end a story with a question, as they say.

Whatever the case, I imagine, on long winter nights, ghosts abound, John Kemble with his sherry and pipe, Jake Thackray singing his irreverent songs, a grumpy Knight Templar and poor Pieter Wilhelm Merkus finding solace in an adventurous but largely unknown life.