On our journey to Yate last week we made the effort to visit the hamlet of Hawkesbury, which was just a short journey from our B’n’B on Hawkesbury Common. It was late evening when we got there but we were glad we did. Why visit there, well here are a couple of reasons.
The Parish of Hawkesbury
The parish of Hawkesbury has a long history. The parish as it is known today dates from the time of the Norman conquest and there is a really useful website provided by Hawkesbury Local History Society that details much of this.
The original charter, and earliest known reference to Hawkesbury dates from 972 AD. King Edgar granted land to the Benedictine Abbey of Pershore, and confirmed to the Abbot and Convent of Pershore the same privileges that had been granted some two hundred years earlier by King Cenwulf (AD 796-821).So stable has the current parish boundary been, that even though it stretches for over thirty miles, it still follows almost all of the original 972 AD line.
We didn’t have much time to see a great deal in the failing evening light, but we were really impressed by the buildings, the most prominent of which was the parish church of St Mary the Virgin. Almost as impressive were the old farm buildings. These are often overlooked features of village life and history, but here in Hawkesbury, they were really prominent. There are some images of them in the gallery below.
The Church of St Mary the Virgin, Hawkesbury
Given the setting of the church, one of the first things that struck us was its size, and on reading up on it, it is said to hold a congregation of over 300. This is a legacy of its history of almost a thousand years and connections with the Benedictine Abbey of Pershore in Worcestershire.
Pershore Abbey established its manorial centre to the west of St Mary the Virgin and staffed it, as many Abbeys did, with a mixture of both clergy and lay brothers. Hawkesbury manor is mentioned in the Domesday Book under the landholdings of Pershore Abbey. It was a large estate and a centre for teaching.
It is unclear when the first church was built in the parish, but some of the stone work reused in the church would suggests that there may well have been a church in existence during Saxon times. Like many older churches, St Mary the Virgin shows signs of extensive reworking over the years. There are many additions to the original building. As you can see on the image on the left here, an original has been removed and replaced with a more ‘modern’ one. In 2011 a new window was installed, dedicated to St Wulfstan.
The churchyard can be considered as two separate features. The older one, which surrounds the church, is roughly an oval plot and has some beautiful, and well maintained Yew that form part of the south eastern boundary. The burial ground itself has almost two hundred gravestones and monuments. It was very noticeable, and surprising, that many of them are chest tombs. More than half of these are considered important enough, eith for the individual whom the commemorate, or for design etc, that they are on the official schedule of listed buildings and monuments. The later one, a to the north of the church, can be reached through the lychgate. In the gathering gloom, we didn’t have time to have a look there.
We were surprised to see quite so many chest tombs in one churchyard. You’ve probably seen examples in your local churchyard as they are quite common. However, it seems that there is a greater concentration of them in the Gloucestershire/Wiltshire/Cotswolds region. We don’t know why this is, but our interest has been piqued!
Chest, or Table Tombs have a long history. They first appeared in Tudor times and there are fine examples to be seen across the country. They can be found inside and outside the church, but in all cases the individual is buried beneath the tomb, not inside it as you might think! Because of their long history there are many changes in design and artwork. One handy way to date them is the lid. It wasn’t until the 17th century that lids become significantly thinner as the whole design of the chest becomes lighter.
So what next?
Well we really enjoyed our brief stopover in Hawkesbury and we are planning to go back. It may prove difficult to get our four children enthused about it, but we won’t let that deter us. We’d like to go inside the church and learn more of its history, and that of the nearby properties. There was mention of a manor, but we couldn’t see it. So, more research on this is needed! If you want to find out more about chest tombs and other churchyard memorials, here are some suggestions to get you started.
Some reading on Churchyard memorials
- Frederick Burgess, English Churchyard Memorials, Lutterworth Press, Cambridge, 2004
- Mark Child, Discovering Churchyards, Shire Publications, Aylesbury, 1982
- Margaret Cox, Grave Concerns, Council for British Archaeology, York, 1998
- Hilary Lees, English Churchyard Memorials, Tempus, Stroud, 2000
- Julian Litten, The English Way of Death, Robert Hale, London, 1991