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Medieval (sic) Murder Mysteries

This is a six-part series, first shown on “Yesterday” (a UKTV channel) in 2015 but is available to view on their website here. The producers used pathologists, coroners, historians, barristers and other writers to form their conclusions, some of which are more reliable than others.

The first episode, which surely misses the mediaeval timescale, is that of Christopher Marlowe, stabbed in a Deptford tavern in 1593: in self-defence, a brawl or a targeted assassination? Marlowe’s possible involvement with heresy or espionage, Raleigh or Cecil is investigated in depth. The riddle of Edward II‘s fate at Berkeley Castle is tackled next – could he really have died by poker or suffocation or could he have escaped? Their conclusion points in the latter direction, although the current Berkeley heir leans towards the ultra-traditional legend.

The third show is about Arthur of Brittany, son of Geoffrey and nephew of John, who seems to have been disposed of in a particularly grisly manner in Brittany – blinding and castrating, either of which could have been fatal through shock. Several Byzantine Emperors, from 800 onwards, had been blinded, to prevent them from ruling effectively and castration would prevent him from reproducing, although death would not necessarily be intended. The fourth, again un-mediaeval, case covered Amy Robsart’s fall down a staircase at Cumnor, Oxfordshire after sending her servants away – accident, suicide, murder to free her husband Dudley to marry Elizabeth I, murder to stop him from ever marrying Elizabeth? Both suicide and murder are less probable, as the pathologist argued, because Amy might have survived as an invalid for a few years and remembered her assailant if there was one. There was no mention of the cancer I have heard, elsewhere, that she suffered from, although the staircase is the series emblem.

Inevitably, the “Princes” feature, in part five. Sadly, as with Edward II, many of the “experts” may understand their own professions well but seem not to appreciate the level of “Tudor” propaganda and have not approached the case with open minds, which skewed their conclusion against the high probability of one or both being sent to Burgundy. The final case was that of Juan (Giovanni) Borgia, the acknowledged son of a Pope (Alexander VI), who was definitely murdered and dumped in the Tiber – but as a random victim, by his brother Gioffre, the Orsini family or someone else? An Orsini had just died in a Papal prison.

Shepperdine, a hamlet on the shore of the Severn Estuary….

Shepperdine is a tiny settlement on the east shore of the Severn Estuary, SW of Berkeley, NW of Thornbury, and was once under the rule of the Berkeleys of Berkeley Castle, who hunted the now lost Horwood Forest that covered the area all the way to Bristol. This little part of England has not changed in centuries, but will soon be loomed over by a new nuclear power station, which will dominate everything and banish the past. So I am writing something about Shepperdine as I’ve known about it.

Shepperdine is generally referred to along with the manor of Hill, which is very close by. Hill was included in a grant of the Barony of Berkeley, bestowed upon Robert Fitzharding by Henry II after his accession in 1154. The manor stayed in the Berkeley family until coming into the possession of Robert Poyntz of nearby Iron Acton in 1418, whose family held it until 1609. I do not know much more of its history, except that the present manor house is a 19th-century building that replaced an earlier one.

joseph of arimathea's staff grows into hawthorn

It is said that Joseph of Arimathea didn’t only come to Glastonbury to strike his staff into the ground so that a holy thorn tree grew. No, indeed. Gloucestershire claims he visited Shepperdine too, and struck the ground with his staff again so that a second holy thorn grew, and, like Glastonbury, supposedly bloomed at Christmas. Unlikely? Well, no more so than Glastonbury’s claim, because Shepperdine is only a short voyage up the coast. I must come clean here, and admit that the story is probably the invention of a solitary priest in a nearby medieval chapel (now known as Chapel House) to boost income and alleviate his boredom.

Chapel House from distance

Part of the flat, marshy, dyke-crossed land between Hill and the estuary is known as the World’s End, and appropriately so. There, right beneath the sea wall, is Shepperdine, lonely, isolated, atmospheric and thought-provoking. It has also been known as Shepherdine and Shipperdine, and takes its name from the Danish vessels that beached here in Anglo-Saxon times, safe between the Severn and Horwood Forest.

LongShip2

Berkeley Vale has always been an area of farms, fields, orchards, sleepy villages and little winding back roads. It is famous for cider, perry, Single and Double Gloucester cheese, and all the other produce that comes from the rich land that lies in the lee of the sea defence. Stand on the levee with your back to the vale, and there is the wild, dangerously tidal Severn estuary, beyond which rise the hills of Wales and the Forest of Dean. From the Severn comes the wonderful harvest of the sea, salmon, eels and elvers, and all manner of other sea life. The vale has always had everything it needs, and had no need to change, which is why it is as unspoilt now as it always has been. As a matter of interest, Horwood Forest was disafforested in 1228, and to be certain of what this meant, I looked it up. Disafforest means to “reduce from the privileges of a forest to the state of ordinary land :  exempt from the forest laws”.

A walk along the sea wall (on top of which passes the Severn Way footpath) is to breathe more freely and clear the cobwebs that we all accumulate in our heads. But I feel sorry for that priest  on his own in the chapel, because to have such bracing, stimulating air day-in, day-out would be a little overwhelming, especially on a bleak winter’s day, with the incoming tide roaring and the wind howling. Too much fresh air already! Or whatever he would have muttered in mediaeval Latin! To himself, because there was no one there to listen.

For centuries the only way of getting along this coast was by water, or on foot or horse. And sometimes there was no getting along there at all because of floods. Shepperdine would have been engulfed in the Great Flood of 1607 (which is now suggested to have been a tsunami).

1607

The area has been on alert or inundated many times since then, and was in danger again in 2016

flood warning 2016

The Windbound Inn (closed in 2004 and now about to be/already is demolished) was only 7 metres above sea level, and nestled behind the levee that did not always protect it. The higher Severn tides can pour over the access to the Severn Way along the top of the levee. I read somewhere that water once poured down the inn’s chimneys to flood the place to a depth of four feet! What you see in the picture below is a modern first-floor gable extension, the original inn building is lower. The picture also shows how the inn huddles in the lee of the sea wall. In high tides, the water laps within feet of the building. In the distance in the photograph below you can see the old Severn suspension bridge, and a glimmer of the new crossing beyond it.

windbound behind embankment

Here’s a fascinating anecdote of Shepperdine from 18th September 1954 or 55. Lord Noel Buxtun walked right across the estuary, guided by a local man’s knowledge. The lowest point of the river is between Aylburton and Shepperdine, and is an old Roman ford. A zig-zag course was worked out for Lord Noel to follow. At the deepest point the river came up to his chest, but he made it to the other side.

Lord Noel Buxton crosses Seven on foot

Rather him than me! Be stuck in the middle of a two-mile wide River Severn, right up to the chest? And stay sane enough to keep walking? To say nothing of trying to remember whether you were on the zig or the zag. Of course, you’d need to be lacking in sanity to make such a crossing in the first place. The Beachley-Aust ferry wasn’t far away to the south, and to the north you could drive around via Gloucester. Much more sensible. But then, I believe his lordship also crossed the Humber like this. And the Thames, which he miscalculated and had to swim part of the way. Say no more, really.

The following passage is taken from Severn Tide by Brian Waters, who also wrote Severn Stream, about the inland reaches of the river.

“The building [the mediaeval chapel] is now known as Chapel Cottages, and stands as a buttress of the sea wall where the land bends into the river, and where the main channel of the Severn curves toward the chapel. Navigational lights stand on the shore beside the building and they remind us that Thomas, Lord Berkeley, who founded the chapel in the fourteenth century, was a practical man. He gave ‘competent lands’ to maintain a priest to sing there, and under his heirs the house became a chantry until the Reformation. It stands exactly opposite the monastic chapel of Woolaston across the river. The chapel served the secular purpose of being a guide to shipping and a landmark to sailors.

“One of its priests wrote this Latin phrase about the parish of Hill: ‘Hieme mala, aestate molesta, nunquam bona’— ‘Evil in winter, grievous in summer, and never good’. But the holy thorn is not the only flower to bloom here in midwinter, in January I have seen the grass of the sea wall studded with daisies, and have even put my foot on five of them, for there is a saying in parts of Gloucestershire that if you can put your foot over five daises then spring is here…”

“…The chapel building has undergone many changes, but the four walls now standing [1947], bleak and angular against the Severn, would appear to be the form of the original house. After the Reformation the chapel became a farmhouse, and only comparatively recently was it converted into cottages.”

Chapel House

What the original chapel looked like I cannot say, except that it would have been simple. Being got-at over the centuries has not improved its appearance!

It was derelict again when I walked there with my husband and daughter when she was a child, but is now a house again. We liked to go to the Windbound Inn and then stroll north along the embankment toward the chapel. Now the Windbound is no more, and soon there will be a new nuclear power station to tower over this amazing coastline. This will be to replace nearby Oldbury, which has been decommissioned.

The Windbound toward the end

 

 

 

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