In a beautiful, sleepy Oxfordshire village stands the church of St Mary the Virgin. Once this village was a much busier place, with ornate Almhouses known as ‘God’s House’ (now partly a school) and a lavish manor house that was near enough a palace. Other than a wall of the old dairy, not one trace of the manor now remains above ground, but in the 15th century this was the home of Alice de la Pole, wife of William de la Pole, Earl and later Duke of Suffolk.
Alice was the grand daughter of one of the most famous English writers of all time, Geoffrey Chaucer of Canterbury Tales fame.Her father was Thomas Chaucer and her mother Maud or Matilda Burghersh who are both buried in the church in an altar tomb set with fine brasses and covered in the wheel symbol of the de Roets and the leopards of the Plantagenets. Alice was married three times, first to Sir John Philip, then Thomas Montagu Earl of Salisbury, and finally to William de la Pole. Her son, John de la Pole, married Elizabeth of York, sister of Edward IV and Richard III, and John’s son, Alice’s grandson, was John Earl of Lincoln, whom Richard III made his heir after the death of Edward of Middleham.
Alice’s husband William was murdered when his ship was intercepted by a huge royal warship called ‘Nicholas of the Tower’ while crossing the Channel as he went into exile. Immediately he knew doom had befallen him; he had been told years before by the astrologer Stacey that he must ‘beware the Tower.’ Taken on board the enemy ship, he was beheaded with ‘many blows’ from a rusty sword and his body displayed for all to see upon the sands at Dover, his head stuck upon a stake.
Alice inherited many lands and manors from her husband and as she loaned a considerable amount of money to the Crown, the lands and titles were not placed under attainder. At one point she was constable of nearby Wallingford castle and as such custodian of both the ill-fated Henry Holland Duke of Exter (later to suspiciously ‘fall off’ a ship and drown after Edward IV’s French campaign) and Margaret of Anjou in the aftermath of Tewkesbury. Years before, Alice had been one of Queen Margaret’s ladies in waiting.
Alice died in 1475 at the age of 71. She has a large and elaborate alabaster tomb of exceedingly fine workmanship. On top lies the effigy of a strong-featured but peaceful-looking woman wearing a coronet; below the top, in a recess, lies a macabre memento mori monument of the Duchess as a decaying corpse, a grim reminder of the transience of life.