In the quiet village of Boyton in Wiltshire stands the Church of St Mary’s, known locally as ‘Blessed Mary of Boyton.’ Dating from the early 13th century it contains several unusual and startling features, including a medieval oven where priests baked the sacramental bread.
It is probably most famous, however, for the chantry of the Giffard family, who played an important role in 13th century politics and had connections to the royal family.
Sir Hugh Giffard instructed the young Prince Edward, son of Henry III and Eleanor of Provence, later to become Edward I, in horsemanship and ‘manly arts’, while his wife Sibilla assisted with both births and the education of the other royal children.
The chantry was begun in 1270 for Hugh and Sibilla and all their family by their sons Walter and Godfrey. Both of these men rose to high prominence, with each in turn being appointed Lord Chancellor of England. Walter was also made Archbishop of York, while Godfrey was Bishop of Worcester.
The huge wheel window which dominates the chantry is probably its outstanding feature, and is unparalleled anywhere in Britain. The small roundels of glass could actually be moved in their grooves to display different points.
Nearer to the altar, lies a superb effigy of an armoured knight with his feet resting on an otter and three lions on his shield, thought to be Godfrey and Walter’s brother, Alexander, who was in Egypt during the Seventh Crusade in 1250. He fought in the Battle of Al Mansourah and died there, while, legend says, attempting to help wounded soldiers escape down the Nile. The effigy predates the chantry and was moved into its current position at a later date. Traces of gold paint still remain on the armour.
The central tomb chest belongs to Lady Margaret Neville, who appears to have been a niece of Godfrey and Walter. Originally, there was an elaborate painted canopy over the tomb, but excavations in recent years show that there was once a fire in the chapel, and the canopy burnt down. The ashes from the destruction were found trapped beneath the flagstones, along with two other extremely unusual finds.
One was a clam shell which still bears traces of medieval paint inside. It is thought to have served as an artist’s palette, in which he mixed colours. The shell is on display in a glass box in the church and its still-vivid colours have been used as a guide to restoring the paint on the angel carvings around the ceiling.
Along with the shell, a fairly substantial fragment of original stained glass was found, bearing the arms of Thomas Plantagenet. Thomas was the grandson of Henry III and Eleanor of Provence and the son of Edmund Crouchback (whose name came from his right to wear a cross on his back.) Thomas was prominent at the coronation of Edward I, carrying Curtana, the sword of Edward the confessor. He was also one of the judges who tried and convicted Piers Gaveston during the reign of Edward II; Gaveston had previously insulted him with unflattering nicknames such as ‘the Fiddler’ and ‘The Churl.’ Thomas attempted to wrest affairs away from Edward during the following four years, but could not keep order amongst the nobility.
Eventually he mounted a full rebellion against the King in 1321 and was defeated at the Battle of Boroughbridge. Having surrendered, he was given a ‘show trial,’ in which he was neither allowed to speak in his own defence nor to have anyone speak for him. Predictably, he was sentenced to death for treason and beheaded near Pontefract. Later, miracles were said to have taken place at his tomb.
Today, Thomas’s arms are back on display in one of St Mary’s windows alongside fine collections of medieval glass that were not originally in the church, but installed by later owners of the nearby manor, who were great collectors of ancient glass. Beneath Thomas’s arms lies an inscription mentioning the long-time friendship of the Giffards with the Plantagenets.