In 1475, the newly-formed Guild of Our Lady Saint Mary the Virgin received a licence from King Edward IV to hold a property for their meetings. 2 Bancroft (The Brotherhood) has long been identified as the community’s Guildhall. As this part of Bancroft was formerly called Golden (earlier Gilden) Square, referring to the medieval Guild, the identification is plausible. Details inside the building confirm the likelihood, as the upper floor was built as one large room open to the roof. This floor originally projected out to the east, in what is known as a jetty (the overhanging part of a timber-framed building). Painted glass in the windows shows that this was a high status building, but it was destroyed in 1815 for sash windows, themselves removed at some time after 1885. It is now (January 2023) home to part of Lloyds Bank, Wilbury Clinic and Phone Tech.

Until the twentieth century, decorated tiles stood at each end of the roof ridge. Before 1912, when the Victoria County History described the originals as ‘still remaining in one of the shops’, replacements had taken their place. A photograph in the Lawson Thompson scrapbooks held in the museum shows that one of them was broken, missing its head, arms and reins. The business was probably Passingham’s wine shop at 2 Bancroft, as Alfred Passingham donated the tile to the newly formed (and still unopened) Hitchin Museum in 1939.

The tile measures about 315 mm in length and 256 wide. From the lowest part to the top of the rider’s head is about 360 mm, making it taller than it is long. It is earthenware with traces of a green (copper) glaze, discoloured through centuries of standing out in English weather. The horse and rider were made and fired separately from the tile and held in place with strips of lead. The example in the museum is mounted into a tile that is rounded, while the other was in an angled tile. An illustration in Reginald Hine’s History of Hitchin shows the surviving horse and rider on the angled tile; it is a composite of the two. It does not show the lead plugs, making it appear as if the tile, horse and rider were all one piece of clay.

The details of the rider’s head in the drawing are also inaccurate. The surviving rider does not wear a ‘cap’ like that in the drawing, but rather a lobster-tailed helmet, with a forward-projecting peak. These helmets, based on a Turkish çiçak type, became popular after 1600 and had fallen out of favour by about 1700. This detail gives us a good date for the tile, making it well over a century younger than the building.

According to Hine, George Lewin (1832-1896) used to try to hit the riders – whom he called Hengest and Horsa – with missiles from his catapult when he was young. Could it be that he managed to hit the broken example? Mr Lewin – who played football for Hitchin Town FC in the 1860s – became the town’s constable, so he may not have wanted to own up to it. Local folklore has the riders coming to life: again, according to Hine, they would ride along the ridge of the roof every night, although the writer (Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews) remembers that his mother told him when he was a child that they came down from the roof and did a circuit of the town at midnight on New Year’s Eve. In those days (the 1960s), the copies were still there, but they have since vanished. Where are they now? And where is the broken original?

In 2005, someone got in touch with the then assistant curator of Hitchin Museum, Caroline, to say that they knew where the missing tile was. They claimed that it was in a pond in a garden in The Avenue and asked if she’d like to go and ‘fish’ for it. It was a cold February day, so she said it might be possible later in the year. Then the trail went cold as the person never got back to her. Whether it’s one of the replacement tiles, the broken one or a tall story, we don’t know. A diver once told the writer in all sincerity that he had discovered a sunken Viking ship in the River Dee at Chester, only to vanish without trace (letters and telephone calls went unanswered). I am now suspicious about unevidenced tales of underwater discoveries, perhaps wrongly. If you know anything, please get in touch with the museum!

The first roof tiles to show a horse and rider date from the Chinese Tang dynasty (AD 618-907) and are known as liuli wa (‘roof tile of glass’), referring to their shimmering glazes. The technique is known as sancai (‘three glazes’) as the artists used a minimum of three different coloured lead glazes, usually green, cream and amber, and sometimes blue. These highly decorated products decorated both private and public buildings and were popular on tombs of the wealthy. They were intended to scare off evil spirits as the roof of a building is where the world of the living meets the world of spirits in the air. Another Chinese tile design that travelled west along the Silk Road in the Middle Ages is one of three hares arranged in a circle, so that each shares the two ears at its centre.

Hitchin Museum used the tile as its logo until the 1990s, as it has an iconic place in the history of the town. Although some people believe it to be medieval and original to the building, the design did not reach Europe before 1500, and the style of the rider’s helmet is a sure sign that it was made after 1600. It is now on display in the reception area of North Hertfordshire Museum.

Deserted villages have long held a romantic fascination, especially when their memories are evoked by crumbling ruins. Old, roofless churches evoke images of once-bustling village communities, lost to the ravages of Black Death, heartless landowners intent on evicting them from new parkland, or simple economic failure at the expense of nearby towns and cities.

St Etheldreda’s church in Chesfield is exactly this sort of place. Tucked away off a narrow winding road – Back Lane – that connects Graveley with Weston, it is a building easily overlooked by car drivers and walkers. To find it, one has to go searching. Its flint walls sit incongruously next to the late seventeenth-century brick of Chesfield Manor Farm, with a statue of the patron saint by Mary Spencer Watson standing by its south door since 1982. The gable of the west end of the nave stands almost to its original height, as does the west wall of a chapel to the south of the chancel, but little else remains.

ChesfieldThe church consisted of three rooms: the nave to the west, chancel to the east, the two forming a rectangle 15.2 m by 5.6 m, and a side-chapel measuring 6.4 m by 4.0 m south of the chancel. There is a doorway in the south wall of the nave with fourteenth-century mouldings, with another but narrower door in the west wall of the chapel with identical mouldings. A traceried window of the same date also survives in the west wall. These details show that the whole building consists of a single phase of construction, around 1360.

To confuse matters, there is documentary reference to a chapel at Chesfield manor in 1216 and another that the advowson (the right to choose its rector) was in the same hands as that of nearby Graveley in 1232. It is also mentioned as Ecclesia de Chivesfeld (‘Chesfield Church’) in Pope Nicholas’s tax survey of 1291-2. This evidence shows that there was a church here more than a century before the present one was built. Throughout the Middle Ages, Chesfield and Graveley were rivals: John Smyth, the priest at Graveley, murdered Robert Schorthale, the priest at Chesfield, in 1384. According to the historian Nathaniel Salmon, the two parishes were combined in 1445 as Graveley-cum-Chesfield. In the Lay Subsidy lists of 1307, the two are already assessed together (as Gravelee & Cshivesfeld), separating the names of householders between places. By the Subsidy list of 1334, it is described as hamelettus de Chevesfeld (‘hamlet of Chesfield’), suggesting that its status as a separate parish had been lost. In 1750, Bishop John Thomas of Lincoln gave permission for the church to be dismantled. In an ironic twist of fate, he allowed the stone rubble to be used to repair Graveley church.

Inside the ruined chancel, a trapezoidal stone coffin was once visible. Percival Westell of Letchworth Museum excavated it in 1921, and the vicar of Graveley donated it to the museum the next year. It was moved to the Letchworth Urban District Council depot in 1935, but its present whereabouts are unknown.

Chesfield does not appear in Domesday Book, compiled in 1086, and the earliest reference to the place is in 1200, as Chivelesfeld. It was probably included with Graveley (Grauelai in the original), which was given five separate entries, each with a different lord (Bishop Odo of Bayeux, Robert Gernon, William of Eu, Gosbert of Beauvais and Peter of Valonges). Gosbert’s and Peter’s holdings were the two described as manors, so one probably refers to Graveley proper and the other to Chesfield. By the thirteenth century, Chesfield was part of the de Valonges barony, so Peter’s Domesday manor was likely Chesfield. William of Ow’s smaller holding possibly also included part of Chesfield. Peter de Valonges later acquired the Bishop’s lands. He also held land in Escelueia, usually thought to be Chells (now part of Stevenage) but was probably somewhere in the north of the historic parish of Graveley, as this part of it was said to be in Wilga (Willian): Robert Gernon also had land there.

So what of the deserted village? Nothing in the landscape suggests that there was ever a nucleated community at Chesfield, although the creation of Chesfield Park in Georgian times has changed the road layout. The figures in Domesday Book suggest a population of perhaps 70 or so people at Chesfield in 1086, which is large for Hertfordshire, and about 40 people in Graveley itself.

Who was St Etheldreda? The name is a Latinised version of Old English Æðelþryð (Æthelthryth), who was born a princess, daughter of King Anna of East Anglia, about AD 636. She took a vow of perpetual virginity as a young woman but despite this, she was married about 652 to Tondbert, ruler of the South Gyrwe in the Fenland. After he died, she retired to Ely, where Tonbert had given her property as part of her dowry. In 660, she was married again – probably against her will – to Ecgfrith of Northumbria, a teenage boy. He became king in 670, at which point she found herself queen. She took advice from Wilfrid, Bishop of York, who advised her to retire and become a nun, although Ecgfith objected. In 672, she joined the monastery at Coldingham but evidently did not feel safe there (it was a Northumbrian royal foundation, so Ecgfrith perhaps had proprietorial control over it). She fled back to Ely, which was her own propery, and founded a monastery there in 673, becoming its first abbess. Æðelþryð died on 23 June 679 and her sister Seaxburh succeeded her. Sixteen years later, Seaxburh decided to remove her sister’s remains from an unmarked grave to put the body into a specially built shrine. Æðelþryð’s body had not decayed, which was traditionally a sign of sainthood.

Æðelþryð was duly moved into a white marble sarcophagus, taken from a Roman tomb at Cambridge, which was miraculously found to be a perfect fit. Her original wooden coffin and her burial clothes were found to have miraculous healing powers. Accordingly, Ely became a place for pilgrims to visit in the hope of being cured throughout the Middle Ages (with a hiatus between 870, when the invading Danish Great Army destroyed the monastery, and 970, when King Eadgar rebuilt it). Gradually, her name transformed into Middle English Seynt Audrey,giving us the modern name Audrey. Seynt Audrey’s fair in Ely was renowned for its lace, which pious ladies would wear to conceal their cleavage. By the seventeenth-century, ‘tawdry lace’ (from ‘Saint Audrey lace’) had become a by-word for cheap and vulgar finery. From there, it went on to develop its commoner modern meaning of cheap, gaudy, unseemly and sordid. Poor Æðelþryð did not deserve that!

Written by Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

Some archaeological discoveries are hiding in plain sight. Tucked away under a hedge on the east side of Baldock Bowls Club’s car park (owned by the council) on West Avenue in the town was what everyone thought was an old horse trough. It consisted of four sides of a roughly rectangular stone container filled with soil. Most users of the car park probably never even noticed it. One day in 2009, Steve Geach from North Hertfordshire District Council invited Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews (the writer of this post) to take a look at it as the Bowls Club wanted to get rid of it.

On seeing the ‘trough’, Keith’s first thought was ‘this is a Roman coffin’. Horse troughs tend to be much longer: in this case, the object was quite short (about a metre and a half). He suggested that when lifted, it would prove to have a hole, either in one side towards the bottom or somewhere in the base. He also asked if the Museum Service could have it.

On lifting, it did indeed have a hole in one side. This makes it impossible to use as a horse-trough (any water put inside it would drain away instantly), but ideal for a coffin, which needs to have somewhere for fluids to escape. Without going into too many gory details, bodies produce a lot of water when they decay (sometimes referred to as ‘coffin soup’ by archaeologists trying to be humorous), and it is important to let it seep out.

The coffin proved to weigh over half a tonne, despite being for a child. At 1.40 m long, 0.66 m wide and up to 0.62 m high, with an internal hollow of 1.03 × 0.41 × 0.33 m, it contains about 0.43 cubic metres of stone. We can calculate that this volume of limestone would weigh a minimum of 670 kg! The limestone in question is Totternhoe Stone, a relatively hard form of chalk, part of the Lower Chalk that formed between about 100,500,000 and 93,900,000 years ago during the Cenomanian phase of the Cretaceous era. It has been quarried since Roman times in the village of Totternhoe, although outcrops are found in other places along the foot of the Chiltern scarp.

Before arriving at the Bowls Club car park, it had been a garden feature in a nearby property in West Avenue. A photograph sent to the local newspaper in 2009 showed it being used as a planter during the 1960s. It seems that it had already been in the garden when the householder arrived, so the trail goes cold at that point. Given its weight, it is unlikely to have moved far, so it had probably been discovered nearby. Letchworth Museum records record a collection of Roman pottery from Norton Crescent, barely 100 metres away. The houses were built in the late 1930s, and this may be a context for finding the material. Although this is about 300 metres from where current thinking puts the western edge of the Roman town of Baldock, this area could have been part of suburban development.

Transporting such a heavy object from the quarry, almost 30 km away along the Icknield Way, would have been challenging. Using a cart pulled by oxen, the journey would have taken about three days; historians have calculated that the cost would be about 1 denarius per kilogram of freight. If correct, the cost would then be almost 700 denarii. A denarius was roughly a day’s pay for a soldier around AD 200, so the transport cost would be about two years’ salary; in the modern British army, a Private’s salary is £21,424, per year, putting the transport cost at about £40,000 in modern terms. Making comparisons of this sort is fraught with difficulties, but it gives a good impression of the sort of wealth needed to transport a coffin of this sort. Add on the cost of manufacture, and you can appreciate that whoever bought this sarcophagus for their child had a lot of disposable income.

We know that wealthy people lived in the hinterland of Baldock (there will be some spectacular evidence coming up in one of these posts in a few months), while finds from the town hint that it was a prosperous place. It is easy to imagine a large villa in the countryside beyond Baldock’s western fringes whose owners could afford an expensive stone sarcophagus for a treasured child. A child burial discovered in Icknield Way East in 1988, northeast of the town, had a wooden superstructure and its coffin contained an antique pipeclay goddess figurine. Although not as costly as a stone sarcophagus, the complexity of the grave and its superstructure shows that the child’s parents wanted to show off their wealth and status.

Roman burials had to be deposited outside the boundary of a town. An ancient Roman law, the first section of Part X of the Leges XII tabularum (‘Laws of the Twelve Tables’) states hominem mortuum in urbe ne sepelito neve urito (‘neither bury nor cremate a dead man in the city’). The law code was first published in 450 BC and remained the basis of Roman law throughout the empire until Justinian I reorganised and codified all laws in the 530s. Because the law about burial was so fundamental, we can assume that all the known cemeteries in Baldock lay outside its formal boundary. Outside towns, people could have burials on their own land, and many villa owners had private cemeteries for family members close to the main house.

An almost identical coffin with a similar history was found in a Wiltshire garden in 2015. Luke Irwin had been using a stone ‘planter’ for geraniums outside his kitchen for some years when work laying electrical cables uncovered a Roman mosaic floor. Excavations at his Deverill home by Wiltshire Archaeology and English Heritage uncovered the remains of an enormous Roman villa, built in the decades around 200 and occupied for more than two centuries thereafter. When archaeologist David Roberts from English Heritage saw the ‘planter’, he realised, like Keith, that this was originally a stone coffin for a Roman era child.

The Baldock coffin is on display in the Living in North Hertfordshire gallery in North Herts Museum, Hitchin.

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