I am often taken aback by the sheer volume of history that we have in this country, and also how staggeringly neglectful we are of our embarrassment of heritage. I am not going to descend into a Daily Mail style rant about our failings to teach ‘proper‘ history in our schools, or our total lack of grasp of facts and figures, but just how absent mindedly we treat our past.
I guess a certain amount of this sequent slovenliness comes from the sheer volume of ‘history’ that we are surrounded with. Bill Bryson in his Notes From a Small Island expresses his amazement that in the UK there are (or were at his time of writing in 1995) 445,000 listed historical buildings, 12,000 medieval churches, 1,500,000 acres of common land, 120,000 miles of footpaths and public rights-of-way, 600,000 known sites of archaeological interest. Most memorably me marvels that in his Yorkshire village there were more 17th-century buildings than in the whole of North America.
So it’s not surprising that some of this plethora of past achievement and industry gets nibbled away each year. We also have a grand tradition of the occasional bonfire of beautiful buildings, take for example the Black Death, Dissolution, Reformation, occasional visitations from the Luftwaffe, or the frankly criminal machinations of the 1960’s town planner. But still there are the occasionally baffling examples of historical indifference. I found one such example the other day.
Despite being one of our better known Saints, a former Archbishop, and medieval martyr, there are almost no chapels or churches dedicated to St Thomas a Becket. The obvious exception to this was his famous shrine in Canterbury Cathedral, but that was destroyed in 1538 when Henry VIII ordered that Becket’s bones be destroyed and that all mention of his name be obliterated. Oh, that, and the famous shrine at St Thomas’ Chapel in Meppershall…
What?! You have never heard of the famous shrine at St Thomas’ Chapel in Meppershall? Tsk Tsk… “As any fule kno” the chapel is first documented in a papel letter dated 1291 which promised to all penitents the remission of one year and forty days penance if they made the pilgrimage to the chapel of St. Thomas the Martyr. It belonged to the Gilbertine Priory at Chicksands which had been founded by Rohesia and Payn de Beauchamp around 1150 (more here). The chancel was mainly replaced in around 1500, but there is some staggering twelfth century sculpture found on the south doorway. Still not ringing any bells? No? Well, I am not surprised…
It is used as a cow shed.
On an ‘interesting’ final note, legends attached to the chapel are many, but one tells of a man called “The Jiggler” who hanged himself there and was buried in a grass triangle where the water tower now stands. It is said that if you walk around the triangle twelve times at midnight, The Jiggler will come out after you. So, who is up for a trip to Meppershall?