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Charles G. (Charles George) Harper.

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possessed of a dwarf sea-wall and a parade of sorts, is better. Here
the Government officials chiefly live, as it were, at the gates of
the Unknown, for although there is nothing to hinder excursions into
"the interior," few have ever been those to make the attempt. Looking
at Sheppey with the eyes of Sheerness, one in fact regards that town
largely in the light of a settlement on the coast of some impossible
island in the most impossible of colonies. We shall, however, see that
Sheppey contains more of interest in a day's tour than is readily to be
found in the same time within the compass of the Home Counties.

For Sheppey - it is a redundancy to talk of the "Isle of Sheppey,"
the ancient Saxon "Sceapige," the "Isle of Sheep," including the
designation of "island" - besides containing some of the most notable
of Ingoldsby landmarks, has witnessed historic events. The outskirts
of Sheerness are, of course, peculiarly soulless and abnormally gritty
and dirty. If, however, the explorer perseveres until these are left
behind, he will see in the distance, some two-and-a-half miles ahead,
an isolated hill rising abruptly from the levels and surmounted by a
Church. A nearer approach discovers a pretty countryside and the fact
that an interesting village clings round the topmost slopes of the
hill. This is the village of Minster-in-Sheppey, thus particularised
in order to distinguish it from the better-known Minster-in-Thanet.
The church was once a dependency of the abbey founded here by St.
Saxburga, or Sexburga, in A.D. 675; the abbey spoken of in ancient
documents as "Monasterium Scapeiæ," or "The Sheppey Monastery." It is
this title that has given the village of Minster its name, as found in
the changing forms of the word since the twelfth century, when it was
"Moynstre." By degrees it became "Menstre," and thence assumed its
present form. It is by no means proposed in these pages to follow the
fortunes of Saxburga and her establishment of seventy-seven nuns, nor
to tell the story of how the heathen Danes in after years desecrated
the place. Sanctuaries existed in those times, it would seem (from the
frequency and certainty of their being attacked) expressly for the
purpose of being violated, and scarce a religious house, in the course
of many centuries, escaped ruin at the hands of pagan piratical hordes,
or of internal enemies who, although Christians, were hardly less
savage. Even at a time so comparatively late as 1322, some tragical
affair, whose details have never been disclosed, took place here, for
at that time both the abbey and the church were said to have "suffered
pollution from blood," and the Archbishop of Canterbury was entreated
to send a faculty for holding a special service of reconciliation, to
purge the place.

The abbey, of course, shared the common fate of such establishments,
big and little, in the strenuous days of Henry VIII., and its buildings
have been so diligently quarried for stone during more than three
hundred years that nothing is left of them but the gatehouse, which
neighbours the west end of the church. Even that has been ingeniously
turned to account, and, with the great entrance archway bricked up, and
modern sashed windows knocked into the walls, forms very comfortable
quarters for the families of two farm-labourers.

But it is not to discuss abbesses, saintly or merely human, that we
are here. Diligent readers of the _Ingoldsby Legends_ will at once
recognise Minsterin-Sheppey as the principal scene of one of the most
interesting and humorous legends of the series, the prose story of
"Grey Dolphin;" and not far distant is the site of Shurland Castle,
where Sir Robert de Shurland, Lord of Shurland and Minster and Baron
of Sheppey _in comitatu_ Kent, dwelt, and, _teste_ Tom Ingoldsby, "to
the frame of a dwarf united the soul of a giant and the valour of a
gamecock." There is, true enough, a great, clumsy altar-tomb in Minster
church to the memory of that redoubtable Baron, who was a real person,
and not one of Barham's "many inventions." And not only a real, but a
very gallant and distinguished personage too, of whom it was perhaps
rather too bad of Ingoldsby to draw so farcical a portrait. He took
part in the Crusade of 1271, and was at a later period knighted by
Prince Edward for gallantry at the siege of Caerlaverock. "If I were a
young demoiselle," says an old romance, "I would give myself to that
brave knight, Sir Robert de Shurland." Women ever loved brave men.

[Illustration: MINSTER-IN-SHEPPEY.]

The effigy of the knight bespeaks a man rather tall and thin, than
thick-set and of a dwarfish stature. The local tradition upon which
Barham founded the legend of "Grey Dolphin" is that the Lord of
Shurland, happening to pass by the churchyard of Minster, found a fat
friar in the act of refusing, unless he were paid for his services,
to say the last rites of the Church over the body of a drowned sailor
brought to this spot for burial. No one felt inclined to pay for the
unfortunate mariner's passport to Heaven, and the friar was obdurate,
refusing to accede to even the Baron's request. The Baron promptly
slew the friar, and kicked his body into the open grave, to bear
the sailor company on his journey to Hades. Mother Church was not
particularly fond of the greasy friars who at that time infested
the country, but she could not brook so flagrant an insult; and
accordingly, made matters extremely unpleasant for the Baron, who,
learning that the King lay aboard ship two miles off the coast of
Sheppey, swam there and back on his horse, Grey Dolphin, and obtained
a pardon. But, on returning to the shore, an old woman prophesied that
the horse which had now saved his life should some day cause his death.
To render this, as he thought, impossible, the Baron killed his horse
on the spot, and went off rejoicing. The next year, however, chancing
to ride over the sands again, his horse stumbled over the skull of Grey
Dolphin and threw the Baron fatally.

[Illustration: TOMB OF SIR ROBERT DE SHURLAND.]

His tomb, rubbed down in a cleanly and housewifely manner quite
destructive of any appearance of antiquity, is in the south aisle of
Minster Abbey church - the effigy of a "recumbent warrior clad in the
chain-mail of the thirteenth century. His hands are clasped in prayer;
his legs, crossed in that position so prized by Templars in ancient
and tailors in modern days, bespeak him a Soldier of the Faith in
Palestine. Close behind his dexter calf lies sculptured in bold relief
a horse's head." This is represented in the midst of some curious
carving, perhaps intended for waves. At the feet of the mutilated
effigy crouches a battered little figure of a page, misericorde in
hand; while "Tickletoby," the Baron's sword, is represented in stone
carving by his side, with a spear the length of his tomb. It was, as
Tom Ingoldsby explains, "the fashion in feudal times to give names
to swords: King Arthur's was christened Excalibur; the Baron called
his Tickletoby, and whenever he took it in hand it was no joke." The
legend of "Grey Dolphin" has been explained away by antiquaries, who
say that the horse's head means only that Sir Robert de Shurland had
obtained a grant of the "Wreck of the Sea" where his manors extended
towards the shore, and was entitled to all wreckage, waifs and strays,
flotsam and jetsam, which he could reach with the point of his lance
when riding at ebb tide as far into the sea as possible.

The weather-vane on the tower, fashioned to represent a horse's head,
alludes to this story, and gives the local name of the "Horse Church."

[Illustration: THE HORSE-VANE, MINSTER-IN-SHEPPEY.]

The siege of Shurland Castle belongs more to fiction than to history,
and it is only in Tom Ingoldsby's pages that you can read how Guy
Pearson, one of the defenders, "had got a black eye from a brickbat."
Most of the people - John de Northwode, William of Hever, and Roger
of Leybourne - who led the assault are real persons, and, indeed, the
brasses of Sir John de Northwode and his wife, Joan of Badlesmere, are
there, in the church of Minster, to this day. Haines, the author of the
first, and still the standard, work on _Monumental Brasses_, says the
knight's effigy "has undergone a peculiar Procrustean process, several
inches having been removed from the centre of the figure to make it
equal in length to that of his wife. The legs have been restored and
crossed at the ankles, an attitude apparently not contemplated by the
original designer. From the style of engraving, these alterations seem
to have been made at the close of the fifteenth century." Since Haines
wrote, the brass of the knightly sheriff has been again restored, a
piece of metal having been inserted, with the effect of lengthening the
figure considerably. The effect of a modern slip of brass let into this
fifteenth-century engraving is not a little incongruous.

The Baron who put John de Northwode and his _posse comitatus_ to flight
left a daughter, his sole heiress. If one could believe Ingoldsby
(which one cannot do) it would be sufficient to read that "Margaret
Shurland in due course became Margaret Ingoldsby; her portrait still
hangs in the gallery at Tappington. Her features are handsome but
shrewish; but we never could learn that she actually kicked her
husband." Diligent delving into old records proves, however, that
Margaret Shurland married one William Cheyney; and the altar-tomb of
their descendant, Sir Thomas Cheyney, Warden of the Cinque Ports in the
time of good Queen Bess, stands in Minster church even now.

That noble monument details how important a personage he was. Knight
of the Garter, Constable of Dover Castle, Treasurer of the Household
to Henry VIII. and Edward VI., and Privy Councillor in the succeeding
reigns of Mary and Elizabeth, he was obviously a man of affairs. Here
the recumbent effigy of him lies, a surrounding galaxy of sixteen
shields of arms setting forth the noble alliances of his house. He
was a man of great wealth - probably he helped himself liberally out of
the Treasury - and, razing Shurland Castle to the ground and leaving
nothing to tell of the old stronghold, built in its stead the mansion
now standing, but fallen from its old estate and become a farmhouse.

One marvels by what suavity of demeanour, what tact, double-dealing,
and wholesale jettison of principles and personal convictions,
political, social, and religious, this man of many dignities contrived
to keep and augment his fortune and preserve his head upon his
shoulders in the hurly-burly and general quick-change of those times
in which he lived, when an incautious word meant Tower Hill and the
executioner's axe, or, at the very least of it, the forfeiture of
property. Surely he did not wear his heart upon his sleeve who moved
thus freely in Courts, and who died, undisturbed and in the fulness of
time, in his bed.

Minster church is rich in other monuments. Here in a recess of the wall
can still be seen the mutilated alabaster effigy of a knight in armour,
representing an unfortunate Spanish prisoner of rank captured by Drake
off Calais harbour at the descent of the Armada in 1588. This poor Don
Jeronimo Magno, of Salamanca, was given into the custody of Sir Edward
Hoby, Constable of Queenborough and Commander at the Nore, who kept him
for three years a prisoner aboard ship at that rough and boisterous
anchorage. It is not surprising that the unhappy Jeronimo died at the
end of that time - unless we like to be surprised that he stood it so
long. He was buried here December 5th, 1591. The hooligan instincts of
fanatical religious reformers, and still more those of the succeeding
centuries of village goths and visitant 'Arrys, have bashed the nose of
the effigy, shorn off at the elbow his once devoutly clasped arms, and
scored him about with their quite uninteresting initials. Another such
effigy, not so ill-treated, is that supposed to represent Jordanus de
Scapeia, whose clasped hands still hold between their fingers a mystic
oval sculptured with a little effigy thought to symbolise the soul.
This monument was found buried in the churchyard, in 1833, five feet
deep.

[Illustration: THE SOUL, FROM A MONUMENT IN MINSTER-IN-SHEPPEY
CHURCH.]

From this hilltop churchyard one may glimpse a view whose like is not
often seen. Sheerness to one side, the narrow ribbon of the Swale, the
broad channels of the Medway and the Thames, and the great expanse
of slimy marshes, gleam under the summer sun like burnished steel.
When evening comes and the sunbeams slant downwards from dun-coloured
clouds, the scene is one to make an artist despair of ever adequately
rendering the beauty of it.

The dust of countless generations lies mingled here, in this swelling
God's Acre, raised so high above the road. Abbesses and nuns and the
good folks of Minster for many hundreds of years have all found rest
at last, and most of their names are forgotten, save by the casual
antiquary who turns over the yellow pages of the parish registers.
Most of the gravestones date from periods ranging from a hundred to
sixty years ago, and their inscriptions tell eloquently of a seafaring
population near at hand - at Sheerness, of course; for the ship's
carpenters, rope-makers, boatswains, master-mariners, and the many
others of the seafaring profession generally have their occupation
duly set forth on their memorials. The rope-maker's is embellished
with ropes, curiously carved and fashioned, representing knots whose
name sailormen alone may know. Others bear terrific attempts at
picturing the Judgment Day, intended to make the casual sinner quail.
Unfortunately, the puffy, overfed angels blowing the Last Trump on
trumpets many sizes too large for them make the sinful smile, and they
go away quite undisturbed in their old iniquitous ways.

So greatly has the soil of the churchyard been raised by the countless
years of interments, that the church itself lies, as it were, in a
little hollow, and the entrances to it by the south door, and from the
western portal in the tower, are flanked by walls of grassy earth,
the whole immediately overlooking and abutting upon the houses of the
homely village.

[Illustration: THE ESTUARY OF THE MEDWAY, FROM THE ROAD NEAR
MINSTER-IN-SHEPPEY.]

There are exquisitely beautiful glimpses on the road from Minster to
Warden, beginning immediately on leaving the place. To the left, a
lovely valley that in Devonshire would be called a "coombe," and in
the Isle of Wight a "chine," shelves down to the sea at the farm of
Scrapsgate. There from the road you see the valley, notched out like
a V, with myriads of wild-flowers, and in the distance on the right
hand the farm-buildings, nestling among orchards and a dense clump
of trees, and in that wedge of the V the sparkling waters of a sea
that is always alive and companionable with the great steamers coming
in or out of the mouth of the Thames, with the brick-lighters and
sailing-barges creeping round the island, or with the swallow-like
flight of the graceful yachts of the Royal Thames Yacht Squadron.
Turning in the other direction, the mazy creeks and many islands and
saltings of the Medway are stretched out, silver-grey and opalescent,
over beyond the shoulder of the hill - mystic, wonderful, sanctified by
distance to the likeness of a Promised Land.

In two miles from Minster we come to Eastchurch, a populous and pretty
village whose beautiful church warms the enthusiasm of the pilgrim.
Across the meadows rises the imposing frontage of Shurland House, now,
as we have said, a farmhouse, but a Gothic battlemented structure built
by Sir Thomas Cheyney, when Warden of the Cinque Ports, about 1550, and
the not undignified successor of the Shurland Castle inhabited by that
Sir Robert who was the hero of the legend of "Grey Dolphin."

Sir Thomas, the builder of this great place, was succeeded by his son,
"the extravagant Lord Cheyney" of Toddington, Bedfordshire, after
whose fall Shurland House reverted to the Crown. James I. granted it
to Philip Herbert, a son of the Earl of Pembroke, and now, after many
vicissitudes, it belongs to the Holfords.

[Illustration: SHURLAND CASTLE.]

By turning to the left in the village street of Eastchurch, and
bearing to the right at the next turning, all that is left of Warden
is reached in two miles. The little that remains of the village is
known by the inelegant name of "Mud Row," whose few decrepit houses
lead direct to what would be destruction for the speedy cyclist, were
it not for the rough bar thrown across the rutty lane. Dismounting
here, the astonished stranger finds that the road ends suddenly and
without warning, and with it the island as well. It is just a little
nerve-shaking. Here one looks down upon a scene of wildest desolation,
upon the sea, a hundred feet below, at the bottom of a dark mass
of clayey cliffs, slipping and sliding into the water, and torn by
repeated landslips into yawning fissures and fantastic pinnacles. The
sullen sea is discoloured as far as eye can reach with the dissolving
clay, and, horrible to tell, out of many fissures grin bleached skulls,
while strewn here and there are human bones. It is a Golgotha. Here
stood the church and churchyard of Warden until 1877, and this tumbled
landslip is all that remains of them.

For many years this encroachment of the sea at Warden has been in
progress, until, up to now, over eighty acres have been washed away.
The vanished church has a curious history, having been rebuilt in 1836
with the stones from old London Bridge, demolished four years earlier
for the building of the present structure. It was Delamark Banks, son
of Sir Edward Banks, the contractor for the bridge, who gave the stones
and rebuilt the church of Warden, as duly set forth on a sculptured
stone tablet now forming part of a garden wall at Mud Row.

By 1870 the sea had crept up to the church, and it was closed, to be
pulled down in 1877, when the bodies of those who had been buried in
the churchyard during the previous thirty years were disinterred and
removed to Minster. They are the more ancient dead whose poor remains
are exposed with every fall of earth, to bleach in the sun.

From the desolation of Warden it is four miles to that hooked spit
of shells and sand, Shellness, the farthest extremity of the island.
By tracks which might, with every excuse, be described as hazardous,
the route begins, but soon descends to the low sea-shore and the flat
marshes - the shore carefully protected by a long series of dwarf timber
groynes and a curved "apron" of concrete, the marshes defended by
massive earthen dykes, continued along the circuitous shore all the way
round to King's Ferry.

Shellness is well named, for it is a vast expanse of small marine
shells, mostly in a perfect condition. Such a beach would be the
paradise of holiday children at a seaside resort, but here, at the edge
of an obscure island, where there is no life but that of a coastguard
station and the nearest village is almost three miles away, it is
clearly wasted. Among this wilderness of shells grows the beautiful
yellow sea-poppy, finding its nutriment in some mysterious manner where
no soil can be seen.

Three miles across the sea-channel of the Swale lies Whitstable, plain
to see, and in the Swale rides the oyster fleet of that celebrated
fishery.

This channel of the Swale was the point of departure selected by James
II. when flying, terror-stricken, before the Protestant deliverance of
the nation by William of Orange. It was in December 1688 that a hoy
was chartered and the fugitive King landed at Elmley, higher up the
channel, intending to put off from this point or hook of Shellness;
but the unwonted spectacle of a humble boat containing persons in the
garb of great gentlemen landing in that obscure place in those troubled
times created a sensation among the fishermen, who took them for
Jesuits, and, hating Popery and eager for plunder, mobbed them. They
thought the King was that notorious Jesuit, Father Petre. "I know him
by his lean jaws," said one. "Search the hatchet-faced old Jesuit!"
exclaimed another. They snatched his money and watch; his coronation
ring and valuable trinkets - even the diamond buckles of his shoes - they
took for glass and did not touch.

Then - tremendous discovery! - someone recognised him as the King. A
momentary awe seized them, but they quickly recovered, and this poor
trembling James they took, incoherently protesting, in custody across
the Swale and into Faversham, there to be placed under surveillance.

This is why this corner of Sheppey is interesting. It witnessed one of
the final scenes in the tragedy of the Stuarts.




CHAPTER XVIII

SOME OUTLYING INGOLDSBY LANDMARKS


NETLEY ABBEY

Three miles from Southampton, in the county of Hampshire - or, as
official documents still have it, the county of Southampton - is Netley
Abbey, one of the scattered Ingoldsby landmarks outside Kent. It is not
evident from the context in the Legends when or on what occasion the
author visited Netley, nor does it appear to be explained in the "Life"
by his son. The ruined abbey stands almost on the shores of Southampton
Water, divided from that beautiful land and seascape only by a road and
the gardens of a narrow fringe of villas. The site is naturally lovely,
but has been spoiled and vulgarised by the neighbourhood of the great
military hospital and the draggle-tailed, unkempt, and sordid line
of mean shops and public-houses which that institution has conjured
up. So surely as Government buildings - be they hospitals, offices,
barracks, or prisons - are erected on any spot, that spot is certain
to be spoiled, and this is assuredly no exception. Stucco-fronted
public-houses of the "Prince Albert" and "Hero of the Alma" type and
period jostle the struggling, compendious greengrocer's shop that deals
at one and the same time in greengrocery, half a hundred weight of
coals, firewood, and linen drapery, and the picnicker comes in crowds
to the spot on Southampton's early-closing days.

How different this from Horace Walpole's description of the place in
1755: "How shall I describe Netley to you? I can only by telling you
it is the spot in the world which I and Mr. Chute wish. The ruins are
vast, and retain fragments of beautiful fretted roof pendent in the
air, with all variety of Gothic patterns of windows wrapped round and
round with ivy. Many trees are sprouted up among the walls, and only
want to be increased with cypresses. A hill rises above the abbey,
encircled with wood. The fort, in which we would build a tower for
habitation, remains, with two small platforms. This little castle is
buried from the abbey in a wood, in the very centre, on the edge of
the hill. On each side breaks in the view of the Southampton sea, deep
blue, glistening with silver and vessels; on one side terminated by
Southampton, on the other by Calshot Castle, and the Isle of Wight
rising above the opposite hills. In short, they are not the ruins of
Netley, but of Paradise. Oh! the purple abbots! what a spot had they
chosen to slumber in! The scene is so beautifully tranquil, yet so
lively, that they seem only to have retired _into_ the world."

There are various derivations of the name of Netley, but the true one
is doubtless from the Anglo-Saxon "Natanleage," a wooded district.
Other "Netleys" occur in the New Forest, and the name compares
curiously with that of the little hamlet of "Nately Scures," near
Basingstoke, where the suffix derives from the Anglo-Saxon "scora,"
a shaw or coppice. The abbey was a Cistercian house founded in the
reign of, and perhaps by, Henry III., who dedicated it not only to
the Virgin Mary, to whom Cistercian houses were always inscribed, but
also to his patron saint, Edward the Confessor. The beautiful abbey
church escaped the usual fate which befell religious houses at the
Dissolution, and remained practically uninjured until so late as the
year 1700. Up to that period it had passed through several hands, and
although converted into a private residence, with the nave as a kitchen
and the other hitherto sacred precincts turned into account for more
or less domestic use, the successive owners had allowed no spoliation
of its architectural features. But when in 1700 it became the property
of Sir Berkeley Lucy, its doom was sealed. He sold the materials of
the church to a certain Taylor, a Southampton builder, and Taylor made
arrangements to pull the great building down. But Taylor, like Joseph,
had a dream. He dreamt that, while engaged in taking down the church


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Online LibraryCharles G. (Charles George) HarperThe Ingoldsby Country → online text (page 14 of 16)