I let myself into the little church as an afterthought.
With a history stretching back to the 13th century, the church where Benjamin Disraeli is buried has the smell of an old place. But at first glance, the resting place of one of England’s great Prime Ministers could date from the late Victorian era. Apart from that Very Old Smell, and a suspiciously ancient font, there was little to betray its origins.
St Michael and All Angels,Hughenden, is a shrine to a man Queen Victoria adored, and we all know Victoria’s views on mourning, don’t we? It has magnificent stonework and is stuffed with Disraeli memorials.
I sighed. I don’t really like Victorian churches much. A temporal snob, I tend to go for the pre-1800 class of church. More stories.
Still, I pottered around. Had a bit of a poke about. And when I came to the curtained dark door into the vestry, my way was not barred, and I thought: well, why not?
And there it was. The rest of the church’s lifetime, stuffed into a very small corner in the north chancel.
Knights? You’ve never seen such knights. To all intents and purposes half the officers who led Englishmen on the Crusades were shoehorned into this tiny space. There were three effigies: splendidly outfitted. Recumbent soldiers in the armour of a knight circa 1265, lying there, one with his feet on a great lion; another with his legs crossed, a sign indicating he had been on the crusades. Coats of arms emblazoned pillars and figures alike; a fetching blue chequered and scarlet confection with a griffin clutching what looked like a baby.
And there were more: knights on stones set into the wall, knights lying underneath the arch.
Hercule Poirot – or possibly his Hollywood scriptwriters -once said , standing on the Orient Express over the mutilated corpse of a moneyed import/exporter, “There are too many clues in this room.”
Exactly. You couldn’t have got another knight in here without building a mezzanine. And they shouted the same coat of arms over and over again, and used blatant leg crossing to bawl the crusades at passers by who happened to make it to the North Chancel.
And I was right. Thanks, Hercule. Historians have dated these things, and they all come from the 16th century.
They are commonly held to be the work of a family called Wellesbourne, who wanted to cement a history they fancied for themselves. They were related, they insisted, to Simon De Montfort: you know, the knight who led a rebellion against Henry III. And opened parliament up to ordinary citizens from the towns.
So the Wellesbournes went to incredible lengths to make up the missing relations. They had them sculpted, and plastered them with arms and identifying features and have thus sealed themselves as a family of naughty fakers.
I have not mentioned, though, one figure I passed.
It gave me such a start and made me wish, immediately, that I was not alone in this hushed church, even on a sunny day.
It was the most lifelike, emaciated cadaver, only half covered in a shroud. Death lay there, in stone, but he appeared that any moment he might open those sockets and stare at me. This was a deceased, gruesome masterpiece. A wraith waiting to happen.
I steeled myself, of course, and took pictures; but always with a faint dread that the subject might suddenly, through desiccated teeth, with a death-rattle, utter “Cheese.”
He is not fake. He is 13th century, and so is his shroud.
All that glitters is not gold. And death conquers all; the most authentic of all the grew warriors this world has ever seen.