Loren Rhoads is a good friend of mine and just happens to be an aficionado on cemeteries. She’s here today to tell us about the most romantic one, Saint Giles Churchyard.
Eighteenth-century poet Thomas Gray composed his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” while visiting lovely old Saint Giles Churchyard in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire in the heart of England.
The manor, which stands 200 yards away, served as a Saxon thane’s home until the Norman Conquest in 1066. By the 1080s, the Normans built the first Christian church here. The chancel (the part near the altar), walls, and pillars in the main body of that Norman church still survive.
The word Stoke meant a stockaded place. In 1086, the lord of the manor became known as William of Stoke. In the 13th century, Amicia of Stoke, heiress of the manor, married Robert Pogeys. Their land became known as Stoke Poges.
The church is first mentioned in 1107, when it was “made over” with money tithed to the Priory of St. Mary Overie in Southwark. It was remodeled every hundred years or so, enlarged and improved. In 1702, the spire was erected — Gray admires it in his poem as the “ivy-mantled tower”— but the ivy-damaged the spire was in danger of collapse when it was removed in 1924.
Inside the chancel stands the tomb of Sir John de Molyns, Marshal of the King’s Falcons and Supervisor of the King’s Castles. Although he served both Edward II and Edward III, Sir John was a robber baron believed to have murdered his wife’s uncle and cousin to inherit their land. He died in March 1360.
Around 1558, Lord Hastings of Loughborough added a chapel inside the church for the use of inmates of a nearby almshouse. The chapel served as a burial place for succeeding generations of the Hastings family. Sir Thomas and Sir Walter Clarges were buried here with their families, but the graves have been lost. A mural with skulls and cherubs’ heads survives on the chapel’s south wall.
St. Giles’s oldest monument is a flat tombstone dug out of the churchyard, now on display inside the Hastings chapel. In Norman French, the stone says, “All those who pass by here, Pray for the soul of this one. William of Wytermerse he had for a name.”
Out in the churchyard, Thomas Gray lies beneath a brick sarcophagus next to his mother and her unmarried sister. His name doesn’t appear on the grave, but a tablet on the church’s wall records his burial. Immediately opposite the southwest door of Saint Giles’ Church stands the yew tree under which Gray composed his poem.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave
Awaits alike the inevitable hour:
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Saint Giles’ Churchyard is one of the 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die by Loren Rhoads. She is also the author of Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel and writes about graveyards for the Horror Writers Association and Legacy.com. She blogs about cemeteries as vacation destinations at cemeterytravel.com.
199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die
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Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel