Secret Evesham by Stan Brotherton
When writing Secret Evesham I had two particular ideas in mind. First, I wanted to debunk a handful of long-standing local stories because, well, they have no basis in history (though they’re undeniably a bit of fun). Second, and much more importantly, there is a lot of “hidden history” which I wanted to explore and share.
Perhaps most famously there is the “Legend of Evesham”; which recounts how a local swineherd (named “Eof”) witnessed a miraculous vision of the Virgin Mary. Is that true? It’s difficult to say; not least because it’s more of a philosophical (theological?) question rather than something which history can easily consider.
Locally the “Legend of Evesham” is incredibly significant. It not only explains how Evesham got its name (“Eof’s ham”) but also why an abbey was founded here. That last point is key because before the abbey there was no town; only scrub and forest. The abbey was founded (700-ish); a town developed around it to serve the monks; then the abbey was dissolved (1540); and the town slowly but surely prospered and grew. This all begs a series of questions: Was there really nothing here before the abbey? Was there a “Roman Evesham”? What was this place called before it became “Evesham”?
There is also the local legend that Lady Godiva is buried in Evesham. This story, along with other incidents from the town’s long history, is memorialised in a series of “history pavement slabs”. But is Godiva really buried in Evesham? The simple answer is ‘No!’ However, it’s interesting to unravel why folks think she is. The reason? It’s difficult to be certain, but it seems to be a simple matter of careless local scholarship.
Apparently there are secret underground tunnels running all around the town (with many said to run underneath the River Avon). To which any reasonable reader might reply: “Really? Secret tunnels? Under the river? You sure?” There’s certainly no historical or archaeological evidence of any such tunnels. Indeed, there’s a very clear and extensive lack of evidence. This, inevitably, begs the question of how this story began. Perhaps because some of the town’s medieval cellars are pretty big (plus there were large drains). Or because “secret tunnels” are a commonplace romantic staple. Or maybe perhaps because of a certain distrust of the monks; a sly insistence that they must have had secrets (and therefore they must have had “secret tunnels”).
I am particularly grateful to the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT) for allowing me to use photographs of the fourth bell of Gloucester St Nicholas – a bell whose inscription links it undeniably to Evesham and its last “true” abbot, Clement Lichfield. Why is this bell in Gloucester? Almost certainly from the extensive trade in bells and metals which immediately followed the Dissolution. For the modern resident of Evesham, though, there is perhaps an obvious question: “Could we have our bell back, please?”
There’s also the matter of Shakespeare. Evesham is incredibly close to Stratford-upon-Avon (about 15 miles); so did Shakespeare ever visit? There’s no direct evidence that he did; but there is the curious story of the ‘The Fool and the Ice’ which provides a contemporary local incident as possible inspiration to a line in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. There is also a local building known as the “Shakespeare’s Rest”. So, did Shakespeare rest at the “Shakespeare’s Rest”? Erm, well, no. The name was a little bit of Victorian entrepreneurial marketing. While the building itself is a lovely black-and-white Tudor survival; sadly there is no connection with England’s most famous son.
The book dips into a wide range of mysteries, oddities, curiosities and puzzles. These range from surviving Celtic names, the possibility of an earlier Roman settlement, the foundation of the abbey, the burial of Simon de Montfort, the (tenuous) link with Shakespeare, Victorian curiosities, connections with J.R.R. Tolkien and Harry Potter, and ends with a collection of modern oddities.
There is one curious connection which I felt I had to include: in New Jersey (USA) there is also a town called “Evesham”. Near that American town there was an expanse of land set aside as a reservation for the so-called “Brotherton Indians” (they called themselves the “Leni-Lenape”). As someone who bears the surname “Brotherton”, who is Evesham born-and-bred, and who knows that for at least three centuries there have been folks named “Brotherton” in Evesham (England), there is a most intriguing link. There is an official explanation: that the reservation was given its name to connate “brotherliness”. For myself, at least, this seems an unsatisfactory answer. Was there really nothing more to it than that? I have no idea; but hopefully in the future someone will research the question to provide a solid answer.
The book is peppered with little blue boxes titled “Did You Know?”; sharing little-known snippets of local history ranging from some local rhymes (on history and weather), a rough-and-ready recipe for plum wine (known as “Jerkum”), and the origin of a bell-ringing method called “Evesham Surprise Major”.
The book is also filled with photographs, plans and figures. There is a conjectural plan of the Anglo-Saxon minster (used with permission from Dr David Cox), a radically speculative Victorian plan of the long-lost Evesham Abbey, my own highly speculative plan of the town’s supposed secret tunnels, and a heavily cleaned-up street plan of Evesham c.1827. There is also a large image of the abbey’s seal; followed on the facing page by a detailed graphical explanation. Perhaps my favourite images are those of the unveiling of the statue of Eof in the Market Place (in 2008).
In conclusion, this has been a fascinating book to write. When I began planning it, I thought I knew my home town pretty darned well. After all, I had already written a handful of local history books. However, during the process of writing, I found that there was so much more to uncover and question and research. My hope is that the reader’s journey will be the same: finding out that there is so much more to the picturesque English town of Evesham than might, at first, meet the eye. Enjoy!
Stan Brotherton's new book Secret Evesham is available for purchase now.