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  • Secret Evesham by Stan Brotherton

    When writing this book 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.

    Pavement slab in Vine Street (installed in 2011) illustrating the vision of St Mary, plus two handmaidens, as witnessed by the swineherd Eof. (Secret Evesham, Amberley Publishing)

    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.

    Details of the Eof statue created by Worcester-born sculptor John McKenna. (Secret Evesham, Amberley Publishing)

    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?”

    Speculative image of Evesham Abbey by Warwick Goble (1862-1943). The abbey tower should sport a spire. (Secret Evesham, Amberley Publishing)

    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.

    The fourth bell of Gloucester St Nicholas. (c. Churches Conservation Trust, Secret Evesham, Amberley Publishing)

    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.

  • Evesham's Military Heritage by Stan Brotherton

    Miniature manuscript illumination of a battle believed to be the Battle of Evesham. (Evesham's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    Evesham’s Military Heritage? An interesting title and a fascinating subject; but how to write such a book?

    The challenge wasn’t the lack of material. Indeed, the opposite is true: there’s far too much. After all, entire books have been dedicated just to Simon de Montfort (Earl of Leicester) and the Battle of Evesham (4th August 1265); its context, characters, impact and implications. Instead, the challenge was to make the book relevant to a modern reader. After all an account of old battles, however interesting in itself, can hardly be considered pertinent to the current day.

    For me, the key to unlocking this puzzle was the word “heritage” and the related idea of “inheritance” (that is, something valuable handed down through generations). This simple thought allowed me to connect old events with modern times. I found this such a valuable angle that early drafts included the subtitle: “A local history of war and remembrance”.

    What to include? A mass of notes was narrowed down to four main topics: the Battle of Evesham (1265), the English Civil Wars, WWI and WWII. The first two were obvious candidates as Evesham had been the scene of major conflicts and suffered significantly. The latter two made good sense as they were significant events, closely felt, which are still actively remembered. Scattered throughout were shorter chapters on the contemporary remembrance of past events.

    Map of the Battle of Evesham, 4 August 1265. Godescroft is believed to be where Simon de Montfort was slain. (c. David Cox, Evesham's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    But why should a reader care? I thought there were three reasons. First, in the history of Evesham there are some compelling personal stories; including the death of Earl Simon (1265) and the extraordinary public service of Mrs Haynes-Rudge (1914-18). Second, studying Evesham’s military heritage provides a richer understanding of the town (including, most obviously, its street names). Third, the book sets out some of the (local) present uses of the past: how history has been routinely reclaimed and recycled to suit contemporary needs.

    Stained-glass windows in the Lichfield Chapel, All Saints', made by Powell & Sons (1882-83). On the left, Prince Edward is shown wearing robes (not armour), no shield, hands crossed, and his right hand lightly touching the hilt of a (mostly) concealed sword. To the right, Earl Simon is shown as a belligerent figure in full armour with sword drawn. (Evesham's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    Interestingly, Evesham’s remembrance of its own military past has changed dramatically over time. The clearest example is with the Battle of Evesham (1265). The battle itself was brutal and horrific. Indeed, Robert of Gloucester (fl 1260-1300) described it as “the murder of Evesham for battle it was none”. Soldiers fleeing the battlefield were pursued and slaughtered. Local tradition tells us that Welshmen (from Earl Simon’s army) who fled towards Twyford were cut down at a place known as “Dead Man’s Ait”. Those fleeing back into the town were pursued and killed. Those who sought sanctuary in the parish churches, and Evesham Abbey, were followed and slain. Blood from the slaughter stained the very centre of the abbey (between the transepts, under the tower).

    For some twenty years (or so) after his violent death, Earl Simon remained a popular even populist figure. Indeed, there was a vigorous local “cult” dedicated to Earl Simon with prayers invoking him as intercessor. Inevitably this was soon suppressed by the king (after all Earl Simon was a traitor and had been excommunicated) and Earl Simon’s fame afterwards faded.

    The Simon de Montfort Memorial, 2010, set by red and white blooms ( the colours of his blazon). The inscription states: 'Here were buried the remains of Simon de Montfort.' This is most unlikely, thought his grave is probably quite close by. (Evesham's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    In the early Victorian age Earl Simon’s reputation was, perhaps unexpectedly, powerfully revived. Wrapped up with a powerful move for parliamentary reform was a search for early champions of democracy. Earl Simon, who summoned a parliament in January 1265 to bolster his own power, was soon adopted and duly transformed into a heroic figure fighting for liberty. In Evesham in the 1840s, this new view was reflected in new local memorials; including an obelisk and church stained glass. At Evesham, in 1965, Earl Simon’s status as democratic hero received full official recognition. The Archbishop of Canterbury, supported by dignitaries including the Speaker of the House of Commons, dedicated the Simon de Montfort Memorial in Upper Abbey Park.

    Today, of course, things have changed again. The 750th anniversary of the Battle of Evesham (2015) was particularly marked by a large-scale re-enactment on the Crown Meadow. The original slaughter, transformed through time, has become the occasion for public entertainment and an excellent day out.

    The book Evesham’s Military Heritage embodies many levels of remembrance. Most obviously, the book considers how the military past has been remembered locally and, for the English Civil Wars, largely ignored. For WWI and WWII I made significant use of local memories, reports of local experiences, local poems, and most importantly excerpts from Eva Beck’s wonderful autobiographies. Additionally, the book is dedicated “in memoriam” to two local historians now sadly deceased (Mike Edwards and Gordon Alcock). I also included memories from my grandfather (who served in WWI) plus pictures from my father. In this way, the book not only discusses remembrance (and the way it has changed) but is also itself an act of remembrance.

    Stan Brotherton's new book Evesham's Military Heritage is available for purchase now.

  • Evesham, for battle it was none by Darren Baker

    The battle of Evesham, which was fought under a dark, rainless cloud 750 years ago, truly changed everything. It put an end to England’s fledgling constitutional monarchy and wiped out the Montfortian leadership that had imposed it upon the king. The years of strife and uncertainty ushered in by the reforming Provisions of Oxford of 1258 culminated in a slaughter of the nobility on this field not seen since the Norman Conquest. In its own time Evesham was lamented not as a battle of any sort, only murder, and the particularly gruesome mutilation of Simon de Montfort’s body when it was over makes recalling it with any fanfare a rather dubious prospect. But the English are nothing if not inured to harsh experience, so the festivities will go on.

    Evesham - Microsoft Word - Document5 Greenhill

    The basic facts are these: in May 1265 Montfort led his caretaker court to Gloucester to try and appease his disaffected partner in the new government Gilbert de Clare, not realizing that Clare had already put a plan of betrayal in motion. It called for the landing of royalist exiles, making allies of the Marcher insurgents, and organizing the escape of the king’s son Edward. Within a month they had Montfort, with Henry III still at his side, on the run. Their last hope was to cross the River Avon at the vale of Evesham and link up with reinforcements coming in from the north, but Edward cut them off at Greenhill. Montfort led a desperate charge to break through, but outnumbered and exhausted, they were beaten back, hemmed in, and massacred.

    That date of 4 August 1265 started off with Montfort anxious to get his troops moving, but Henry insisted on having breakfast and attending Mass at the Evesham abbey church. Montfort had always been deferential to Henry’s personal needs and agreed to a halt despite knowing that Edward was shadowing their movements. This raises the question of why Montfort simply didn’t leave the king behind and continue on their way.

    The easiest answer is Henry was his surety. If he lost the king and his son, it would be only a matter of time before they reclaimed the government under their terms, much the way they did in 1263 after Montfort first swept into power. Only this time there would be no arbitration, rather retribution. Setting the king loose would also deprive them of their feudal advantage. Whoever marched into battle against the king was the rebel, so in this case Edward and Clare. Simon, however, was keen not to advertise Henry’s presence, lest Edward’s men snatched him in the course of the battle, and had him accoutered without any emblem distinguishing his royal rank.

    It was said at the time that he did this because he knew they were doomed and wished the king to die with them. A higher explanation might be that this was the Simon de Montfort imbued with the idea of justice for all that heralded in the reform movement. His army consisted mostly of peasants and freeholders, men trying to eke out a living in that difficult age, who saw hope for a better life under the Provisions. They would have known about them because, unlike Magna Carta, they were written and proclaimed in English, the first instance of a political initiative aimed directly at the people. If they had to put their lives on the line for better government, it was only fair the king should do the same.

    Evesham - Microsoft Word - Document5 Looking down from Greenhill

    An equally intriguing question is what if any last words passed between Simon and Henry on that fateful morning. Their history went back three and a half decades when Simon, born and raised in France, stepped ashore and brazenly asked Henry to grant his tenuous claim to the earldom of Leicester. Each man was pious, shrewd, and very conscious of his place in the world, and they became great friends until court politics and family squabbles drove a gulf between them. They had always meant the other well, but all the troubles had now made them seem more like an old married couple whose relationship had soured for good. As they rode off together to meet Edward’s army, they probably had nothing more to say to each other.

    Late research has revealed that before the battle Edward assembled a hit squad to find Montfort and kill him. Legend credits Roger Mortimer with delivering the actual death blow for no other reason than the two men were feuding (about what has never been made clear) and he got Simon’s head from among the spoils. On the other hand, a contemporary source says he was felled by an unnamed knight who later met a ridiculous end by drowning at the court of Edward’s sister in Scotland.

    No doubt Simon got special attention one way or another, but we can safely assume that Edward did in fact order his men to kill whoever they got their hands on. That was no incentive for medieval warriors who counted on collecting ransoms from the prisoners they took, but he had a greater prize, their land and property. Admirers of the chivalric Edward who loved tournaments and King Arthur will find this disreputable action disturbing and may hope that it was thrust upon him by the likes of Clare and Mortimer. Remembering the earlier reforming spirit in Edward, when he joined his uncle Simon in the showdown with Henry over control of Parliament in 1260, an argument can be made that his order mirrored Simon’s opinion about justice for all, namely that knights would have to take the same chances as ordinary foot soldiers. Hm, wishful thinking.

    However it came to pass, the slaughter was horrific, with Simon, his son Henry, and top lieutenants Hugh Despenser and Peter de Montfort among those cut down. Just like at Lewes, Edward got into the killing and carried it all the way into the church. He was sadly mistaken if he hoped to find his father alive in there. In all probability, Henry had been behind Montfort with a bodyguard of young knights consisting of Simon’s son Guy and the younger Peter de Montfort. The fact that all three were wounded suggests that they were each a stroke or two away from death when Henry cried out in the din of battle that he was the king. His attackers verified that was indeed the case and, unsure about the identity of the knights with him, chose to play it safe and take them prisoner. The survival of Guy de Montfort would go on to haunt Edward for many a day.

    Evesham - Microsoft Word - Document5 The battle in medieval rendering

    In a contemporary source, Henry is made to look like a cowering fool as Edward’s men move in on him. ‘Don’t hit me,’ he supposedly keeps crying out, ‘I’m Henry your king, I’m too old to fight.’ This seems to reflect the need to want to see the king in such a pathetic state, as the mere shadow of his former self. That would pave the way for the Edward of later legend, the great warrior who saved his father from the clutches of that other great warrior Simon de Montfort. The problem is it doesn’t square with the description of Henry at Lewes the previous year, when he had two horses killed from under him and had to be forced off the field by his attendants. It was his brother Richard who did the cowering then, in a nearby windmill, this after Edward cost them the battle by going off on a murderous joyride after it began.

    The act of disinheritance that followed Evesham may have been the lure that enabled Edward to build up a large army in so short a time span, but the decision was ultimately Henry’s and he may have decided to go that course whatever his son might think. Certainly his actions in the run-up to Lewes show rebellion had hardened him, made him determined not to put up with it anymore as he had done on no less than four occasions (1227, 33, 38, 58). When the perennially grumpy Clare occupied London after a spat with Edward, it took the intervention of the papal legate to save him from the king’s wrath.

    Evesham - Microsoft Word - Document5 The fabled Battlewell

    The last major question about the events at Evesham goes to the climax itself, the mutilation of Montfort’s body. It’s the one feature that anyone coming into contact with the battle for the first time is guaranteed to take away from it. Even if it was the hit squad’s work, it seems unlikely that Edward had anything to do with it. His later reign demonstrated that he was quite capable of committing such atrocities, but he had to know that his uncle King Louis of France, for one, would be aghast at the disgraceful treatment of a man who had once been his good friend. He was astute enough to know, moreover, that it would leave him with a blood feud with the Montfort family, whose political reach stretched from France to the Holy Land. That would explain his later attempts to make amends, at least with money. Alas, there was no buying his way out of this one and Guy de Montfort exacted a brutal revenge that destroyed any hope of reconciliation between the families.

    The other consequence to be expected from chopping up Montfort on the field was making a martyr out of him. It was the last thing Henry needed for clamping down on the disinherited rebels, and he was forced to outlaw any talk about miracles to be had at Battlewell, the spring that supposedly arose on the spot where his adversary fell. He was probably justified in being angry at Simon for all he had put him through, though. After all, he was the lone magnate who refused to be cowed into accepting an emasculated form of the Provisions. Had Simon fell in line with the others, there wouldn’t have been any war or the nightmare of Evesham. It’s possible the evolution of government begun by Magna Carta in 1215 would have stayed the same course without Simon’s almost fanatical need to impose the Provisions that he swore an oath to uphold at that solemn ceremony in Oxford in 1258. Just like Henry and Edward.

    Evesham - 9781445645742

    Darren Baker's With All For All: The Life of Simon de Montfort is available for purchase now.

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