James Lloyd visits the Isle of Sheppey and examines an unusual tomb effigy, in which is perpetuated the strange story of a violent lord who, by trying to avert a terrible future, caused it.
The County of Kent is presently an apparently eternal slab of land, a foot kicking out of Britain into the North Sea. It derives its name from the Brittonic root “Kantion”, meaning a headland or corner. However, it has not always been so. Until well into the Middle-Ages, Kent was of a very different shape. Romney Marsh was under water much of the year and the Isle of Thanet was an actual island. Rather than a foot, Kent was more like a finger poking into the ocean, fringed with islands, sandbanks and swamps.
The only Kentish island that still really deserves the name is Sheppey, “the Island of Sheep”, in the Medway estuary. It is still largely marshland, a throwback to Kent’s old appearance and the butt of jokes from other Men of Kent about the marriage of cousins and the superfluity of fingers.
Another of the island’s eccentricities is a certain memorial in Minster Church. This is the grave of Sir Robert de Shurland, lord of the manor of Shurland. Sir Robert was Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and a personal friend of King Edward I, whom he had accompanied on crusade and who knighted him during the siege of Carlaverock in Dumfriesshire. His tomb bears his effigy, with – and this is the unusual detail – a horse’s head at his foot. This horse, or so the story goes, is Grey Dolphin, Sir Robert’s most prized possession, which he had ridden in the Holy Land and that deserved better treatment from its master than it received.
In the thirteenth century, there was no church on the manor of Shurland. The villagers, Sir Robert’s tenants, had to travel to Minster, a great inconvenience sacrificing much of their time. Some alleviation was provided by a conscientious monk, who, as often as his own course of communal prayer would allow, visited the village, preaching and administering the sacraments.
Nonetheless, what the villagers of Shurland really needed was a church of their own. One Sunday, while his tenants were trudging their way to Minster, Sir Robert was informed that someone had come to see him. This someone, once shown into his solar, turned out to be the monk, who wanted to discuss with the lord the possibility of his following the example of most landowners by building a church on his manor that his tenants could attend.
Sir Robert was dismissive of the idea. His tenants did not work on a Sunday anyway, so what did he care if they lost time and trouble on that day?
Surely, the monk asked, Christian charity pressed Sir Robert’s conscience into making life easier for them?
Why should it? the knight replied. He heard divine service (when he bothered to hear it at all) in the comfort of his own private oratory. The travail that his tenants suffered on the Sabbath was a hypothetical, rather than a real, problem to him.
The monk continued to press his case, listing all the benefits that would rebound to Sir Robert: Praise and loyalty from the villagers, esteem in the eyes of the Archbishop and the King, perpetual prayers for his soul, a place reserved in Heaven.
All Sir Robert heard, however, was a wittering, relentlessly pious preacher, not so much a God-botherer as a him-botherer and Sir Robert’s virtues did not include patience. He stood up and politely but firmly asked the monk to leave. The cowled little man remained.
Sir Robert demanded that he leave and opened the door to show him how. Still the tonsured fool prattled on. With a roar, Sir Robert grabbed his sword and waved it at the monk, ordering him to quit the premises.
With the sublimely irritating condescension of the smug-in-righteousness, the monk forgave Sir Robert for his impatience and continued his homily, stopping only when Sir Robert plunged his sword under his rib cage and the tip came out behind his neck. The monk’s mouth remained open as the words died. Blood dribbled out. Then Sir Robert withdrew the sword and let the mound of piety and habit tumble onto the floor and into Paradise.
Even a King’s favourite could not hope to get away with this easily. The monk was popular and Sir Robert de Shurland, though lord of the manor, was not above the law. In panic, he ran from the room, ordered his favourite horse, Grey Dolphin, to be saddled and then rode off he knew not wither, disappearing into the sand dunes of Sheppey. The body was discovered, the hue and cry raised and teams of searchers scoured the island, looking for the errant lord.
A week passed. Sir Robert and his beloved steed managed to remain hidden among the sands on the north side of the island, looking into the Thames estuary. Every day ships would go out or come in and Sir Robert envied them their freedom, while he, a landowner, a knight and a favourite of the King, had to lurk in a hovel, wondering what the standard bribe was these days for a jury in a case of monasticide.
Then, he saw his salvation. A ship was anchored in the estuary, not far from Sheppey and from its mast fluttered that unmistakable blood-red banner, emblazoned with three golden lions (and they are lions – they are not leopards!). It was King Edward’s ship. Twelve good men and true might not let Sir Robert off but one powerful friend might.
Sir Robert mounted Grey Dolphin and charged into the sea.
Will Sir Robert get away with murder? Why is his horse commemorated on his tomb? Do people in Sheppey really marry their cousins? Find out the answers to the first two questions next week in The Rural Voice!