St. Mary the Virgin, Great Brington

One of the best things about England is that you don’t have to go far to find places of historical interest. A good place to look is the local church. Take for example the parish church of St. Mary the Virgin, close to where my family has a home in the small Northamptonshire village of Great Brington.

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This fine church has over 800 years of history with connections to two former monarchs and, if royal succession goes according to plan, one future king. An ancestor of George Washington is also buried here under a tombstone bearing a prototype of the Stars & Stripes, carved 160 years before the United States came into existence. For this reason, it is said that Great Brington is better known in America than in England.

Early History

There has been a church on this site for over 1,000 years, having been mentioned in the Domesday book. The early wooden Saxon church was probably burnt down in one of England’s endless factional wars but the church’s ancient baptismal font is thought to have survived from that early period. The stone tower was constructed around 1200 and the church has been expanded, remodelled and renovated countless times over the following centuries. Even as recently as 2015, the roof had to be replaced when thieves stole 12 tonnes of lead off the roof in the middle of the night. 

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In an amazing piece of record keeping, the church displays a full list of its priests from 1086 up until the present day, albeit with a few gaps. The last name on the list, from 2010 onwards, is the church’s first female vicar. That took long enough!

The Spencers & The Royal Connections

In the early 1500s, John Spencer, a nobleman from Warwickshire purchased the estate at Althorp, together with several hundred acres of the surrounding area, including the village and church of Great Brington. Since then, nineteen generations of the Spencer family have been buried here, either in the Spencer Chapel inside the church or in a special section of the graveyard outside. Under the patronage of this wealthy family, the church has always been well looked after.

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Probably the most famous Spencer, to the modern generation at least, was Lady Diana Spencer, ex-wife of Prince Charles and mother of Princes William and Harry. After her untimely death, she was laid to rest in the grounds of Althorp House, just 1.5km from the village, although there was a conspiracy theory that she was secretly reburied in the church when they found the ground water conditions of her lakeside burial site at Althorp to be unsuitable. Like most conspiracy theories, this is probably untrue.

Other royal rumours concern Mary, Queen of Scots who was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle in 1587 on the orders of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth. It was said that her severed head was on its way to Elizabeth to prove that the deed had been done when it was intercepted at Brington by a messenger from the Queen, who had no desire to see it, so they decided to bury it under the altar of the church. A heraldic shield bearing the lion rampant of Scotland marks the spot. However others refute this legend and say that this is the grave of Anne Seagrave whose family crest included a similar lion.

Another royal connection concerns Charles I who is thought to have been allowed to attend services at the church while he was being held prisoner at nearby Holdenby House prior to his execution in 1649.

The American Connection

Lawrence Washington, great-great-great-grandfather of George Washington, First President of the United States of America was buried in the church in December 1616. His tombstone, now almost indecipherable, reads:

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Here lieth the bodi of Laurence Washington – sonne & heire of Robert Washington of Soulgrave in the countie of Northampton Esquier – who married Margaret the eldest daughter of William Butler of Tees in the countie of Sussexe esquier – who had issu by her – 8 sonns & 9 daughters – which Laurence decessed the 13 of December – A:DNI: 1616.

English spelling had obviously not been standardised in those days!

(I wrote about Sulgrave Manor, Lawrence Washington’s home, in a previous blog post.)

The tombstone bears the Washington coat of arms, from which the US flag was derived, together with the arms of the Butlers, his wife’s family. A nearby wooden bench-end is also decorated with the Washington family emblem.

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There is a portrait of George Washington on the wall of the nave with the inscription:

This portrait of George Washington replaces the original presented by the U.S. Senate to St. Mary’s Church, Great Brington July 1914 – Stolen July 1988.

Thieving is clearly a problem at this church!

Other Interesting Items

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The impressive stained glass East window was designed by William Morris and dedicated in 1912 by the 6th Earl Spencer to various members of his family. It represents the adoration of the lamb (whatever that means). The fenced off area to the left of this photo is part of the Spencer Chapel.

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There are a couple of tombstones embedded in the church floor which appear to commemorate family servants, such as this one of Mrs Hannah Cane who died in 1732 and was seemingly the nanny for Lady Morpeth.

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There is a huge and ancient-looking chest, contents unknown, capable of holding every church collection for the past 800 years.

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There is a fine foliate head carving, or Green Man, whose original purpose or meaning is lost in the mists of time, possibly even pre-dating the arrival of Christianity in Britain.

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This copy of an ancient seating plan, informs who sat where. It tells us for example that the first two pews on the North side were for John Middleton, his wife and children (Middleton? – Another royal connection?)

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Note the elaborately carved bench-ends, also known as poppy heads, in the bottom left of this photo, one of which dates from 1606.

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The graveyard outside is still in use. In English churches, our ancestors are all around us.

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There is a tomb under a gable on the external wall of the church with a weathered effigy of an unknown former cleric dressed in priestly vestments and holding a communion chalice.

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The base of a large cross stands in front of the church, thought to have been erected around 1300 as a common memorial to all those buried in the churchyard.

St. Mary the Virgin is a nice place to visit if you are in the area. But please don’t steal any souvenirs. The chest is empty by the way!

 

 

 

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