This was a visit organised by the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery in 2015.
We could see St Mary’s church below the hill as we skirted the outside of the huge field of barley. Red kites wheeled above our heads and a skylark sang to accompany us. Butterflies; tortoiseshells, meadow browns and gate keeper, led our way to Amersham on a hot July day. On the way we passed St Mary’s Graveyard in old Amersham where the last woman to be hanged in England, Ruth Ellis, is rumoured to lie, buried in and unmarked grave. A pair of banded demoiselle dragonflies danced on the air over the small stream nearby, their wings glittering in the sun like tiny jewels.
St Mary’s is the church that featured in the film ‘4 Weddings and a Funeral’ and we briefly explored its surrounding churchyard and interesting monuments. There has been a church on the site since 1140 with many historical features such as the medieval font and a 17th century Flemish stained glass window.
‘ In about 1620, the Drake family (distant cousins of Vice-Admiral Sir Francis Drake) bought the town and its estates. They remain patrons of the Parish to this day, many of their younger sons serving as Rector over the centuries. In 1870, Rector Edward Drake persuaded his brother the Squire to reorder and restore St Mary’s to something like its mediaeval interior layout. It was also at this point that the church was clad in flint.’ http://stmaryschurchamersham.com/history
Our guide had the memorable name of Howard Hughes and he led us through the chancel with its large memorials. One was to a 14 year old boy, Henry Curwen Workington, who died in Amersham in 1636 and another featured 2 lifesize sculptures of a married couple who didn’t look very happy. There was also a wall memorial with a bust of man which, within the frame, made him look as if he was in a Punch and Judy tent.
But the Drake chapel, once a vestry, was our destination. It was an unexpected jewel. The room is light and airy and lined with fascinating and poignant memorials. It’s normally closed, but Howard opened it especially for us and for a lover of symbols , like myself it was a wonderful feast. The Drake family had South London connections due to the land they owned and several or our local road names bear witness such as Drakefell and Shardeloes. In the 18th century they added Tyrwhitt in order to inherit lands.
The Drake Chapel was converted into a monument room in 1728 with the interment of Mountague Garrard Drake as there was insufficient space to accommodate him and his memorial. Mountague was laid to rest in the vaults below and Peter Scheneermakers carved his lavish and flamboyant memorial carved which was erected at the then huge cost of 500 guineas. The tomb features a lifesize reclining statue of himself, we presumed, with 2 winged cherubs.
Elizabeth, his son’s wife, who died at 32 in 1757, monument faced him. In a carved panel she is praying with her six surviving children with two other deceased children who may be represented by a weeping cherub beneath.
Another epitaph to a young wife said simply that: she had left behind 2 infant daughters and ‘Her circle of life tho’ small was complete
It seemed appropriate that in; this Waterloo bi-centennial year that there was a Waterloo veteran, William Tyrwhitt-Drake, who was commemorated.
Note the laurel wreaths suspended from his sword indicating victory, eternity and immortality. He also has his helmet carved onto it.
Howard kindly showed us an unusual monumental brass to John Drake, a child who died aged 4 in 1623, with a moving epitaph:
Had he liv’d to be a man
This inch had grown but to a span
Now is he past all fear of pain
It were fine to with him here again
View but the way by which we all come
Thought by he’s best that’s first home.
Howard had been inspired to read our Symbols guide on the FONC website and pointed out downturned torches and also the pelican and her babies. She strikes her breast with her beak to allow the young to feed on her blood to prevent starvation and this is a symbol of Jesus giving his life to his followers.
There is an elegant turn and, to the right hand side, a pelican feeding her babies.
On the 16 year old Elizabeth Drake’s memorial is a hen and her chicks which was a more unusual one.
There was also a magnificently carved weeping willow, a dove with an olive branch and poppies. On William Drake’s memorial was an exquisitely carved mourning woman with the signature John Bacon Jnr. We wondered if this was the same John Bacon who worked on St Pauls Cathedral.
The memorials took us through the centuries from the 18th to the 20th and they became smaller and plainer as we did. The Drakes and Drake-Tyrwhitts could afford the best sculptors. Interments in the Room continued until the death of Thomas Tyrwhitt-Drake . In 1811 the room was enlarged and doubled in size. Interments into the vault continued until the early 20th century.
Several of the FONC party climbed the narrow and dark stairs to the top of the church tower to admire the views of the surrounding countryside before we thanked Howard and continued on our visit.
‘The Drake Chapel, containing many memorials to the family is one of the finest examples of its kind in the county, second only to that of the Dukes of Bedford in Chenies Church and is well worth a visit if you’re in the area.. It is open on Sunday mornings after the 10.15am service, or by appointment via the Parish Office.’ http://stmaryschurchamersham.com/history
Originally published in Friends of Nunhead News, 2015
Part 2 to follow in which you find out why there is a monument to the Amersham Martyrs in the corner of an English field………
Text and photos copyright Carole Tyrrell