3.5 out of 5 stars
“Here be dragons” is often thought to be on ancient maps, but whilst there were drawing of fantastical creatures on the cartography, this phrase wasn’t ever used. But stories of these creatures, as well as others that step over the line of folklore and reality have been a part of our culture for hundreds of years. In a village in Hertfordshire, a tomb was carved to cover the bones of one of these men who it was said was a giant, and who also slew a dragon that lived under ancient yew in a field called Great Pepsells.
Who was this man? Was he a real giant? Why is his tomb in the wall of the church? Was there ever a dragon? And could he find the field where the ancient yew tree was?
It is unlikely that you would have heard of the story of Piers Shonks, I hadn’t until I picked this book up a couple of weeks ago. To find the answers to these seemingly innocuous questions will take Hadley far away from St Mary, the 14th-century church of Brent Pelham, Hertfordshire where Shonks’ tomb is set in the north wall. He died in 1086, several hundred years before the church was even built so finding where he had been in the interim would be a challenge.
First, though he has to scour the old maps to find the location of the yew tree, the place where the so-called dragon’s lair was discovered under it when Master Lawrence was asked to fell it. These maps do not reveal their secrets easily, but there are pointers to other documents and pamphlets that were written in the Victorian age by the those that had an interest in the history of the place they lived.
Some of these are based on truth, some are based on oral histories that are passed from person to person, changing subtly in their retelling until someone writes them down. Others have their roots deep in pagan folklore that the church had tried to suppress but never fully eradicated. Finding out about the richly decorated lid of the tomb is another series of mysteries trying to discover who carved it, where the stone came from and how it ended up there.
Each thread of the story he is researching is scattered far and wild and fining the end of one thread often leads to another tale that is separate and yet still intrinsically connected to the main story of the book. Just finding out if Shonks was a real person is a challenge, but details gradually emerge about the real man as he chips away at the documentary evidence.
This is a deeply layered historical mystery. It feels like he is reconstructing a finely woven cloth from a collection of threads that have been scattered near and far from the tomb. Hadley has done a pretty good job of it too, but there are gaps as you’d expect. Deciding what is history and fact or myth and fiction is very hard in stories like this. It is like looking into a dark pool where the sky is reflected with your face, but in the murky water are tantalising glimpses of the things you are searching for. Even Wimborne Minster gets a mention with Anthony Ettricke, who is buried neither inside nor outside the church, but in the wall as Shonks is. I thought the book was fairly well written, it might not have the rigour of a book but an established historian, but neither does it have the dry prose that you can sometimes get with those as well. It has a good selection of pictures and maps which complement the text really well too.