Cemetery of the Week #123: Stoke Poges Churchyard

Vintage postcard of Stoke Poges Churchyard, pre-1924

Vintage postcard of Stoke Poges Churchyard, pre-1924, when the spire was removed.

St. Giles Church
Church Lanes
Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire, SL2 4NZ, United Kingdom
Telephone: +44 1753 642331
Founded: circa 1086
Size: 3 acres
Number of interments: unknown
Open: St. Giles’ Church is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Legend says that Thomas Gray was inspired to write the “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” while visiting this small churchyard in the heart of England. Famous and Curious Cemeteries claims the poem is “the greatest tribute to any burial ground.” It may be one of the goth-est poems every written, with verses such as this:

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour:
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Yew tree, porch, and wooden grave boards, about 1790

Yew tree, porch, and wooden grave boards, about 1790

The church served the manor, which stands 200 yards away, and never had a village nearby. The manor itself was probably a Saxon thane’s home until the Norman Conquest in 1066. The Normans didn’t waste any time before settling in; by the 1080s, they were already building the first church. The Chancel (the part near the altar) walls and pillars in the Nave (the main body of the church) remain of that Norman church.

The church is first mentioned in 1107, when it was “made over” with money tithed to the Priory of St. Mary Overie in Southwark. It was remodeled every hundred years or so, enlarged and improved. In 1702, the spire was erected – Gray admires it in his poem as the “ivy-mantled tower” – but the ivy damaged the spire and it was removed in 1924, when it was in danger of collapse.

The word Stoke meant a stockaded place. It was large and important enough in 1086 that the lord of the manor became known as William of Stoke. In the 13th century, Amicia of Stoke, heiress of the manor, married Robert Pogeys, and their land became known as Stoke Poges.

Inside the chancel, on the left, stands the tomb of Sir John de Molyns, Marshal of the King’s Falcons and Supervisor of the King’s Castles. He served both Edward II and Edward III, but was a robber baron who is believed to have murdered his wife’s uncle and cousin in order to inherit their land. He died in March 1360.

Souvenir booklet published in 1948: "copyright reserved by the Vicar." The aerial view of the church shows the manor up toward the right corner.

Souvenir booklet published in 1948: “copyright reserved by the Vicar.” The aerial view of the church shows the manor up toward the right corner.

Around 1558, Lord Hastings of Loughborough built a chapel for the “inmates of an almshouse” that stood nearby. The chapel was also intended to serve as a burial place for the Hastings family. On the chapel’s south wall is a mural with cherubs’ heads and skulls, which is believed to be a memorial, although it doesn’t have any names on it. Sir Thomas and Sir Walter Clarges were buried somewhere nearby with their families from 1677 to 1728, but the graves have been lost.

The “most ancient monument” found in the churchyard was a flat tombstone dug out of the churchyard. It was moved into the Hastings chapel and placed near the door. Around its edge, it says in Norman French, “All those who pass by here, Pray for the soul of this one. William of Wytermerse he had for a name. God to him grant true pardon.”

Thomas Gray's tomb

Thomas Gray’s tomb

Thomas Gray (1716-71) himself lies in a brick tomb next to his mother and her unmarried sister under the east window of the Hastings Chapel, just outside the east end of St. Giles’ Church. His name doesn’t appear on the tomb, but a tablet in the wall records his burial “in the same tomb upon which he has so unfeeling inscribed his grief at the loss of a beloved parent.”

Immediately opposite the southwest door of St. Giles’ Church stands the yew tree under which Gray composed his poem.

The churchyard was enlarged twice since Gray’s burial, but is now closed. A new cemetery opened in 1911, immediately adjacent.

Useful links:
History of Stoke Poges Church at the church’s website

Photos of the church and churchyard

A snarky British visit to the churchyard

Debate about which yew was really Gray’s inspiration

The text of Elegy written in a Country Churchyard

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