When the famous Rodneys lived near the Axe

PUBLISHED: 08:57 10 April 2006 | UPDATED: 09:06 24 May 2010

Rodney Stoke church.

Rodney Stoke church.

Fish from the River Axe and duck caught in the marshy moorland around it must have provided many a meal for the famous Rodney family at their manor at Rodney Stoke.

The tomb of Sir Thomas Rodney at Rodney Stoke church. He died in 1471. His head lies on his helmet, a dagger is at his side, and his feet rest on a dog.

Fish from the River Axe and duck caught in the marshy moorland around it must have provided many a meal for the famous Rodney family at their manor at Rodney Stoke. The most noted of the line, Admiral George Brydges Rodney, was born in London in 1719. He was the grandson of Anthony Rodney, son of George, youngest brother of Sir Edward Rodney, of Rodney Stoke, and his career in the Navy began at the age of 12; but no doubt in earlier boyhood, or in later life, he visited Rodney Stoke to see the tombs of his ancestors.Today the Rodneys' long association with the village is commemorated by their magnificent tombs in Rodney Stoke church. The manor house is no more, but way down across the fields that slope away from the church the River Axe maintains its lazy journeying to the sea. Following drainage schemes the swamps have gone and cattle graze on the river banks.The land higher up around the village has no doubt been under the plough for centuries. The fields have strip-like formation that suggests survival of the old manorial system. Collinson describes the parish as being situated in a fine champaign country under the brow of Mendip. The moors bound it towards the west, interspersed with some beautifully green and woody hills."He says that anciently it was known as Stoke and later, taking the names of its lords of the manor it successively became Stoke Gifford and Rodney Stoke.The Norman survey recorded that "Alward and his brother hold Stoche. Their father held it in the time of King Edward, and gelded for here hides. The arable is two carucates, and there are with it one villane, and one servant, and thirteen cottagers. There are fifteen acres of meadow and eight acres of pasture. It was formerly worth sixty shillings, now fifty shillings."At 50 shillings (now £2.50) Rodney Stoke would certainly be a very cheap buy to-day. Those greedy Norman barons who enslaved the Saxon folk did not hit on anything so lucrative as growing strawberries on their Cheddar Valley acres. Today cattle graze on the moorland fields, but on the uplands many Rodney Stoke acres are devoted to strawberry growing.At one time cider making was quite a big local industry, and at Honeyhurst Farm up to 100,000 gallons a year were made.Travelling on the Weston to Wells road, Rodney Stoke is soon left behind. The main road view of it does not do it justice. It is not until one turns into the narrow road in the centre of the village that runs down towards the church that the prettiness and old-world charm of the place are apparent.Even the Romans found Stoke a pleasant spot at which to settle, and in view of the chance discovery made by a farmer in 1927 it seems that even the moorland acres near the river were once more populated than they are to day.This farmer, who wanted to improve his cattle's drinking place in a field near a pumping station on the Wedmore-Rodney Stoke road, got to work removing turf from a mound to extract some stones. He hit upon the remains of a paved roadway and what appeared to be a 'pitched' courtyard.The report on the discovery states: "Buried some 18 inches deep just outside the upright edging stones of the road, this further search disclosed two urns, wheel turned, of the usual late Romano-British size and shape. The first was broken, unfortunately, during the excavation. The second is complete. Its mouth was closed by a large rough pebble. It contained a hoard of 43 small coins of the late emperors."Close to these urns wedged between stones with a large, flat covering, was a small handful of dried grass containing 10 more coins of about the same period.Other discoveries include a piece of a grinding stone, a bronze ring-shaped brooch, and the back of a bronze fibula, or clasp brooch.The author of the report added: "It is interesting to find traces of occupation in the midst of these moors, but nothing short of a systematic examination of the subsoil of the whole field can give an idea of the purpose of such occupation just here, not far from the old course of the Axe, on a line connecting the Tor, at Glastonbury and Nyland, and, as described by the owner, 'just above drownding line.'"In very early times the manor appears to have been associated with the Whiting or Witen family, who also held Saltford, Freshford, and Vinford of the Abbot of Coutances. It was a member of this family, Maud Gifford who, about 1300, married Sir Richard de Rodney.The church is dedicated to St Leonard, and the Rev C G Chitty, a former rector who took a great interest in the parish's past and who compiled a manuscript history said the earliest documentary reference to it was in the time of Bishop Reginald (1174-92)."I do not know if a church stood on the spot in Saxon times," he wrote. "There was certainly one at Cheddar, and we know the name of the thane of Stoke - Alyard or Aylward - at the time of the Conquest. It is better to play for safety and say that the first church was Plantagenet (Transition-Norman) like the font. There are vestiges of the old manorial system in an 'Eastfield' and a 'Westfield' lane. From these two lanes which run along the valley from Rodney Stoke, through Draycott and half-way to Cheddar, all the fields in the parish radiate at right angles, and run up in narrow strips towards the Mendips."Mr Chitty gave it as his view that Roger Whiting appeared to have been the founder of the church about 1175: "The original building was probably small and mean," he says, "but the low chancel arch may be original."The whole building is of Draycott stone, and it is an interesting witness to the fact that this conglomerate was being quarried fairly in Plantagenet times. It is a 'pudding stone' formed by glacial pressure."The late Bishop Hobhouse considered that before the addition of the Rodney chapel the church was a plain structure of tower, nave, and chancel, and that it was adorned by Sir Edward Rodney under the influence of the Laudian revival in 1625. At this time Sir Edward had a heavy beam of black oak put across the chancel arch to form a rood loft. Covered with shallow surface carving it carried a music gallery.The most charming description of the Rodney tombs I have read is that of Arthur Mee in his splendid book 'Somerset' in the 'the Queen's England' series. He says:"In the tiny chapel off the chancel lie Edward Rodney, who gave the church its lovely screen, its pulpit, and the cover for the font; George his son, who died at 21; and Anna his daughter. The best of them all is Anna, perfectly charming under a window, serene in a richly embroidered bonnet with lace collar and cuffs, her sash and sleeves looped with bows, and double rows of pearls on her neck and shoulders."Looking down on her is the grim figure of George, grim because he is getting out of his coffin with his shroud still on, his hands raised, his long hair falling on his shoulders, and above him is an angel blowing a trumpet to announce his resurrection."Looking across the chapel towards them are Edward Rodney and his wife, in oval recesses under a curtained canopy, their eyes wide open. He is trim and stern, she is looking like a Puritan maid, with queer old-fashioned angels beside them, and above them all is angel benediction rising from the clouds. Between the chapel and the chancel sleeps the oldest Rodney of them all, Sir Thomas of 1478. Cherubs and angels hang from the canopy of his richly sculptured tomb, a dragon peeps out from a spandrel, and on the tomb he lies a neat and captivating figure, his head, on a helmet with his eagle crest, his feet on a dog, his dagger at his side."Five queer little women look from the front of his tomb into the chancel, one kneeling at prayer for his soul, two counting their beads and looking into the chapel on the other side, daintily carved on shields are St. Anne with the Madonna and Child, St Leonard with the shackles he struck off the wrists of prisoners, and a bishop. A fascinating group the Rodneys are."Historian Collinson tells how an incident during archery practice led one of the Rodneys, Sir John, to disinherit his eldest son from part of the estates that would have come to him."It is observable that the great estate of Sir Richard de Rodney continued without increase or diminution in the heir male of the family till the time of Sir John," says Collinson. "He made a small alteration grounded on the following incident: The eldest and one of the younger brothers shooting at the butts (the archery shooting range) differed about a shot, which was left to the other brother to decide, who did it in favour of the younger."This caused the eldest to threaten them both that they should repeat it when he came into his land. Sir John, the father, overhearing, called them to him and told his eldest son that he would make them live without him, and thereupon settled his manors of Over-Badgworth and Congresbury on his two younger sons and their heirs."Then there was another John Rodney, who died in 1549. His son was Maurice, who was only nine at the time of his father's death. Family papers state that he was given in ward to a Serjeant Powell who "Carried him to his house in the north of England, where he was fearlessly bred and during his nonage married a smith's daughter, from whom he was afterwards divorced."Cavalier Sir Edward Rodney was the last of the family to live at Rodney Stoke. He did much to improve the church and he and his wife have the following epitaph:Reader, behold this one made twaine,By marriage once, by death again.Such noble, wise, and fortunate - inferior only unto fate:Their tongues would mend what ours can speake,This was that large and letter'd mind,Where wise and just were so combin'd,That his devoted country tookeHim for their judge, councell and booke;And while he liv'd, justice ('tis known)Resigned her scales to him alone;Blameless even in his enemies' eyes,Unless they griev'd he was too wise.His Ladie, to the virtuous dear,Was only meete to be his peere;For moral parts and parentageThe most accomplish'd of her age.Heaven therefore destin'd them to haveOne heart and bed, and now one grave.The pews of Rodney Stoke church bear excellently carved bench ends which are copies of some of the finest in our Somerset churches. They were the work of a local group who attended "Home Art Classes," directed by the Misses Evelyn and Margaret Coleridge Smith, whose father was rector from 1890 to 1928. Miss Evelyn, who was the last surviving daughter, died last year.One of the party who carved the bench ends was Reginald Hale, who decided to emigrate to America, and who no doubt thought himself very lucky to go overseas on the maiden trip of the "Titanic." He was one of the 1,500 passengers who lost their lives when it sank, 50 years ago last month.This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on May 1, 1962Copyright: John Bailey

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