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Built by a Drunk
tiny parish of Shottesbrooke seems very quiet and peaceful today. It is
hard to imagine that back in the fourteenth century it was the scene of
wild parties and night-long revelry. The Lord of the Manor at the time, Sir
William De Trussell, was partial to the odd tipple and, when his
wife was away, the mouse would play.
It was said that Sir William was one of the greatest knights in the land.
He was a marvellous horseman and fighter, and could beat all comers with
both lance and sword; and, of course, being the true man that he was, he
could eat or drink any other under the table.
Sir William's wife did not approve of his degenerate ways, as she saw
them, and would constantly nag and scold him. Every day, when he returned
home to Shottesbrooke Hall in a drunken stupor, he would find himself
greeted by lectures on the evils of drink. No matter how hard he tried to
hide his intoxicated state, his red eyes and slurred speech would always
give him away. His ears would burn as his good lady took him to task over
his daily binge. His false promises never lasted though, and the next
night he would be out on the town once more.
One night it happened that Lady de Trussell was away from Shottesbrooke
and Sir William had the Hall to himself. By happy coincidence several of
his friends just happened to be passing and dropped in on the off-chance.
Finding the lady of the house not at home, they set about organising an
instant shindig, in which Sir William was only too happy to take part. The
servants were called, the table was piled high with food, and beer was
brought up from the cellars by the barrel load. The serving girls were
encouraged to stay for a little fun, but all were far too sensible and ran
for their quarters. The friends ate and drank, they narrated stories and
drank, they sang songs and drank, they told obscene jokes and drank some
more. They had as good a time as they knew how, and didn't stop till they
all fell to the floor - dead drunk!
Sir William (the last to fall of course) was taken up by two of the
servants to his room. He was deposited on his bed there, where he lay like
a corpse: his face was all yellow and his lips pure white! There he slept
all night, while down below his guests awoke one by one and crawled away
In the morning Lady de Trussell arrived home. She was puzzled when not
greeted by her husband, and quickly enquired of the servants as to his
whereabouts. On being told he was still in bed, her Ladyship immediately
guessed why, and her tongue became aflame with curses. However, when she
entered the room where her husband was sleeping, the pitiful sight which
greeted her quite touched her ladyship's heart, and she let him be.
When Lady de Trussell returned to her husband at night though, Sir William
had still not woken from his slumber and she became quite worried. He had
gone too far this time, and was obviously very ill. She resolved at once
to drive out the demon drink from him by aqueous means.
All the servants were woken, and sent to the kitchen, where bucket upon
bucket of water was drawn from the well and heated in a heavy cauldron. It
was passed up the stairs along a train of people with many more buckets,
to the bedchamber where work began on curing poor Sir William. While Lady
de Trussell prayed to the Almighty, her Lord was washed with both cold
water and with hot; it was poured on his head and in his mouth, his feet
were bathed and then his hands; more water was called for, it all started
again. The maids were constantly kept running up and down stairs, till
next morning when, just as Lady de Trussell was about to give up hope, Sir
William slowly opened one eye. Overjoyed, her Ladyship rushed to his side
as he attempted to speak. However, he spoke not to her but to a groom
standing at the foot of the bed, "Giles, bring me a pot of small
beer". But Giles did not move, "Hurry, d'you hear me?"
Lady de Trussell was furious, but hiding her anger, she sent the groom out
of the room with a nod and a knowing smile. He soon returned with a full
ale-pot and , handing it to Sir William, he helped him to drink. The Lord
soon spluttered though and spat out what he had drunk - it was nothing but
water! Thus it continued: our patient was fed nothing but water-soups,
water-potions, water-tonics and water-gruels for a full three days, and he
was forced to drink them.
Each day Lady de Trussell would sit by her husband's bedside and pray for
his soul. Sir William tried to ignore her but, by the fourth day, he could
not help but be moved by her devotions. He could stand it no longer.
Dragging himself from his bed, he got down on his knees and pleaded with
his wife to forgive him his trespasses. He truly promised he would never
touch another drop of alcohol again, and swore to his Lady fair, "By
the cross on my shield, I'll build you a church
to show my sincerity, and I cannot think of a better saint to whom to
dedicate it than the holiest water saint - John the Baptist". Sir
William had made up his mind and now there was no stopping him. He put on
his doublet and hose and ran downstairs to commence immediately the
arrangements for the building of his new church.
Within a few weeks the workmen had been assembled, the foundations were
laid and the church began to grow. First the nave then the choir were
built, and it wasn't long before the transepts with their arches joined
them. Lastly came the marvellous tower crowned with a beautiful tapering
spire that would rival Salisbury Cathedral itself. Both Sir William and
his wife were delighted with the finished article - a magnificent
cruciform church, the best in Berkshire.
But, "Wait," cried Sir William, "there is something missing
. . . the vane. Of course, the weather vane. Fetch it somebody. Who will
fix the vane on the steeple?" He looked around hoping for a
volunteer, but none was forthcoming. The glazier shook his head, the
painter looked at his shoes, the joiner examined a mark on his jacket, the
tinker turned away, the carver skulked aside, the brazier stuck his nose
in his brasswork, the gilder twiddled his thumbs, and the mason just stood
and stared. His Lordship was in quite a quandary. What should he do? He
ranted and raved, but still there was no response. "Will none of you
rascals go put up this vane?!"
At this outburst, a young broad shouldered fellow, known to all and
sundry, stepped forward. It was Dicken Smith. "Marry, Sir William, I
fashioned that vane with my own hammer and tongs, and fire and bellows.
I'll do what you want. I'll put it on the top of the spire myself,"
he declared. "I only ask that, when I've done it, you send me up a
brimming cup of ale, so I can drink to the King's good health." Sir
William was delighted.
"I'll do more than that, my lad," he said. "When you're
safely on the ground again, I'll fill your purse with a dozen crown as
So a man of great skill with a rope was fetched, and from the church roof
he lassoed the top of the spire. Then, with a pulley and rope, everyone
helped hoist the smith up the steeple's dizzy slope. Step by step he
walked up through the sky. The crowd below watched with baited breath
until he had safely reached the top. A great sigh of relief spread through
the gathering. Dicken took the vane from his belt and, with an iron brace,
he fixed it to the steeple. He turned and waved to signal his success, and
the people below let up a great cheer.
Not wanting to break his promise, his Lordship quickly ordered that a
tankard of ale and a cup be winched up to the smith. Dicken received them
eagerly - climbing a steeple was thirsty work. He seemed to be standing in
mid-air, but his precarious position did not prevent him from filling the
cup. Then, as the crowd watched, he drained it in one and shouted,
"Long live the King," at the top of his voice.
But the happiness of the occasion was not to last. As his patriotic words
reached the ground. Dicken lost his footing. His feet faltered. The rope
slipped. His hands could not hold him. He fell. It was a horrible sight.
He plunged through the sky like a broken doll: rolling and whirling
around, and smashing into both spire and transept as he went. Thump! His
crushed remains landed by the side of the path.
All around rushed to Dicken's aid, but what could they do? It looked as if
every bone in his body was broken. "Hurry," cried Lady De
Trussell as she ordered four men to construct a make-shift stretcher,
"we must get him into the house". They pushed their way through
the crowd surrounding poor Dicken. "Out of the way!" her
Ladyship screamed. they took him up and lifted him. Not a sign of pain did
he give, save a word barely uttered. It was something like "Oh, oh .
. .". Then with a spasm and a shudder young Dicken died.
He was buried, next day, at the spot where he fell, so all would remember
Dicken Smith's courageous deed and his sad death which so marred the
celebrations at the completion of Shottesbrooke Church. The stone that
covers his grave can be seen there to this day, with his last words
inscribed upon it: "O.O.".
What can be seen today?