ENGLISH PARISH CHURCHES are full of surprises. The church of St Mary the Virgin in the Essex village of Hatfield Broad Oak (once known as ‘Hatfield Regis’) is no exception. Its nave is a surviving remnant of a Benedictine priory founded in 1135 by Alberic De Vere (c1085-1141) The highlight of this church is a recumbent stone effigy of Alberic’s grandson, Robert de Vere, 3rd Earl of Oxford (c1155-1221), who was born in Hatfield Broad Oak. He was one of the barons who forced King John into signing the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215. The effigy was placed in the church either by his son or his grandson. It lies on the floor of the chancel in front of the nave and close to the high altar. Whereas in many churches, there is an unobstructed view of the altar (or a rood screen) from the western end of a church, Robert’s effigy sticks out like a sore thumb when you are looking along the length of the nave
The effigy, which is in remarkably good condition given its age, depicts Robert lying with his legs crossed. His right hand clutches a sword and there is a shield attached to his left arm. His left foot rests on something that is not easily identifiable as it has been damaged. What is most remarkable about this funerary sculpture is that Robert is almost entirely clad in chain mail. Part of his face peers through a circular gap in the armoured head dress. The carver of this monument took great pains to show the chain mail in fine detail. For me, this is what makes the effigy quite wonderful.
Fascinating as is the effigy, Robert’s family interested me because of its connection with Kensington in London. Robert’s great grandfather Alberic (or Aubrey) De Vere (1040-1112) was a tenant-in-chief of William the Conqueror. The Domesday Book records that he was a great landowner with properties in nine counties. One of these was the manor of Kensington in the County of Middlesex. His name is remembered today in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea by the street name Aubrey Walk, which leads to Aubrey House, currently a private residence.
The day before we visited Hatfield Broad Oak, we were in Coggeshall (Essex), where I spotted a memorial to a protestant martyr, Thomas Hawkes (see: https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2022/06/26/burnt-rather-than-baptised/), who had worked for the De Vere family. Had Hatfield Broad Oak not been such a pretty village, I doubt that we would have stopped there. That would have been a pity because then we would have missed seeing the chain mail clad effigy and its interesting connection with a part of west London, with which I am quite familiar.