The 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 home.
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 well."
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.".
Folklore or Fact?
What can be seen today?