Visiting the Tomb of Alice Chaucer, Ewelme

St Mary's Church in Ewelme is one of the most calm and tranquil places I've visited. You can see its tower rising up over Ewelme, as you approach. This ancient village was the Medieval home of Alice Chaucer and William de la Pole, Duke and Duchess of Suffolk. 

Alice Chaucer, image: Jo Romero

Alice was a formidable character, deeply involved in events of the Wars of the Roses. You don't hear much of her in history books. But we should. Quite often when she is mentioned she's referred in passing as teh grand-daughter of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, but she should be remembered for much more than that. 

The Suffolks paid for building work on the church and founded almshouses in the village, which are still in use today. Alice had three husbands, one, Sir Phelip, she married as a child so it's unlikely they ever lived together although he did provide her with lands in his will when he died. She married the Earl of Salisbury next, who was to die in the French wars when his jaw was broken after an explosion destroyed a nearby window and shattered into his face. Thirdly, she married William de la Pole. She was made a Lady of the Garter, endured hounding from the Duke's enemies just before his fall in the late 1440s and grieved his violent murder in 1450. Alice then dodged accusations of treason and negotiated with the Duke of York for the marriage of his daughter Elizabeth to her son John. A loyal Lancastrian, Alice's switch to the Yorkist cause looks like it was out of frustration for the fall and death of her husband. Efficient, ambitious and assertive, Alice must have thought that the wavering government of Henry VI on the wane. Alice died in 1475, around the age of 71. 

Ewelme is beautiful. We approached it from Checkendon, and before you get there you can look down at rooftops of tile and thatch. We parked up on a rural road and tried to find the church on foot. A bit lost, I flagged down a friendly local and asked how to find it. They directed me through Alice's red-brick almshouses and up some stone steps to the side. You open another door and the wooden door to the church is right in front of you. 

You can't miss Alice's tomb. It's towards the altar, on the right hand side. Elaborate and carved with shields, canopies and angels it shows Alice lying serenely, with her duchess' coronet, widow's weeds and angels either side, propping up her head on a cushion. She wears the Order of the Garter on her arm, similar to Margaret Harcourt's effigy at Stanton Harcourt. 

Underneath Alice's lifelike effigy is a different representation. Alice is covered in a shroud, her frame thin and her face drawn. Her hair is long, her eyes staring blankly up at the effigy above. This 'cadaver effigy' was probably to remind us all where we will end up one day, showing Alice's practicality and piety. 

I had been reading a lot of sources that mentioned Alice, and to 'meet' her here at Ewelme felt really special and exciting.  The church was empty except for me and I just spent a moment thinking about her achievements and her life. An amazing woman, and a really beautiful tomb. Do visit if you can and support the church to ensure it is able to continue looking after its parishioners - and of course, Alice. 

Did you like this post? You might also like 10 Notable Women from History, Spending a Day and Night at Warwick Castle and The Castle in the Wars of the Roses Book Review

I explore Alice and some of the other women from the era, along with their links to her in my book. They include Elizabeth of York Duchess of Suffolk, Cecily Neville and Margaret Paston. It's all in Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses, published by Pen and Sword.  Order your copy here. 

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