The Aldworth Giants at Aldworth Church, Berkshire

Aldworth Church, in the late summer sun, is probably one of the most atmospheric and beautiful churches I've visited. It stands on a hill, and from the churchyard you can see fields all around. It's a small church, with a stone tower, topped with a pointy red tiled roof. 

Most small churches are equipped with maybe one, maybe two old stone effigies of past parishioners. What's unexpected about this tiny village church is that it contains nine of them. 

The effigies, known as the Aldworth Giants and carved between 1300-1350, are of the de La Beche family, who owned land in Berkshire. There are various explanations for their name. One is that they were once believed to belong to local literal giants that used to live here. Another is from the size of the effigies, although for me, seeing them in real life didn't elicit any thoughts of them being much bigger than other effigies of the time. Another, and probably a more practical theory, is that they depict a family that stood above average height in Medieval England. 

The de la Beches were a Norman family that rose in status under William the Conqueror and continued to maintain a place at subsequent Medieval royal courts. Sources also mention a castle owned by the family , Beaumys Castle, just off the River Loddon near Reading. A writer in 1880 stated that remains of the moat (used at the time as a duck pond) and a pile of flint and stone were all that remained of the fortress, and that it was in ruins by the sixteenth century. The De La Beches also owned another Aldworth property, probably a mansion house, that once stood on the site of Beech Farm.

The identification of the effigies, although local people insisted they represented the De La Beches, was problematic to eighteenth and nineteenth century historians, who wanted more proof in the absence of heraldic designs or names carved onto any of the figures. There was once, on the wall of the church, a pedigree of the family, which would have given them quite a clue, but it was taken down by Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester on a visit to Aldworth with Elizabeth I. Colonel Richard Symonds in 1644 wrote that 'in the east end of the south aisle did hang a Table fairly written in parchment of all the names of this family of De La Beche, but the Earl of Leicester rounding with Queen Elizabeth in progress took it down to show it her, and was never brought again'. 

The parchment de la Beche family tree now lost, historians combined the provenance of the family, counting up its members to try and prove the identity of the effigies. They even dug up human remains from the ground in front of one of the (unidentified) female tombs in 1845 but curiously concluded that it can't have been the lady depicted in the effigy because they belonged to a person six feet four inches in height. Then in 1871, a silver seal was ploughed up in a field on Beech Farm. The seal had once belonged to Lady Isabella de la Beche, and contained her name as an inscription along with the heraldry of Sir Nicholas de la Beche, along with a related design also visible elsewhere in the church. The case was closed. 

The de La Beches seems to have had a bit of a tumultuous history. 

Robert de la Beche was recorded as a Berkshire knight during the reign of Henry III in 1230. Robert's is the oldest effigy that can be seen at Aldworth. He lies with his right hand on his sword hilt, his left hand on his shield and his legs crossed. He was still in Aldworth in 1261, when he was recorded in a transfer of land to his son John. 

The crossing of the legs of the male Aldworth Giants have raised questions about whether they were crusading knights, due to a theory that this was how knights who had fought on Crusades were depicted. However we know that not all the de la Beches went on crusade, and this theory has been generally debunked due to its inconsistency. The writer of the 1841 Archaeological Journal posits the idea that they were leaning, cross-legged or propped up on one side so that they could be seen more easily from their site along the wall, which makes a lot of sense. 

John de la Beche, Robert's son, went with his father on Crusade, and owned lands in West Compton and Aldworth, paying subsidies on them between 1282-1287. He also was granted the right to hold a fair and market in Yattendon by Edward II. A Victorian visitor to Aldworth noted the quality of the carving of John's armour, which included 'bassinet and camail, cyclas, hauberk and hacketon, gadded gauntlets, shield on the left arm, long sword and belt, greaves and sollerets, with single prick spurs' along with a lion resting at John's feet. John holds his right hand on his chest and his left on his sword-hilt. He died in 1328.

Things get a bit more interesting when we get to Philip de la Beche. He was Sheriff of Berkshire and Oxfordshire and later, Sheriff of Wiltshire in 1314-1317. He also served as Valet to Edward II and was created Lord Chamberlain. All was going well then, until December 1321 when Philip was arrested with four of his sons on suspicion of allying with the Earl of Lancaster against the king. They were later imprisoned in various locations in Yorkshire, but were all released by the time Edward III acceded to the throne. Philip's effigy originally measured over seven feet in height, and was carved with armour bearing rosettes and fleurs de lys which can still be seen today. 

Philip's wife is also depicted in an effigy although it is badly worn and the detail in the face no longer survives. Joan de la Beche was born Joan de la Zouche. She came from an important land-holding family of Oxfordshire and Surrey. In her effigy she wears a wimple and a wide ornate headdress of the early fourteenth century. Folds in the fabric of her gown can still be seen, although angels that once propped up her cushion no longer survive. In 1798 a visitor noted that the effigy's condition was 'pretty perfect'. The architect J. Carter in 1799 was relieved to find, compared to the state of the other statues, that this effigy was 'in as perfect a state (almost) as when it came from the artist's hands'. In 1844 it was noted that she had long, slim fingers, her left hand resting on her breast, although her right hand was lost. These descriptions raise questions over the history of the effigies since the late eighteenth century, as damage to them is usually ascribed to the actions of Parliamentarian soldiers of the English Civil War. However Carter's description of Joan's effigy as in perfect condition at the dawn of the nineteenth century indicate that the effigies suffered further damage or erosion since that time.

Philip and Joan's son John was said to have fought with Edward I in his Scottish wars in the early fourteenth century and held the title of Sheriff of Hampshire. John was arrested in Yorkshire with his father but died soon after his release, in 1327. He wears a jousting helmet in his effigy, and although the figure is very worn today, a Victorian visitor marvelled at the belt, sword, spurs and the general position of the figure as 'depicted with cunning accuracy'.  Two small hounds originally lay under his legs and a lion at his feet. John's effigy is next to his wife Isabella, the lady who owned the seal found in the field at Beech Farm. Only fragments of her effigy survive today, and mostly the torso, but luckily our Victorian visitor left some idea of what she would have looked like. She wore the costume of the early to middle reign of Edward III and had her left hand to her breast and her right hand holding her gown. 'The sleeves have long lappets', continues our antiquarian, 'and there is a hound at the feet'. 

John's brother Philip also has an effigy here at Aldworth. Like his relatives, he was also Sheriff, of Berkshire and Oxfordshire in 1332. He died in 1339. Again in armour, Philip has his helmet visor raised, his right hand on his sword and the left arm behind a shield. 'The helmet is embellished with fleurs-de-lys, and the head is resting upon pillows,' the Victorian visitor noted. Colonel Symonds noted that 'there is a lyon at hys feete', but this had disappeared by 1880. 

Nicholas de la Beche, the third brother, was Lieutenant of the Tower of London and oversaw the upbringing of The Black Prince. In 1338 he was given permission to castellate (fortfiy) his homes at Beaumys and Aldworth. He seems to have received the anger of Edward III over some shortfalls in supplying the king's campaigns in France in 1340 but was quickly forgiven, being made a baron in 1342, summoned to the Great Council and made Steward of Gascony. Nicholas was also one of those chosen to negotiate with Alfonso, the King of Castile on Edward III's behalf over some disputes with their respective citizens. Symonds recorded that he was granted a castle by the king for his service during the Battle of Poitiers in France, although he seems to be referring more locally, to the de la Beche's mansion at Beech Farm rather than the castle at Loddon. He died shortly after returning from a French military campaign in 1347, leaving his widow Margery. Symonds also noted that carved hounds sat at Nicholas' feet, although again, these had been destroyed by 1880. 

The final effigy at Aldworth is that of John de la Beche, the son of Isabella and John. He lies without armour with a dog at his feet. Symonds noticed that he had a mass of curled hair, and wore a long coat although by 1880 the head, hands and feet of the effigy had been destroyed. John died in 1340. 

Considering their age, we should be grateful that the Aldworth Giants have survived at all. However they were mostly damaged or destroyed during the English Civil Wars of the seventeenth century, and, as the descriptions of Joan's effigy in particular suggest, also sustained erosion or damage in subsequent centuries. But we do have accounts and descriptions from visitors which reveal some of their original detail. It is a shame that older drawings and sketches of the effigies do not survive. There was great excitement that depictions of the nine effigies created by Mr Blore were to be published in the 1840s but apart from one (beautifully detailed) drawing highlighted in an archaeological text, I have been unable to find them. From these descriptions the effigies must have once looked incredibly imposing. Carved with intricate detail and almost life-like, the de la Beches lay around the church in twisted, propped and animated poses as they drew swords and brandished shields. What we see today only gives us a glimpse of what Medieval and Tudor visitors to the church might have seen. 

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Notes and Sources
Berkshire Archaeological Society, Berkshire Archaeological Journal (1889)
British Archaeological Association, The Archaeological Journal (Longman, 1844)
Ditchfield, P.H., The Bucks, Berks and Oxon Archaeological Journal, vol. XXI (1889)
Gentleman's Magazine Library, (E.Stock, London, 1891)
Leach, Arthur Francis. A History of Bradfield College (H. Frowde, 1900)
Monckton, Horace Woolaston. Berkshire (Cambridge University Press, 1911)
Murray, John. A Handbook for Travellers in Berks, Bucks and Oxfordshire (J. Murray, 1860)
The Antiquary, vol XLIII, (Elliot Stock, London 1907)


  1. When the first Knight Templar returned from the Holy Land they brought back with them huge amounts of gold, silver and Temple artefacts recovered from under Temple Mount. All this wealth was concealed at various locations and marked by using the Chess Board as a map, each site represented by the effigy of a Knight on the appropriate square: the characteristics and position of the Knight on the board describing the location. Knights with crossed legs are found on black squares. In Temple Church London there are nine stone effigies of Knights, one for each location. The effigy of William Marshall the 1st Earl of Pembroke is shown with his feet resting on a Standing Dog, his pillow is a water pitcher - this perfectly describes the place of the treasure, The same intriguing story is told in the Church of St Mary in the village of Aldworth near Newbury, where the nine stone effigies are known as the 'Aldworth Giants' ... It is also set out in the Classical Monuments at Shugborough Hall and in the Danse Macabre figures in the Lady Chapel at Roslyn ... All of the treasures have lain undisturbed since the early twelfth century”.


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