By Dawn Robinson-Walsh:
If you have never visited Poundstock Gildhouse and the neighbouring St Winwaloe’s Church, near Bude, then do go and see them.
Both are open on Wednesdays, from 10am to 4pm. It is free to visit the Gildhouse (a treat), as are the tea and biscuits provided by the lovely, well-informed and friendly volunteers.
Despite its secreted away rural location in a tranquil shaded dell downhill from the A39, Poundstock (meaning cattle enclosure) south of Bude, has a turbulent and chequered history.
The big news in the area at the time of the Hundred Years’ War (1300s) was the bloody murder of ‘poor’ William (de) Penfound, assistant curate at Poundstock.
The church (though obviously not in its current form), was originally founded by missionaries from St Winwaloe’s monastery in Brittany during the 6th century, so the ground had long been a holy place; one would never assume it to be a site for savagery, despite ascetic Winwaloe’s self-flagellatory habit of wearing clothes made from goat hair and sleeping on pillows of stone.
There were three local families who dominated the parish around this time: Bodrugans, Bevilles and Bloyous (the three Bs).
St Winwaloe’s, in this isolated hamlet, had its first recorded vicar in the 13th century; he was a member of the wealthy, but violent, Bodrugan family (whose line ended in a succession crisis due to a shortage of male heirs); he was excommunicated in 1261 (or 1262 or 1291, depending on which version of events you read) for ‘persistent disobedience’ (if anyone knows what he did, please tell!)
Only twenty years later (assuming the first date), a feud broke out between the parishes of Poundstock and Morwenstowe, when the vicar of Morwenstowe was unhappy with his pay levels, so thought he would improve his own prospects.
Allying himself to the Bloyous family, he arrived with armed men at Poundstock to dispossess its vicar, relieving him of his employment – the ensuing ecclesiastical power struggle involved a visit from the Archbishop of Canterbury, no less, which must have been a slog for him, living little short of three hundred miles away.
By 1348, the parish was also devastated by the Black Death (1348-50). This deadly bubonic plague had arrived via a ship docked in Dorset, and spread across the south-west over a period of months. However, it remained endemic for many years in Cornwall in what were difficult times, with a death rate of around 40%.
Back to the murder. Penfound was slain ‘by satellites of Satan’, according to Bishop Grandisson of Exeter. He died before the altar in the church, a very brutal and gory end, with swords and cudgels raining down upon him as he finished saying the holy mass. Sacred vessels were also desecrated and some of Penfound’s kinsmen were also hacked to death on the bloodied Norman chancel steps. The event happened on 27th December 1357 (feast day of St John the Evangelist).
Why would an innocent man be beaten to death?
King Edward III rightly ordered an investigation but, given what happened at the church, it is safe to assume the dominant families might have been involved.
As my book, Secret Bude, tells, there is no smoke without fire. Vicar William was also a gang member, so his murder was a revenge killing. Lawless Cornwall was plagued by gangs of pirates who were not the most humane of men. In a strange turn of events, the vicar was also a Widemouth pirate in his spare time.
The killing was attributed to the Beville family, notably one John Beville, along with his mate, Simon de Gennys. This blog suggests that the murderers were excommunicated, and imprisoned in Launceston Castle.
All others involved were eventually acquitted and John was fined (he did not pay) and eventually he was pardoned. This lenient treatment of such terrible acts enabled the perpetrators to continue their lives of crime – a case, perhaps, of ‘who you know’.
Meanwhile, Penfound’s understandably restless ghost is said to wander, along with others, rather peeved that justice was never served. Let me know if you’ve met him!
Grade I listed, the Gildhouse next door to the church is a pretty unique place. Buildings like this were originally created to form part of the social life of the Catholic Church for its many feast days, and to raise funds for the church and local charities; there were celebrations aplenty in the village once known as Pondestoch (according to the Domesday Book, 1086). Poundstock’s structure fortunately survived where more prominent Gildhouses did not, but the area was not totally protected from external influences.
Henry VIII, during his reign, began to feel rather irritated with the Catholic Church (predominantly over issues like divorce and heirs), though he never personally became a Protestant (he rejected Luther’s radical teachings of justification by faith alone). Interested in control, rather than reform, he merely became Supreme Head of the Church of England instead, and raised his only son as a Protestant. He decided there were far too many church holidays (celebrations), such as Michaelmas, which he banned (we now have harvest festival instead). He also abolished the mass, introduced the use of English in church services, and stripped down Catholicism’s more decorative elements.
His changes were largely ignored out in the Cornish sticks but by 1546, the King’s command had abolished Church Gilds and charities, too. Fortunately, Poundstock Gildhouse was built right at the end of the period when other similar places were being closed down and left to rot courtesy of the royal command, so it was overlooked.
The Gildhouse was a church house used for parish festivals, where parishioners would donate whatever they could afford, usually in the form of hops, barley and other crops, rather than money, and they would party hard. Cakes and ale were baked and brewed there. At such times as Whitsuntide, around 500 people would cram into the building, which is now hard to imagine.
The parish gilds also met there. Today, the parish council meets there. So, it has evolved responsively to meet the needs of the community.
Times were changing and, some felt, not in a good way. A great deal was going on in the wider world. Henry VIII was not a happy man. He had married his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, in 1540 (annulled just over 6 months later, and he had his ‘wedding planner’, Thomas Cromwell, executed for good measure). A good number of abbeys were, meanwhile, dissolved: Gloucester, Bolton, Thetford, Waltham, Shap and Dunstable for starters (to be fair to Henry, some were very corrupt institutions, as we have seen on a small scale at Poundstock, where vicars could also be predatory buccaneers and criminals).
Anne of Cleves got away lightly because Henry’s next wife, Catherine Howard, was executed within 2 years of becoming Queen, so times in the royal household were terribly turbulent. When Henry VIII died in 1547, his son, Edward, ensured more monasteries were dissolved. In 1549, the staunchly Protestant Edward introduced his Book of Common Prayer and abolished the latin mass.
Cornwall was a traditional place then, so Poundstock parish obviously rebelled against this new-fangled and foreign Protestantism. Alas, this was the wrong response to Edward’s religious changes; the rebellion was brutally suppressed. Two carpenters (John Mock and Thomas Clarke) were paid to set up gallows, and the vicar of Poundstock, rebel leader Simon Morton, was hanged, drawn and quartered for high treason at the Market House in Stratton in 1549. His successor, Roger Harward, stayed in post for around forty years, despite apparently being a ‘mass man’. He was obviously a pragmatist, too!
By 1553, church ales were allowed again (great for encouraging neighbourliness, it seems) as Mary I was a staunch Catholic, and the Gildhouse was under construction, gearing up for feasting. Meanwhile, according to this blog (see link), the church continued to attract some lawless characters:
Another Tudor rector, William Woodwarde, was a bit of a ladies man, and was once spotted, his trousers in one hand, helping one of his mistresses escape over a wall while her husband bellowed at the door.
The popularity of Gildhouses depended upon who was in power at the time. Elizabeth I returned to Protestantism in these turbulent times, but Poundstock survived.
Tudors aside, feasting events and church ales were suppressed once again when the Puritans exerted influence in the 1640s. Many remaining Gildhouses fell into disrepair during the Civil War, but Poundstock Gildhouse was made into a schoolroom from around 1758 (the teacher arriving on horseback) for local boys whose families could afford to pay a small amount to give them something of an education. This helped to maintain it as a ‘living’ building. By 1805, the upper hall was still used for celebrations; allegedly, 32 gallons of ale were drunk to celebrate Admiral Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, for example.
Later, the Gildhouse became a shelter for the poor, with 7 families living there. By 1820, both floors were utilised to house poor families, with a school and stable on the ground floor, and around twenty people living in the building. By 1841, 6 families lived there, each in a single room, where they ate, slept and did everything else that people do.
By 1901, however, the poor were accommodated at the Stratton Workhouse (built in 1856) which was probably less pleasant. The Gildhouse very nearly did not survive, as it fell into rack and ruin at this point, but it was refurbished in the twentieth century.
One curious tale the volunteers love to tell is how a large, imposing coat of arms to Charles I, dated 1638, remains hanging on the south wall. It is 7 feet square and survived the Civil War. Originally, in St Winwaloe’s, it was removed to the Gildhouse for preservation work in 1985. It has never been returned, however, as the restored piece, with a new backing, was too large to get through the door. It does look splendid in its Gildhouse home though.
How fortunate that Poundstock Gildhouse has remained for all to see. There is also a holy well nearby, so that is one for another visit!