Nicholas Gour – Serjeant-at-law

When walking around churches you many have noticed that most tombs are of knights in armour or members of the clergy –  to find one of an civilian is more unexpected, but that it what we have here in the chancel of Pembridge church. That they were an important family is clear – the very fact that they had tombs shows their status and wealth.  The freestone effigies are believed to date from 1360-80. The two men shown are known to be father and son – Nicholas and John Gour, with the two women assumed to be their wives. Nicholas and his wife can be seen in the photo above. He was a Serjeant-at-law, but what was the role of a Serjeant-at-law?

For six centuries starting in the 1300s, the serjeants at law ranked above all other lawyers in England. This was the highest legal office of the day and the Serjeant would have pleaded cases in front of the King.  Throughout those six centuries only twelve hundred men were ever promoted to the dignity of serjeant, the last dying in 1921.  Their role probably started with the thirteenth-century legal practitioners known as countors, a term from the French meaning storytellers. Countors helped formulate the plaintiff’s counts, or causes of action, and the preparatory work called counting. In the fourteenth century their role evolved and became a profession which developed into serjeants at law.

The Serjeants had for many centuries exclusive jurisdiction over the Court of Common Pleas, being the only lawyers allowed to argue a case there. At the same time they had rights of audience in the other central common law courts (the Court of King’s Bench and Exchequer of Pleas) and precedence over all other lawyers. They were also known as the Order of the Coif, after the white silk hat they wore; the Serjeants were the only people allowed to keep their hat on in the presence of the King. The coif can still be seen on Nicolas’s tomb.

To create a Serjeant the king would issue a writ commanding the person to prepare themselves to take the degree of Serjeant. An early form of this is below, translated from the original French, collected by Thomas Hoccleve, a poet. It dates from between 1371 – 1424.

The king etc. to our good friend, A. de B., apprentice of the law, greeting! Forasmuch as we have ordered, by the advice of our consul, that you amongst others should give gold and at (such a time) next coming should before our justices of the Common Bench take the estate of serjeant, in order to plead before our said justices in the said Bench and in all our other courts whatsoever for all who wish to plead therein: We firmly charge and command you to prepare yourself and make ready to give the gold and take the estate of serjeant, as above, at the aforesaid time. And this in no wise omit, upon the faith and allegiance that you owe to us and upon pain of 100s, which we shall cause to be levied to our use from you lands and goods if you should do contrary to this our command. Given etc.

(Taken from The Order of Serjeants at Law by J H Baker, 1984)

There are a couple of things to note about the writ – firstly there was a strong motivation for the estate of serjeant at law to be taken up, otherwise they would be fined 100 shillings  – this, and the language used (‘firmly charge and command’) suggest that there could be some reluctance to take up the estate of serjeant.  In a writ of 1382 the fine had gone up to £100.

The second thing to note is that in taking up their estate they were ordered to ‘give the gold’. This meant that when they were appointed they “gave gold”, usually in the form of rings, to their peers and the aristocracy. Typically this involved about ten pounds weight of gold which, at today’s price would be about £150,000, although there is an instance of one individual giving five times that amount. That was just the raw material. Then it was made into rings and a motto engraved around it, presumably also at great costs. They also hosted, at their expense, a feast. Which could go on for up to seven days although, due to the crippling expense, in 1550 the serjeants persuaded the King to limit it to one grand dinner. Still, at on grand dinner in 1555 they consumed:

25 deer, 44 swans, 36 herons, 132 rabbits, 132 woodcocks, 540 larks, 276 jellies eked out with sturgeon, pheasant, turkey, crane, brawn, quince pies, marchpanes and custards, all washed down with over 175 gallons of claret wine.

All paid for by the incoming Sergeant. However there is no evidence as to what Nicholas Gour gave in the form of gold or provided in the way of a feast when he became a sergeant at law in 1354.

Nicholas died between 1360-70 and his tomb in Pembridge Church shows him in the dress of serjaent. A project is taking place at the minute to recreate the costumes of the effigies, the progress of which can be seen below.


Recreation of Mediaeval Costumes

Blanche Mortimer

Continuing with the Mortimer family for another week, the next person of interest is Blanche Mortimer. The daughter of Roger and Joan, she was probably born around 1316 in Wigmore Castle and died in 1347. Her tomb is found in St Bartholomew’s Church at Much Marcle, Herefordshire, a beautiful memorial, decorated with both her husband’s and her own family crests. It is even more remarkable for the fact that her body was found to lie within it when the tomb was restored a few years ago.

But what is her connection with Pembridge?

We know that Blanche Mortimer was married in 1330 to Sir Peter Grandison, and the Grandison crest is certainly visible on her memorial, as can be seen in the photo above, interspersed with that of the Mortimer family, but this is not the only church where the two crests could once be seen together.

In the mid 17th century, the antiquary Silas Taylor paid a visit to Pembridge church and, luckily for us, left a description of the stained glass in the windows of the west aisle of the church. Although the stained glass has not survived until the present day, Taylor’s description of it has, showing that the windows held the crests of three families: Mortimer, Geneville and Grandison.

Mortimer and Geneville were linked in the marriage of Roger and Joan, Blanche’s parents but the only event that linked the Grandison family was the marriage of Blanche, suggesting that this took place in the newly built church at Pembridge. It cannot have been an easy start to the marriage; within a few months Roger, Blanche’s father had been executed for treason. Despite this she has continued to be known by her father’s name, going down in history as Blanche Mortimer, but her tomb is called the Grandison tomb and is well worth a visit.

Joan de Geneville, 2nd Baroness de Geneville

Last time we talked about Roger Mortimer, who is famous for ruling England, alongside Queen Isabella in the 14th century, however his wife is just as fascinating a character who spent the latter part of her life in Pembridge. Joan was one of the wealthiest heiresses of the Welsh Marches in the 14th century, inheriting Ludlow castle and lands as well as estates in Ireland.

Joan was born at Ludlow Castle 2nd February 1286, daughter of Sir Piers Geneville and Jeanne of Luigsan. Joan was the eldest of three sisters, all of whom were due to inherit their grandfather, Sir Geoffrey de Geneville’s estates in Ludlow and Ireland. In order not to split up the estate the younger two sisters became nuns and Joan inherited it all.

As a wealthy heiress Joan was subject to an arranged marriage. She was betrothed to Roger Mortimer, possible in 1200 or 1300 according to Ian Mortimer, who suggested that this was as a result of financial arrangement between their families. Roger’s father Edmund Mortimer received a loan from Geoffrey de Geneville in 1300 and the marriage may have been a statement of affiliation between the families. Roger and Joan were married in Pembridge, on the eve of the feast of St Matthew the Apostle, 20th September 1301. Joan brought prestige and lands to the marriage and it proved a fruitful one, with twelve children.

The first part of their marriage was relatively quiet, with visits to their estates in Ireland and in 1321 Roger rebelled against King Edward. Roger was captured and sent to the Tower of London; he subsequently escaped and fled to France. Joan was not as lucky. She was taken into custody by the King, and ended up in a cell at Skipton castle until 1326. During this period Roger was in France, where he became the lover of Queen Isabella. Their experiences over this period must have been remarkably different. It is not known when they first met after Roger returned to England and overthrew King Edward, but Roger is known to have been in Pembridge in November 1326. It could have been at the church in Pembridge that they were reunited, which was just about to be rebuilt, and where they celebrated the marriage of their daughter in June 1330. A few months later Roger was executed for treason and Joan was imprisoned again. She did not get her lands back until 1336 when she received a full pardon for her husband’s crimes.

In 1341 Pembridge became the dower residence of Joan de Geneville, probably in the castle behind the church, until her death in 1356 at the age of seventy. She was buried in Wigmore Abbey beside her husband. Her tomb no longer exists as the abbey was destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries. Joan’s numerous direct descendants include the current British Royal Family, Sir Winston Churchill, and the 1st American President George Washington.

Roger Mortimer, First Earl of March

Roger Mortimer was born on the 25th April 1287, and it probably one of the most well known of all his family to bear the name Roger Mortimer. He became one of the most powerful Marcher lords, becoming first Earl of March. He rose in power until he took up arms against Edward II, at which point he was captured and sentenced to the Tower of London. Escaping the Tower he fled to France, met Isabella, Edward’s wife – together they deposed Edward and ruled England until Edward III came of age. Edward III did what his father hadn’t managed and had Mortimer executed for treason.

But what is Roger Mortimer’s connection with Pembridge?

When he was he was born Pembridge was one of the many estates and lands held by the Mortimer family, however it was an important residence for the family. Roger married Joan de Geneville at Pembridge on the eve of the feast of St Matthew (20th September) 1301. At the time he was 14 and his bride was 15. In the first three years of marriage they had two children.

The church as we know it to day wasn’t built at this time and it would have been the previous Norman church which would have been visible from the castle that was the Mortimer residence. It is likely that the church was built during his lifetime. (See the blog post on dating the church). It is known that Roger visited Pembridge in November 1326, potentially to see work starting on the church? We can only prove that Roger visited Pembridge twice, this covered a major event in his life – his marriage.  The size of the church shows that importance of the village at the time and it possibly Roger we have to thank for this.

Scratch Sundials

A clock on the front of the bell tower has been telling the villagers of Pembridge the time for several hundreds of years, but before that was installed, there was a much simpler method of telling when services are.

Medieval Mass dials, or scratch sundials are commonly found on the south side of churches. These were simple sundials, scratched into the stone of the church, with a hole in the centre. When you placed a stick into the hole, it case a shadow across the lines engraved into the stone work, giving a rough indication what time it was. This type of sundial usually dates from between 1100 and 1600.

Pembridge Church is no different, and if you walk around to the back of the church, and look on the wall, you should be able to spot two of these sundials. They are quiet close to each other, and although they no longer have the original peg in them to cast a shadow, a replacement should be easy to find.

Of the two sundials at Pembridge Church, the top one is more detailed and better carved. It consists of what appears to be a square box, around radiating lines with a deepest hole in the top centre, where the stick or peg would have gone. The other is a lot simpler, with only six lines clearly visible, but again all radiating down from a centre hole. There are no numbers around the edges, and often this type of dial would only be used to indicate the time of services, or masses and are often called mass dials.

Scratch Sundials

The Gours of Marston

Gours or Gowers of Marston

In the chancel of Pembridge church there are four stone figures or effigies which date from the 14th Century. These are often commented on by visitors, so some research was carried out to see if we could find out a bit more about who they were.

The earlier figure is possibly that of Nicholas Gour, a Serjeant at law. It portrays a man in coif with a chin-strap and a ankle length tabard or tunic with lapels but no hood. He has his feet resting on a lion.  Next to him is his wife, possibly in a widow’s dress and a veil and wimple, her feet are resting on a dog. Lions were used to indicate valour and nobility (generally for men) and a dog would indicate loyalty (generally for women). These figures date to around 1360 − 1370.

The Gours of Marston

Nicholas Gour and wife

The other two figures are probably John Gour, son of Nicholas (the other effigy). He was probably a non professional legal practitioner or another Serjeant-at-Law judging by his clothes and research suggests that he was active in the service of the Mortimers, who owned Pembridge at the time.  He is dressed in a fashionable buttoned tunic and mantle, turban-head-dress, belted cotehardy to knees, loose cloak, buttoned at right shoulder, dagger at side, feet on lion, with his wife wearing a rectangular head dress, hanging sleeves, buttoned cloak, feet on dog.  These probably date to around the 1380s according  to “English Church Monuments in the Middle Ages by Nigel Saul”.

The Gours of Marston

John Gour and his wife

We haven’t yet been able to put names to the women but are continuing to investigate.

Visitor Attraction through the centuries

It is not just modern visitors who have noticed and commented on the tombs; they have attracted attention of visitors throughout the years.

Richard Symonds,  visiting in June 1645, as he was travelling as part of the King’s army during the English Civil War wrote:

South window, chancel:

Under this window, upon two low altar tombes of playne stone, lye the four bodyes of men and their wives, ad hane formam, old: This is observable, for never afore have I seene a thing of that age (unles a churchman) without armor. The other is of another fashioned habitt, not so observable, in a kind of a long robe, without any thing on his head.The inhabitants say they were in memory of the Gowres of Worcestershire.

Thomas Dingley in book History from Marble Compiled in the Reign of Charles II actually sketched the tombs.


Thomas Dingley’s sketch of the tombs

Thomas Blount a local historian in 1675 wrote:

PEMBRIDGE. ” Within the church are two chapels or  chancels ; one called Marston Chapel : the other belongs to the Lochards. In the first are two ancient monuments of man and wife (as drawn by Dingley in p. cclii.) said to be Gours former lords of Marston, which now belongs to Monington of Sarnefield. In the window, a lyon rampant gules. Williams. Monington.”

It is interesting to note that Richard Symonds describes them as being under the south window, Thomas Blunt saw them in one of the side chapels,rather than the north window as they are now. Old drawings and photographs of the church show that these tombs have been moved around the church over the centuries, maybe only coming to their most recent resting place in the 20th century.


The tombs in the north west corner of the church


The tombs in Pembridge church



Dating the Church

Pembridge Church is a major feature in Pembridge but the building that is there now, was not the original church.

It is likely the church of St Mary’s, Pembridge, was founded some time after 1086, as no church was mentioned in the Domesday book. From a reference in the 13th century chronicle of Wigmore Abbey, it would appear that the present church of St Mary was established on its present site by the early 1140s and that it was already the administrative centre of a rural deanery.

The 12th Century church must have been quite large as the chancel was a similar size to the current one, as the remains of some of the 12th century stone work can be seen in the walls.

A stone mason's mark from Pembridge Church

A stone mason’s mark from Pembridge Church

The present church was probably built in the early 14th century. Originally it was thought that it was built over a number of years, possibly delayed by the Black Death. However research into the mason’s marks by Peter Klein suggests the opposite – that the church was built over a period of four years.

So the next question is which four years? The rebuilding of  the church has been dated to the late 1320s by Morriss, due to the style of the architecture, with the impressive Decorated interior.

But can this be narrowed down any further?

The Mortimer Coat of Arms, taken from the tomb of Blanche Mortimer

The Mortimer Coat of Arms, taken from the tomb of Blanche Mortimer

The stained glass in the windows of the west aisle of the church, described by Silas Taylor in the mid 17th century, originally contained crests of three families; Mortimer, Geneville and Grandson. There is only one event that connects these three families, the marriage of Blanche Mortimer, daughter of Roger Mortimer and Joan de Geneville, to Sir Peter Grandison. This took place in early 1330, probably in Pembridge.

Could this have been in the newly built church?

It does suggest that the building work was completed around this date.

Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March was a powerful lord who owned the manor of Pembridge as well as Wigmore, Ludlow, large parts of the the rest of the country and some estates in Ireland. He was married in the Pembridge, in 1301 to Joan de Geneville. He rose in power, but in 1322, took part in the Marcher Lords rebellion against King Edward II, and was locked up in the Tower of London and his wife was also imprisoned in Hampshire. Roger escaped and fled to France, where he met up with Edward’s wife, Queen Isabella. Together they returned to England and deposed Edward II.

I don’t know when Roger and Joan met after Roger returned to England, however it is known that they were reunited November, 1326 at Pembridge.  Was this when building work began on the church? It is unlikely that work took place prior to this as Roger’s estates were forfeited to the crown while he was in exile, but after his return he started a program of building work, including at nearby Ludlow castle and at Wigmore. Roger Mortimer did not survive long to see the results of this building work. In October 1330 he was taken prisoner by Edward III, tried for treason and executed. He lands were forfeited to the crown and it would be unlikely that his crest would have been placed in stained glass windows after this date.

This gives us a suggested period of 1326 – 1330 for building Pembridge church, however more research needs to be done to find documentary evidence confirm this.