I am currently working on a DPhil thesis which looks at pilgrimage writings produced by two Germans and two Englishmen towards the end of the long fifteenth century. I am reading these texts as literature, and considering what they have to tell us about identity and experience. The German writers are Bernhard von Breydenbach and Arnold von Harff; the English writers are William Wey and the anonymous chaplain of Sir Richard Guylforde.
At the beginning of this year, my husband and I decided to make a winter pilgrimage to some of Kent’s medieval heritage which we hadn’t seen before, and we began with New Romney. New Romney was once on the coast – in fact it is one of the original Cinque Ports. These days it’s a mile from the sea, although apparently there is still a mooring ring to be seen in front of the church (we couldn’t find it ourselves). One of the more obvious markers of the town’s past is that the church is several feet below the current level of the pavement thanks to the silt left behind by the storms in 1287.
The Norman church is well worth a visit, and while we were there, we met a very friendly church warden who told us some of the church’s history. This, though, is all by way of introduction. Our plan had been to go on from New Romney to the isolated church of St Thomas Becket at Fairfield:
But we didn’t make it to Fairfield. While reading the leaflet in New Romney church about the medieval churches of Romney Marsh, something else caught my eye: the Church of St Mary, East Guldeford. According to the leaflet, it had been built by Sir Richard de Guldeford and consecrated in 1505. Now, it’s not much exaggeration to say that, in the past, words could be spelt in almost any way that suited the writer’s mood. Since that’s no longer the case, I have to be careful to spell ‘pilgrimage’ with ‘i’ and not ‘y’. But as much as that’s clearly a superior spelling, it’s also beside the point. The point is that this church was founded by Sir Richard Guylforde, the account of whose pilgrimage had been written by his unnamed priest. So then we had to decide what to do with the remaining light: Fairfield or East Guldeford. East Guldeford won.
Sir Richard Guylforde/ Guildford/ de Guldeford (all pronounced ‘Guildford) was fascinating long before he went to the Holy Land. He was attainted following the failure of Buckingham’s rebellion in 1483, and joined the future King Henry VII in exile. It proved to be an excellent career move. Guylforde was knighted at Milford Haven, and received various advantages over the next few decades, amongst them a seat on the King’s Privy Council. He was also given the right to the coastal marshland upon which East Guldeford was built. Unfortunately, despite Guylforde’s land-holdings and important positions, he frequently found himself in debt, most disastrously in the early years of the sixteenth century. His debt, combined with a feud with Lord Bergavenny, led Henry to agree to remove him from office, and it is likely that he avoided prosecution by going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He never returned. As his chaplain writes:
bothe my mayster and mayster Pryor of Gysborne were sore seke, therefore with grete dyffyculte and outragyous coste we purueyed camellys for them and certayne Mamolukes to conducte theym in safty to Jherusalem, whiche intreated vs very euyll, and toke moche more for theyr payne thenne theyr couenaunt was
(Ellis, p. 17)
Both Guylforde and the Prior died shortly afterwards.
And this same Sonday at nyght, aboute .j. or .ij. of the cloke at after mydnyght, my M. syr Ric. Guylford, whom God assoyle, disceased, and was had ye same mornynge to Mounte Syon afore daye.
And the same Monday, our Ladyes euen, ye Natiuite, all the pylgrymes come to Mounte Syon, to the buryenge of my sayde Master Guylford, where was done by the freres as moche solempne seruyce as myght be done for hym
(Ellis, p. 40).
Guylforde’s pilgrimage ended in September 1506, but his church is still there. It’s tiny. It’s in the middle of a field, and we drove past it three times before we could work out where to turn off. Guylforde received faculty to build it in 1499, and it was consecrated in September 1505 by Richard FitzJames, Bishop of Chichester and Warden of Merton College – which felt like a nice coincidence. The consecration took place several months before Guylforde left on his pilgrimage, and presumably in the midst of his legal woes. When we arrived, there was no one around. The door of the church wouldn’t open, so we settled for walking around the outside, and peering through the keyhole. Then I made one last attempt, and the door opened. Much of the church has been altered since the beginning of the sixteenth century, but it repays a visit. It was particularly atmospheric at the turn of the year, when we had it to ourselves. The anonymous account of his short pilgrimage and this remote church, far from Jerusalem where he was buried, are what remains of Sir Richard Guylforde.
For further information on Sir Richard Guylforde and his church, see:
The Pylgrymage of Sir Richard Guylforde to the Holy Land, A.D. 1506, ed. by Henry Ellis (London: Camden Society, 1851) (available online)
Richard Guildford, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Sussex Parish Churches: East Guldeford St Mary