Part 2. Tong College and Church

This page describes part of the contents of the Discovering Tong book including selected extracts from the book.

Chapter 6. Tong College

Arthur Vernon Brass
Brass of Sir Arthur Vernon in the Vernon Chantry.

If you have visited medieval cathedrals you will often find a monastic style building adjoining it. As well as serving the church, the chaplains of the college served the local community. Tong, Shropshire was one of the relatively few collegiate churches that was established in the fifteenth century.

“The massive increase in sudden deaths led to a great desire to pray for the dead. The Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403 led to the establishment of Battlefield College, with 8 clergy to pray for the souls of those, who died in that massive slaughter. There were different sorts of Colleges; some provided singers for cathedrals; some were attached to hospitals; some included academic institutions; and others (like Tong) were Chantries. Part of this was a reaction against Monasteries; the monasteries had developed great wealth, and people became suspicious of their increasing power. So the rich became more inclined to endow their own Colleges and Chantries, to pray for the dead and to provide education for the community.”

Plan of Tong College drawn in 1911
Ground plan of the college drawn in 1911 based on parch marks in the field to the south of the Church.

Tong College, a victim of Henry VIII's dissolution in 1546, provided Tong with tuition, pastoral and heath care as well as a source of employment. Chapter 6 documents the busy lives of the chaplains at the college.

“Payment was made for work done. The Parochial Chaplain and the Schoolmaster received additional payments. Those, who failed to attend services, were fined halfpence a time. The College building must have been quite big; meals were eaten in a common refectory. All talk had to be in a subdued tone. The door was locked at night, and the Warden kept the key. A Steward or Cellarer was appointed to deal with provisions. There are rules for entertaining visitors: 'The brothers are to abstain, as far as they can, from the introduction of strangers that the ground of distraction may be cut away as much as can be done honourably.'

The college was supported financially by endowments of land, which were located locally in Lapley and Wheaton Aston, but also further afield in Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire. The college clearly prospered:

“The accounts for 1437 and 1440 reveal that the College was employing five farm servants. By this time, it was providing enough corn, meat, and dairy products to meet all the requirements of the community. In 1438, the College was able to sell surplus rye and wool. In 1432, they had 92 sheep and 30 stones of wool were sold. By 1441, the amount of wool went up to 39 stones. There was a vineyard situated to the south east of the College.

A group of five or six clergy at Tong would not have been unusual at this time. In 1500, the population of England was 2 million, and there were 23,500 clergy. Every resident in Tong would have been, in some way, connected to the Castle and the College. So here was a compact, and self sufficient community. ”

On the dissolution of Tong College in 1546 the building and its lands passed to Richard Vernon and James Woolriche before passing on to William Pierrepont with the rest of the Tong Estate.

College served as almshouses for a while before it was demolished by George Durant as part of his landscaping in 1765. Alan Wharton excavated the college in 1981. It lies in the field to the south of the Church just clippedby the A41 bypass of Tong village.

See also : Tong College plan

Chapter 7. Tong Church

Tong Church
St. Mary and St. Bartholomew's Church, Tong

The history of an English village is often brought to life by studying the church.

The present Tong Church and College were founded by Dame Isabel Pembrugge with the existing church and college at Shottesbrooke Berkshire in mind as the model. There is evidence of an earlier Norman stone church at Tong, and the present church includes a fragment of an early tomb in its north wall. The current Church building of 1406 has only been amended for the housing of the Great Bell and the addition of the Vernon Chantry in 1510. The Victorian restoration of 1892 was carried out sensitively, restoring rather than rebuilding.

“There are many descriptions of Tong Church. The earlier ones help us to see what happened at the Victorian restoration. Archdeacon Cranage wrote his description, just after its restoration. He describes it as 'a most interesting building' of 'perpendicular character', and admires the restoration work. There is an octagonal central Tower, and within it rises the central spire altered by Sir Henry Vernon, so that it could contain the Great Bell of Tong. Above it, are six bells, and a Sanctus Bell. The bells are rung from the middle of the church. Ringing is not easy, because the floor slopes from the east to the west end. The slope may be due to the bedrock, but some have thought it was constructed to enable the Church to be cleaned easily. Water poured out at the East end would automatically run to the West.”

Lily Crucifix misericord
The college warden's stall seat.

Chapter 7 takes us on a tour of the church describing many of its unique features. For example concerning the fine, original carved stalls in the chancel :

“The return stall seat, for the College Warden, has an Annunciation scene with a lily in the centre with a crucifix emerging from it. This design reflects a long tradition that Jesus' crucifixion took place on the anniversary of the Annunciation. This demonstrates that Mary and Jesus share a common suffering. There are very few depictions left since the Reformation and Tong is unique in being on a misericord.

The fifth stall on the south side is of special interest. This is the only stall, with carving rather than decoration, at the top. On the right hand side is an angel, holding a shield on which are signs of the passion. This represents a typical form of devotion of the time. On the left is a face, (possibly a 'Veronica') which is very like the one on the Turin Shroud. Beneath both is an heraldic bird. The bird is that of the de Weston crest, which can be seen in the neighbouring Church at Weston-under-Lizard. In that Church are two tombs of de Westons. They were crusaders, and members of the Knights Templar . At one time, the Knights Templar claimed to posses the Turin Shroud , and they had a devotion to the face of Christ. On the seat below is the carving of a Green Man . So the whole stall becomes a meditation on faces.”

The tomb of the foundress Isabel Pembrugge is associated with a local custom. On Midsummer's Day roses are placed on her tomb. The custom dates as far back as 1200 when the flowers were placed by an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

“So a custom over 200 years old, continued into the new church. But at the Reformation, the statue of Our Lady would have been removed, and so the roses came to the other lady, who was lying near the Lady Chapel. The custom still continues today. Such customs were common practice. In 1316, John de Tong was granted land by Robert de Prees; the rent was a rose on Midsummer's Day. In 1353 there was a grant by John Byschop of 3 pieces of land at Tong Norton, with a similar arrangement. Another grant was conditional on the exchange of three arrows with goose feathers.”

Tong Church has splendid monuments to six generations of the Vernon family, including the remarkable Chantry (or 'Golden') Chapel.

“The whole Chantry is remarkable with its fan vaulting ceiling, which was originally painted in green, red and gold. The vaulting is very like that in the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey. The size of the Tong Chapel is much smaller, what could be achieved is restricted. It is the only surviving piece of medieval fan vaulting in Shropshire. On the east wall are the remains of a rood painting. Some of the colour is still quite bright. Underneath is an inscription requesting prayers for Henry Vernon and his family. On the west wall, there is a hollow bust of Arthur Vernon, depicted in a pulpit, preaching. On the floor is a fine brass of Arthur Vernon dressed as an Oxford M.A. Arthur was Henry's third son, tutor to Prince Arthur and subsequently Rector of Whitchurch.”

Anne Wylde
The monument to Anne Wylde in the Chancel.

There are also memorials to the Stanleys, Anne Wylde, Henry Willoughby, William Skeffington, Elizabeth Pierrepont, Charles Buckeridge, Daniel Higgs and the Durants. All these are described in the book.

In the churchyard there are notable memorials to the Reid Walkers, the Hartleys, the Chrysom's churchyard and more of the Durants. Details of the Victorian restoration describes some worrying actions which would now be considered tantamount to vandalism:

“The Victorians thought that mediaeval churches were meant to have stone walls. They were not. The mention of colour on the wall is disturbing, and it hints that there may have been murals of some sort. Griffiths says that there was a small patch of an ancient mural.”

For an online tour of Tong church please visit this page.

Chapter 8. The Treasures of Tong

The Great Bell of Tong
The Great Bell of Tong.

Most villages have accumulated a few objects of interest and value over the centuries. Tong has more than its fair share, Chapter 8 describes them. Tong boasts a Great Bell installed by order of Sir Henry Vernon - the largest in Shropshire taking three people to toll it. After damage in the Civil War and again in 1848 it was last recast at the time of the church restoration in 1892. There are rules restricting when it can be tolled.

“The booming of the Great Bell echoes all over the village. Thus it tells part of the Village story. To this day, a member of the Vernon family, or of the Royal Family does visit occasionally. The tolling of the Bell is a sign of continuity, over five centuries.”

The belfry also has a peal of six bells and a Sanctus bell. In the Chancel is a rare Easter Sepulchre . The vestry used to house a large 'Minister's Library' founded at the end of the seventeenth century and at one time containing 409 rare and valuable books.

“When the Duke built the Vicarage, the Library was moved from the Castle. But because of absentee Vicars, it was moved into the Church Vestry and a fireplace installed. George Durant (II), and the Revd T. Buckeridge, added some other books. During the 1892 restoration the Vicar checked the volumes against Botfield's Catalogue. He discovered that it contained 409 books, of which 89 were missing. There were 70 books not included in the Catalogue. Having found some volumes from the Library in a second-hand book cart in Wolverhampton, Auden did a further check. Clearly pilfering was rife.”

Robert Jeffery
The author Robert Jeffery holding the Tong Cup.

Dame Elinor Harries donated a number of treasures: a pulpit fall; the pulpit itself; a silver ewer but most significantly the Tong Cup. The Tong Cup was originally ascribed to the workmanship of Holbein - made in silver gilt holding a rock crystal 'cup'. It is now attributed to Dierick Lookermans from about 1611. It has always been greatly admired and now takes pride of place in the Treasury of Lichfield Cathedral . See also: Tong Cup.

“There is a crack in the crystal. This was caused by the Vicar of Donnington, who dropped it on the floor, when he was shown it by his fellow incumbent. The same notebook, which describes that incident, also records that, following a family baptism from Weston Park, the Earl of Bradford asked to borrow the Cup, in order to show it to his friends and relatives. The notebook continues 'Thirty years later the Vicar of Tong went up to Weston Park with his son to demand it back'.”

Chapter 9. Of Clerics and Clerks

George Boden
George Boden, notable Parish Clerk who promoted the Little Nell story.

The clergy offer more than just pastoral care of a parish, they were often the eyes and ears of the Lord of the Manor who until quite recently appointed them. Many were not resident in the village, their work being carried out by curates that the parson appointed. For many years attendance at church was compulsory, for it was as a condition of the tenancy agreement, with a fine payable for non-attendance.

Chapter 9 documents the lives of all the known priests of Tong Church and also what is known of the Parish Clerks who often acted as the link between the parson and the community. The earliest well documented appointed priests are from the period of the Civil War and had a difficult time:

“Robert Hilton was Vicar of Lapley in 1638, but he was ejected from there in 1647. William Pierrepont appointed him to Tong in 1650. This was an act of kindness in those troubled times. Hilton ran a school at Tong. His successor at Lapley (who was removed in 1660) complained that "he did not get his arrears from 1647-9". (This relates to glebe income, or fees). He also complained that he had an order to pay Mrs Hilton, (even though her husband was Vicar of Tong) and that it was unfair that Hilton also held the Sutton (Stretton) Chapelry, in Staffordshire. In 1660 Hilton was re-instated at Lapley. These events demonstrate the way some clergy tried to survive, during the Commonwealth period. Many depended on kind patrons to help them out.”

George Rivett-Carnac was one of the more colourful incumbents as he was a famous sportsman:

“George Rivett-Carnac was educated at Harrow School, Cambridge, and Chichester Theological College. He was a considerable sportsman. He played ice hockey, and cricket. On one occasion in 1875, playing for Priory Park against the South of England, he bowled out W. G. Grace for 0, and his brother G. F. Grace for 2 in the same over. He served curacies in Norfolk and Kew, and was at Tong for eight years (1882-90). He had two subsequent livings. He inherited a Baronetcy in 1898, and died in 1932. He was married to the granddaughter of the rural poet, George Crabbe.”

Of the parish clerks Robert Jeffery reports one incident concerning William Woolley a member of the local family of clockmakers:

“A little later, William Woolley was Parish Clerk. He was also a clockmaker, and lived at Tong Hill. Woolley was dismissed from his post, after a visiting preacher complained that there was no mirror in the vestry. Woolley called him 'a confounded cockscomb'. George Durant (II) subsequently provided a mirror.”

To find out more about Tong please buy a copy of the Discovering Tong book; the profits from the sale of the book will go towards maintaining Tong Church.

For information about the excavation carried out on the Tong College site, please visit our Excavation pages.

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