17 September 2022

Losing my head with
kings, queens, bankers
and bars in Aylesbury

The King’s Head, off Market Square, is an old coaching inn in Aylesbury (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

The King’s Head and the Queen’s Head are neighbours in Aylesbury. Although Aylesbury supported Cromwell during the Civil War, the King’s Head got its name at least 200 years before Charles I lost his head. And so, I must wonder whether the Queen’s Head got its name after Anne Boleyn was beheaded.

These are two of the oldest pubs in this part of England, and my curiosity about their place in local history and tradition was enriched when I heard about links with the Ormond Butlers of Kilkenny Castle and that the Rothschild family once owned the King’s Head and also endowed a nearby literary club that doubles up as a wine bar.

The King’s Head, off Market Square, is one of the oldest coaching inns in the south of England. It is now owned by the National Trust and is a Grade II* Listed Building. It dates back to about 1455, but parts of the building are older, with cellars that may date back to the 13th century, and may have been part of the local friary.

James Butler (1359-1405), 3rd Earl of Ormonde, founded the Franciscan Friary or Greyfriars in Aylesbury in 1386. He also acquired Kilkenny Castle in 1391, and his monument rests in the north transept in Saint Mary’s Church, Aylesbury. The friary is remembered in the name of Friars Square Shopping Centre. The buildings of the King’s Head were adjacent and it is claimed they were used as lodgings for visitors to the friary.

An early royal visitor to the King’s Head is said to have been King Henry VI when he toured England with his new wife Margaret of Anjou in 1445 – a full ten years before the King’s Head boasts its foundation. Five stained-glass panes in the Great Hall commemorate interesting connections:

1, Edmund Beaufort (1406-1455), Duke of Somerset and a supporter of Henry VI in the War of the Roses.

2, King Henry VI (1421-1475).

3, William de la Pole (1396-1450), Duke of Suffolk, who arranged the marriage of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou.

4, Margaret of Anjou.

5, James Butler (1390-1452), 4th Earl of Ormond (the ‘White Earl’), son of the founder of Greyfriars and great-great-grandfather of Anne Boleyn.

The first written reference to the King’s Head is ten years after Henry VI’s supposed visit, in 1455, in a conveyance between William Wandeford, a London wool merchant, sold property in Aylesbury to Ralph Verney, a former master of the London Mercers’ Company. The documents, dated 18 December 1455, refer to the newly-built ‘Kyngeshede,’ as well as a cellar and shop, and cottages.

The Great Hall is the oldest standing structure on the site, dating back to the 1470s, and was built as a guest house by the Verney family, who lived at Claydon House.

Henry VIII declared Aylesbury the new county town of Buckinghamshire in 1529. It is thought he did so to curry favour with Thomas Boleyn, the father of Anne Boleyn, who owned Aylesbury Manor. According to local folklore, Henry then wooed Anne in the Solar Room above the Great Hall in the Kings Head in 1533.

Aylesbury played a key role in the Civil War, and the town supported the Parliamentarians against Charles I. It is claimed Oliver Cromwell stayed at the King’s Head in 1651 after the Battle of Worcester and received the thanks of Parliament in Market Square, although there is no evidence for this.

Local lore says the King’s Head was linked to churches in the town through a system of underground tunnels that were used also as escape routes by Royalist troops during the Civil War. However, there is no evidence of these tunnels.

Assize Courts sat in Gatehouse Chamber in the 17th century, and the judges who visited the King’s Head included the ‘hanging judge’ Judge George Jeffreys. From the mid-17th century on, the King’s Head thrived as a coaching inn. The front gateway is smaller than the rear gateway, which was made larger to accommodate the growing size of carriages.

Around 1750, innkeeper William Bell converted the cottages to accommodate stagecoaches, with room upstairs for his servants. The enclosure of the courtyard with additional stables provided stabling for about 30 horses.

The King’s Head was refurbished and redesigned by George Devey for the Rothschild family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Rothschild family acquired the King’s Head as a hotel in the 19th century and installed the bar. In the snug next to the bar is an example of Victorian era wallpaper that would once have covered the whole room.

The ceiling in the Gatehouse Chamber is the work of the Victorian architect George Devey (1820-1886), a forerunner of the arts and crafts school of design. Devey worked for the Rothschild estates throughout most of his career, and he was commissioned by the Rothschild family in the 1880s to refurbish and redesign the King’s Head, including inserting the oak panels in the dining room.

Devey was responsible for offsetting the front window to retain the view of the Market Square. He remodelled the ceiling in a mock Tudor style using some of the original beams, and moved the large mediaeval hearth from the Great Hall. It is etched with graffiti, possibly by Roundhead troops garrisoned there during the English Civil War.

After many years as a hotel and part of the Rothschild empire, the King’s Head was donated to the National Trust in 1925. The Farmers’ Bar within the King’s Head site is run by the Chiltern Brewery.

Local stories tell of three ghosts at the King’s Head, including the Grey Lady, a maid who fell to her death, a ghostly nun, and a tall man in a long black coat and top hat.

The Queen’s Head on Temple Square … does the name recall the beheaded Anne Boleyn? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

An alleyway next to the King’s Head took me to the Queen’s Head on Temple Square, which dates from the 1500s. It is a picturesque two-storey, part timber-framed and plastered, part brick building with an old tile roof and retains its original chimney at west end.

The Queen’s Head in Aylesbury claims to be the oldest Queen’s Head in England. At one time a pub sign at the Queen’s Head depicted the head of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII. After winning over Thomas Boleyn, a descendant of the Earls of Ormond, and making Aylesbury the country town of Buckinghamshire, Henry and a pregnant Anne were married in 1533.

But when Henry later turned his attention to Jane Seymour, Anne was beheaded. For many years her head served as the image on the sign at the Queen’s Head – though it no longer does.

Aylesbury Literary Club on Temple Street owes its origins to Lord Rothschild (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Further down Temple Street, Aylesbury Literary Club shares its premises at Nos 7-11 with the Temple Street Wine Bar. This interesting building began in 1879 when the Aylesbury Reading Rooms were founded by Sir Nathaniel Meyer de Rothschild (1840-1915), later Lord Rothschild. He owned much land and property in Aylesbury and across Buckinghamshire, including being the proprietor of the King’s Head.

The building was designed by George Devey, the same architect who was commissioned by Rothschild to refurbish and renovate the King’s Head.

The foundation stone of the Aylesbury Reading Rooms was laid by Lady de Rothschild in 1879, and as Lady Rothschild she returned to lay a second stone for the extension of the building in the two bays to the left in 1903.

Above the door an architraved and corniced recess bears the initials ‘NR’ enclosed by wreath bearing the Rothschild family motto, Concordia, Industria, Integrita. This has been a Grade II listed building since 1989.

A decorative window names it as ‘Aylesbury Literary Institution and Club.’ From the beginning, the objects of the club included ‘the promotion of social intercourse and the provision of refreshments.’
The club was formall known as Aylesbury Literary Institution and Club (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The association of the Rothschild family with the Vale of Aylesbury began with the second generation of the family to live in England. Three brothers – Lionel Nathan (1808-1879), Anthony Nathan (1810-1876) and Mayer Amschel (1818-1874) – began to buy up large tracts of land in the Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire countryside from the 1840s onwards.

Their extensive land holdings and social standing were such by the end of the 19th century that the Vale of Aylesbury was often referred to as ‘Rothschildshire’.

Sir Nathaniel Meyer de Rothschild, who owned the King’s Head and founded the literary club, was a son of Lionel Nathan Rothschild. He was the Liberal MP for Aylesbury (1865-1885), became a peer in 1885 and was Lord Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire (1889-1915).

He and his wife, Emma Louisa von Rothschild (1844-1935), who laid the literary club’s foundation stones, were double first cousins, sharing both sets of grandparents. They were married in 1867, and it was said to be a true love match. Their son Walter Rothschild was Conservative MP for Aylesbury (1899-1910), and later succeeded as 2nd Lord Rothschild in 1915.

After her husband died, Emma Rothschild continued to live at Tring Park until she died in 1935. One of the foundation stones she laid at the Literary Club bears the Biblical inscription ‘Wise men lay up knowledge’ (Proverbs 10: 14). But I still had a lot more to learn about Aylesbury.

The foundation stone laid by Emma Louisa de Rothschild in 1879 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Praying with USPG and the music of
Vaughan Williams: Saturday 17 September 2022

A prayer for the healing of the nations at Westminster Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today (17 September) recalls Hildegard (1179), Abbess of Bingen, with a Lesser Festival.

I am back in Stony Stratford after a few days in York following my ‘gamma knife’ or stereotactic radiosurgery in Sheffield earlier this week. Before today begins, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose music is celebrated throughout this year’s Proms season. In my prayer diary for these weeks I am reflecting in these ways:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, Reflecting on a hymn or another piece of music by Vaughan Williams, often drawing, admittedly, on previous postings on the composer;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

Harvest time in the fields in Calverton, near Stony Stratford (Photograph Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Hildegard was born in 1098 at Böckelheim in Germany. From her earliest years, she had a powerful, visionary life, becoming a nun at the age of 18. She was much influenced by her foster-mother, Jutta, who had set up the community and whom she succeeded as abbess in 1136.

Her visions of light, which she described as ‘the reflection of the Living Light’, deepened her understanding of God and creation, sin and redemption. They were, however, accompanied by repeated illness and physical weakness. About 20 years later, she moved her sisters to a new abbey at Bingen.

She travelled much in the Rhineland, founding a daughter house and influencing many, including the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. She was a pastor and teacher, seeing herself as a ‘feather on the breath of God.’ She wrote three visionary works, a natural history and a medical compendium. She died on this day in the year 1179.

Luke 8: 4-15 (NRSVA):

4 While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable: 5 ‘A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. 6 Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.’

When he said this, he called out, ‘Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.’

9 His disciples asked him what this parable meant. 10 He said, ‘The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that,

‘“though seeing, they may not see;
though hearing, they may not understand.”

11 ‘This is the meaning of the parable: the seed is the word of God. 12 Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. 14 The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. 15 But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.’


‘Dona nobis pacem’ with the Eastman-Rochester Chorus, the Eastman School Symphony Orchestra and Michaela Anthony, soprano

Today’s reflection: 6, ‘Dona nobis pacem’

For my reflections and devotions each day these few weeks, I am reflecting on and invite you to listen to a piece of music or a hymn set to a tune by the great English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

For these six days this week, I have been listening to Dona nobis pacem, a cantata for soprano and baritone soli, chorus and orchestra.

The oratorio falls into the six continuous sections or movements, and I am listening to these movements one-by-one in sequence each morning.

I am posting a full recording of the cantata each day, so each movement can be listened to in context, but each morning I am listening to the movements in sequence.

The six sections or movements are:

1, Agnus Dei

2, Beat! beat! drums! (Whitman)

3, Reconciliation (Whitman)

4, Dirge for Two Veterans (Whitman)

5, The Angel of Death (John Bright)

6, Dona nobis pacem (the Books of Jeremiah, Daniel, Haggai, Micah, and Leviticus, the Psalms, the Book of Isaiah, and Saint Luke’s Gospel)

This morning [17 September 2022], I conclude this series of reflections drawing on the music of Vaughan Williams as I listen to the sixth movement, ‘Dona nobis pacem.’

6, ‘Dona nobis pacem’

The fifth movement, ‘The Angel of Death,’ which I was listening to yesterday [16 September 2022], begins with the baritone soloist and a quote from John Bright’s speech in the House of Commons in 1855, in which he tried to prevent the Crimean War: ‘The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land ...’

Darkness seeps through the music, first quietly then with the dramatic interjection of Dona nobis pacem, which opens this final movement.

In this final movement, Vaughan Williams compiles a number of Biblical sayings urging communal action for peace. With the fearful news of the presence of the Angel of Death, the chorus bursts into another cry for peace.

The attraction these Biblical texts held for Vaughan Williams is puzzling to many. At Cambridge, Bertrand Russell described him as ‘the most frightful atheist.’ By the 1930s, the music critic Frank Howes (1891-1974), editor of the journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, described him as a ‘cheerful Christian agnostic.’ Yet much of the composer’s work throughout his life is concerned with the journey of the soul.

The movement opens with sombre quotes from the Book of Jeremiah, with the soprano and choir intervening with the plea, ‘Dona nobis pacem.’

But more trouble stalks the land: ‘We looked for peace, but no good came ...’ The snorting of Dan’s horses momentarily recalls the apocalyptic equine visions of Vaughan Williams’s earlier oratorio, Sancta Civitas (1923-1925).

The words of Jeremiah continue mournfully: ‘The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved ...’

The solo baritone is reassuring ‘O man, greatly beloved, fear not, peace be unto thee.’

Chorus basses intone the great text from Micah, almost every word a poem: ‘Nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’ The word spreads among all instruments and tongues in prospect of a New Jerusalem: bells ring out in a riotous succession of keys and peals.

The movement then continues with more optimistic texts, including a brief setting of the news of the angels at Christmas: Gloria in excelsis Deo, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will toward me.’ A phrase that sometimes is too familiar, is repeated, ringing with celebratory optimism.

It ends with a quiet coda of Dona nobis pacem, introduced by the soprano again, adding the choir to finish the piece. The soprano’s ‘Dona nobis pacem,’ floating hauntingly overhead, sounds a warning that we must heed, lest we revert and again sacrifice ‘righteousness and peace’ which ‘have kissed each other’ to war.

Her voice alone lingers at the end like a solitary ray of hope, a light in the night. The final message is optimistic. Grant us peace.

6,Dona Nobis Pacem

Dona nobis pacem.

We looked for peace, but no good came; and for a time of health, and behold trouble! The snorting of his horses was heard from Dan; the whole land trembled at the sound of the neighing of his strong ones; for they are come, and have devoured the land … and those that dwell therein …

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved …

Is there no balm in Gilead?; is there no physician there? Why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?

‘We looked for peace, but no good came’ … the Garden of Remembrance in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer (Saturday 17 September 2022):

The Collect:

Most glorious and holy God,
whose servant Hildegard, strong in the faith,
was caught up in the vision of your heavenly courts:
by the breath of your Spirit
open our eyes to glimpse your glory
and our lips to sing your praises with all the angels;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Merciful God,
who gave such grace to your servant Hildegard
that she served you with singleness of heart
and loved you above all things:
help us, whose communion with you
has been renewed in this sacrament,
to forsake all that holds us back from following Christ
and to grow into his likeness from glory to glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The theme in the USPG prayer diary this week has been ‘Holy Cross Day,’ and was introduced on Sunday with a prayer written by Naw Kyi Win, a final year undergraduate student at Holy Cross Theological College in the Church of Province of Myanmar.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

We pray for the people of Myanmar. May the forces of peace and freedom prevail over those of injustice. Let us pray for peace and prosperity for the people of Myanmar.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org