An Abbey and a sad tale

October 7th, 2023
Penny Hampson

A brief break from my writing this weekend when I visited Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire. Dorchester-on-Thames is a small town situated on the confluence of the River Thames and the River Thame. The abbey is beautiful building with its origins in 12th century. Little did I know the sad tale that this visit would lead me to.

Main entrance of Dorchester Abbey

The Abbey was built on the site of two Saxon cathedrals. Inside there are the remains of a medieval wall painting depicting the Crucifixion, some brasses, and an unusual effigy, all of which luckily survived Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Dorchester Abbey

I was particularly taken with the effigy, said to depict William de Valance the Younger, who died in 1282. Instead of being shown at repose, this effigy depicts the deceased knight in the act of drawing his sword. This is probably a reference to de Valance being a Crusader.

Effigy of William de Valance

Now here is the sad tale. On the floor of the People’s Chapel is another interesting and poignant memorial. It is dedicated to Sarah Fletcher aged twenty-nine, who died in 1799, a ‘martyr to excessive sensibility.’ I’ve done a little research and discovered that her ghost is alledged to haunt her home in nearby Clifton Hampden. Married to a sea captain, Mrs Fletcher is reported to have hanged herself from the curtain rail round her bed when she discovered that her husband was planning to marry another woman. Revealed as a potential bigamist, her husband, a known philanderer, fled to the West Indies.

Crucifixion scene medieval wall painting

At Mrs Fletcher’s inquest, the coroner concluded that her mind was deranged at the time of her death and gave a verdict of lunacy, which meant that her body could be given a Christian burial. At this period, it was usual for those who had taken their own lives to be denied burial on hallowed ground. So an act of clemency for a woman whose husband who had treated her badly.

View down the nave

It’s amazing what you can discover on one short trip. I’m looking forward to a second visit.

All photographs © Penny Hampson