Uncovering the secret history under Hertfordshire

PUBLISHED: 06:53 11 January 2011

WHO hasn't wandered through a churchyard and wondered about the life of the person whose name and dates are on the headstone?

Even the simplest words and the smallest amount of detail can tell a story and Hertfordshire is particularly rich in interesting headstones in memory of the great and the good – as well as the not so good.

St Albans writer and social historian Margaret Ward has taken her fascination with the subject further by travelling across the county with her notebook and camera and learning more about some of the names that have caught her eye.

The result of her investigations is Hertfordshire: Who Lies Beneath, a book which casts an eye over some of the most interesting headstones in Herts and the stories which go with them.

Margaret commented: “Discovering other people’s stories is a fascinating pastime – sometimes amusing, sometimes moving.”

One such fascinating character is the man buried in Harpenden under the assumed name of Count de Voilemont.

He was actually the Baroness de Esterhazy, the villain of the Dreyfus case which rocked France in the late 19th Century. An embittered army man who had done some work for military intelligence, he fell into debt and used his talent for the German language to trade information with that country’s military authorities, including details of new developments in French artillery.

His espionage had serious consequences and when a scapegoat needed to be found in 1894, a Jewish soldier named Alfred Dreyfus was accused of betraying his country and was sent to the notorious Devil’s Island.

Evidence of Esterhazy’s guilt began to emerge but the authorities preferred to believe that Dreyfus was responsible. By the time he was cleared of the charge in 1906, Esterhazy was living in Harpenden where he died in 1923.

He had taken the name count Jean de Violement and his gravestone reads: “He has outsoared the shadow of our night.”

St Albans’ Protestant martyr, George Tankerfield, is commemorated by a triangular-shaped stone in Romeland in the shadow of the Abbey.

He was publicly burnt to death for his religious beliefs in 1555 at the site on which the stone sits as part of the authorities’ belief that his burning and those of other martyrs should be held in prominent places.

George was brought to the Cross Keys in St Albans from Newgate Prison where he was believed to have been tortured to get him to recant his beliefs. But he stayed firm to his faith right to the last, crying out to the crowd as he was tied to the stake not to believe the priest who even at the eleventh hour was trying to get him to repent his views.

Not too far away in St Michael’s Churchyard is the grave of Pc John Starkins whose mutilated body was found in a pond only a few weeks after joining the force.

Suspicion fell on labourer Jeremiah Carpenter but all the evidence was circumstantial. It did not stop the case coming to court but unsurprisingly the jury recorded a not guilty verdict.

But many years later it came to light that Carpenter’s wife had confessed to a local churchman that her husband had committed the murder and she, as a good wife, had remained silent. John Starkins was buried near his home in St Michael’s and the headstone put up by police.

Hertfordshire: Who Lies Beneath, is a cornucopia of such stories from all over the county and is published by Countryside Books at £7.99. It can be obtained at many booksellers, some local garden centres or directly from the publishers at www.countrysidebooks.co.uk

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