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North Mymms - Parish and People
by Dorothy Colville

Chapter 5 - The Amber Tankard

Many ancient churches possess unusual treasures, and North Mymms church is no exception, its unusual treasure being the unique 300-year-old amber tankard. Made in Nuremberg in 1659, its eight panels of amber are set in straps of silver gilt. The panels are carved in low relief with figures symbolic of the virtues, lively animals decorate rim and base, and St. George and the dragon appear on the lid. Only one other tankard of nearly like design and workmanship is known to exist, and that has the vices where the North Mymms tankard has the virtues.

The Rev. G. Staunton Batty, vicar from 1880 until 1911, left a description of the figures carved on the amber panels. They are (1) Industry with distaff, (2) Faith with cross and chalice, (3) Fortitude with column, (4) Justice with sword and scales, (5) Charity with children, (6) Hope with anchor, (7) Temperance with ewer and goblet, (8) Innocence with book and lamb.

This unique tankard was left to the church by Dame Lydia Mews, who died in 1751. She rented North Mymms Place from the Duke of Leeds, whose family were its owners from 1685 until 1799. She was the fourth daughter of George Jarvis, of Islington, and became the wife of Sir Peter Mews, M.P. for Christchurch, Hampshire, and chancellor of the diocese of Winchester. She was born in 1676 and her will was made when she was about fifty years old. Dame Lydia had no children of her own, but she was probably a "favourite aunt" and a kindly lady to all if we believe the inscription on the memorial which her nephew, Benjamin Clerke, erected on the north wall of the church.

By her will Dame Lydia left a large charity to the poor of the parish, the amber tankard to the church and exact instructions as to her burial. This was not a whim, nor was it sentiment. As the wife of a Member of Parliament one would expect her to have had respect for the laws of the land, but, like so many wealthy people of her day she objected to being buried "in woollen," therefore she stated which of her nightdresses was to be used for her burial.

All through the Middle Ages wool had been England’s chief export, bringing wealth to Church and State alike. Many of the magnificent churches of Suffolk and of the Cotswolds were built by wealthy wool merchants, and even today the Lord Chancellor sits on a woolsack in the House of Lords, a reminder of the days when wool was our chief source of wealth. After the Hundred Years War and the final loss of Calais in Mary Tudor’s reign the wool trade with Flanders grew less and less until in 1666 an Act of Parliament was introduced decreeing burial in woollen as an "encouragement of the woollen manufactures of the kingdom and prevention of the exportation of money for the buying and importing of linen."

A special register of "burials in woollen" was to be kept and a penalty for disobedience imposed. The penalty, a fine of £5, was to be divided equally between the poor of the parish and whoever informed that the burial was not in woollen. Although the Act was not repealed until 1814 it had fallen into abeyance long before that time. The North Mymms register for burials in woollen dates from 1679 to 1749 and is now at the County Record Office. Dame Lydia did not die until 1751, but one has the feeling that her nephew, Benjamin, would have respected her wishes had she died earlier and her name would not have appeared in the register as having been buried in "woollen."

Two other clauses in the will of this interesting, strong-minded lady are part of the history of the parish. The large sum of £200 left to be invested and the interest to be spent on buying bread for "distribution on Sunday to such poor as attend Divine Service at the Church of this parish" was faithfully observed. Her "bread charity," with those of Mistress Anne Hunter and Miss Holmes, was dispensed regularly until 1932, when all the charities were consolidated with the approval of the Charity Commissioners and the funds used in other useful ways.

The story of the amber tankard, however, is very different. The original use of the tankard was as a beer mug, and although Dame Lydia’s executors were instructed to see that it stood upon the altar of the church it is doubtful if this was ever carried out. Usually it was kept in a safe place and only brought out to show to important visitors, though it would seem that it did at some time receive rough treatment, for in 1806 the churchwardens paid £2/l/- for repairs.

The years went by, until at the end of the nineteenth century the tankard became "news." The bells needed repairs - nothing had been done to them since Briant, the famous bell-founder of Hertford, had rehung them in 1806 - and the question arose of where to get the money for the needed repairs. The suggestion was put forward that the sale of the tankard would produce more than enough to repair the bells and the vicar, the Rev. G. S. Batty, wrote to the bishop, whose reply was as follows:

"My dear Batty, - You know my opinion about the tankard. I don’t believe the donor gave it in order to save the pockets of those who desire to rehang the bells, but I do not stand in the way of the case going to the chancellor by application for a faculty. So please do not think yourself bound to oppose the church-wardens’ idea. Let them do what they wish and think right. I thank you for your kind letter and your loyalty. Yours sincerely, J. W. Alban."

This was the Bishop’s second letter on the subject. His first, dated July 1899, indicated that he was opposed to the sale of the tankard.

Mr. Batty, however, bustled off to London, where he had a talk with the curator of the British Museum. He was shown the other tankard and he came home bursting with the news that our tankard was probably worth £400. The matter dragged on until the Easter vestry of 1901, when churchwarden Mr. Cotton Curtis, of Potterells, formally proposed the sale of the tankard and called a special meeting for April 24 to discuss the proposed sale.

The parish magazine for May 1901 reports as follows:

"The vestry meeting called for the 24th ult. to decide whether the amber tankard was to be submitted to the chancellor’s decision as to his permitting its sale to enable us to ring with safety our church bells proved rather a stormy one, but as it has been reported in the Herts Advertiser at length it is only needful to say that a poll has been arranged for Saturday the 4th inst. from five to eight in the afternoon, in order that each person who is on the list of parochial electors may freely give his own individual and independent opinion as to what he or she thinks advisable in the matter. May all uncharitableness, as we so often pray, be put entirely away from us and let us give one another credit for voting in the way our conscience and sense of right may direct us!"

By this time the news had found its way into the national press and the vicarage was visited by a constant stream of reporters and others, all anxious to see the tankard that was causing such a storm in a tea-cup. The vicar was apprehensive for the safety of the tankard, and his daughter, when recalling those days, wrote in 1965:

"My father was afraid it would be stolen and he used to bring it into the vicarage at night and place it in his bedroom. I know amber tankard thieves were a real fear when I was young. Now, there is a memorial to Lady Mews on the north wall of the church and in the midst of all this upheaval an urn from its top fell down and cracked the seat below. Some people said Lady Mews was angry at the thought of her gift being sold. Others said she wants to show that she knows that the bells and church need repairing, but this did not decide the controversy."

The June issue of the magazine tersely reports another stormy meeting: "The poll demanded at the vestry meeting, held on the 24th April, as to whether the sale of the amber tankard for repairs in the belfry should be submitted to the decision of the chancellor of the diocese, resulted in a very decisive opinion against the adoption of such a course, the number being 36 for and 103 against it. The amber tankard remains, therefore, the property of the church."

But the bells still needed repairing and an appeal was launched for voluntary subscriptions. To make the appeal topical and attractive it was launched as a "memorial" to Queen Victoria, who had died on January 22. The money was raised, the bells were repaired and a little brass tablet, costing £6/1/6, bought from the Army and Navy Stores is the only tangible memorial North Mymms has to Victoria’s long and glorious reign.

As so much anger and dissension had been caused among the parishioners, and as the amber tankard was a very valuable piece of property which was never used in the way its donor, Dame Lydia Mews, had desired, the vestry consented to the tankard being offered on permanent loan to the British Museum. It is safer there and many more people can enjoy the beauty of it than would be the case were it always at home in North Mymms.

A glance up at the little urn which tops Dame Lydia’s memorial will show that that part nearest the wall is chipped and removal of the cushion on the seat below will show the crack made so many years ago - proofs, if needed, of a little story disclosed so short a time ago.

Dorothy Colville, 1971

Chapter 6 - Silver Treasure
Index - North Mymms Parish and People

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