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Not so sleepy Chideock

Ally Stratford looks at one Dorset village’s turbulent history and the strong Catholic influence which is still evident there today

Outskirts of Chideock.Dorset
Humps and hollows betray the position of Sir John’s castle on the outskirts of the village

There are many picturesque and sleepy villages in Dorset, but they may not have always been this quiet. Halfway between Bridport and Lyme Regis, the A35 slices through one such village, Chideock, known as Cidihoc in the Domesday Book 900 years ago. Don’t assume that nothing ever happened in Chideock – this was staunch Roman Catholic country and most of its history is centred around its manor, its castle and the parish of St Giles.

The magnificent black marble tomb in the parish church of St Giles- Chideock.Dorset
The magnificent black marble tomb in the parish church of St Giles

Give or take the main road, Chideock is one of Dorset’s most beautiful villages, with an abundance of thatched buildings. Until the 13th century the manor was owned by the de Mandeville family, who had close connections with Whitchurch Canonicorum, after which it came into the de Bridport family. Geoffrey de Bridport and his wife, Margery (daughter of Thomas le Bretton of Chideock), had a son, John Gervase, who inherited when he was just seven years old. John went on to have two sons, John and Nicholas, and they adopted the surname of Chideock. John Chideock inherited the manor and was the father of Sir John Chideock, Sheriff of Dorset, who was succeeded by another Sir John.

In 1380 French ships raided the then village of Weymouth while the inhabitants were at Mass. Fearing that the same would happen to Chideock, Sir John obtained a Royal licence to fortify the manor estate. He died in 1387, leaving his son, yet another Sir John, to complete the building of the castle. This Sir John Chideock was a gallant knight and soldier; he may also have been the subject of the effigy in black marble which is a prominent feature of the parish church of St Giles. The other candidate for that honour is Sir John Arundell of Lanherne, in Cornwall, who came by marriage to the castle and manor in the 15th century.

Chideock Manor, built by the Welds in 1810- Chideock.Dorset
Chideock Manor, built by the Welds in 1810

The stage for the atrocities that were to come was unwittingly set by Pope Pius V in 1570, when he excommunicated Queen Elizabeth and forbade Roman Catholics to recognise her government. In retaliation it was made a treasonable offence for any Roman Catholic priest to be in England and any lay follower of the Papacy was open to prosecution as a potential traitor. Despite the danger, many priests remained in or visited England in secret and were kept hidden by prominent families of their faith, of whom the Arundells were one.

The first Dorset martyrdoms took place in the 1590s. Thomas Pilchard, born at Battle in Sussex, an Oxford Master of Arts and Fellow of Balliol College, fled from England to study at the English College at Rome and later returned under cover to act as chaplain to the Arundell family. For two years he was kept hidden in the castle with two companions, John Jessop and William Pike, at the end of which time their presence was discovered and all three were taken to Dorchester. Jessop died in prison but Pilchard and Pike were hanged, drawn and quartered.

In the next atrocity, four lost their lives. John Cornelius (also known as Mohun) was born of Irish parents at Bodmin in Cornwall, on the estate of Sir John Arundell of Lanherne, in 1557. Sir John Arundell took an interest in the talented boy and sent him to Oxford. Not satisfied with the new religion taught there, John Cornelius went to the great ‘seminary of martyrs’, then at Rheims, and later entered the English College, Rome, to pursue his theological studies. After his ordination he was sent as a missionary to England. While acting as chaplain to Lady Arundell, he was betrayed by a faithless servant, arrested at Chideock Castle on 24 April 1594 by the Sheriff of Dorsetshire and suffered the extreme penalty at Dorchester with John Terence Carey, Patrick Salmon and Thomas Bosgrave.

John Cornelius was accused of high treason because he was a priest and had returned to England; the others were charged with felony for having rendered assistance to one whom they knew to be a priest, but all were assured that their lives would be spared if they embraced Protestantism. They were martyred at Dorchester on 4 July 1594. A later chaplain of the castle, Hugh Green, made an effort to escape, but was arrested on Lyme Cobb and executed.

It seems that Chideock was an exciting place to be in the Civil War, the castle changing hands on several occasions. In 1643 Captain Thomas Pyne captured it for Parliament, taking fifty prisoners. The following year the Royalists, under Major General Holborne, re-took it and held it for seven months. In 1645 Parliamentarians from Lyme stormed the stronghold and captured one hundred prisoners, thirty horses, three barrels of powder, plus arms, ammunition and provisions. The Roundheads ordered the destruction of the castle and the Governor of Lyme Regis sent in a bill for £1 19s 0d for its total demolition.

Thirteen owners of land in Chideock – six Anglicans and seven Roman Catholics – had their estates forfeited as a result of their staunch defence of the castle. For a time during the Civil War, General Fairfax, the Parliamentary Commander-in-Chief, had his headquarters in what today is Chideock House Hotel.

The Weld mausoleum, next to the parish church- Chideock.Dorset
The Weld mausoleum, next to the parish church

Towards the east end of the village on the north side of the main road is Ruins Lane, a short track which leads up to Ruins Field, where one will find the site of Chideock Castle. All that remains today are earthen mounds and trenches. The castle was supplied with water by leaden pipes from a spring which rises at the foot of Quarry Hill. The signboard to the old Castle Inn (now a B&B establishment) used to give an indication of its original form; it was a copy of an original draft, made in 1733 and showing the castle gates. The great gate of Chideock Castle survived until the 18th century but then gradually the remaining stones were taken for building the cottages and farm buildings in the village.

The Martyrs' Cross with the village behind (left), and its commemorative plaque - Chideock.Dorset
The Martyrs’ Cross with the village behind (left), and its commemorative plaque
commemorative plaque Chideock.Dorset

The Martyrs’ Cross was erected to the memory of the Catholic priests who refused to conform to the new Established Church and were consequently taken and butchered. It stands in the centre of the castle remains. Chideock Manor, however, was returned to the Arundells after restoration and they retained it until the early 19th century, when it became the property of the Welds,
by now Dorset’s leading Roman Catholic family. The present manor house was built in about 1810 for Humphrey Weld. The Roman Catholic church next door to the manor house, dedicated to Our Lady of the Martyrs and St Ignatius, was designed in romanesque yet highly original style in 1870-72 by Charles Weld. His descendants lived in the present Manor House until recently, so only three families held the tenure of the Manor of Chideock for over 650 years. Charles Weld also built the mausoleum next to the parish church.

Inside the church of Our Lady of the Martyrs and St Ignatius - Chideock.Dorset
Inside the church of Our Lady of the Martyrs and St Ignatius

A fairly large minority of Chideock people have remained Roman Catholic. They used to have their own village school and so did the Church of England, but sadly both have gone now. Children have to go to the school in Symondsbury and the nearest Roman Catholic school is three miles away in Bridport. Time may appear to stand still in Chideock, but there is a lot of history lurking underneath those thatched roofs and many landmarks to remind us of the village’s intriguing past.

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