A little boy sashayed his way through the cemetery on his scooter. School was out for the day and English mums were walking their children home. A path winds sweetly through the many tombstones in the yard of the Great Saint Mary Church in Sawbridgeworth, England. The contrast between the excited voices of children happily processing their day with hand-holding moms and scattered tombstones covering centuries of village life was remarkable.
My sisters and I were spread out throughout the church yard looking for the name “Seymour” as a link to our past. This was the strand of our roots that brought us to this charming English village.
We trace our roots back to a Reverend John Seymour who lived in that area. He was born in 1535 and died October 22, 1605. The odds are slim that we would find tangible traces of someone who breathed their last in the early 17th century. Tombstones that date back more than 150 years were very difficult to read. I have found myself wishing on our ChurchandGraveyardTour that I had newsprint and a fat crayola crayon with which I could do gravestone rubbings. That would be the only way to decipher whose name is inscribed on the aged stones.
One local woman walked by me on the path and said, in her awesome Yorkshire accent, “It’s good to see some interest in this cemetery.” I’ve learned to tell our story to folks we encounter. I told her that four of us sisters were looking for the name of ancestors that might be buried in this shaded lawn. I don’t have to tell her that we are from the states. People know even before we open our mouths. This British mum was helpful. She told me to go knocking on the door of the vicarage because they would inevitably be there to let us in the church. If not, the phone numbers on the posted sign might connect me with someone who could let us in.
It was the phone calls that brought a response. Interestingly, the first call revealed that the senior pastor is on sabbatical this summer. So next I called the church secretary. It was off hours so dead end. But it gave the number of the Associate Pastor so I dialed up that number. Rev. Debbie answered, learned we were on the premises right now and wanted in right now. Graciously, as she grasped our intrusion on her day, she told me, ‘I can pop over right now, if you wish?” I love that British brogue! “That would be great,” I responded with gratitude.
In five minutes she was there, wearing her clergy collar and holding a serious set of keys. She wielded a classic “church key” that opened one set of doors that opened into a small breezeway. In front of us was a 15’ high wooden church door that she told us was 600 years old. “If this door could talk…”, I mused. She reached her hand through an opening in the door and leveraged a handle on the inside to give us access to another stunning sanctuary.
The Great Saint Mary’s is built on a site that probably dates back to early pagan worship. The base of their clock tower is anchored with “Pudding Stone” that dates back to about 1086, the pre-Domesday era. There was a church built atop the ancient pagan ruins that was destroyed in time. The present sanctuary, which was erected in the 15th century, was built out of flintstone and mortar. Both Elizabeth the First and Anne Boleyn worshiped in this sacred space. Like so many of the churches we have entered, the walls and floors are filled with memorial plaques and engraved family crests that honor the dead. Our hope was to find physical evidence of Rev. John Seymour in the building but we did not. We will have to write to a source in the village that holds genealogical records from centuries past.
Rev. Debbie was gracious, answering our questions and leaving us to scour the building as we wished. I climbed up into another impressive pulpit which housed a tattered Bible on a lone shelf. I opened it up to see when it was published. Inscribed in casual handwriting in the opening page were the words, “Gt. St. Mary’s Church, Sawbridge. Pulpit Bible.” I had a couple of thoughts when I looked at the tattered Bible: 1) This is really old, and 2)Their people must have better eyesight than ours because I can’ imagine being the lay liturgist and having to read from this tiny print! It has obviously been well used by the faithful in this parish and fueled a Christian devotion such that Great St. Mary’s is a vital church still today.
We’re discovering on this trip that many of our stops raise more questions than they answer. We want to know more about the ancestors who raised families, preached the gospel, and cultivated gardens here. I can see how folks can spend decades delving into family history to track limbs on family trees that are sometimes clearly filled in with firm handwriting and documentation. Other times the lines to the past are tenuous. We are the living chasing after ghosts whose DNA still drives us today. We felt the saintly presence of our Seymour roots in this town. Google confirms this as fact when we search for “John Seymour of Sawbridgeworth.” But we don’t know much more than that…yet! I’ve sent an email today to one of our family members whose genealogical research has been a great blessing to us. I’m hoping our exploring, that barely scratches the surface of family history, will inspire us forward in search of our past.