Tuesday, October 20, 2009
I have been living in Gravesend for just over ten years now and a few weeks ago I was walking into town with the family when we noticed that they were holding a coffee morning for the local Ellenor Lions Hospice at the St Peter & St Paul Church (also known as Milton Church) and decided to call in.
We must have walked past the church at least a hundred times before and without giving it a second thought.
The decorated side gate in East Milton Road erected in 1950 depicts the striking, if somewhat surreal, Coat of Arms of Gravesend under the Charter of 1568 depicting a porcupine steering a boat with five hooded rowers (or possibly monks).
By way of explanation, the porcupine is thought to be a mark of respect to Sir Henry Sidney of Penshurst Place near Tonbridge.
The Sidneys were granted Penshurst Place by King Henry VIII's son Edward VI - they had been respected Royal courtiers for many years.
Sir Henry used the porcupine in his coat of arms. It would appear, however, that he in turn took the use of the porcupine in his coat of arms from King Louis XII of France.
The porcupine was deemed to be a symbol of invincibility.
I was a bit puzzled to see a porcupine featuring on the coat of arms as I thought they only came from North America and therefore wouldn't have been known to Europeans in the 1400's
I decided to do some digging and after lots of trawling through the internet I came up with the answer to the mystery!
It would appear that porcupines do indeed live in the wild in Italy as well as North Africa.
The French fought several battles in Northern Italy during the reign of King Louis XII and it is therefore concievable that they would have come across porcupines on their travels.
In fact the word porcupine does derive from the French "porc d'epine" meaning thorny or spined pig.
By the way, did you know a group of porcupines is called a prickle? (groan)
The boat and rowers symbolise Gravesend's important position on the River Thames. Oarsmen from Gravesend had the rights to ferry passengers to and from London and across the River to Essex.
If you follow the path leading from the side gate to the church you will come across an interesting grave stone...
At first glance you may imply from the skull and crossed bones that it is in some way connected with piracy.
It is in fact a masonic gravestone. Apart from the skull and crossed bones it shows other masonic symbols including the letter G (top centre), the chequered floor, the sun, a square and compass.
The letter G represents God, the Supreme Being and Architect of the Universe and also stands for geometry.
Unfortunately the inscription on the gravestone is very worn - not really surprising when it dates back to about 1760.
There has been a church on the site at Milton since Saxon times although the present day church "only" dates back to the 14th century.
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