Bray was thought to have been Bibriocum to the Romans, but this place never existed and was made up by the cartographic forger, Richard of Cirencester. There does appear to have been Roman activity in the region, however, especially in the Water Oakley area. The old Saxon church was also said to have been here. It was pulled down in 1293 ready for rebuilding in the main village in early English and perpendicular style, as agreed by all the parishioners. However, when the churchwardens came to collect everyone’s contribution to the construction work, some would not pay and they had to send out the beadle! An old legend tells how there was also further trouble from a more sinister source.
The Sheela-Na-Gig up in the rafters of the present church may have come from the old building. This Irish name refers to a small stone female figure with large breasts and legs akimbo (the Bray figure has lost her head and breasts). She is the Celtic mother goddess, incorporated into churches to remind the faithful of the temptations of the old religion. The Chantry Chapel of Our Lady that stands in the churchyard was probably built around the same time as the church. The carving of a dog (?) encased in its walls may also be from the original Saxon building. It had its own chantry priest who, after 1448, lived in the cottage built over the lych gate. This later became the Six Bells Inn, named after the instruments hanging in the church. The parish church has two further chantry chapels within its walls. The Foxley Chapel (or Chapel of All Saints), from where the superb brass to Sir John Foxley (1378) and his two wives came, stands in the south aisle. His father (Constable of Windsor Castle) and grandfather were also buried here, and his son, Thomas (d.1436) whose brass is no longer. The chapel once had its own outside door, removed in 1840. In the north aisle is the Norreys Chapel (or Chapel of St. Nicholas). It appears to have been a place of burial for both the Norreys’ of Ockwells (Cox Green) and those from Fifield. Sir John Norreys of Ockwells & Yattendon left instructions for his burial here in a marble tomb in 1467, and on the wall is the brass to William Norreys of Fifield (1591). Other memorials have now disappeared. It now, however, seems dubious whether the two were actually related. Both families claimed descent from the Norreys’ of Speke Hall in Lancashire, and though the Fifield branch definitely were, it may have been wishful thinking on the part of the more important Norreys’ of Ockwells. They originally used the arms of their ancestors, the Ravenscroft family, and only later adopted that of Norreys of Speke. Further lost brasses to the Fowler family, ancestors of the Norreys’ of Fifield may have also come from this little chapel. The church is littered with numerous other interesting monuments, including the brass of a fifteenth century judge (with lost wife) and the beautiful demi-figures of William Goddard and his wife, who founded the Jesus Hospital in 1609. This was built to house thirty-four of the aged poor of Bray and six of the fishmonger’s company to which he belonged. It still stands in the village with his effigy, full-height this time, standing above the entrance.
The famous Singing Vicar of Bray had a well-known ballad written about him in which he promised to remain the Vicar of Bray, Sir no matter what religious denomination he had to adopt. The ballad indicates he was Francis Carswell (Vicar 1650-1709), but the story was recorded of the rector through the turbulent Tudor years as early as 1662. This, much more likely candidate, was named Simon Alleyn (Vicar 1523-65) and his memorial slab lies in the middle of the nave. The Hind’s Head in the village is a 15th century hall house. Its origins are obscure. Some say it was once a Royal hunting lodge or cottages for the builders of the church. However, it appears to have been a guesthouse of the Abbot of Cirencester who owned Bray church from 1133. The present Queen has entertained five other monarchs to lunch there!
A famous hotel not far from the village is the Monkey Island Hotel, named after the islet in the Thames on which it stands. The name of the island is popularly supposed to recall the painted monkeys fishing and shooting on the hotel ceiling. However, it was originally Monk’s Eyot and was used by the monastics from the nearby cell of Merton Priory at Amerden (Bucks). For centuries the island was part of the Whiteknights Estate (Earley) and in 1744 the 3rd Duke of Marlborough had a fishing lodge built there for use when attending the Kit-Kat Club at Down Place (Water Oakley). Hence the fishing monkey paintings by Andieu de Clermont. Some people, however, say they represent the pet monkey of George III who was banished here during his mad fits. The building was converted into a hotel in 1840 and has always been popular with high society. H.G. Wells and his lover, Rebecca West, were frequent visitors and the lady set her first book, Return of the Soldier, here. Edward VII and Queen Alexandra were also particularly fond of the place.
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