COMPTON PAUNCEFOOT – ST ANDREW’S
A Memorial in Glass and a Great Escape
Traffic thunders along the A303 London to Exeter road less than a mile from St Andrew’s Church, yet the small village of Compton Pauncefoot, with its backdrop of hills and woods, could be miles from the hurly burly of the 21st century. This pleasant 15th century church with its spire, rare in South Somerset, sits beside a small village green accompanied by a splendid Georgian Rectory and an 18th century Manorhouse.
Walk through the lychgate and up to the porch in which hangs a large iron lamp dedicated to the memory of Captain Frederick Gray MC, who was killed on 21 August 1915, at the head of his men in the assault on Hill 70 at Suvla in the Gallipoli Campaign.
In the north wall of the chancel there is a stained glass window in memory of the 1st Baron Blackford who died in 1947, and in the south wall, a stained glass window remembers William Murray Mason, eldest son of the 2nd Baron Blackford, who as a Flight Sergeant Pilot, was killed in action on 23 March 1942 aged 24 years, and Irene Elizabeth Ann Mason, who died on 7 November 1943, also aged 24. This window depicts William Mason in his Royal Air Force uniform.
High on the inside north wall of the tower is a memorial to Robert Hunt and other members of the Hunt family who, for two centuries from 1630, owned the Manor of Compton Pauncefoot. Robert Hunt died in February 1679, aged about 71 years, and during his long life was a lawyer, Member of Parliament for Ilchester and Sheriff of Somerset. Although he was an active supporter of King Charles I during the Great Civil War, following the defeat of the Royalist cause he reconciled himself with the Parliament and was appointed Sheriff of Somerset in 1654.
In March 1655, a minor rebellion led by a veteran Royalist, John Penruddock, against the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell, broke out in Wiltshire. After occupying Salisbury, breaking open the gaol and releasing all the prisoners, the 300 rebels marched to Blandford where they proclaimed Charles II, King of England. Unfortunately for the rebels, the good folk of Dorset wanted nothing of this rebellion as the memories of the late Civil War were still fresh in their minds, and Penruddock and his little army retreated west through Yeovil and Chard, until they were routed in a bloodless skirmish at South Molton. John Penruddock was captured with some of his followers, and was executed at Exeter on 16 May 1655. Another rebel officer, Captain Thomas Hunt, was sentenced to death by beheading and transported to Ilchester Gaol where he was given into the care of the Sheriff of Somerset his namesake, but no relation, Robert Hunt.
Captain Hunt’s execution was fixed for the evening of 7 May, but the axe needed to remove his head was proving difficult to find. It had to have a blade of 11 inches to carryout the task, and implements of this size were not in plentiful supply. The problem in procuring the axe, and the time required to build the scaffold before the Shire Hall in the market place at Ilchester, had now delayed the execution until Thursday 10 May.
On the Wednesday night, the eve of the execution, Captain Hunt was allowed a last visit from his two sisters, Marjorie and Elizabeth. They arrived at the gaol at about 10 o’clock, and were shown to their brother’s cell which he shared with two other prisoners. His two companions were absent during the visit, and alone with his sisters, a daring escape was put in hand. Captain Hunt quickly changed clothes with Marjorie, and then with Elizabeth went through the gaol, passing three doorkeepers and the main gate guard, to freedom. Back in the cell, Marjorie placed her brother’s cloak and hat on a chair and got into his bed. On their return, the captain’s cellmates thought he was asleep and took to their beds.
Having parted from his sister, Captain Hunt found himself wandering alone in the vicinity of Ilchester as dawn broke but without any idea of where he was; he could also hear the great bell of the gaol begin to toll for his impending execution. Just as he began to lose hope of making an escape, the captain espied a collier coming along the road leading a packhorse loaded with coal. Still in female disguise, Captain Hunt hailed the collier and in the conversation which followed discovered his destination. Telling the collier that that he was travelling in the same direction, ‘the lady’ managed to persuade him to allow ‘her’ to ride with the coal on the horse. During the journey, the collier’s Royalist sympathies soon became apparent and the captain took a desperate chance and disclosed that he was an escaped rebel. As events proved, this chance encounter was to save Captain Hunt’s life, and in company with his new found saviour, he rode across country to the collier’s home on the edge of the lonely Somerset Levels.
The escape had now been discovered, Marjorie was arrested and confessed. Sister Elizabeth was also apprehended, and both ladies were lodged in Ilchester Gaol, where they remained without being brought to trial until their release two years later in 1657. On discovering Captain Hunt’s escape the hue and cry was raised, and Parliamentary troops stationed in Ilchester were soon scouring the countryside. On reaching his home, the collier barricaded the door, no lights were lit, and the two men took cover in a small upper chamber of the cottage, each with a loaded musket preparing to sell their lives dearly if discovered. Before long a sheriff’s officer with a troop of mounted men clattered into the yard and hammering on the door demanded entrance. At first the collier and his wife made no sign, but as the shouting of the troopers became more threatening, the collier put his head out of the chamber window as if disturbed from sleep, and demanded an explanation for this uproar. The sheriff’s officer bellowed that the party was in pursuit of a prisoner escaped from Ilchester Gaol disguised as a female, and as he had orders to search every house, his men would force their way in if necessary. The collier replied that he would open the door as soon as he could get a light, but pretended that he had lost the steel for the tinder box. As no one else had any means of producing light, the troopers were told that they must search the house in the dark. The sheriff’s officer by now had lost his patience with the apparent ignorance of the collier, and calling out that it was useless to waste time here because the stupid fellow did not know his right hand from his left, away galloped the party to the inexpressible relief of the fugitive and his faithful friends.
Captain Hunt remained hidden in the collier’s cottage, and when the hue and cry had calmed down, the collier helped him in his escape to France where he joined the exiled Charles II with whom he remained until returning to England at the Restoration some five years later. The name of the collier who saved the captain’s life, and whether he was rewarded for the terrible risk he took for a stranger, remains one of history’s secrets.
As for Sheriff Robert Hunt, the escape of his namesake was an obvious embarrassment, but it did not effect the career of this widely respected man. He continued in the office of Sheriff of Somerset for another year, served the County and Ilchester in the Parliaments of 1659 and 1660, and for the last two decades of his life continued to play an active role in County government as a Magistrate and Deputy Lieutenant. He now lies with his kin in St Andrew’s Church, in the peaceful village of Compton Pauncefoot.