Forget Dan Brown's Da Vinci code. If a trail of weird connections appeals to you, then you only have to go as far as your local church. For instance, what links a castle to the Elizabethan poet John Donne, the architect Inigo Jones and architect and art collector, Sir John Soane? The answer is to be found in Chilham church.

Chilham church: a historical treasure trail

The historical trail begins in the 16th century with Sir Dudley Digges who, having acquired the neighbouring castle through marriage, set about rebuilding it on a grand scale. When his wife Lady Mary died in 1631, Sir Dudley employed a celebrated mason, the aptly-named Nicholas Stone, to construct a suitably grand memorial for her. Arranged around a central column are four imposing female figures representing Justice, Prudence, Temperance and Fortitude. However, the inspiration for Stone’s design was not an English model but a French one: the monument for the heart of the Constable of France, Duke Anne de Montmorency (now in the Louvre, Paris).

Nicholas Stone was an important man in his day. The son of a quarryman from Exeter, he rose from humble beginnings to become a celebrated stonemason, builder and architect, working on commissions for both royalty and the aristocracy. Although he began his apprenticeship in England, it is likely that he completed his training in Holland as he married the daughter of Dutch sculptor and artist, Hendrik de Keyser.

If, as seems likely, Stone worked with his father-in-law in Amsterdam, he would have had an opportunity to view Continental models which influenced his later work, such as the tomb of Lady Digges. Another advantage was that De Keyser worked for royalty – his most important architectural achievement being the tomb of William of Orange in Delft – and he may well have used his connections to help Stone in the initial stages of his career.

In England, Stone established his own workshop which produced a wide variety of items from garden statuary and sculpture to chimney pieces and – the best-preserved of all – funerary monuments: one of the most famous of these being that of the poet John Donne in St Paul’s Cathedral which was modelled on an anonymous painting.

However, Stone was more than a mere carver of marble, serving as master mason and architect at Windsor Castle before becoming master mason to the Crown. Goldsmith’s Hall in the City of London was built to his design, as was the Digges’ chapel at Chilham church. However, one of his most impressive commissions was the Banqueting House in the royal palace of Whitehall, built to a design by Inigo Jones.

In a sense, it could be said that Stone was the architect of his own downfall. By a stroke of extraordinary irony, it was from a window of the Banqueting House that King Charles I stepped out to his execution in 1649 – an event that would have a profound impact on Stone’s career. Having been a recipient of the king’s patronage, Stone was a marked man. With the outbreak of the civil war, his fortunes suffered a severe reversal: he never worked again and is reported to have been “sequestered, plundered and imprisoned”.

It was a sad end to an illustrious career. However, a substantial amount of information relating to Stone’s work was preserved, thanks to a man whose life, in many ways, mirrored his own.

Like Stone, leading 18thc architect Sir John Soane rose from humble beginnings, his own father being a bricklayer. Continental influences can also be seen in Soane’s work owing to the fact that, he too, travelled abroad, having won a royal bursary which financed a three-year Grand Tour of Italy. Soane, too, relied on powerful patrons, including William Pitt, for his most important commissions. The two men were also linked by Whitehall’s Banqueting House – Soane’s drawing of the façade winning him a silver medal in a Royal Academy competition.

It is possible that Soane was aware of the similarities between his own career and that of Nicholas Stone and that empathy prompted him to acquire Stone’s workbooks for his extraordinary collection. Whatever the motive, it is the existence of these books recording details of Stone’s commissions, that have preserved his career for posterity. Without them, the life and work of the man responsible for the Digges’ memorial would have been veiled in mystery.

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