There’s a little village in Staffordshire called Aston. Well, officially it’s called Aston-by-Stone as at some point they clearly got fed up of people not having a clue where it was and always having to explain ‘by Stone’, and just incorporated it into the name. Around fifty years ago, this tiny place hit the headlines of the local press on the basis that it was thought to be hiding a big secret. As a media circus descended upon the village, some may have been wistfully nostalgic for those days when no-one knew where it was.
Throughout much of its history, the Aston Hall estate had Catholic connections and since 1961, has been owned by the Birmingham Archdiocese and used as a retirement home for priests. Apart from five-a-side football, possibly, life was quiet and uneventful here until one day it was noticed that one of the trees in the grounds was in a dangerous condition. This was not just any old tree though but an ancient acacia with a legend attached. The tale told how there was treasure buried beneath its branches but that any riches at its roots would be revealed only if the tree fell down of its own accord, rather than being felled.
Understandably, it was decided that safety rather than superstition had to come first and in April 1974, the tree was cut down. A supposed conversation between one of the nuns and a former owner of the hall together with promising results from a metal detector suggested there may actually be some substance to the story and there was speculation amongst the priests that the subterranean secret may be some sort of sacred chalice. Disappointingly, when the tree was toppled, there was no holy grail or anything else in the hole. Despite this, the Sister Superior still had faith that the story still had some roots in reality and was quoted by the assembled press as saying ‘There must have been some grounds for the legend….’.
I’m with Sister O’Sullivan on this. I’ve read enough myths and legends to believe that on the (w)hole, even the most fanciful folklore does not just materialise out of thin air. For me, it’s not so much about whether spectres and secret tunnels exist but rather why the stories about them do, and why they persist. I do have theory about the treasure of Aston Hall and it relates to a bona fide discovery made here in 1838, although perhaps given the the nature of what Father Benjamin Hulme found beneath the altar of the hall’s chapel, bone fide would be a more fitting description. Inside a velvet-covered box and wrapped in silk were some of the relics of St Chad, smuggled out of Lichfield by Canon Arthur Dudley during horrible Henry’s reformation. Their three hundred year journey had taken them to the homes of a number of Catholic families in the Midlands for safekeeping, including that of Henry Hodgetts who kept them above his bed. The bones were enshrined in Birmingham’s Catholic Cathedral when it was consecrated in June 1841, in a casket designed by Pugin which he based on the Venerable Bede’s description of the original at Lichfield Cathedral. In the mid-1990s, they were examined by scientists who dated all but one of the bones to the 7th century which fits in time-wise with Chad’s death in 672. However, the presence of two left femurs amongst these means that there are the remains of three individuals here in total. It’s widely accepted that one of them is Lichfield’s patron saint but, barring some miracle, the identity of the other two will forever remain a mystery.
At this point, I think it’s worth noting that Lichfield Cathedral once held a whole host of relics. In 1345, these included some of the bones of St Lawrence, plus part of the gridiron he was martyred on, some of Mount Calvary and Golgotha, a piece of the rock standing upon which Jesus wept bitterly and wept over Jerusalem, some of the bones of the Eleven Thousand Virgins, part of the finger and cowl of St William, some of the bread of St Godric and some of the wood of the cross of St Peter. Is it possible Canon Dudley managed to lay his hands on more than just the arm and leg bones of St Chad perhaps? And were these hidden relics the source of the story that there was booty buried here at the hall? As, um, Captain Jack Sparrow once said, ‘Not all treasure’s silver and gold, mate’.
As a footnote, in the boundary wall at Aston Hall there is supposedly a cross commemorating a monk who was struck by lightning. I never managed to find it but then we all know that X never, ever marks the spot. But then neither does an ancient acacia tree apparently…
HT to @stymistress on Twitter for inspiring the title!
Staffordshire Newsletter April 12th 1974
Birmingham Post 6th April 1974
Cope, N. Stone, the history of a market town