This is a Low

‘Hundreds’ were introduced by the Saxons as a form of local government, and so-called because each one was supposedly made up of enough land to sustain one hundred families (although if the land had to sustain families with sons who had an appetite like mine does, they’d have probably been called fifties). Often they took their name from the place where the men (inevitably?) of the hundred met to discuss local matters and to carry out judicial trials for petty crimes. This was often a local landmark, a little away from the madding crowd, where the business of the Hundred Court could be carried on undisturbed each month.

Here in Staffordshire, there are five hundreds (instinctively I want to say were, but they have never actually formally been abolished, although their significance dwindled to nothing during the 19th century). In the south of the county is Seisdon, its name said to derive from OE for ‘the hill of the Saxons‘, with a likely place for the moot suggested as  being Penn Hill.  Up in the north-west is Pirehill, taking its name from a landscape feature two miles south of Stone and 462 ft above sea level. Its name may refer to ME piren ‘to peer’, OE pirige ‘pear tree‘ or Latin ‘pyra’ bonfire/pyre. Totmonslow, up in the Moorlands, is thought to be named after a hill near to the present-day hamlet. The name appears to be made up of ‘tote’ relating to a watchman or look-out combined with the -hlaw suffix meaning a hill or burial mound to translate as something like ‘look-out hill’. Cuttlestone Hundred, with Penkridge at its centre, suggests that the meeting place here was marked by a significant, well, stone although all that now seems to carry the name is a bridge across the River Penk.

River Penk upstream at Cuttlestone Bridge
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © John M – geograph.org.uk/p/1443879

For now though, the locus on which I want to focus is Offlow, the hundred to which Lichfield belonged. In February 1937, Percy Laithwaite wrote an article for the Mercury in which he described how Offlow is marked on an ordnance survey map (and indeed Mark from the much missed Tamworth Time Hikes did a great cartography centred post around this), and is in a field near Swinfen by the old road from Lichfield to Birmingham, on the farm of Mr Percy Stubbs. He goes on to describe how there is little evidence of the hill to be seen but it is just traceable and blames a thousand years of agriculture for lowering the low to almost the same height of the field.

Never one to believe that there is nothing there until I have witnessed nothing with my own eyes, I went to have a look for myself.  I’m going to level with you, a further 81 years of agriculture have completely flattened it and yes, on face value, there is nothing there.

All that now seems to remain of Offlow is its name.  More on where that name may have come from in a moment but first, let’s join in Percy Laithwaite’s excitement at finding out the surrounding field also had a name.

While walking over that field some years ago with Mr Foden of Shenstone, I was considerably astonished, and not a little excited to learn that the field was known to him by the name of ‘Hundred Hill Field’. This is a most astonishing survival. Here is a name which has been preserved for possibly twelve centuries with its original form and meaning, and it still tells us that at this spot was the hill on which the local Hundred Moot held its council meetings

What about the name Offlow then? Well, the story behind that has turned into more of a saga. I was aware that there was a local tradition that it was the burial place of King Offa of Mercia (d. 796 AD) but until about two weeks ago, I was under the impression that this was impossible as King Offa of Mercia was definitely buried in a chapel just outside of Bedford.  The tradition of Offa’s Bedfordshire burial was recorded by Matthew Paris, a monk and chronicler of English history, writing in the 13th century. In it, Paris describes how the chapel where the king was buried was destroyed by the River Ouse and that there were claims from some who bathed in the river that from time to time they had seen Offa’s sarcophagus deep beneath the water, but Paris recorded that, despite it being sought with the greatest of diligence, like a thing of fate, it had never been found. On reflection, the evidence for Bedford is hardly water tight and given that Mathew Paris was responsible, at least in part, for the Lichfield ‘field of the dead’ and the massacre of Christian martyrs legend, I’m not sure he’s the most reliable source….

In his book, ‘In Search of the Dark Ages’, Michael Wood, the King of Anglo-Saxon history, admits that there is uncertainty over where King Offa was buried but that Bedford is the most likely possibility, although, ‘Why Bedford was chosen in a mystery’ (the early Christian kings Wulfhere and Ceolred had been buried at Lichfield itself, and by the 9th century, Repton was the preferred spot).

Whether it’s been lost to the river at Bedford, or to the plough at Swinfen, any physical evidence for Offa’s burial place appears to have disappeared.  I’ll leave whoever writes the Bedford Lore blog to dive into their side of things but I think until something tangible turns up, its a bit of a moot point whether our Offlow has any connection to the Mercian king. In the meantime, I don’t want us lose sight of the fact that what is not in doubt is that it was the place where our local hundred court met and as such, I think we should do it justice by valuing it as an important historical site in its own right, royal burial place or not*

*in my humble opinion, probably not 😉

Sources:

‘Lichfield: History to c.1500’, in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14, Lichfield, ed. M W Greenslade (London, 1990), pp. 4-14. British History Onlinehttp://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/staffs/vol14/pp4-14 [accessed 23 June 2018].

https://www.ucl.ac.uk/archaeology/research/projects/assembly/Checklist

‘A Survey and Analysis of the Place-Names of Staffordshire’ by David Horovitz

Lichfield Mercury Archive

The English Hundred Names Olof S Anderson

http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=306519

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Bestowed

I’m in the midst of writing an assignment so just a very quick one that I’m hoping to follow up when I’ve more time. Yesterday //platform.twitter.com/widgets.js” target=”_blank”>on Twitter (yes I know, I’m supposed to be writing an assignment), I noticed that Historic England were doing a survey of post-war housing for the elderly and it reminded me that a while back I’d seen a plaque outside a row of bungalows on Stowe Road so I popped out for a breather and another look.

Lunns

AlmshousesThanks to Aaron on Facebook, who did a bit of research, I now know the basic history of these homes. In 1654, William Lunn left two almshouses for six poor widows in his will. The date of 1667 given on the plaque is when Edward Lunn (presumably his son) conveyed them to a trust. By 1762, there were six two roomed cottages on the site and as the plaque tells us, these were replaced with six new bungalows in 1959. As the plaque doesn’t tell us, because it too dates to 1959, more were added in the 1980s.

Although I’d like to see a photograph of the cottages as they were, what interests me more than the bricks and mortar here are the people. I want to know about William Lunn and the reason for his charity. I want to know about the women who lived there three hundred and fifty years ago and those who have called the almshouses home since.  Lunn’s Homes may not have the ye olde appeal of some of Lichfield’s other almshouses, such as St John’s and Dr Milley’s, but they’ve a story worth telling and, according to Historic England, architecture worth recording.

Edit:

Now I do have more time, I called into Lichfield Record Office to take a look at the accounts book they hold for Lunn’s Charity. It covers the period 1851 to 1883 and begins with a description of the trust as follows:

William Lunn of the City of Lichfield by indenture dated the 26th June 1667 gave to Trustees certain messuages and two acres of land within the city, for six poor, ancient and impotent widows of the City of Lichfield.

As well as recording payments made for various services (coal from Mr Brawn, and later Mr Summerfield, Mr Gorton for repairs and perhaps most intriguingly, a payment of 10 shilling on 27th March 1874 to Mr Duvall for ‘removing a nuisance’), it tells us that the women were each paid an annual sum of 5 shilling each and that they were allowed half a ton of coal five times a year.

Who were these women though? All I have at the moment is a list of names from that thirty year period to work through.  The book starts with a list of those allocated rooms as at 11th October 1851: Sarah Thacker admitted in 1837; Jane Smith in 1843; Catherine Trigg 1845; Mary Bullock (undated); Hannah Cresswell (undated) and notes that one former resident, Elizabeth Walker is dead. Her place is given to Helen Hartwell aged 79. And this is how it continues every year – a list of women and a note of those who have died (or left, for reasons unspecified), and those who take up residence in their place. Sometimes the husband’s name is included, sometimes the name of the street the women were leaving for the almshouse. For example, in 1879, Widow Sarah Harris of Stowe Street/George Lane was appointed inmate in the place of Widow Belfield who quit aged 61 years.

Lunn Board St Chad

There is a memorial to William Lunn Gent. in St Chad’s church describing his gift of two houses in Stowe Street and two acres of land in Longfurlow for the benefit of six poor widows for ever. So, Lunn is buried at St Chad’s and I imagine that many of the poor widows who benefited from his gift are buried there too. Are their graves marked I wonder? Thinking about it, there was no mention of costs for burials and headstones, in the accounts, so presumably this would have been the responsibility of any relatives. Assuming there were some.

Somebody posted an Italian proverb on Twitter earlier that I hadn’t heard before, ‘After the game, the king and the pawn go into the same box‘ and of course, people talk of ‘Death -the great leveller’, although reading about Victorian and Edwardian pauper burials (1), I’m really not convinced. What I am sure of though is that achieving equality when you’re dead is a bit late – a more level playing field beforehand was, and still is, needed.

Note

(1) In March 1904, at the fortnightly meeting of the Lichfield Board of Guardians, the Workhouse Master was asked whether any steps were taken to mark the graves of paupers in St Michael’s Churchyard, and whether Burial Board regulations were in force in Lichfield i.e. numbers placed on the graves and a register kept. The Master replied there was no burial board in Lichfield and was criticised for not carrying out the same regulations for ‘decency’s sake’. One to follow up I think.

Sources:

‘Lichfield: Charities for the poor’, in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14, Lichfield, ed. M W Greenslade (London, 1990), pp. 185-194 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/staffs/vol14/pp185-194 [accessed 20 April 2015].

Coley, N.  Lichfield Book of Days, The History Press

Fools & Hobby Horses

The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance takes place each year on Wakes Monday (the first Monday following the first Sunday after 4th September), which means that this year it will be on 10th September.

As far as I can gather, the horn dance is one of those traditions where no-one is quite sure what it’s all about. There are six dancers carrying reindeer antlers, a fool, a hobby horse, Maid Marian, a boy with a bow and arrow, an accordion player & a triangle player. The horns are collected from the church of St Nicholas at 8am and are returned 12 hours later after the participants have danced around the village and out to Blithfield Hall. According to the horn dance of Abbots Bromley website, when one of the horns was damaged in 1976, a piece was sent to be carbon dated. It was found to date back to 1065 (plus or minus 80 years) although the general consensus is that this doesn’t really help to date the dance itself.

I’m ashamed to say that every year I’ve planned to go and watch the dance, but haven’t made it for one reason or another. I have been to the village on several non-horn dance occasions though and it is a lovely place.  However, Mr J Carver, in his 1779 book ‘The Universal Traveller’ wasn’t impressed , saying,

It stands at the distance of a hundred and twenty eight miles from London but contains nothing worthy of note

(Lichfield fares a little better. In Mr Carver’s opinion, ‘It is a long, straggling place but has some handsome houses’).

Walking through the village, to my 21st century eyes, practically every building looks worthy of note. Amongst many others, there’s the Butter Cross (or Burger Cross as a practical joker would have it in 2002), the Goat’s Head Inn (which is thought to date back to the early 1600s, with possibly even older cellars and of course, a secret passage story!) and Almshouses (above the doors are the Bagot family arms and the inscription Deo et Igenis DDD Lamberius Bagot Arm Anno 1705).

The Butter Cross, The Goats Head Inn & St Nicholas Church

View of St Nicholas, where the horns are displayed throughout the year.

Church of St Nicholas, from the High St

Almshouses

A couple of years ago the BBC made a programme about folk dancing in England and you can see the clip about the horn dance here. There are also some photographs of the tradition taking place in the 1930s here on the Staffordshire Past Track website.

I believe that the horns never leave the parish boundary (when not in use they are stored in the church of St Nicholas) although the dance can be performed elsewhere (another set of antlers is used on these occasions). I’ve also just discovered that this year the third annual Abbots Bromliad will take place in California, where they are hoping to beat their own record for most people dancing the horn dance at once (144 in 2010). You can even order your own set of acrylic antlers for $20 to help you feel the part! Hmmm, I wonder what the postage & packaging would be to get a pair sent to Lichfield….and would they get here in time to wear on the 10th September?

Seriously, we’re lucky to live so near to a place where one of the country’s best known (and possibly one of the oldest) traditions takes place and I really must make an effort to go this year to see it for myself.

 

Hospital Ward

In 1781, John Snape carried out a census of Lichfield, making a list of the different wards of the city in the process. The wards are as follows: Bacon St (now Beacon St), Bird St, Sandford St, Sandford St below the water, St John’s St, St John’s St above the bars, Sadler St (now Market St), Bore St, Wade St, Dam St, Tamworth St, Lombard St, Stow St and Greenhill.

I think that these are the wards depicted by the flags hanging from the ceiling of the Guildhall, discussed here in my previous post. Now that I’ve finally made it back into the Guildhall to check which flag corresponds with which ward, I’m going to take each one in turn, trying to discover the significance of the design on each flag. Some I’m pretty sure of, others I’m really not (I’m talking about you Sandford St below the water ward!)

 

Photo from Ell Brown via flickr

 I’m starting with the flag that represents St John’s ward. Not only is it my favourite of the banners, it’s also seasonal with the feast of St John’s (or Midsummer’s Day) on 24th June. St John St gets its name from The Hospital of St John The Baptist (the place with the chimmneys!). The design from the flag is also on the board outside St John’s chapel, but what does it represent? The yellow flowers must be St John’s Wort, associated both with the saint and midsummer. What are the flowers growing around though?  Well, it’s taken a lot of googling but I think that it’s St Anthony’s Cross (also known as the Cross of Tau), often associated with St Francis. This possibly explains its inclusion, as the site of the Franciscan Friary lies within this ward . Part of the old Friary wall can still be seen on St John St.

Please feel free to join in with the speculation on this and any of the other flags that follow!

Photo of St John’s board from Ell Brown’s Lichfield Group photo set on his flickr stream, included with thanks.

Hospitality in Lichfield

One of the places I really wanted to see during the Lichfield Heritage weekend was St John’s Hospital. On my way I bumped into someone I know. ‘I’m just off to St John’s Hospital’, I said ‘Oh where’s that?’, was the reply. As soon as I told her it was the place with all the chimneys, she of course knew exactly where I meant!

Looking back through the entrance from the courtyard. I'm normally peeping through in the other direction!

Beyond the entrance is a lovely courtyard, where we were met by one of the residents who told us about the history of the hospital, which you can read more about on the St John’s website.  The Master’s house is now a Georgian building and you can see a drawing of it circa 1833 on Staffordshire Pasttrack. We were told today that some of the wooden beams inside came from galleons. I wonder if that’s true or just a story? I have done a quick search and it seems like quite a few old buildings claim to have beams reclaimed from ships.

Side of St John's with Masters House in the background

From the courtyard, we went to have a look around the chapel, which is the oldest of all of the buildings here.The most striking feature is the stained glass window by John Piper. I think I was suprised that this was so modern (it was created in 1984).

Clockwise from top left, the four corners represent the Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke & John

 

There are stones embedded in the top of the altar, collected by a former Master whilst in Jerusalem & the surrounding area.

After leaving the chapel we visited the accomodation of one of the residents, which was lovely & incredibly peaceful bearing in mind the windows are looking out onto St John St!  On the tour, I overheard someone say that the chimneys were the oldest domestic chimneys in the country. They are blocked off from the rooms now and I wonder when they were last used? Why do you always think of questions after the event?!

Finally, we were invited to have tea & cake. And then some more cake! One of the residents told us, ‘ We’re keeping up the tradition of hospitality!’. It’s true – on our visit we were made to feel incredibly welcome. As you can see I forgot to take any photos of the courtyard or indeed the aforementioned chimneys (I may have been distracted by the cake…). However, the grounds are open to the public, so you can go and have a look for yourself!

Edit 2/10/2011:
I came across a bit of an interesting snippet about Tudor nepotism relating to St John’s. In his book, ‘Note on a History of the Hospital of St John’s’, Harry Baylis says that the hospital lost none of its possessions in the reformation, as the Master at the time was the brother of Rowland Lee who officiated at the marriage of Henry VIII & Ann Boleyn, and later became the Bishop of Coventry & Lichfield. Wonder if this is true or not?