Midnight on the Hill

borrowcop

Borrowcop Hill is a place that doesn’t want to give up its secrets easily. What interests me about places like this is how gaps in our knowledge create a space where legends and folklore can grow unchecked. It’s not just a hill with a nice view. It’s the burial place of kings and martyrs, the site of Lichfield Castle.

to borrowcop gazebo

Stand at the summit and you’re standing at the highest point in Lichfield. Beacons have been lit here certainly for celebrations, possibly as warnings. The grammar school moved here from St John Street in 1903 and in 1971, merged with the adjacent Kings Hill secondary modern school to form the current King Edward VI School.  Interesting how the folklore was even referenced in the school name here. Another school on the site, the just as evocatively named Saxon Hill, was opened in 1979.

borrowcop sign

Christmas 1940

At last year’s Lichfield Discovered talk by Peter Young on Philip Larkin’s connections to the city, he told us that that whilst staying with relatives at Cherry Orchard in 1940, Larkin had written three poems. Only one, ‘Out in the Lane’, was published but all three were inspired by his temporary surroundings. Peter believes the arched field of ‘Christmas 1940’ refers to Borrowcop Hill. I’ve reproduced it here from a folio collated by The Philip Larkin Society for their celebration of his birthday in August 2001. I hope they don’t mind, but I can’t find it anywhere else!

The name ‘Borrowcop’ does hint that there was once something here. Its earliest written forms, Burwey or Burwhay, feature the Old English element ‘burh’,  suggesting a fortified place (1).  Whilst there are vague reports of Erasmus Darwin recovering bits of burnt bone from somewhere up here, according to the Heritage Environment Report, ‘more recent excavations have so far failed to recover any evidence for human activity’. Well, I went up there on Sunday and I found this:

borrowcop chair

And this:

"The bubbles up your nose, spill on your summer clothes"

“The bubbles up your nose, spill on your summer clothes”

And this:

borrowcop graffiti

Plenty of human activity in what Five Spires Live , the Lichfield satirist who also doesn’t give up his secrets easily, yesterday described as  “… the perfect setting for bit of Larkin”. See, as much as I like legends, I also like the real.  I like layers of history that celebrate everything a place is and not just what we want it to be. The way our own memories of a place form our own folklores. The title for this post is one I’ve appropriated from one of my favourite songs by one of my favourite bands. It’s summer nights, it’s cheap cider (or ‘energy and guava’, if you’d rather), it’s messing about with your mates in a space maintained by the council because you’ve nowhere else to go. It’s perfect. Borrowcop or not, we’ve all been there. And like it or not, that’s as much a part of history as those kings and castles are.

1) A Survey and Analysis of the Place-Names of Staffordshire’ by David Horovitz, https://lichfieldlore.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/397633_vol1.pdf

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The Words and the Bees

I had an hour to kill down in Lichfield and it suddenly occurred to me that I’d never looked to see if there was any graffiti, medieval or otherwise, on or in Lichfield Cathedral.

Cathedral graffiti 2 Cathedral graffiti

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The exterior of the south door turned out to be a rich source of names and initials, some dating back to the mid-eighteenth century. Nearby there’s a daisy wheel, a compass drawn symbol which appears in churches, but also in secular buildings, all over the country. There’s a lovely and much clearer example up the road at All Saints Church in Kings Bromley. Although some believe daisy wheels were used by masons for practical purposes, the general consensus is that most of them were intended to be ritual protection marks. Our Lichfield Cathedral example is faint, and as you can see, barely visible on the photograph. Far better to go and take a look yourself (and try to spot some more graffiti whilst you are there of course!).

Daisy wheel Lichfield cathedral

As well as being a graffiti magnet, the Cathedral also seems to attract bees. I remember last year, Denise Peters took a photo of a swarm of honey bees in The Close for day sixty one of our one hundred days in Lichfield project and there was of course the masonry bees eating the Cathedral drama of 2008. I am assured that the two dozen or so I saw this afternoon are of the honey rather than masonry variety.  Perhaps they were there looking for daisies too?

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Brideshand Revisited

Last Summer, I wrote about the ‘Bride’s Hand’ carved into the stonework of the south porch of St James the Great at Longdon. It’s an old tradition that brides arriving at the church would place their own hand against it, in the hope that it would bring good fortune and fertility to their impending marriage. Apparently, some twenty-first century Longdon brides-to-be still partake in this ritual.

The 'Bride's Hand' Carving, St James the Great, Longdon

The ‘Bride’s Hand’ Carving, St James the Great, Longdon

Yesterday, I was idly scrolling through Twitter when two hands, similar to the one at Longdon, grabbed my attention. The image had been taken from Timothy Easton’s article on symbols which appears in the Winter edition of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings‘ magazine (1), and the carvings themselves are to be found on the south doors of two churches in the neighbouring Gloucestershire villages of Ampney St Mary and Ampney Crucis.  Until now, I wasn’t sure whether the Bride’s Hand was just a quirky bit of history unique to Longdon but the appearance of similar symbolism, in a similar position, at churches one hundred miles south of here suggests not. Timothy Easton believes that the carvings were added to send a very definite ‘Stop!’ sign to any evil spirits attempting to sneak inside.

South porch of St James, Longdon where the carving can be found.

South porch of St James, Longdon where the carving can be found.

As anyone who follows the Medieval Graffiti project will know, these hands are just one of the many types of markings that can be found in our churches. Some were an attempt to ward off evil spirits and no doubt some were an attempt to ward off boredom. St James the Great may be filled with beautiful carvings but I can’t help being drawn to these ones that aren’t really supposed to be there. For me, a crudely etched protective symbol and Joseph Nevill’s graffiti trump the Forster family’s weeping cherubs and marble tombs. Hands down.

Longdon graffiti

Graffiti at St James the Great, Longdon

Longdon carvings

The Stoneywell Chapel, used as a private chapel between 1520 and 1944, by families including the Ormes and the Forsters, former owners of nearby Hanch Hall

Longdon graffiti 2

Graffiti at St James the Great, Longdon

The tomb of John Forster, Hanch Hall

The tomb of John Forster, Hanch Hall

(1) Which their press officer very kindly sent to me after I sent an excited tweet telling them I’d seen one just like that.

The Odd Couple

According to Pevsner, the Church of St Lawrence features some of the most exciting Norman work in the county.  Here be dragons and other fantastical creatures, Saxon and Scandinavian influences, a green man and other ancient faces. There are no wolves though.

Norman arch, Gnosall church

Norman arch, Gnosall church

Carving at Gnosall

Carving at Gnosall

Possible Saxon stonework, Gnosall

Possible Saxon stonework, Gnosall

Legend has it that the last wolf in Staffordshire was killed here in Gnosall in a pit near Brough Hall and that the effigy in the Lady Chapel is that of its slayer, Baron Brough  As much as I wish it were true, there is no evidence for this tale and no reason to believe the Baron ever even existed outside of Gnosall mythology. Several other names have been linked with the alabaster knight over the years, but his true identity remains unknown. Whilst such personal details are lacking, there is physical detail here in abundance, from the broken angel and the helmet at his head, to the lion at his now missing feet and experts have used these features to date the monument to the early fifteenth century. In recent years, the knight has been joined by the church’s only other effigy, taken from the recess on the opposite side of the church known as the Easter Sepulchre.

Two effigies at Gnosall church

Two effigies at Gnosall church

The unknown knight of Gnosall

Defaced – the unknown knight of Gnosall

Gnosall effigy belt

Even less is know about this second effigy, but due to its diminutive stature, it is often described as depicting a child. However, after visiting the church, words that I’d read in a paper by Dr Sophie Oosterwijk in relation to the famous Stanley Boy monument at Elford came back into my mind – “A small-sized tomb may deceive the beholder into thinking that it must commemorate a child, but there may be other explanations”. One of Dr Oosterwijk’s other explanations is that these tiny tombs may represent heart burials. It’s not only the size of the effigy that’s convinced me that someone left their heart here in Gnosall, but also the position of his or her hand over the chest, a feature it has in common with another example thought to be a fourteenth century heart burial at Coberley in Gloucestershire.

Effigy possibly depicting a heart burial at Gnosall

Effigy possibly depicting a heart burial at Gnosall

Despite the abundance of surviving Romanesque architecture here, the church is missing its original font.  However, at nearby Bradley. and Church Eaton there are examples which date to the twelfth century and recall some of the patterns and themes found at Gnosall, perhaps giving us an idea of what the Norman font at St Lawrence may have looked like. Interestingly, the broken Church Eaton font was reinstated at St Editha’s after apparently being found buried in a garden, and so it’s possible that Gnosall’s is out there somewhere, awaiting discovery under someone’s lawn.

One of Gnosall’s most intriguing features can be found outside, high on the south side of the church where stonemasons (we assume) who extended the tower in the mid fifteenth century have carved a large chalice into the stonework alongside the belfry window.

South face of the church tower at Gnosall

South face of the church tower at Gnosall

Chalice carving on Gnosall church tower (photo by Kenneth Ingram)

Chalice carving on Gnosall church tower (photo by Kenneth Ingram)

Less mysterious in origin, but still of interest, are the grooves along the wall, said to have been created by the sharpening of arrows when the grounds were used for archery practice.

Arrow grooves, Gnosall Church

Arrow grooves at Gnosall Church

There is also a rumour that this wall of the church bears the scars of target practice during the Civil War (Rodwell: 223). What we do know for certain about the church of St Lawrence and the civil war is that there are two soldiers buried here. The parish register records that on 1st October 1642, a tall young man known as John Bayne (or Bayle), ‘one of the King’s souldiers’, was buried here and that on 25th March 1643, David James, another of ‘the King’s souldiers’, was laid to rest. The date of the second may be especially significant, coming less than a week after the Battle of Hopton Heath, fought just ten miles away. Amidst the other burials and baptisms of the parish register, an interesting entry appears on an otherwise blank page. At some time between 20th March 1684 and 19th April 1685, an ‘unlettered’ hand has written the following:

Fere god and honour the King
Honor your parents at all times
Wimins tongues air like [unfinished]

Whether the writer of the verse was interrupted or simply ran out of inspiration is unknown, but we are left to draw our own conclusions on the nature of  ‘wimins tongues’. However, when it comes to singing the praises of this incredible building, I shall not be holding mine. See it for yourself on the weekend of 4th/5th July 2015, when the Church of St Lawrence, including the tower, will be open for tours as part of the G-Fest celebrations held in the village each year. Now that is exciting.

Tombstone in the graveyard at the Church of St Lawrence, Gnosall/

Tombstone in the graveyard at the Church of St Lawrence, Gnosall

With thanks to Norman and Sheila Hailes, for their tour and invaluable knowledge of the church, and to Kathleen Ingram and Cllr Kenneth Ingram and the other residents of Gnosall, for showing us around not once, but twice!

References:

Rodwell,W. (2012) The Archaeology of Churches Stroud: Amberley

Oosterwijk, S. (2010)  Deceptive appearances. The presentation of children on medieval tombs Ecclesiology Today

http://www.gnosallweb.org.uk/articles/stlawren.htm

Niche Interest

The origins of the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance are hazy and in trying to make sense of this centuries-old tradition, the phrase ‘fertility ritual’ often crops up. Apparently, one of the most potent elements of the dance is coming into contact with the pig’s bladder on a stick, wielded by the fool (1). Sitting below the ha-ha, separated from the dancers performing on the lawn outside Blithfield Hall by a big ditch, seemed like a safe enough distance to watch from this year.

Waiting for the Horn Dance...

Waiting for the Horn Dance…

Pigs Bladder

Take a bow Horn Dance

Waiting for lunch...

Waiting for lunch…

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance 1932. Taken from the 'The Birmingham Mail' via 'The Lichfield Mercury'.

The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance taking place in 1932. Taken from the ‘The Birmingham Mail’ via ‘The Lichfield Mercury’.

Once the performance had ended, the dancers bowed to those of us in the cheap seats and went for lunch inside the hall, which has been home to the Bagot family since 1360. Afterwards, they would head back to Abbots Bromley, to perform the dance through the lanes and outside the pubs of the village, returning the horns to the church of St Nicholas at around 8 o’clock that evening. I was heading back to Lichfield, but thought there might just be time to pay a visit to a church myself.  “St Leonard’s is just over there at the back of the hall…”, explained a man selling guide books from a stall “….but you can’t go that way unless you live there”. He did explain how non-Bagots could get to the church but on the way back to the car I got sidetracked by another stall selling honey, and so the church had to wait for another day.

The Church of St Leonards

The Church of St Leonard

Another day came at the start of October. The church door, beautifully decorated with autumn leaves, was unfortunately locked.

Blithfield church door

I had to break the news to my Mum that we wouldn’t be able to see Staffordshire’s only surviving pillar piscina, dating from the early twelfth century. Oddly, she didn’t seem too bothered….It turned out that being restricted to the outside of the church was actually a blessing in disguise as the exterior of St Leonard’s turned out to be a very interesting place indeed.

Built into the red-brick, eighteenth century wall which separates the churchyard from the grounds of Blithfield Hall is a gateway (also locked!), which looks ancient but actually only dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. This is clearly the Bagot family short-cut to the church that I had heard about at the Horn Dance. A little more difficult to find is a satisfying explanation for the circular feature, also built into the wall, which appears to have been added around the same time.

Blithfield Wall 1

A hole in the wall

A hole in the wall

According to a description in the Lichfield Mercury, as part of their 1891 series ‘Sketches in and around Rugeley’, it was, “formed for the purposes of seeing when the parson came to church so that the Squire might not be kept waiting longer than was necessary in a cold church”. I’m not convinced by this but it’s all I’ve got at present.

After looking through the round window, anyone over the age of twenty five may be quite excited to hear that there’s also an arch and a square here.  Anyone younger than that won’t have a clue what I’m talking about. Anyway, as these are niches than windows, it’s more a case of looking into, rather than through them.

Effigy Blithfield

The arch is found on the south side of the church, sheltering the thirteenth century effigy of a priest. A comparison with this drawing of 1823 shows that sometime time can diminish rather than increase the lines on a face.

Blithfield tomb decoration

A late seventeenth century marble plaque with Latin script implores us to pray for the soul of Alfred, priest of Hulcrob. Records show that the words on the tablet were originally written around the arch in letters of gold but these have long since been erased by time. Faded painted patterns still remain on the interior curve of the arch though and it seems reasonable to assume that these would have been part of this decorative inscription? There are also several ‘graffiti’ marks carved into the stone here, at least one of which appears to be a ritual protection mark associated with the Virgin Mary.

graffiti blithfield Blithfield effigy arch

On the north side of the church, near to the tower, is the feature I’m calling a square but which the Lichfield Mercury article describes as, “a curious recess, the use of which it seems very difficult to determine. It could have had no communication with the inside of the church, for it is in the thickness of the wall of the nave, and being outside it can hardly been of any use as an aumbry“. In ‘Collections for a History of Staffordshire’ (1919), its similarity to an aumbry is also noted, leading the author to speculate that this may once have been an interior wall and that possibly there may have been an annexe or a anchorite’s cell here. All I can spy with my non-expert eye is that it does look as though it may once have been covered by a grille or a door, although I’m not sure whether the actual bits of rusty grate lying inside it are a clue or a red herring.

niche blithbury church wall

Alongside the various memorials belonging to members of the Bagot family (although many of these are inside the church itself) are those belonging to people who, like most of us, would have had to come the long way round.

headstones blithfield

Headston Blithfield

Blithfield Gardeners headstone

Allen headstone Blithfueld

I was always concerned that an interest in graveyards was a little morbid but the excellent talk David Moore did on symbolism in cemeteries for Lichfield Discovered recently reassured me that graveyards are as much about life as death. And not just human life either….

Lichen gravestone Blithfield

Blithfield red lichen

(1) Funnily enough, I understand that pigs’ bladders (amongst many other things) were also used as a form of contraception in times gone by. Perhaps it’s only the inflated ones you have to worry about…

Sources:

Blithfield: An Illustrated Guide and History by Nancy, Lady Bagot (1979)

http://www.medieval-graffiti.co.uk/

http://www.pastscape.org.uk/

Lichfield Mercury Archive

Collections for a History of Staffordshire (1919) Edited by The William Salt Archaeological Society

Daisy, Daisy

Recently, I’ve spent more time in churches than ever before in my life (with the possible exception of the Summer of 2004, when I went to so many weddings that I was able to recite 1 Corinthians 13 off by heart). When I was younger, history for me was all about the castles. Churches were boring. The only remotely interesting thing about them was that, with their crenellations, some of them looked a bit like castles. Now I know that they can tell stories just as good as any castle, but you just need to know where to look.

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Before even stepping inside All Saints in Kings Bromley, there are plenty of interesting tales. ‘Lady Godiva’s’ cross in the churchyard, originally dates back to the 14th century, but was restored in 1897.

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I was delighted but intrigued to see a reference to one of my childhood heroines here. The story I knew as a little girl was that Godiva pleaded with her husband Leofric, Earl of Mercia, to reduce the taxes he imposed on the people of Coventry. Leofric tried calling her bluff by saying he would do so, if she rode through the marketplace in the buff. Unfortunately for him, his wife not only had compassion, but also really, really long hair which according to Roger of Wendover who first recorded the story, ‘covered the whole of her body like a veil’, as she climbed onto her horse and successfully carried out her legendary protest. The connection with Kings Bromley is that Godiva and Leofric had a summer residence or hunting lodge here, where Leofric died in 1057 and may well have been involved with an earlier church which could have stood on this site.

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Unlike others I’ve seen recently, I’m pleased to say the church itself hasn’t been fully restored by those pesky Victorians, but has a range of architectural styles and features dating back to at least the eleventh century, but possibly even earlier than that – the HER description says that this is an Anglo-Saxon wall, and somewhere within it there is possibly even a Romano-British brick. On a buttress near to this ancient wall is a medieval scratch dial which, with the assistance of the sun, would once have helped the priest be on time for mass. On the buttress in-between the porch and the sixteenth century tower there is another carving, but unlike the scratch dial, no-one is quite sure of its significance.

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The daisy wheel carving is described as a mason’s mark in the churches information sheet. Although this is the first I’ve seen, this symbol regularly crops up on old buildings, especially churches. Whilst some believe these carvings have a practical function, others believe they were carved for good luck or protection against evil spirits.

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On a bit of a tangent, on the subject of childhood and daisies and folklore, I did wonder about some of the little rituals surrounding these flowers that we unthinkingly carried out as kids. The name is thought to come from the old English ‘Daes Eage’ meaning ‘day’s eye’, and refers to the way the flower opens and closes with sunlight. I’ve read that wearing daisy chains was thought to protect you from being abducted by fairies (must work, I’m still here!) and that one of its folk names is ‘Measure of Love’, from the game where you pull off the petals one by one, chanting, ‘He loves me, he loves me not’. Apparently, there is another less risky version of this game in which you chant, ‘He loves me, he loves me lots’. If only someone had told me this at the time, I wouldn’t have had to cheat so much.

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Anyway, as it says in those half remembered lines from Corinthians, I’ve put away childish things. Well, most of them anyway….

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Sources

http://www.medievalgraffitisurrey.org/circles.html

An Old Wives' Tale

Inside the south porch of St James the Great at Longdon, above the inner door which leads in to the rest of the church, there is a Norman archway. There’s a Green Man (more information on him and his mysterious origins here) here, carved onto one of the capitals, and below this is the ‘Bride’s Hand’, a rough carving of a hand, with a heart in its centre. According to the church’s visitor guide, the name relates to the old tradition that women arriving at the church to be wed would place their own hand on the carved one, in the hope that it would bring happiness and fertility to their marriage. Apparently, some Longdon brides still observe this custom.

Until I did some reading on the subject,  I had no idea how much the rite of marriage has changed over the centuries. I understand that until the Reformation, the majority of the wedding ceremony, including the exchanging of rings and vows, would take place here at the doors of the church and it seems it was only after the couple were husband and wife that they would enter the church, for a nuptial mass.

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The Bride’s Hand

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Inner door of south porch with Norman arch

 

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Green Man at Longdon

The Staffs Past Track site has a photograph of the ‘Bride’s Hand’ taken in 1950 and as well as mentioning the above custom, the caption also says that it is believed to be a talisman against the evil eye. Until a fortnight ago, I knew nothing of the symbolism that could be contained within a hand. In Hoar Cross, I came across a hand shaped door knocker, something I assumed meant nothing more than a quirky taste in door furniture. However, when Joss Musgrove Knibb, of the Lichfield Gazette, told me that a similar style of knocker was popular in the Mediterranean, I did more reading. I know that jumping to conclusions about ancient beliefs based on an hour of googling is not advisable. But I’m going to do it anyway.

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Door knocker at Hoar Cross

It seems that the symbol of a hand predates the three Abrahamic religions, but that it appears in all three. In Islam, it is the ‘Hamsa’, sometimes known as ‘the hand of Fatima’ and in Judaism it is known as ‘Hamesh’,or ‘the hand of Miriam’. Although the symbol seems less popular in Christianity, it is apparently known as ‘the Hand of Mary’.

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Madonna’s Head in between the arches of the Stonywell Chapel, inside the church

So, it seems this symbol is associated with women, and I’ve seen it mentioned a couple of times, although admittedly only on Wikipedia and a couple of other non-academic sites, that it has connections to fertility and pregnancy.  I’ve also read that an eye was sometimes added to the centre of the palm, to make its power to avert the evil even stronger. Here at Longdon, in place of an eye, we have a heart. Don’t we?

Of course, the hand at Longdon may ‘just’ be a bit of graffiti, that’s been adopted as a bit of superstition, but who carved it here at Longdon, and when and why? I’ve been to a fair few churches, and have never come across this before. The positioning and the known use of the hand as a protective symbol, does make you wonder….gives the concept of a ‘hand in marriage’ a whole new perspective!

Sources:

The Parish Church of St James the Great – A Guide for the Visitor

For Better, for Worse: British Marriages, 1600 to the Present by John R. Gillis

http://voyseyandjones.wordpress.com/tag/fatima-hand-door-knocker/

http://israelity.com/tag/archeology/