Heaven and Earth

Without wishing to state the obvious, this blog is called Lichfield Lore. Sometimes I’m worried that I might go too far (in a geographical rather than controversial sense) but although I’ve overstepped the Lichfield boundary from time to time, I have at least remained in Staffordshire. Until now.

Last month, a group of us from Lichfield Discovered, crossed the border into Derbyshire to visit Repton which, between the seventh and ninth centuries, had been one of the main residences of of the Mercian royal family. In 653AD, Peada, son of the pagan King Penda converted to Christianity in order to marry Alhflæd (sp?), the daughter of King Oswy of Northumbria. To help him to convert the rest of the kingdom, he employed four monks from Lindisfarne  – Adda, Betti, Cedd and Diuma, the latter of whom would become the first Bishop of Mercia (1). However, Peada and Alhflæd do not appear to have been a match made in Heaven nor Neorxnawang. The Venerable Bede reported in his Historia Ecclesiastica that Peada was murdered in 656AD “wickedly killed by the treachery, as is said, of his wife during the very time of celebrating Easter”. 

Church of St Wystan, Repton. Photo by David Moore

Church of St Wystan, Repton. Photo by David Moore

Rather fitting then that it was death which brought us to the ‘cradle of Christianity in the Midlands’. Although Peada is not buried here, the eighth century Anglo-Saxon crypt beneath the church was used as a mausoleum for later members of the Mercian royal family, including King Æthelbald ( ‘treacherously murdered at night by his own bodyguards’ says Bede), King Wiglaf (cause of death unknown) and his grandson Wigstan (murdered by a family member, who he objected to marrying his widowed mother. Seems his concerns were well-founded). The exact place where Wigstan was scalped is not known (Wistow in Leicestershire and Wistanstow in Shropshire both have claims) but wherever it was, it’s said that on the anniversary of his death each year, human hair grows from the earth at the spot where his blood was spilt (2). This supposed phenomenon and other miracles, led to the canonization of Wigstan, who became known as St Wystan. The crypt became a place of pilgrimage and the church above it took his name.

The crypt at Repton. Photo by David Moore.

The crypt at Repton. Photo by David Moore.

In the early eleventh century, King Cnut ordered the holy bones to be moved to Evesham Abbey and in the centuries which followed, the entrances to the crypt were sealed and its existence forgotten until 1779, when someone digging a grave for the headmaster of Repton School broke through the vaulting and fell into it. We made our entrance in a rather more conventional way.

crypt stairs

Down to the crypt and into the eighth century. Photo by David Moore.

From Repton, we headed to the Anchor Church, four connected caves alongside the River Trent, which both nature and humans had a hand in forming. I confess that the time I should have spent on the logistics of the trip was instead spent at the Whippet Inn, and so it took a bit of finding with just a postcode to guide us. However, when we did finally arrive we were pleased to see that, although thick with mud, the often flooded path that would take us to the ‘church’ was just about passable.

Inside the caves. Photo by Andy Walker.

Inside the caves. Photo by Andy Walker.

Legend has it that in the sixth or seventh century, the caves were occupied by a hermit, who spent his time here going to the river to pray. Later, the caves were supposedly inhabited by a monk called Bernard who spent his last days here, repenting for his part in the deception which persuaded returning crusader Hugh de Burdett that his wife Johanne had been unfaithful. The story goes that Hugh cut off her left hand, leaving her to bleed to death over the altar cloth she’d been embroidering for him using her own hair (what’s with the hair obsession around here?).  On a more cheerful note, in the eighteenth century, Sir Francis Burdett (presumably one of Hugh’s descendants) used the caves and riverbanks as a venue for picnics, as shall we when we visit again in the Summer.

The Anchor Church near Ingleby. Photo by David Moore.

The Anchor Church near Ingleby. Photo by David Moore.

On our way back to the cars, there was a blood-curdling scream. Had one of our party met with the ghost of Johanne searching for her lost hand or had they lost their footing and fallen victim to the mud?  No, Carol just had something in her shoe. One of those funny at the time but you really had to be there moments admittedly, but I mention it because this is what I remember first and most fondly when I think of our trip. I love places for their stories and their connections to the people of the past, but even more so for the memories made by visiting them with people in the here and now.

repton group

Looking for pirahanas in the River Trent. Photo by David Moore.

Notes

(1) In 669, Chad, brother of Cedd and the fourth Bishop of Mercia moved the See from Repton to Lichfield (phew, it is relevant to Lichfield after all!)

(2) There’s another Lichfield Discovered trip right there. Who is free on the first of June? We’ll have to split up though, gang….

(3) Another Lichfield link – in 1364 an armed mob at Repton attacked the Bishop of Lichfield and the Prior. Actually, finding places with a tenuous link to Lichfield could be a whole blog post in its own.

References

http://www.reptonchurch.org.uk/

Repton and its Neighbourhood by F C Hipkins

The Oxford Dictionary of Saints by David Hugh Farmer

http://jimjarratt.co.uk/follies/page57.html

https://lichfieldlore.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/anchor_a3.pdf

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My Bloody Valentine

For those of you who aren’t feeling the love for Valentines Day, here’s some black magic. And I’m not talking chocolates. In his Lichfield Mercury column ‘Historical Gleanings – Lichfield Over a Century Ago’, JW Jackson recalled the following article in a local paper from 1836,

“On Saturday, the sexton of a certain church observing an elegantly dressed female walking mysteriously up and down the churchyard, watched her secretly, when he saw her rake up the earth with her foot and, after depositing something in the ground, cover it up. Induced by curiosity he opened up the place and found a hare’s heart in which 365 pins were stuck buried there. It was an old superstition in this county that if a person who had been foresaken by one professing love for her shall bury a hare’s heart full of pins near a newly made grave in the churchyard, as the heart decays, so the health of the faithless swain will decline, and that he will die when it has mouldered to dust. The fair deceived one had been instigated by revenge to this act of folly and credulity.”

 

Getting revenge on a faithless swain. Sweeter than a whole box of Thorntons. Frederick William Hackwood also mentions a similar practice in his Mercury column on “Staffordshire Superstitions’ (1923), ‘Among the lingering superstitions are present-day memories of an old woman given to witchcraft sticking a bullock’s heart full of pins with the vicious intent of piercing the heart of some deadly enemy with whom she had quarrelled beyond all hopes of forgiveness or reconciliation”.

Luckily, a defence against these dark arts did exist.  In a book published by the Folklore Society in 1890, Alexander M McAldowie tells of two witch brooches which his brother Robert found in Staffordshire.   One was discussed in a section of the 1896 Journal of the British Archaeological Society called ‘Notes on North Staffordshire’ and is described as being heart-shaped with unequal sides, little more than an inch in height and made of silver with eighteen crystals. Apparently, these talismans were often bought alongside wedding rings and would keep the wearer safe from harm. In a post on witch brooches, the Spyders of Burslem blog includes the notes given to the North Staffordshire Field Club in 1891 by Robert McAldowie. What’s extra interesting for us here is that he mentions a witch brooch he got in Lichfield from a jeweller who had bought two of them from an old servant of a family once living near the city but had melted one down for silver.

I’ve not managed to track down the whereabouts of any the Staffordshire brooches yet, assuming they even still exist. There is a Victorian one for sale on a vintage site here if you want a belated present that looks pretty and has the added bonus of protecting your beloved from witches and evil in general.

Antique Victorian Witch Brooch. Image from rubylane.com

Antique Victorian Witch Brooch. Image from rubylane.com

However, if it’s a hare’s or bullock’s heart you’re after, I’m afraid I can’t help you. Try Waitrose.

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

Bad Neighbours

Legend has it that in July 1403, two feuding neighbours from opposite sides of the River Trent set out to fight on opposite sides at the Battle of Shrewsbury. Sir William Handsacre was for the rebel Sir Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy and loyal to King Henry IV was Sir Robert Mavesyn, whose name was said to derive from the French malvoisin meaning ‘dangerous neighbour’. At Bridge Meadow, near to the site of High Bridge, it’s believed that the paths of the two enemies crossed, as did their swords. Living up to his name, Mavesyn killed Handsacre but his victory was short-lived and he met his end at the Battle of Shrewsbury, ‘standing with the King and fighting by his side even unto death’, if the epitaph on his tombstone in the church of St Nicholas at Mavesyn Ridware is to be believed.

The church dates to the mid-twelfth century and stands near to the site of the manor house, which Sir Robert would have once called home. The medieval house was replaced in the early eighteenth century by what William Pitt described in 1817 as, ‘a convenient box, pleasantly situated for a summer residence’. However, still in existence and visible from the churchyard is the ancient timber framed gatehouse, built using trees felled in late 1391 or before the spring of 1392, according to dendrochronology.

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The Church of St Nicholas, Mavesyn Ridware

The old gatehouse at Mavesyn Ridware, seen from the churchyard of St Nicholas

The old gatehouse at Mavesyn Ridware, from the churchyard of St Nicholas

The final resting place of Sir William is unknown but in 1866, William Painter of The Red Lion Inn at Handsacre wrote a letter on the matter to George Griffith, author of ‘The Two Houses: A Staffordshire Tragedy’, a dramatic work based on the events of 1403. According to Mr Painter, when the church of St John the Baptist in Armitage was rebuilt in the mid-nineteenth century, a stone coffin was discovered in the north wall. Inside was a skeleton, with a full set of teeth and a sword. Local tradition had it that these were the mortal remains of Sir William Handsacre. (1)

In 1972, Sir William must have turned in his grave (whether in St John’s or elsewhere) when vandals destroyed much of his former home, Handsacre Hall. In a bid to preserve what remained, I understand that the surviving fragments were moved to Avoncroft Museum in Bromsgrove, where again dendrochronology was used to date the timbers, giving a suggested date of around 1310, with some reused timbers from an earlier hall. According to the report by the Staffordshire Archaeological Society, the house had been derelict for at least six years prior to this and a photograph of the building taken around this time can be found on Staffordshire Past Track here. In its heyday it looked like this.  

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Information board at the site of Handsacre Hall

Nowadays the site is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, still surrounded by a moat, ten metres wide and four feet deep, but also by a housing estate. It’s said that on the island in the centre there are visible brick and sandstone remains and no doubt there is plenty of evidence of past lives at the hall below ground. Visiting in high summer, the only thing I could see (and feel unfortunately), were stinging nettles. Will be interesting to see what a return visit in winter will reveal.

Part of the moat which once surrounded Handsacre Hall

Part of the moat which once surrounded Handsacre Hall. And nettles. Lots of nettles…

Sources

Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society Volume XV Transactionf for 1973/4 – Stanley R. Jones Handsacre Hall, Armitage: a note on its destruction

http://ridwarehistory.yolasite.com/mavesyn.php

Staffordshire HER 09638

Greater Medieval Houses of England and Wales, 1300 – 1500: Volume 2 by Anthony Emery

A topographical history of Staffordshire by William Pitt.

Well Wishers

I’ve written previously about how the appearance (and apparently, the actual location!) of St Chad’s well has changed over the years here, but I’ve recently found some contemporary accounts of the well’s previous incarnation – a ‘vertical tube built of engineering bricks, covered with a kind of gloomy sentry-box of stone’, which had apparently become so neglected in the 1940s that only a few inches of stagnant water covered in a green scum remained in the bottom of the pool. (1)

In November 1946, the Bishop of Stafford lamented that the well had once been a place of great pilgrimage but had fallen into a state of neglect and considerable disrepair and in April 1948, E Sutton, a former caretaker of the well, described it as having degenerated into a wishing well. A few weeks later, Mr Sutton submitted a further letter to the Mercury, advising, ‘I have again visited the site and found it in a worse state than on my visit there last Autumn. Then boards covered the Well. These are now removed and the Well is full of rubbish, among brick-bats and wood being a worn out coal bag! I noticed too, among the bricks and stonework lying around in wild confusion the ancient ‘St Chad’s Stone’, which the historian Leland, writing of his visit to the Well some four hundred years ago, states was then believed to be the very stone upon St Chad stood in the icy water as an act of penance, it then being the bottom of the Well. When the small building was erected over the Well in Stuart times, this stone was incorporated into the building, no doubt in order to preserve it. Many hundreds of hands have been placed upon it, mostly with reverence, since. It now lies among the rubbish, one corner broken. A fitting symbol of the ideals of 1948!’ (2)

St Chads Well

St Chad’s Well today

Saint Chad's c.1915. Taken from Wikipedia

Saint Chad’s Well c.1915. Taken from Wikipedia

I’m intrigued by this reference to ‘the ancient St Chad’s stone’. When James Rawson described the site prior to his restoration in the 1830s, he noted that, ‘the well-basin had become filled up with mud and filth; and on top of this impurity a stone had been placed, which was described as the identical stone on which Saint Chad used to kneel and pray!’. Despite Rawson’s apparent scepticism about these claims, was he somehow persuaded to use this stone in his new well structure, thereby perpetuating the myth? I’d love to see what went on in those discussions and I’d really like to know what happened to this legendary stone. St Chad may not have been anywhere near it, but the fact that people believed he had should have made it worth saving for posterity’s sake.

Water in the well

Water in the well

Unfortunately for Mr Sutton, the restoration of the well did not put a stop to people using St Chad’s Well for wishes, as evidenced by the layer of coins that still glint beneath the water, tossed in at some point over the last half century or so. It’s often suggested that this is the continuation of a ritual that our ancestors were carrying out a long, long time before St Chad arrived in Lichfield. Some things change. Some stay the same.

Notes

(1) The octagonal stone well structure erected by Rawson in the 1830s, as described by the Lichfield Mercury on May 6th 1949!

(2) A little off topic, but it’s amusing to see that it’s not just nowadays that letters appear in the Lichfield Mercury suggesting that society is going to hell in a handcart. Once again, some things stay the same…

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