On the Derbyshire and Staffordshire border, a lonely spot has two possible stories attached to its poignant place-name. Many believe that Lads Grave, close to the crossroads just outside of Coton in the Elms, is the final resting place of Phillip Greensmith, a soldier hanged during the Civil War for desertion. The parish registers of All Saints Lullington, record the execution as being carried out, ‘upon a tree at the Green of Coton (in the Elms)’ and note that afterwards, the tree died by degrees. Perhaps it was ashamed of its part in the sorry affair? The other story, as told to the Lichfield Mercury cycling correspondent Maurice Purser in 1997, suggests the lad was a young traveller boy buried at the crossroads.
A quick look at the county’s tithe maps suggests that there are a number of these unorthodox burials scattered across the Staffordshire landscape. In the mid-nineteenth century there was a Dead Lad’s Grave in Penn, Deadman’s Lane in Wednesbury, Chit’s Grave and a Dead Knave Farm House in Sedgley, Old Woman’s Grave in Stanton, a Wilkinson’s Grave in Rolleston, Knock’s Grave (now Knox’s) in Hints, a Beggar’s Grave in Rocester, Dod’s Grave in Standon and a Mare’s Grave in Hopton. Some places are still known by these names although others have faded from maps and memories.
In South Staffordshire, members of the local history society have put up a sign at Dead Woman’s Grave in Codsall Wood. Perhaps we should do the same here in Lichfield to mark the spot once known as Bessy Banks Grave, which according to Anna Seward was, ‘a silent glade that childhood fears, where the love-desperate maid of vanish’d years’ was buried?
Unusual burials aren’t always found at crossroads or by the wayside. In 1728, in a building in the Close called the New College and occupying the site opposite the Cathedral’s south door, the skeleton of a female was found placed upright in a stone wall, a silver bodkin which her hair had been wrapped around on her skull. The author says that recently (the book was written in 1811), another was found in a similar position on moving other old foundations. Who, why, when and where are they now? Nobody seems to known.
One of Staffordshire’s most infamous burials can be found at St Lawrence’s at Rushton Spencer. Well, in theory it can be found if you aren’t a scaredy Kate like me. After a considerable hike to reach it, I can confirm that this 13th century timber framed church encased in 17th century sandstone definitely earns its epithet of ‘The Chapel in the Wilderness’. However, my search for the grave of poor Thomas Meakin, re-buried here after his body was exhumed from the churchyard at St Michael’s, Stone showing evidence of having been poisoned and buried alive, was brought to an abrupt end. Perhaps it was my imagination but when I heard the churchyard gate squeaking, knowing I was the only living person within a mile of the place, I decided I’d had enough of braving the wilderness and legged it. Turns out this girl can run when she’s frit.
Rushton Spencer was originally known as Hugbridge which sounds quite nice and cuddly right? Wrong. Both the old and the new names for the villlage are taken from the name of the local lords of the manor, the dreadful Despensers and this gives us a connection to two more interesting interments. Hugh Despenser the Younger was a favourite and possible lover of Edward II which made him very much not the favourite of lots of other people. Some of his enemies even approached a magician in Coventry to kill both Hugh and the King using witchcraft and wax effigies. However, as Queen Isabella and her consort Roger Mortimer discovered, hanging, drawing and quartering him for treason proved a much more effective way to dispense with Despenser. After his execution in Hereford in 1326, Hugh’s head was stuck on the gates of London and his arms, legs and torso dispersed to Newcastle, York, Dover and Bristol for display. Four year later, his widow was given permission to gather his remains for burial but she only managed to retrieve the head, thigh bone and a few vertebrae. In February 2008, a skeleton which had originally been uncovered by archaeological work at Hulton Abbey in the 1970s was identified by Dr Mary Lewis of the University of Reading as being likely to be the rest of Hugh, given it was missing all of the above body parts, showing signs of a post-death dismemberment, matched the age Despenser was when he died and was discovered on land which would have been owned by his brother-in-law at the time. Even more than half a millenium after his disgrace and dismantling, Despenser remained unpopular. In 2006 he was voted one of the ten worst Britons in history and it’s also rumoured that he ate big dinners.
It’s not the only surprise in a sepulchre at Hulton Abbey. When a medieval tomb belonging to Lady Elizabeth Audley was opened in 1886, her body had decomposed but her two plaits had been preserved giving rise to the hair-raising legend that her locks had continued to grow after her death.
Talking of locks, close by to Rushton Spencer is Rudyard Lake, which gave its name to Mr Kipling (the writer, not the one who makes cakes as my son thought) and has a bridge adorned with examples of a 21st century ritual, adored by some but possibly considered by others to be the most unsettling thing within this entire blog post. I can however assure you that ‘honour’ goes to the sight of me running
Notes on the Churches of Derbyshire by John Charles Cox
A short account of the ancient and modern state of the City and Close of Lichfield and the Cathedral (1818) by Thomas George Lomax
Journal of the British Archaeological Association Volume 2
Staffordshire Sentinel 15th January 1986
Lichfield Mercury 23rd January 1997