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

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Wolverhampton Wandering

I had to pop into Wolverhampton today. I knew from my search for an ancient cross in Lichfield a couple of years back that there was a Saxon cross shaft here and went to find it.  Unlike the Lichfield cross, I didn’t have to try too hard – it’s huge! Its size, and also the fact that it is made from sandstone not found in Wolverhampton, has led some archaeology types to suggest that it is probably a reused Roman column, possibly from Wroxeter or even just up the road in Wall.

Saxon Cross Shaft, WolverhamptonThe elements and pollution have not treated the shaft kindly but its still clear that this was an incredible piece of craftmanship – the Black Country History website describes it as, ‘one of the finest cross shafts in the Midlands’. The carvings of acanthus leaves which decorate the shaft alongside those of birds and beasts have given archaeologists some problems when trying to establish a date as they suggest different periods. The plaque accompanying the shaft in the churchyard has decided to go with the earlier date of the ninth century, whilst others believe late tenth century is more accurate.

Cross Shaft Wolverhampton

On the way out of the churchyard I noticed another stone with a good back story. Known as the Bargain Stone, its said to be where the good (and probably not so good) folk of Wolverhampton would agree sales and make deals by shaking hands through the hole. The nearby plaque suggests it is an old gargoyle and the hole is what remains of its mouth.

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Talking of hands, why didn’t it occur to me to put my hands over the railings to take a better photo?

As if ancient crosses and stones weren’t enough of a treat, we also found Holden’s Brewery’s Great Western near to the train station. This is a proper pub – cobs on the bar, Holden’s Golden Glow (amongst other delights) on tap and really friendly staff. Although we were tempted to sit outside in the sun, the interior was so quirky and there was such a nice atmosphere, we sat inside.

Great Western

Wished I’d got the train. Definitely not driving next time.

The Great Western

The great Great Western

We walked off our pork baps with a little bit of a wander around the city streets. This building caught my eye, not only because it has no floors, meaning you can see down into the cellar, but also because of the handwritten sign someone had stuck to the window.

SAM_0045SAM_0046I’m not sure a traffic warden would be the person I’d turn to in a trapped bird scenario but maybe they do things differently in Wolverhampton.

Another perplexing sign is the one suggesting that the half timbered building on the junction of Victoria St and St John’s Lane was built in AD1300. It wasn’t and no-one knows the reason behind the claim – the best suggestions anyone has seems to be that it was some kind of joke to emphasise that it was a really, really old building! It more likely dates back to the seventeenth century when it was once an inn known as The Hand. These days its home to Wolverhampton Books & Collectables, where you can buy anything from an ancient tome on the history of Staffordshire to a souvenir 1950s Wolverhampton Wanderers hankerchief (which you may, or may not, wish to blow your nose on, depending on your allegiances…).

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We took the scenic route back to Lichfield (not through choice but because I went the wrong way on the ring road), passing through Wednesfield, Sneyd, the intriguingly named New Invention and Brownhills before stopping off at Waitrose for a couple bottles of Golden Glow.

Sources:

http://blackcountryhistory.org/collections/getrecord/WOHER_MBL337/

http://www.historywebsite.co.uk/listed/lindylou.htm

The Two Towers

With ‘Heritage at Risk’ the theme of our Lichfield Discovered meeting this month, I was having a flick through the English Heritage At Risk Register to see whether there were any other buildings in the district keeping the Angel Croft Hotel company on the list. It seems much of what’s considered ‘at risk’ in these parts is landscape features – a causewayed enclosure and settlement sites in Fradley/Streethay, a round barrow at Alrewas and a site near Elford, although built heritage does appear in the form of the walls and gate piers at Colton House, the ruined remains of an old manor house at Hamstall Ridware and the old church tower at Shenstone. The inclusion of the latter was of particular interest as I’d been there for a nose just days before.

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When the present church of St John’s was built in the 1850s, the existing church was partly demolished leaving just the tower and the south door visible. Time and nature are doing their best to finish the job the Victorians started – English Heritage have assessed it as being category A meaning that it is at ‘Immediate risk of further rapid deterioration or loss of fabric; no solution agreed’.

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The tower had a wooden ladder but no staircase

The ruins are thought to incorporate Norman features and possibly some Anglo-Saxon masonry.

As you’d expect, many of the village’s old residents are to be found here in their eternal rest. According to William Pitt, at least one of them did not go gentle into that good night – Susannah Southwell of Shenstone was married at the age of 112 (although he doesn’t record how old the groom was nor how long it was until death did them part). The Wikipedia entry for Shenstone says that a 2007 survey found that it was one of the ten worst places in England for finding single women. Perhaps that’s always been the case?

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Local sandstone was used to build both new and old churches and it’s this geology that caused David Horovitz to question whether the place name Shenstone really does mean ‘shining stone’, suggesting that sandstone could “hardly be described as ‘bright, shining or beautiful'” (although anyone who has seen Lichfield Cathedral glowing in the late afternoon sunshine may well disagree). Mr Horovitz has suggested that Shenstone may instead refer to a personal name, or even to stone monuments left behind by the Romans (remains of a villa have been discovered on the outskirts of the village and Wall is only around a mile away).One of the reasons I love the study of place names is that it can give us a glimpse of somewhere as seen through the eyes of people who once lived there hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago. The view can be a little hazy though and sometimes we can only guess at why our ancestors chose the descriptions they did.

Whatever the true meaning may be, it is the ‘shining stone’ theory that inspired Jo Naden’s steel sculpture for the village’s Lammas Land in 2002, described by the invaluable PMSA website as follows, “(The artist) chose to site her sculpture in the Black Brook, which runs through the Lammas Lands used by the Celts as a site for harvest festival rites, in order to make a connection with Celtic culture. Trees, held sacred by the Celts, are reflected in the mirror finish of the stainless steel, while the text inscribed on it* is taken from the words of an unknown ninth-century Irish author. The placing of the stone at a point near where a bridge built on a north-south orientation crosses a stream running from west to east would have been considered sacred by the Celts because it symbolised the meeting of polar opposites”.
*A flock of birds settle ….. the green field re- echoes where there is a brisk bright stream

I stood on the little footbridge watching the swollen Black Brook flow over the sculpture for a few minutes until I was ordered off by a toddler clutching a handful of twigs ready to make an offering of pooh sticks to the water at this sacred spot.

SAM_9843SAM_9842Sources:

A Landscape Survey of the Parish of Shenstone, edited by Richard Totty for The Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society Lichfield 2009

A Topographical History of Staffordshire, William Pitt

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

Sweet Bells

One Saturday morning, as I sat reading in Lichfield Library, I heard a clip clopping in the street outside. Standing up to look out of the window, I saw a horse and carriage making its way up Bird St. It occurred to me that this was a sound and a sight that people would not have batted an eyelid nor an eardrum at in previous centuries, yet to my twenty first century ears, it was something so out of the normal it warranted me putting down a good book to have a shufty.

More often than not, when we explore the way our towns and cities have changed, it’s the visual changes that we concentrate on – old photographs, old maps, landscape features etc. Yet the sounds of places change too e.g. the pools at Leomansley are quiet and still now that the waterwheel of the mill no longer turns, the sounds of animals at the Smithfield have been replaced by those of cars and shoppers and Beacon Street hasn’t heard a blacksmith hammering metal in a long time. However, amidst the changes, there is also consistency in the sounds that surround us.

The tower at St Chad’s church houses four bells. Three of them were cast in the seventeenth century and the oldest of these three dates to 1625 with the inscription ‘DOMINO CANTICUM CANTATE NOVUM’. The second is from 1664 and declares ‘GOD SAVE THIS CHURCH AND REALM THE KING IN WAR, I.C.1664. Even the youngest of the three, featuring the names Ralph Low and Richard Grimley, is from 1670 meaning that the people of the parish and those who are passing by have heard these bells ring out for well over three hundred years. The fourth bell is even older still, although no one can agree on just how old. An article in the Lichfield Mercury in August 1936 described it as ‘England’s Oldest Bell’, and gives it a date of 1033. As it stands, the country’s oldest inscribed bell is believed to be the Gargate Bell at Caversfield Church, Oxfordshire, dating to c.1215AD and the country’s oldest dated bell (1245AD) is at Lisset Church in Easy Yorkshire. Therefore if this date of 1033AD were true, we would probably have a another Lichfield Entry in the Guiness Book of Records (to go alongside the largest curry ever, cooked by Abdul Salam of Eastern Eye on Bird St). Yet, the St Chad’s website itself casts doubt on this claim as there wasn’t a tower to put a bell in at the church at this time! Another date suggested for the bell is 1255 but the County History also disputes this and says that it was probably cast at Nottingham c.1500AD. There is an inscription on the bell +O BEATE MARIAA.A.R. and some numerals that no-one can read, hence the enigma. I’d love to see it. Not that I would be any help at all in solving the mystery but you know I’d just like to have a look at it. See I’m not satisfied with simply hearing it – there’s that visual dominance of history taking over again.

I have actually been at the other end of the bell rope. After I stumbled upon a practice session on another Saturday morning, I took up a kind offer to have a go at ringing one of the St Chad’s bells myself. Whilst at the time I was too terrified of having a campanology related mishap to fully appreciate the moment, afterwards I thought of all the people that had rung those bells in the past, and all those who had heard them and the message they were conveying. Next time, you’re passing, stop for a moment and listen too.

Sources:

Lichfield: Churches’, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield (1990), pp. 134-155

http://saintchads.weebly.com/the-bells.html

Wall Street Journal

Sunny days should be spent out and about under blue skies, not shopping for bathroom suites in Cannock. However, needs must and afterwards we made up for it by continuing the bath theme in much more pleasant surroundings, spending the afternoon at the Roman bath house at Wall. Although it’s only about three miles away from Leomansley, it’s a while since I’ve been to the ruins of the Roman settlement of Letocetum. My last visit  was in 2011,during an open day organised by the Friends of Letocetum for the National Archaeology Festival. Another visitor on that day, who sadly I didn’t meet, was the late Mick Aston (wearing a stripy jumper of course!), who had one of his first experiences of archaeology at the site as a young man under the guidance of Jim Gould FSA.

Remains of the guest house and bath house at the Roman settlement of Letocetum

Roman occupation at the site is thought to have begun with the establishment of a military site to protect this important route, later developing into a staging post where those travelling along Watling St could rest and recuperate at the guest house and bath house, (it is the remains of these buildings which are still visible) and eventually a small town.  You can see another Roman road, running between the remains of the two buildings on the site, with some of the original cobbles still intact.

Not quite on Watling Street scale, but a Roman road nonetheless.

After looking around the ruins, we followed the Wall Heritage Walk (available from the museum) which took us along more ancient routes – the greenways and sunken lanes that surround the village, thought to be old drovers’ roads.

I’m including this, not because I fancy myself as a wildlife photographer, but because I am grateful to the subject for being the only butterfly ever to have stayed still long enough for me to take a photo!

As well as enjoying the views and the wildlife of the hedgerows, I also couldn’t help looking out for buildings in the area that had used stone from the ready made quarry nearby!

Are these Roman stones I wonder?

One of the lanes runs past St John’s church. Built in the late 1830s, in comparison to the ruins it overlooks, it’s a young whippersnapper of a building. The architects were George Gilbert Scott and William Bonython Moffat, who it seems were also working on Lichfield’s new workhouse at St Michael’s around the same time.

One of the questions that seems to be subject to much discussion here is, could earlier places of worship once have existed on the site? There has been speculation that there was once a shrine to Minerva here, based on an account of a man who worked draining the lands around Wall. Asked if he had ever found anything in the course of his work, he told how as well as finding lots of old coins, he once found an earthenware figure that he described as being as big as a man, but not a man due to having a bust, and also not a woman as it had a queer dress and a man’s cap like a soldier’s helmet. And what did he do with this amazing find? Prepare to weep – he used it to mend a drain.

However, before getting too upset we can perhaps take some comfort in the fact that Jim Gould (who as well as working extensively at Wall explored and wrote about the archaeology of many of the other sites around here) was not convinced that the statue ever existed, the story being “from an unknown source, of the finding of an impossible statue, by an un-named man, at an unknown spot and date (1). A good lesson that no matter how appealing some stories may seem, they should be taken cum grano salis. 

Entry is free but the museum is only open on certain weekends so check first!

Thanks to archaeologists like Mr Gould and others, a great deal of the history and significance of the site has already been discovered, although it seems there are still plenty of crop marks and questions out there (including the relationship between Letocetum and what was to become Lichfield) to keep future generations of archaeologists busy. However, just as sunny days ideally shouldn’t be spent shopping on retail parks, places such as Wall ideally shouldn’t be explored through words and photographs along, but physically instead. The museum even has a collection of objects you can touch! Instead of using this post to further summarise the history of the site (especially as others will have done a far superior job elsewhere!),  I’d rather encourage you to go and have a look for yourself.  In case you need any further convincing, entrance to the ruins and the museum is free and the heritage leaflet I picked up there was worth every one of the 20 pennies I paid for it.

Slightly gratuitous photo of Roman army re-enactors, English Heritage Festival of History 2011

Sources:

(1) http://www.sahs.uk.net/Volume%20XXXIII.pdf

Wall Heritage Walk

Pastscape Record for Letocetum

Christ Church Open Day

I’m delighted to see that Christ Church, Lichfield is having an open day. On Saturday 9th March, between 10am and 4pm, visitors will be able to explore this wonderful Victorian building and its architectural features, including the lovely chancel ceiling, original Minton tiles and stained glass, with the help of local history enthusiasts.

The grounds are lovely at this time of year, and a quick check of my photographs from last March tells me that the wild garlic and daffodils should be coming through in the lane alongside the church, so don’t forget to have a look outside as well as in.  There are also the intriguing stone heads around the inside and outside the building, that I wrote about back in January and am still none the wiser about (although I did see some very similar ones at St Michael’s –  a church that Thomas Johnson the architect was involved in restoring a few years before her started work here at Christ Church)!

The open day is being run by the new Friends of Christ Church, a group whose aim is to support the preservation, conservation and enhancement of the church and its grounds. I understand that anyone who becomes a member will receive an annual newsletter with details of upcoming events and projects to get involved in, and also a copy of the excellent book “Christchurch: A History”, which tells the story of the church, and the associated buildings in the area such as Christ Church School, The Old Vicarage, the cottage in the churchyard and Beacon Place (gone but not without a trace….).

More information can be found at www.christchurch-lichfield.org.uk/events or by email friendsofccl@btinternet.com.

 

Elegy Written in a Lichfield Churchyard

Many churches dedicated to St Michael are found on hills. Lichfield’s St Michael’s of course is at Greenhill, on a sandstone ridge 104 metres above sea level.   It’s thought a church has been on the site since 1190, but that the surrounding churchyard is older. There are hints as to this earlier history of this site, but as far as I can see things are still very much at the questions, rather than answers stage. Many people believe the position of the church on a hill, and its dedication to St Michael may indicate a previous pagan site.   I hadn’t realised until reading that the crypt was liable to flooding, that there are natural springs on the hill. Is this relevant to the story, and if so, how?

The answers we do have were, of course, mostly provided by archaeology. Evidence suggests there may have been activity here in the mesolithic era. In 1978, an excavation in the South East corner of the churchyard discovered five flints (albeit not in a primary context).

Four years earlier, the building of a new vestry at the church gave archaeologists the opportunity to open a trench. Unsurprisingly for a churchyard they discovered human remains – forty nin complete or partial skeletons. Of these, all but two were buried in the customary Christian manner, with their head to the west. However the head of ‘Skeleton 21’, was to the east. Apparently, this can sometimes suggest that the remains of a Christian priest have been uncovered. By being buried with their feet to the west they were ready to rise and face their flock on judgement day, as they had done in life. However, the archaeologist noted the absence of a chalice and patten, objects that priests were often buried with (as was the case with the remains of the priest near the old leper hospital in Freeford).  ‘Skeleton 58’ also differed from the others being buried with his/her knees tucked under the chin. This crouched burial style is apparently more associated with Pre-Norman conquest burials, although I’m still doing some background reading to try and shed more light on what exactly this kind of burial is thought to signify in this context.

The archaeology report also mentions skeletons 2 and 8,  those of an adult, and a baby placed on the adult’s shoulder, and speculates this may be a woman who died in childbirth. It’s discoveries like this, I think, that remind you that these were real people with real lives (that were all too short in many cases).

By the mid 16th century, church records are kept (I’ve used those transcribed by Harwood), and begin to tell us a much more detailed story of the churchyard,  enabling us to gives names and identities to those laid to rest here. For example, this is the entry for 1560

– Recevyd for the ffyrst grasse of the Churche Yarde
– for the later Grasse of the Churche Yarde
– of gatherynge in Easter Wyke
– for light at the buryall of Jamys Bywater’s Wyffe and her Chylde
– for light at the monthe mynde of Roberte Walker
– for light at the monthe mynde of Roger Walker
– for light at the buryall of a Chylde of the Walle
– for light at the mynnynge of Mr Swynfen
– for light at the buryall of Roberte Cowper’s Wyffe

The church records also records costs for ‘killing molldiwarps’ in 1597, bestowing ‘on the workmen at several tymes in beare and ale’ in 1602, and money ‘payd for catching urchins’ in 1612 (urchins meant hedgehogs. I hope!).

While some things never change – a footnote tells how a person named Hollingbury was tried at Lichfield in 1612 for stealing lead from the church, others thankfully have – ‘William Key of Bliffeld and Nicholas Hatherton of Lichfield two prisoners condemned according to the Laws of this land and executed here at this Cittie were both buryed in one grave the 17th day of October 1592’.

There are still those buried at a later date whose names are not specifically recorded. An entry in the register says that for ‘From April 14 1642 to Feb 19 1645 were buried twenty five soldiers’, and I’ve either read or been told that victims of the plagues that struck Lichfield (51 per cent of Lichfield’s population died of plague in 1593-4, and 32 per cent, in 1645-6) were buried in pits here.

The majority of headstones seem to date from the 18th century onwards, although there may be earlier memorials here. I have seen examples of gravestones dating back to the early 1600s in other churchyards, such as this one at Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire.

Examples older gravestones at Southwell Minster

Of course, some people, presumably those wealthy citizens of the city, even erected monuments like this well known one belonging to Chancellor Law, which used to have a clock in the centre.

As with many places, we might never get definitive answers about the origins of St Michael’s churchyard, but who knows? As we’ve seen before, one discovery can change everything. And in the meantime, it’s a fascinating part of the city to keep asking questions about!

Sources

Gould, Dorothy & Gould, J 1974-5 `St Michael’s churchyard, Lichfield, Staffs’ Trans S Staffordshire Archaeol Hist Soc 16 58-61 

The history and antiquities of the church and city of Lichfield by Thomas Harwood