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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Encrypted

I first heard of the crypt beneath St Editha’s in Tamworth town centre a couple of years back when Mark from Tamworth Time Hikes visited and wrote about the place (see here). A recent article in the Tamworth Herald reminded me of its existence and so with an hour or so to kill in the town before an appointment, I went to take a look for myself.

St Editha's from Tamworth Castle

St Editha’s from Tamworth Castle

Exisiting stonework shows that the church dates back to at least 1080 but it’s thought the Normans may have built on the site of an existing Saxon church. It’s a wonderful mixture of architectural styles, with some beautiful stained glass and monuments to the great and good (and probably not so good) of Tamworth, plus a rare double spiral staircase in the tower. However, with only limited time, all of these wonders would have to wait for another day as I wanted to focus on the crypt.

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In the 1860s, the entrance was apparently down through a trap door and along a narrow passage. These days the crypt is reached via a flight of steps, making it far more accessible, but perhaps a little less atmospheric, especially as what looks like a Mothercare stairgate has been installed to prevent people tumbling to their doom.  Rightly or wrongly, I’m not the sort of woman who goes around opening stairgates without first seeking permission and so I went over to the bookshop to ask.  Here, I got a little distracted from the task in hand and ended up buying a book on ‘The Castles and Moated Mansions of Staffordshire’ (within which I’m sure lie the beginnings of many future wanderings) but soon got back on track and asked about going down into the crypt. Luckily for me, the church guide was sat in a nearby pew reading a newspaper and he offered to take me down there and tell me all about its history.

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One theory is that seven hundred years ago the crypt was part of a stand alone chapel, that may even have been Saxon in origin. At some point in the fourteenth century it was incorporated into the main church. During the reign of Elizabeth I, it started to be used as a charnel house to accommodate the old bones that were disturbed when new graves were being dug in the churchyard. This remained its purpose until 1869, when the crypt was needed to house a boiler and the bones were returned to the churchyard, reburied in the north east corner. I nearly fell off my plastic chair when we were told that there was a plague pit beneath our feet and coffin lids in the roof above our heads, including one thought to have belonged to a crusader and on which faint carvings can still be seen.

You can just about make out the carvings on what is said to be the stone coffin lid of a crusader

You can just about make out the carvings on what is said to be the stone coffin lid of a crusader

I’m assuming the coffins themselves were destroyed during the Victorian renovations, although one does survive in the main body of the church, near the entrance to the Comberford chapel.

One of the stone coffins can now be found outside the Comberford chapel

One of the stone coffins can now be found outside the Comberford chapel

When Mark wrote about the crypt he included this brilliant drawing of it from a Victorian account of Tamworth by Charles Ferrers Raymund Palmer.

According to Ferrers, when he entered the crypt, the bones were stacked up in very regular order and occupied the whole of the east end, where local folklore had it that a passageway ran from here to the Castle. In trying to find this passageway, Ferrers says he made a path through the bones by ‘carefully piling them aside’ but found ‘nothing there, except the remains of the ancient altar; the stone slab of which is gone’. He was unable to examine the floor at the base of the altar as there was nowhere to store the bones, which were ‘so rotten, that they crumbled to pieces beneath our feet’ as ‘in spite of all our efforts, they returned to our feet, and their dull clatter seemed a reproach to us, for disturbing their long and quiet repose in the sacred place’.

Ferrers is clearly made out of sterner stuff than me. Stood in near darkness with the bones of ancient Tamworthians rolling around his feet he even stayed down the crypt long enough to examine an ancient Latin inscription on the wall. Still visible today, the verse is thought to date back to the fourteenth century and is now protected by glass. Apparently it translates as:

O Lord of wealth and power
Thou shalt not live for evermore
Do well whilst life thou hast
If thou should live when death is past

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Crypt Tamworth

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All the guide wanted in return for his time and knowledge, was a comment in the visitor book. So, if you ever go, and I really hope you do because it’s such an incredible place, don’t forget to sign it on the way out (you may notice a comment from a very enthusiastic and delighted Kate Gomez of Lichfield…)

Sources:

The history of the town and castle of Tamworth by Charles Ferrers Raymund Palmer

A Short History and Tour of St Editha’s Church, Tamworth by Stan T Parry

http://tamworthtimehikes.wordpress.com/2010/12/24/the-crypt/

 

Appeal of Bells

If you heard the bells of St Michael’s ringing out late yesterday afternoon, you were listening to the launch of a restoration fund for the bells, which are in need of essential maintenance work.

According to the churchwardens accounts, the bells have been rung in the past to mark important national occasions, and in the bell tower there are plaques commemorating some of these and more locally significant events.

The blue plaque commemorates the ringing of bells for the marriage of Charles & Diana; the brown one commemorates a farewell peal for the retirement of Prebendary P Howard in 1947

Bell Tower steps

After negotiating the narrow and windy staircase back down into the church, I had a look around the rest of this lovely building. According to the listed building description, although the church is thought to be 13th century in origin (with a 14thc tower), much of the building dates back to the restoration of 1842/3 by Thomas Johnson. However, the church history booklet (a snip at £1.50!) suggests that whilst the church had undoubtedly needed some restoration work at this time, much of this work was  unnecessary and things of historic interest may have been lost. The booklet goes on to say that some of the restoration work was undone at the end of the 19thc.

Royal coat of arms(1711) above the chancel

The royal arms, as seen above the chancel, are from 1711, and replaced an earlier version. I’ve read that after the reformation, anglican churches were encouraged to display the royal coat of arms somewhere prominent, reminding people that the monarch was also head of the Church of England. The custom of displaying the royal arms continued until Victorian times, but these days can be found in only around 15% of churches. You can read more about the Churches Conservation Trust’s guide to Royal Arms in English churches here.

Having previously read that the Marquis of Donegal had erected a spacious family mausoleum near the chancel, I have to confess I was a little disappointed to find no trace at all of the ostentatious Chichesters of Fisherwick Hall. However, the church booklet explained that the rabbit infested mausoleum had been replaced by a stokehold in the 1842/3 restoration, and the bones buried elsewhere. Seems like none of Donegal’s buildings were destined to last long….

The chap below fared a little better than Donegal. Whilst his bones also ended up elsewhere, his effigy survived the ‘restoration’ and is behind a bench in the chancel. It’s thought to be William de Walton who endowed the church with land and died around 1344. I particularly like the inclusion of the faithful dog watching over his master in death.

One man & his dog – William de Walton’s effigy

The church has several other monuments, including most famously, that of Samuel Johnson’s mother, father and brother.

Back outside in the churchyard,  a woman approached me and asked ‘Are you thinking the same as me?’. Actually I wasn’t, because whilst I was thinking about missing bones, the woman was thinking about missing apples. Apparently in previous years, rich windfall pickings were to be had from the trees growing alongside the footpath. This year it was hard to spot a single fruit.

Peals but no peel

One thing I read in the history booklet, which I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on,  is that around the year 2000, a pump was installed to keep the crypt from flooding. I read in an archaeology report that ‘St Michael’s is a low hill with natural springs’. Could this have anything to do with the flooding?  I’ll explore this ancient burial ground in a post of its own. In the meantime, perhaps we could get the University of Leicester involved in a hunt for William de Walton and the Marquis of Donegal. They seem quite good at that sort of thing…..

Part of the 9 acres making up St Michael’s churchyard

Sources:

St Michael’s Church. Lichfield – A Short History by Rev Carpenter 1947

A short account of the city and close of Lichfield – Thomas George Lomax, John Chappel Woodhouse & William Newling

Archaeological Desktop Survey OSA Report No. OSAO6DTO2 (Onsite Archaeology January 2006)