Kill Bill

The run up to Halloween feels like the right time to resurrect the blog and, in keeping with the spirit of my favourite season, it’s my intention to share some of the more sinister stories that I know about Staffordshire and the surrounding area over the course of the coming week. However, 2020 hasn’t quite gone to plan and it’s entirely possible that I could fall victim to an attack of the mutant crayfish clones by Friday and so whether my bad intentions will materialise or fall by the wayside remains to be seen.

Anyway, I’m not sure if it’s a Staffordshire thing per se but something I’ve noticed about the churches in our area is their habit of juxtaposing the mundane with the magnificent. By way of example, I once found the tomb of Richard Samson, Bishop of Lichfield between 1470 and 1554 underneath a tea tray and a packet of hobnobs. I am also starting to think that the eleventh commandment is ‘Thou shalt have a stack of plastic chairs behind thy font’.

I suspect Pevsner would not approve but I think it gives churches a nice lived-in feel and exudes an eccentric sort of charm and therefore, I make no apologies for failing to remove the carton of milk and bottle of spray from my photograph of the remains of this stone cross in Tixall Church.

The cross stood on Kings Lowe, a Bronze Age Bowl Barrow on Tixall Heath before what remained of it was removed to the church for safe keeping. Its exact provenance is a mystery but in 1818 Sir Thomas Clifford of Tixall described it as having been placed there in around 1803, it being, ‘a very antique stone cross, which once stood before the gate of a ruined mansion in South Wales…It is of very hard moor-stone; the shaft, which has eight unequal sides, supports a tablet of an hexagonal form, adorned with very rude carvings; on one side, a crucifix, on the other, the virgin with the child in her lap. On the edge of the tablet is also a figure thought by some experienced antiqueries (sic) to be St. John the Evangelist’. The cross was said to mark the spot where Sir William Chetwynd of nearby Ingestre Hall was assassinated in 1494, although you might think that after 309 years the moment for a monument to a murder had passed. Who erected it and why they did so after all that time is not recorded.

In 1825, Alexander Wilson wrote a travelogue called ‘Alice Allan, The Country Town etc’ and appears to have had some sort of down the rabbit hole experience, proclaiming that, “When I entered Staffordshire, my straight-forward, regular travelling was at an end”. After insinuating that the residents of God’s own county used to get up to some Summerisle-esque unpleasantness involving wicker, Wilson relays the story told to him by an old countryman whilst driving across the heath. Sir William Chetwynd of Ingestre and Sir Humphrey Stanley of Pipe Ridware were both vying for the favour of King Henry VII, and so Sir Humphrey decided to rid-ware himself of his rival. A letter purporting to be from the Sheriff of Staffordshire was sent to Sir William requesting his attendance in Stafford at 5am the following morning. As he crossed Tixall Heath at dawn, accompanied by his son and two servants, he was ambushed by twenty men, several of whom were members of the Stanley family.

Despite a petition by the widowed Lady Chetwynd, Stanley literally got away with murder. Or did he? According to the story told to Alexander Wilson, some years after he’d killed Bill, Sir Humphrey was thrown from his horse at the same spot on Tixall Heath, breaking his neck. Official records show he died in 1505 and is buried amongst the great and also probably not very good at Westminster Abbey. As of yet, I can’t find a record of where or how he died and so perhaps that old countryman was right and karma did catch up with him in the end. Interestingly, it seems with the Stanleys, the rotten apple did not fall from the tree. An effigy in Lichfield Cathedral immortalises the disgrace of Sir Humphrey’s son, John, a man who committed a misdemeanor so grave that he was excommunicated and had to agree to spending the rest of his death being depicted as paying penance in order to be granted a Christian burial inside the Cathedral. There is no record of his specific wrongdoing but in 1867, the Very Rev Canon Rock suggested that Stanley’s offence may have been that he had spilled blood inside that sacred space. A 17th century drawing of the effigy by William Dugdale shows the stone Stanley bareheaded and bare chested, flanked by two bucks’ horns, wearing a skirt decorated with heraldic arms and armour on his legs. It’s a strong look to carry off for eternity although during the Civil War, the Roundheads did make some alterations in their own unique style… The much mutilated monument can still be found in the Cathedral so do go and see what’s left of him. I bet you there will be a stack of plastic chairs somewhere nearby too…

Lichfield Cathedral - Effigy of Captain Stanley: engraving

Lichfield Cathedral - Effigy of Captain Stanley: engravingShowing a print of the Stanley effigy.   Anonymous.View Full Resource on Staffordshire Past Track

Sources:

Norton, E (2011) Bessie Blount: MIstress to Henry VIII, Amberley Publishing: Gloucester

https://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=77400

http://www.tixall-ingestre-andrews.me.uk/tixall/elytxhs.html

The Cathedral Church of Lichfield By AB Clifton

Handbook to the Cathedrals of England by Richard John King

Alice Allan, The Country Town etc by Alexander Wilson

Some remarks on the Stanley Effigy at Lichfield by The Very Reverend Canon Rock

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