Abbey Road

I was still feeling the effects of the lunar eclipse in the early hours of Monday on Tuesday morning. Not in a spiritual way, I was just knackered from staying up. However Croxden, the first stop on my rambles around the North of the shire last week, was a sight for my sore eyes. The tiny village is dominated by the ruins of a Cistercian Abbey founded in 1176 by Bertram de Verdun of Alton Castle (1) for the souls of his predecessors and successors.

Remains of 12thc Alton Castle founded by Bertram de Verdon. Not open to the public. As I found out...

Remains of 12thc Alton Castle founded by Bertram de Verdun.

What is left of the semi-circular East end of the abbey church, unusual in England and probably inspired by the French designs the Abbey’s patrons would have known, lies to one side of the road that someone decided to cut through the site. The nave, south transept and other monastic buildings lie on the other and you can see a plan showing what is still visible above ground and what has been lost here. In 1288, a priest from Walsall called William de Schepisheved, was given the task of chronicling life inside and out of these Abbey walls.  He worked backwards to 1066 and contemporaneously until 1320 when the entries in his hand stop, although the chronicle continues until 1374.

Blood Moon. Just in case you didn't see one of the three million photos of it shared online,

Blood Moon. Just in case you didn’t see one of the three million photos of it shared online,

We tweeted and shared our photos of the lunar eclipse. William the Chronicler recorded the celestial events he witnessed in the annals. Understandably for him and those of his time, eclipses were considered bad omens, often linked to any conflict, pestilence or bad weather that occurred. William records a solar eclipse in July 1330 and connects it to the floods and unseasonable weather which occurred two months before and for three months after, resulting in a late harvest, “…they had scarcely reaped the last of their corn with the greatest toil on the feast of All Saints and they had at last collected their peas into barns and outhouses on the feast of the blessed apostle Andrew. And what is so remarkable to see and hear, on the feast of All Saints and of St Martin fresh peas in their shells were given to the convent in the refectory instead of pears and apples”.  Another notable event in July 1301 appears in the Abbey’s annals describing how, “on the day of the Blessed Mary Magdalene, about the sixth hour, a great earthquake took place, to such an extent that all the persons in the convent, being at their first refection, were dismayed with a sudden and unlooked-for trembling”.

The chronicle also documents a connection between the abbey and Lichfield. William recorded that on Easter Eve in 1313, the great bell of the Monastery was broken by mischance and a man called Henry Michel came from Lichfield with his youths to cast another. It was reported that his first attempt failed but he started afresh and completed by the Festival of All Saints. It seems likely that this was Henry the Bellfounder who granted Lichfield’s Franciscan Friars the springs near Aldershawe which would later supply water to the whole of the city.

Plaque on Lichfield's Clock Tower, the base of which was once the water conduit which stood near the Friary.

Plaque on Lichfield’s Clock Tower, the base of which was once the water conduit which stood near the Friary.

As well as life at the abbey, Death inevitably also features in the chronicle. There are the descriptions of the burials of the Verdun family including that of Lady Joan Furnival, eldest daughter and heir of Theobald de Verdun, who on October 2nd 1334, “was taken by untimely death in childbirth; for on the day she died she was only thirty years and almost two months” and was “buried near her ancestors between Lord Nicholas de Verdun, son of the founder, and her ancestor and Lord John de Verdun, her great-grandfather”. Their now empty stone coffins can be seen alongside the ruins at the east end of the church.

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Stone coffins at Croxden.

The entry for 1349 simply and bleakly says, ” There was a great pestilence throughout the whole world.” Nothing more. No indication of how many succumbed to and how many survived the plague here in Croxden.  The following year, 1350, another single sentence notes, “This year was a jubilee” (2), and then there is nothing until the harrowing entry made in 1361 which records, ” A second pestilence took place, and all the children that were born since the first pestilence died.” In the absence of detail, I did a little reading between the lines. After ten years, plague had reared its ugly head again and although overall mortality rates were lower than in the first outbreak, the disproportionate number of deaths amongst the young in this second wave led to it being known as ‘the Children’s Plague’. Was this was because those who had survived the plague the first time around had some sort of immunity that the children born subsequently did not? I don’t know. I’m not sure that anyone does for sure. In 1369, another ‘visitation’ is recorded.

West front of the Abbey Church

Five years later the Chronicle ends but not before recording two further natural disasters affecting the Abbey – a flood destroying all the grass growing near the water together with all the bridges across the River Churnet, and a tempest which took the lead off the dormitory, infirmary, and abbot’s chamber, throwing down half the trees in the orchard. Plague and poor harvests took their toll and by the end of the fourteenth century, the Abbey was in decline.

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One thing that doesn’t seem to appear in the Chronicle is the ‘fact’ that King John’s Heart is buried at Croxden. Possibly because it isn’t. I first came across the claim in Arthur Mee’s guide to Staffordshire and since have found several other sources saying the same, including William White’s Directory of Staffordshire (1851), Samuel Lewis’ Topical Directory of England (1831) and The Gentleman’s Magazine (1823). Trouble is other, more reliable sources say it’s at Croxton, Leicestershire including the Charter Roll of 1257. I’m sorry to say, I think we have to concede this one to our foxy neighbours.

A drawing of the effigy of King John in Worcester Cathedral from "HISTORY OF ENGLAND by SAMUEL R. GARDINER

A drawing of the effigy of King John in Worcester Cathedral from “HISTORY OF ENGLAND by SAMUEL R. GARDINER

The King’s bowels were also said to have been removed at the time of his death and buried somewhere in Croxton, and to quote Simon Schama, their removal left John, ‘as gutless in death as he was said to have been in life’. The majority of John’s body rests in Worcester Cathedral, although more in pieces than at peace. When the tomb was opened in 1797, it became apparent that the bones had been disturbed, with the jaw lying by an elbow and all but four of the teeth and most of the finger bones missing – the King’s hands presumably having fallen into the hands of souvenir hunters.

The end of the road for Croxden came on 7 September 1538 when Dr. Thomas Leigh and William Cavendish received the surrender of the abbey and the roof was removed to prevent the Abbot and resident six monks from continuing to use the site. Although Croxden Abbey has been privately owned since then, it has been under state guardianship since 1936. Today, the ruins are cared for by English Heritage and it’s absolutely free to go and explore them (although I’m sure they’d appreciate a donation). Unlike staying up all night to watch a lunar eclipse, I can highly recommend it. More information on visiting and directions here.

Notes

(1) I had no idea there was a castle at Alton until I went to Alton with a friend and saw a sign for it. As we found out, it is not open to the public.

(2) I suspected that a jubilee in this context did not mean what I thought it did so I of course googled it and discovered that jubilee years had been started by Pope Boniface in 1300, and to be celebrated every hundred years thereafter. However, Pope Clement VI later amended this as people’s average lifespan was too short and so many would not live to see one. Plus there was money to be made from pilgrims. Pope Paul II later amended the frequency of jubilee years to be every twenty five. For anyone interested, the next one will be in 2025.

Sources:

https://lichfieldlore.files.wordpress.com/2015/10/094-2009web.pdf

Self-representation of Medieval Religious Communities  Anne Müller, Karen Stöber

CROXDEN ABBEY: ITS HISTORY AND ARCHITECTURAL FEATURES.

BY CHARLES LYNAM )(North Staffordshire Field Club)

The Gentleman’s Magazine, and Historical Chronicle, Volume 89, Part 2

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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