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/

 

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Ooh La La

When old buildings at the back of the Bolton Warehouse Company’s shop on Bird St (1) were being demolished in December 1960, a large circular room containing murals created with shells and pebbles, was found above a ceiling. One mural depicted the Cathedral, another a tree and the third was some kind of summerhouse on top of a hill (2).

The murals are thought to have been created by French prisoners of war, on parole in the city.  According to the County History, Lichfield had long been used as a place to quarter French prisoners, due to its position on a main road (and I have also read that it had something to do with us being about as far from the sea as you can get!).  On 7th January 1747, the Staffordshire Advertiser reported that a party of seventy four passed through Stafford on their way to Lichfield, where they were to be put on parole. It also mentioned a house on Bore St, where there was a cooper’s shop at the back used by prisoners (3). Eighty arrived in Lichfield in 1797 during the Napolenic Wars and in 1809, forty officers were quartered here. It seems that Dr Johnson’s birthplace was also occupied by a prisoner –  in The European Magazine for 1810, a contributor called ‘TSW’ wrote, “The house in the market place in which our great lexicographer born still remains nearly in its original state. It is now inhabited by Mr Evans a brazier and a part of it, believed to be the very room in which he first drew his breath is now let to a French prisoner of war”. According to their website, Pipe Hill House on the Walsall Rd also hosted some of the prisoners.

As well as spending their time creating enigmatic artworks, some of the prisoners gave French lessons to the city’s residents.  If the fragment of a page of French exercises, found in the same room as the Bird St mural was discovered, is anything to go by, the teachers had their work cut out. The sentences on the fragment of paper had been heavily corrected, with the comment ‘very bad’ at the end! Perhaps the Darwin and Wedgewood children who were taught French by one of the prisoners at Darwin’s house on Beacon St were better students?

The old clinic on Sandford St? Is it me or can anyone else see numbers in the brick work on the second storey?

In September 1951, the author of the ‘Round and About with Clock Tower” section of the Lichfield Mercury visited the site of the mural accompanied by the caretaker, Mrs Disney, and reported that the ‘pictures’ were still in existence in the dome-like roof of a derelict outbuilding behind the Sandford St Clinic (4). One side featured ‘a perfect replica of Lichfield Cathedral, made entirely from small stones, bits of glass and sea shells’  and other pictures included a ‘mosque-like building’, (which the reporter failed to recognise (5)), several ‘beautifully executed trees’ and a map of Lichfield. The outbuilding was in a poor condition, described as being encased in a mass of creepers, with two gaping holes in the roof. There was also a large hole in the floor, and as if things weren’t exciting enough already, Mrs Disney told the reporter that there were two passages running beneath the hole – one leading to the rear of the property and one believed to connect with the old ‘monk’s passages’ beneath the Friary.

Box made by French Prisoners of War (c) Lichfield District Council

Sadly, I think that this ‘Disney’ story doesn’t have a happy ending as the outbuilding was been demolished and the treasures inside lost (although there is the possibility that as the murals were still in existence in the 1950s/1960s someone may have been foresighted enough to photograph them?). However, there is a small consolation at Lichfield Heritage Centre in the form of a wooden box carved by French prisoners quartered in the area.

Edit 18/6/2015
A display at Lichfield Museum at St Mary’s features a photograph and a chunk of the mural together with the wooden box and some information about the soldiers themselves. St Mary’s is also staging a costume drama called ‘Lichfield’s Waterloo’ by the Lichfield Players on Friday 26th June and Saturday 27th June. More information here

Notes

(1) Does anyone have anymore information on the Bolton Warehouse Company’s shop, particularly where it was on Bird St?

(2) Could this have been a representation of Borrowcop Gazebo? The PMSA record (here) says ‘In 1694 a building called ‘the Temple’, probably stood on Borrow Cop Hill, in the 1720s an arbour was recorded, by 1750 this replaced by a summerhouse which may have been the cruciform building there in 1776. In 1756 the corporation ordered a line of trees along the path to the summit, with extra trees in 1783, possibly in connection with a fete champetre held in that year. By 1805 the building was replaced with one of brick with two arches each side and seats around to admire the view, the funds were raised by public subscription’. On the subject of Borrowcop, I just found at that an information board was installed up there in September (more about that here).

(3) Again, where would this have been?

(4) I understand that the clinic occupied the former premises of the Victoria Nursing Home which was on Sandford St until it moved to the Friary and became the Victoria Hospital.

(5) Any ideas as to what building this could be depicting?

Sources

Lichfield and Archaeological & Historical Society Transactions vol 2 1961

Lichfield: Education’, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield (1990), pp. 170-184

Lichfield: From the Reformation to c.1800′, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield (1990), pp. 14-24

The European Magazine for 1810

Lichfield Mercury 21st September 1951