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

Signs of Spring

Every visit to the churchyard of St Michael’s leaves me wondering about the significance of this ancient place in the early chapters of Lichfield history. Thanks to archaeology, some answers have been provided over the years and landscape features such as the natural springs beneath the churchyard may give further clues as to what first drew people to this site thousands of years ago.  Nigel Johnson from Lichfield Lock and Key had told me that the water still flowed, and could be seen seeping out near to the steps up to the churchyard before trickling down Greenhill (except last week when I visited and the water had frozen!)

This natural spring has flooded the church’s crypt in the past.

Last Tuesday’s visit – frozen spring water on a freezing Spring morning

The churchyard was once used as pasture (1) but now the cattle and sheep are long gone and wildlife has been allowed to reclaim much of the churchyard. Bird song fills the air and along the paths and amongst the graves are clusters of spring flowers. Snow drops are still hanging on in there, and primroses and daffodils are now well on their way. During my recent visits, I’ve also met several dogs (and their owners!) and some of the neighbourhood cats.

I noticed that Georgia Locock, a young wildlife enthusiast who has her own blog on Lichfield’s wildlife has also been along to the churchyard on the lookout for Spring recently and you can see her lovely photographs here.

On the south (I think!) side of the church itself, I noticed stone heads, very similar to those at Christ Church. A couple of years prior to working on Christ Church, Thomas Johnson, the Lichfield architect, carried out an extensive restoration here at St Michael’s in 1842/1843 and presumably these heads are one of his additions. Whilst his work at Christ Church is generally applauded, Johnson’s work at St Michael’s has been criticised by some, as much of the original medieval fabric of the church was destroyed during his renovation. (I don’t know much about architecture, and so am not really in a position to comment. However, there does seem to be a certain irony in removing original features, and adding new ‘medieval style’ ones, such as these heads.) Again, as at Christ Church, I wonder who these faces captured in stone belong to and who carved them?

Looks like someone was inspired to create their own head alongside the carved ones….

Many of the  headstones and memorials that surround the church feature the names of the stonemasons that created them – Joseph Johnson of St John St (was this any relation to Thomas?), John Winslow of Tamworth St, John Hamlet of Dam St, James and George Lamb of Sandford St amongst others. Did any of these craftsmen also work on the church itself?

It seems Joseph Johnson may have ended up in a debtors prison. His name appears in the London Gazette, in a section entitled ‘Pursuant to the Acts for the Relief of Insolvent Debtors in England. The following PRISONERS, whose Estates and Effects have been vested in the Provisional Assignee by Order of the Court for Relief of Insolvent Debtors, and whose Petitions and Schedules, duly filed, have been severally referred and transmitted to the County Courts hereinafter mentioned, pursuant to the Statute in that behalf, are ordered to be brought up before the Judges of the said Courts respectively, as herein set forth, to be dealt with according to Law’.  Mr Johnson is listed to go before the Judge of the County Court of Warwickshire, holden at Coventry, on Monday the 21st day of June 1852, at Twelve o’Clock at Noon and is described as,

Joseph Johnson, formerly of the city and county of the city
of Lichfield, Stone Mason and Builder, afterwards of the
same place, Stone Mason, Builder, and Licensed Victualler,
and at the same time of Snow Hill, Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, Stone Mason and Builder, and late of the city
and county of the city of Lichfield, Stone Mason, Builder,
and Licensed Victualler

 

The Edinburgh Gazette of January 16th 1863, notes that John Hamlet, listed as an architectural draughtsman and stonemason of Dam St, Lichfield, has been awarded bankruptcy. How did they fall upon such hard times?  I’d like to find out more about these craftsmen whose job it was to record the lives of others in stone.

Notes:

1 – I was surprised to read in the county history that the churchyard was once let as pasture, although in 1801, the grazing of cattle was deemed inappropriate due to the ‘damage and desecration’ caused and it was decided that only sheep should be allowed. However, this was ignored, with tragic consequences – in 1809, there is an entry in the church register for the burial of a child, Joseph Harper, who was killed by a cow in the church yard.

Sources

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

http://www.london-gazette.co.uk/issues/21325/pages/1619/page.pdf

http://www.edinburgh-gazette.co.uk/issues/7293/pages/92/page.pdf

History, Gazetter and Directory of Staffordshire  (1834), William White

http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/STAFFORDSHIRE/2001-04/0986182998