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

Off the Mark

I’m supposed to be revising right now, but it does you good to have a little diversion now and again. So, just a quickie but it’s an interesting one. On my way to Wall last Monday, I spotted this marker stone outside Redlock Cottage on the Birmingham Rd. As this isn’t too far from the route that the Wyrley and Essington canal once took through Lichfield, I assumed that it was some sort of boundary marker, with ‘L.C’ standing for ‘Lichfield Canal’, possibly salvaged by previous owners of the cottage when this stretch of the Curly Wyrley was filled in.

LC marker

Turns out my theory was as rubbish as a shopping trolley at the bottom of the cut. Christine Howles, one of the Lichfield & Hatherton Canal Restoration Trust’s volunteers, reminded me on Facebook that the name ‘Lichfield Canal’ only came in to use when the trust started their restoration work. So, what else could ‘L.C’ stand for? Having done a bit of digging (her pun, not mine!), Christine thought it may be part of a boundary marker for the Lichfield Conduit Lands, with an ‘L’ missing?

As I was writing this, I remembered that back in October 2013, on one of our Lichfield Discovered walks around Leomansley, my friend and neighbour Kerry showed me a mystery stone that had turned up in her garden….marked with a letter L. I’ll blame a head full of phonology for not making the association sooner but surely there is some connection between these two stones? Really do need to book myself in for a week at L.R.O. After the exams though, must concentrate on those kinds of marks first….

leomansley stone 2

 

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

Made of Stone

During the last couple of weeks, if you’ve walked along the path that runs along the top of Beacon Park (between the A51 and the football pitches), chances are that you might have spotted this pile of moss covered stones. A lot of the vegetation in this area has been removed recently, making their presence much more obvious than when I first came across them in Spring last year.

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Back when I first noticed them, I did a bit of asking around and I was given three different stories regarding their provenance. The most likely explanation came from someone at Lichfield District Council who said that the stonework was a section of the balustrade which runs around the park at the Beacon Street/Bird Street entrance, which had been removed to make a new corner entrance (near to the Chandlers kiosk/public toilets) sometime in the 1980s. However, someone else thought that the stones were what remained of a structure belonging to the farm which once occupied this area of the park and another person suggested that they were part of some sort of tower which was at Stowe Pool until it was dismantled after becoming structurally unsafe.

Last week, Bob Houghton, from the Burntwood Family History Group and Lichfield and Hatherton Canal Restoration Trust noticed them and sent me an email to say that some of the people who work at the park had told him that they were from the old post office which once stood on Bird Street, where Ego now is. So now we have yet another explanation!

To be honest, I’m torn between the truth and enjoying the ongoing speculation about what the stones are and how they came to be in a patch of woodland in the park. As the moss grows fat on these old stones, I hope that the stories keep growing too.

SAM_1157

The last time I walked past the stones,  I found a handful of bits and bobs scattered around them.  I’m pretty sure these are jigsaw pieces to other stories and nothing at all to do with this little puzzle. However,  if you want to include a scrabble tile, some pottery, a piece of tile and an old clay pipe into your version of the story, then please feel free!

 

L is for…

Back in October, during the Lichfield Discovered group walk around Leomansley, a friend of mine, Kerry, happened to mention that she’d discovered a large stone, buried at the bottom of her Leomansley garden. Not just any old stone either – it has a perfect ‘L’ carved into it which clearly has some significance. The question is what?

leomansley stone 2

My initial thought was that it was a boundary stone of some kind. As far as I can see, the area where the stone was discovered was undeveloped until the mid 20th century and was previously agricultural land known as Parnell’s field. I know that there was also common land in Leomansley, stretching south and east from Leamonsley Mill Pond to the Walsall Road  as well as a Lammas meadow, and so my best guess is that this could be a dole stone or similar, used to mark out strips of land or perhaps to mark the common land from land owned by others?

There’s a reference from May 1659, transcribed by Thomas Harwood in 1806 from a ‘Boke made in the 16 yere of the regne of kynge Edward the Fourthe. Thomas Dodde being Mastur of the Gilde of our Ladye Saynt Marie and of Seynt John the Baptiste in Lichfelde of all the lands and tenements lungyng to the forsaide Glide and the fyldes abowte Lychefeld and yn the towne” (1) including the following:

Parnelle’s Fylde – It’m, won acre in the myddyes of Parnelle’s fylde lyyng in brede betweene the londe of the Prioris of St Johanes and the londe of theres of Stafford in brede and shotes upon Lemonsley. It’m won crofte lying betwene Pipemyre and Lemonsley in lenkythe and betwene the londe of William Byrde and Lemonsley in brede.

To be honest, I can’t visualise how the jigsaw of land fitted together and so I think a trip to the record office, first stop the St Michael’s Tithe Map, is in order. (2)

In the meantime, Kerry and I would love to hear from anyone who may have any ideas on what the stone is, what it was for and of course, what the L might stand for. Leomansley? Lammas?  Also, as greedy as ever, I’m wondering if more stones might be out there somewhere. Time to do some gardening I think….

Big thanks to Kerry for sharing her discovery and for letting me share her photograph.

Notes

1) The spellings are as they are found in Harwood’s book. I like how even the spelling of Lichfield is inconsistent!

2) Something else Leomansely agriculture related. I had wondered why Saxon Walk, a cul-de-sac off the lane leading off Christchurch Lane, past Leomansley Woods, towards Pipe Green was so called. According to John Shaw, the name was taken from the name of the field which it was built on – Saxon’s Nook. Might be a good opportunity to take a look at some of the other old field names whilst I’ve got the Tithe Map out. Place names carry meanings.

3) I suppose I should consider the possibility that the stone actually came from elsewhere and ended up here through use as a garden feature or something.

Sources:

The History and Antiquities of the Church and City of Lichfield, Thomas Harwood

A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield

Street Names of Lichfield John Shaw

Saxon Walk

 

Underneath The Arches

A stone arch stands in the grounds of the Lichfield Campus of South Staffs college and I’ve never been sure whether it is a folly, or part of the Franciscan Friary which once stood on the site. According to a book on the history of the Friary School (1), the arch was discovered in the walls of outbuildings taken down to make way for the new Friary Road in the 1920s. Apparently, it was incorporated into the staff entrance to the school, which used the buildings now occupied by the Library from the 1920s until the 1980s.  A former pupil describes the arch as standing on the lacrosse field during her time at the school. Inevitably, over the years the imagination of school children and the history of the site have combined to create legends and stories, including one about a ghostly monk that people are said to have seen passing through the arch.

Another intriguing discovery made nearby during the 1920s was the gravestone of Richard the Merchant. Actually, rediscovery would be a more accurate description, as the stone had first been uncovered in 1746, when a former owner of the Friary was laying the foundations for a garden wall.  Thankfully, sketches were made of the stone and its inscription as nowadays, its markings can be barely made out and the stone itself is even more hidden away now than when I wrote this post about it back in July 2011.

Tombstone of Richard the Merchant,now in the wall of Lichfield Library

Today I was walking between Dam St and the Bird St car park (which I still call the Woolworth’s car park despite that shop not having been there for years), when I caught a glimpse of what seems to be another arch, over a garden wall which must belong to one of the properties on Dam St. Does anyone have any information on where this arch is from, and why it is here? And of course, if anyone has any stories of ghostly Lichfield residents walking through this one, please let us know!

Notes:

(1) The History of the Friary School, Helen Mullins 1981

(2) I suppose it would actually be a friar, rather than a monk (there is a difference!) but as we’re talking ghost stories here it’s probably not the place to worry too much about historical accurancy!

Gathering Moss

Walking around the edge of Beacon Park, I noticed a pile of moss covered stones in the undergrowth that I’d never seen before.  To me, they look like part of an old building, possibly pillars? It’s a long shot I know, but does anyone recognise them or have any idea as to where these pillars (if that’s what they are!) may have come from?

Whilst on the subject of ‘parts of old buildings found in unexpected places’, I have to mention my old favourite Fisherwick Hall. Back in January, I wrote an article for the Lichfield Gazette which mentioned that the hall had been demolished, but that parts of it had been reused elsewhere. After lying around for some years covered in moss, the pillars from Fisherwick went to the George Hotel in Walsall – you can read the great post written about the hotel by Stuart Williams of Walsall Local History Centre here. However,  I had no idea what had happened to the pillars, following the demolition of the hotel in the 1930s. Therefore, I was delighted when Paul (the editor of the Lichfield Gazette) told me that someone had contacted him, saying that some years ago he had seen them lying on a patch of ground near to the cricket ground in the Highgate area of Walsall. The gentleman described them as lying in pieces and covered with moss and lichen. Sounds familiar! Coincidentally, the site the gentleman described is a stone’s throw from where some of my relatives live, and so the next time I visited I went to take a look, but I had no luck in finding them. So near, yet so far….

Back to our Beacon Park stones, and someone from the Beacon Street Area Residents’ Association has very kindly said that he will ask the people in the know i.e. the Parks team and the Civic Society if they can shed any light on the matter. In the meantime, he’s left me pondering the fact that parts of the old bandstand and cycle track are also apparently also still around in the park somewhere…

Beacon Park bandstand c.1905
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Family Trees

Standing in a small area of woodland on the edge of a field in Leomansley is a stone with the inscription ‘Greville’s Belt W.W.W 1923‘. It isn’t a gravestone, although you can see why some have mistaken it for one, but a marker erected by the then owner of the Maple Hayes estate, William Worthington Worthington, to commemorate the planting of this small belt of trees, named after his eldest son (William) Greville Worthington.(1)

In 1918, William Worthington had inherited Maple Hayes from his father Albert Octavius Worthington, a partner in the Burton brewery that carried his family name, who had originally purchased the estate in 1884. However, Greville Worthington would not inherit the estate from his father. In the early hours of 17th March 1942, whilst serving as a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve at Dover, Greville drove through a restricted area. Although the sentry on duty ordered him to ‘Halt!’ twice, he failed to stop.The sentry opened fire and Greville was fatally wounded, dying in hospital ten days later. A verdict of accidental death was recorded. In the October of the following year, there was another family tragedy.  Lady Diana Worthington, Greville’s former wife, went missing from her home Weston Manor in Olney. A scarf and a coat were found on the banks of the River Ouse and after a week of searching, Diana’s body was recovered from the water.

Greville and Diana had four children together – Caroline, Anna, Charles and Benjamin. I have not yet been unable to find out much about what happened to the children following the deaths of their parents. However, we do know that when William Worthington died in 1949, nineteen year old Charles was his heir. (2)  William’s death brought the Worthington era at Maple Hayes to an end and in 1950, the estate was sold. The house and around twenty three acres were acquired by Staffordshire County Council for educational purposes. Since 1981, the site has been occupied by the Maple Hayes Dyslexia School. The remainder of the estate, some 1,500 acres including farms, cottages and agricultural land, was sold to a trust.(3)

As well as Greville’s Belt,  other areas of woodland were named after Worthington family members. Lady Muriel’s Belt, Herbert’s Spinney and Fitzherbert Firs still appear on maps of the area, as mentioned in BrownhillsBob’s recent post on Leomansley. Are there more stone markers to be found in these places?  I also noticed a house on the site of the old playground of Christ Church School, near to the church, which has a plaque saying ‘W.W.W 1920‘. Surely another reference to William Worthington Worthington, although exactly what the connection is I don’t know as yet.  The Worthington family may no longer reside at Maple Hayes but their names still echo in the landscape that surrounds their former home.

Notes

(1) I have seen similar stones marking ‘Parker’s Plantation’ and ‘The Roundabouts’ at the Pipe Hall Farm, owned by The Woodland Trust.

(2) W.G.W had a younger brother Albert Ronald Worthington, born 1904 and died in 1951. but according to the County History, it was grandson Charles, eldest son of W.G.W that was W.W.W’s heir.

(3) Until last year, around 360 acres of the former Maple Hayes estate was still owned by the trust. However, in April 2012 it was sold to new owners The Crown Estate for just under three million pounds.

Sources

Burntwood: Manors, local government and public services’, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield (1990), pp. 205-220.

The Lichfield Mercury archives

Nottingham Evening Post archive

 

A Stone's Throw Away

I recently read a great post about the map maker John Ogilby on Kate Shrewsday’s wonderful blog. In 1675, Mr Ogilby was the creator of the first ever British road atlas, and after reading Kate’s post, I took another look at the section of his map of the London to Chester road, as it passed over the Warwickshire border into Staffordshire and on through Lichfield. You can see the map here.

The majority of the place names are recognisable and in use today, albeit with some changes to the spelling –  Burowcop Hill, Cank Wood and Sutton Cofield amongst others.There are however a handful of names that appear to have been lost over the last three hundred or so years. One intriguing feature marked on the route is the ‘Bishop’s Heap of Stones’, eight miles or so from Lichfield, between Canwell Hall (or Sir Francis Lawley‘s Cannell Hall as it’s shown on the map) and Hints.

The name seems to refer to a literal heap of stones, and it seems there are at least two  possible explanations for why this pile of pebbles was associated with a bishop. Thomas Pennant, when writing about his journey from Chester to London, discovered a handwritten note in a copy of William Dugdale’s ‘Warwickshire’, added by Dugdale himself, which read as follows:

There is a common report (which passeth for currant amongst the vulgar) that the great heape of stones, which lyeth near the road way from Litchfeild towards Coleshill, upon Bassets heath, called the Bishops Stones, and those other lesser heapes, which lye in the valley below; were at first laid there in memorie of a bishop and his retinue, who were long since rob’d and killed, as they were travailing upon that way: but this is a meere fabulous storye: for upon an inquisition made in King James his time, concerning the extent of common upon that heath, betwixt Weeford and Sutton;there was an old woman, called old Bess of Blackbrooke, being then above an hundred yeares of age, who deposed (inter alia) that the Bishop of Exeter living then at Moore Hall: taking notice how troublesome such a number of pibble stones as then lay in the roade thereabouts, were to all passengers, caused them to be pickt up, and thus layd upon heapes

In 1769, in his book The History and Antiquities of Shenstone, in the County of Stafford, the Reverend Henry Sanders, gives a similar but more detailed explanation. Sanders says that a woman from Blackbrook came to the inquiry into the parish boundaries and testified that in the reign of Henry VIII, or just after, John Vesey, the Bishop of Exeter had decided to become a benefactor to his birthplace of Sutton Coldfield. Bishop Vesey obtained a charter of incorporation for the town, revived the market and also built a number of stone houses (1) as part of an attempt to create an industry manufacturing Kersey, as they did in Devon. Bess (I’m assuming that she is ‘the woman from Blackbrook’ Sanders refers to), also told how when the Bishop was at Sutton he was annoyed by the rolling pebbles on the road which caused travellers’ horses to stumble and sometimes fall and so he employed poor people to gather them and lay them in heaps. Sanders describes the position of these heaps as follows:

On the hollow way between Weeford Hills or rather between Swynfen and Canwell lie divers heaps and one great one at the top of the hill at Weeford park corner which according to the tradition of the country people were placed there in memory of a bishop of Lichfield who riding with many attendants was slain with those servants by robbers and that these heaps were where the bodies were found which agreeable to this account and to honest and accurate antiquaries is entirely fabulous

I also think these stories are fabulous, but I suspect not quite in the way that the Reverend meant! It seems the tale of the murdered bishop didn’t ever hold much weight, but what about the version given by the local centenarian (who sounds like a legend in her own right!)? Were the stones gathered by the poor at the request of a Bishop or did they serve another purpose?  It’s interesting that there may have been more than one heap. Piles of stones are of course found across the world, and have many meanings and significances. I suspect that the Bishop’s heaps of stones will have been swept away, perhaps gradually scattered back onto the roads from where they came. It’s interesting to think that even a humble pebble beneath your feet may once have been part of a much bigger story.

Notes:

1 You can see one of the stone houses built by Vesey here

2 Kersey was a coarse cloth, often used to make servants clothing, and although it takes its name from the village in Suffolk, I understand that in Vesey’s time it was Devon that was at the centre of the Kersey industry in England.