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/

 

Men of Letters

Following on from this morning’s post,  here is Gareth’s latest fantastic Lichfield Grammar School related discovery. The plaque suggests that this stonework was originally the front doorway to the Grammar School, and was redressed and placed around this doorway in the Lichfield District Council Offices in 1928. The second photograph shows our oldest dated graffiti yet – RS 1681.

As I’ve been reading about the school’s history, I’ve been jotting down the names of students. Here they are so far, in no particular order….some you may recognise, others you may not.

Isaac Hawkins Browne    Gregory King
John Wyatt                       George Smallridge
David Garrick                    Andrew Corbet
Thomas Newton                John Willes
Robert James                   Thomas Parker
Elias Ashmole                   William Talbot
Edmund Hector                William Noel
John Taylor                       Richard Lloyd
Charles Congreve            Samuel Johnson
William Wollaston            Theophilius Buckeridge Lowe
Francis Chetwynd            Joseph Addison
John Rowley                     Henry Salt
John Colson                     Joseph Simpson
Walter Bagot                    Charles Bagot
William Bailye

Do any of them match any of the initials found throughout the school? I have to say it’s the ones we don’t know much about that interest me the most. We all know what Mr Ashmole did, but what about those whose achievements weren’t documented to the same extent? What about those poor boys (with or without their brooms)? How did attending the school affect the course of their lives?

Image taken from Wikimedia Commons. Murray, John. Johnsoniana, 1835. reprinted Lane, Margaret (1975), Samuel Johnson & his World, p. 26. New York: Harpers & Row Publishers

Several engravings and drawing of the Grammar School exist showing the schoolroom building at various stages in its history. Gareth is working on something that will hopefully show the changes in the schoolroom since it was first erected on the site in around 1577. This should hopefully help us to discover the original location of the stone doorway too.  The schoolroom was rebuilt in c.1848, and as the dates on the stonework are before and after this date, I wonder whether materials from the old schoolroom of 1577 were reused in carrying out this restoration work?  I’m hoping to go to the Lichfield Record Office as the National Archives catalogue is showing that the hold lots of information on this, and on may other aspects of the school’s history, dating back to around the same time RS carved his initials into the old doorway.

Finally (for now!), I’ve suggested that the doors of the Old Grammar School, both inside and out, be opened to the public for the Lichfield Heritage Weekend.

Update:

I found a book ‘The Wanderings of a Pen and Pencil’ from 1846, in which the authors FP Palmer and A Crowquill desribe their visit to Lichfield. Illustrations of the exterior and interior of the Grammar School are included in the book. Interestingly, their visit was at the time the school was in decline, and there were no pupils attending (see previous post).  They record that the upper schoolroom was tenanted by lumber, and the lower school room unoccupied, and asked ‘How is it the Lichfield Grammar School is so shamefully deserted and what amount is received by the master for doing nothing?’. In the interior, the stool that they have sketched was apparently the ‘flogging-horse’. The exterior drawing confuses me further – hopefully Gareth will be able to shed more light on how this compares with the other views of the schoolroom we have!.