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

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All Alongside the Watchtower

At the church of St Michael’s and All Angels, in Hamstall Ridware I was greeted by four arms waving (a sword) at me from a tomb. It belongs to the splendidly named Thomas Stronginthearm, who left this small village for the bright candles of Chicago in 1803, before making a final journey back home home to rest in the Staffordshire soil which his family had toiled upon – according to the church booklet, the Stronginthearms were yeoman famers.

Stronginthearm

The name appears several times in the Hamstall Ridware parish registers, available online here, recording all those who were baptised, married and buried here between 1598 and 1812. There are also other snippets of information on life in the village, including an entry in June 1806 when the Rector Edward Cooper led twenty five parishioners on a procession around its boundaries, beginning at Gallows Green, going along the Yoxall Rd as far as Sutton’s Farm, and then proceeding towards the Trent. Later that Summer, Edward’s cousin Jane Austen came to stay with him for five weeks, and it’s believed that she may have used Hamstall Ridware as inspiration for the fictional ‘Delaford’ in Sense and Sensibility. http://www2.lichfielddc.gov.uk/hamstallridware/about/

font 1

 

font 2

On the subject of baptism, there are three fonts here. Inside the church is the one that is currently used, which dates from nineteenth century and there’s the lovely Norman bowl which was relocated here from the church of St James at Pipe Ridware. Outside, and being used as a flowerpot, is the third, also said to be Norman. At the time of the Burton Scientific Society’s visit to the church in 1924, this font was on the vicarage lawn. One of the society members, a Mr Noble claimed that it was the relatively recent work of an Armitage mason who did a good trade in producing mock ancient stonework, for people with antiquarian tastes. However, the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland seem happy that the font is twelfth century, and presumably they know what they are talking about.

churchyard

There’s also the base of a medieval churchyard cross here to which a much later shaft and cross have been added, although a fragment of the original shaft remains nearby.  It was while I was having a look at this, that I noticed the ruins of a brick building, looming up behind the church tower.  This is the late 15thc/early 16thc watch tower, once part of the now derelict manor house, Hamstall Hall. When the Burton Scientific society visited, they climbed a wooden staircase to the roof where they enjoyed ‘a good view of the surrounding area’ – it’s said that you can see four counties from the top. Given that that the hall features on the ‘Heritage at Risk’ List and is considered to be at risk of collapsing, it’s probably best to take their word for it. There are other remains of the hall here too, which I missed, including a Tudor gateway, and the porch to the old hall.

watch tower

 

Showing St Michaels Church and the tower of Hamstall Hall in the background.   © Copyright Graham Taylor and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Showing St Michaels Church and the tower of Hamstall Hall in the background.
© Copyright Graham Taylor and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

In June 1939, the Derbyshire Times did a feature on a ninety three year old woman known as ‘Grannie Shelton’, who worked as a parlour maid and nurse at the hall, and married her husband on 19th March 1863 at St Michael’s. She told the paper that she had never seen a ghost but had once, ‘been down amongst the dead men’ – when a member of the Squire of Hamstall Hall’s family died she entered the family vault to have a look around and saw six coffins inside, each covered by a black cloth but with the white face of each of the corpses visible through the glass. Mrs Shelton also once dressed up as a ghost to scare the pantry boy that she suspected of stealing fruit from the Hall, causing him to run for his life shouting ‘The Devil is in the pantry!’ The devil may not have been in the pantry, but apparently he was found in a small hollow compartment in one of the bedrooms of the old manor house in the form of a stone image, complete with horns, depicted as ‘shaving a pig with red skin’ (I swear that I haven’ t made this up!). The report suggests that the Hall was formerly a Nunnery, and this hollow would have been somewhere nuns would carry out penance for breaking the rules. I can’t see any reference anywhere else to hall being used as a convent and I can’t help but wonder if it could have been a priests’ hole?  The hall belonged to the Catholic Fitzherbert family from 1517 to 1601. Sir Thomas Fitzherbert was imprisoned in the Tower of London for thirty years until his death on 2nd October 1591. All pure speculation on my part.

Feel like I’ve only just dipped my toe into the (holy) water when it comes to the history of Hamstall Ridware…