Sunday, 3 August 2014
Mediaeval churches remain
witnesses to centuries of
faith in the English Midlands
One of the pleasures in travelling for work is taking an early flight at the beginning of a visit, or the last flight back, allowing an extra morning or afternoon for a walk in the countryside or along a beach, or an opportunity to visit historic churches, houses and buildings
Recently, while I was in England for the annual conference of Us, the Anglican mission agency previously known as USPG, I spent a morning in Newport, a small Essex village, photographing the old mediaeval timber-framed, pre-Tudor houses and pubs.
A few weeks earlier, I was in rural Staffordshire, researching the links between the Archbishops of Dublin and the mediaeval parish church in Penkridge, halfway between Wolverhampton and Stafford. Later in the day, as I was returning to Lichfield, I time to revisit and wander through the county town of Stafford, visiting its Tudor-era Ancient High House and two parish churches in the town centre, Saint Mary’s and Saint Chad’s
Off the beaten track
Stafford is in the heart of the English Midlands, but is off the usual beaten track for Irish visitors and tourists. This middle-size English town has a population of about 56,000, making it smaller than neighbouring Staffordshire towns like Stoke-on-Trent, Tamworth, Newcastle-under-Lyme and Burton-upon-Trent, but larger than Lichfield and Cannock.
The Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, who was born in Glasgow to Irish parents, grew up in Stafford and many of her poems describe her experiences and memories there. In 1916, JRR Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, lived near Stafford, and the area around Little Haywood inspired some of his works. Stafford’s past residents also include Izaak Walton (1594-1683), author of The Compleat Angler and biographer of the Richard Hooker, George Herbert and John Donne.
The name Stafford means a river crossing by a landing place, and the town stands in the marshy valley of the River Sow, a tributary of the Trent. Stafford was probably founded around 700 by Saint Bertelin, a Mercian prince who is said to have built a hermitage close to the site of the present Collegiate Church of Saint Mary.
But the town’s civic history dates from 913, when Alfred the Great’s daughter Æthelflæd founded a new town as she and her brother, King Edward the Elder of Wessex, continued their father’s push to unify England in a single kingdom. So Stafford celebrated its 1,100th anniversary last year.
After the Norman Conquest, the region was parcelled out among the followers of William the Conqueror. Stafford and the surrounding countryside passed to Robert de Tonei, ancestor of the Stafford family, who built the castle and took their new family name from the town.
A royal charter created the Borough of Stafford in 1206 and King John endowed the new parish church as a “Royal Peculiar” with a dean and college of 13 prebendaries or canons.
The Dublin-born playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816) was MP for Stafford for quarter of a century (1780-1806). He was said to have paid the voters of Stafford five guineas each at the election in 1780, so his first speech in the House of Commons was a defence against the charge of bribery.
House in the heart of the town
Stafford Castle on a hilltop on the edge of the town is in ruins since the 19th century. In the town centre, the Shire Hall was built in 1798 as a court house and office of the Mayor and Clerk of Stafford. Today, it is houses an art gallery, with a café and library.
However, the most impressive civic building in the heart of Stafford today is the Tudor-style Ancient High House in Greengate Street, the main street. This house, now a local museum, is the largest timber-framed townhouse in England.
The Ancient High House was built in 1594 by the Dorrington family, using local oak from nearby Doxey Wood. Many of the original timbers bear carpenters’ marks that indicate the frame was pre-assembled on the ground and the joints numbered to aid on-site construction.
At the outbreak of the English Civil War, this was the townhouse of the Sneyd family of Keele Hall. Immediately after the outbreak of the Civil War, Charles I visited Stafford in 1643 and he made the High House the temporary headquarters of his royalists.
King Charles and his nephew, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, were guests of Captain Richard Sneyd in the house, and the king attended nearby Saint Mary’s Collegiate Church. Local lore recalls that when the king and Prince Rupert were walking in the garden of the High House, Prince Rupert fired two shots through the weather vane of Saint Mary’s to prove the accuracy of his pistol, hitting the tail of the cockerel twice.
Stafford later fell to the Parliamentarians, and the regicide John Bradshaw, who was a judge at the trial of Charles I, was elected MP for Stafford in 1658. Some decades later, William Howard, 1st Viscount Stafford, was beheaded in 1680 for his alleged role in the Titus Oates plot against King Charles II. The charges were false but the judgment was not reversed until 1685, five years after his execution. He was beatified as a Roman Catholic martyr by Pope Pius XI in 1929.
Two churches in one
The Ancient High House is close to both Saint Mary’s Collegiate Church and Saint Chad’s Church, which is the oldest building in Stafford today.
Saint Mary’s was once linked with Saint Bertelin’s Chapel, and the foundations of the early chapel can be seen at the west end of the church. Saint Mary’s was rebuilt in the 13th and 14th centuries in a cruciform layout with an aisled nave, chancel and clerestory.
In 1258, Roger de Meyland, Bishop of Lichfield, broke open the doors of Saint Mary’s and entered with an armed troop to claim authority over the “Royal Peculiar.” A pitched battle was fought inside the church, blood was shed and some of the canons were wounded.
Until the Reformation, Saint Mary’s was two churches in one, divided by a screen. The nave served as the parish church of Stafford while the chancel was used by the dean and the 13 canons of the College of Saint Mary whose duty was to say Mass daily for living and dead members of the royal family. The dividing screens survived the dissolution of the college in 1548 and remained until 1841.
Until 1593, the octagonal tower was topped by a spire said to be one of the highest in England. A storm that year blew it down, causing major damage to the south transept and the spire was never rebuilt. That year too, Izaak Walton was baptised in the church on 21 September 1593. He was related by marriage to both Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and the nonjuror Bishop Thomas Ken.
When Stafford fell to the Parliamentarians in 1642, Saint Mary’s became a barracks and stables. By 1777, the church was in such poor state that it was closed. Some repairs were carried out on the tower, roof, parapets and windows, but by 1837 the church was in a dilapidated condition once again. Archdeacon George Hodson demanded a full report from the churchwardens and in 1840 George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878) was commissioned to restore the church.
Scott was deeply influenced by AWN Pugin’s articles in the Dublin Review on church architecture. Pugin was working on Alton Towers and at Saint Giles in Cheadle at the time. When Scott’s restoration was completed in 1844, Pugin described it as “the best restoration which has been effected in modern times.”
In 1929, the Revd Lionel Lambert (1869-1948) challenged the authority of the Bishop of Lichfield, claiming the church was still the Royal Free Chapel of Saint Mary. The legal battle was not as bruising as the pitched battle in 1254, but the Bishop of Lichfield was victorious this time, although Lambert remained rector of Stafford until he retired in 1944.
Today, Saint Mary’s serves as the civic church of Stafford.
Stafford’s oldest building
Nearby, opposite the Ancient High House and in the middle of a busy High Street, Saint Chad’s Church is the oldest building in Stafford, with a story stretching back to the 12th century, and perhaps even back to the time of Saint Chad, the first Bishop of Lichfield (669-672).
Saint Chad’s is a gateway into the past and to centuries of worship, and parishioners describe the church as a “hidden gem” in the centre of Stafford.
Saint Chad’s was built about 1150-1190 and an inscription names the founder as Orm: Orm vocatur qui me condidit (“He who made me is called Orm”). Orm was a major landowner of Danish origin and the dragons in the carvings are a pun on his name “Orm” or “Worm.”
The chief glory of Saint Chad’s is the western crossing arch with its five orders of chevrons and beakheads, dating from ca 1150. The main part of the church is richly decorated, and the church preserves some important Norman carvings with unique features.
The carvings in the archways and on the pillars may be the work of stonemasons from the Middle East who came to England during the Crusades. Local legends tell of Saracen stonemasons in Staffordshire and the “Black Men” of Biddulph. There are similarities to carvings on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela and architectural historians see Moorish influences. Several foliate faces or “Green Men” illustrate the new fascination with nature and the changing ideas of the times when the church was built.
Much of this stonework was covered up in the 17th and 18th centuries as the church was given a neo-classical style.
The Norman decorations were rediscovered when Saint Chad’s was restored from a forgotten and ruinous state in the mid-19th century. The restoration was carried out by Henry Griffiths, Robert Ward and George Gilbert Scott, who also built the Norman-Romanesque front and donated the statue of Saint Chad in the central niche. At the same time, Scott was carrying out extensive restorations of Lichfield Cathedral.
The furnishings and decorations in Saint Chad’s include a beautiful reredos over the High Altar designed by William Tapper (1910) and a rood beam with a large crucifix and figures of the Virgin Mary and Saint John (1922).
The architectural historian, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, was never quite satisfied with Scott’s work on these two churches. But Saint Mary’s and Saint Chad’s remain landmarks in the heart of Stafford.
As I caught the bus from Stafford back through Rugeley to Lichfied, I was impressed how these churches stand as witnesses to the faith of their founders and a testament to those who built and maintained them and worshiped in Stafford throughout the ages.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay and these photographs were first published in August 2014 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough).