12 August 2020

Could a closed shop in
Tamworth have been a
chapel at the Moat House?

The Peel School was housed at No 17 Lichfield Street from 1837 to 1850 … was this originally the private chapel of the Moat House? (Photograph: Suzanne Marie Need)

Patrick Comerford

I have started wondering whether a boarded and vacant building at 17 Lichfield Street, Tamworth, may once have been the private chapel of the Moat House, the Comberford family Tudor-style mansion further west on the same side of Lichfield Street.

This building at 17 Lichfield Street is now vacant and looks sadly dilapidated and neglected. But it still looks like a Victorian chapel. It was built as a school in 1837 for Sir Robert Peel. It was the second building for the Peel School first founded in 1820 in Church Street, beside Saint Editha’s churchyard.

The school moved to Lichfield Street when this building was erected in 1837. The school was housed here for little more than a decade and moved once again in 1850 when Sir Robert Peel replaced it with a school across the street designed by Sydney Smirke.

In recent years, No 17 was a betting shop and then a furniture shop until it closed and was sold last year. Until it closed, it was a whitewashed building. It has a large Gothic window in the gable, flanked by a lower Tudor-headed window and door.

The premises at No 17 Lichfield Street when this was a furniture shop (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In a comment on a Tamworth Facebook page recently, Andrew Hale suggested that this building was originally a private chapel and was located in the original grounds of the Moat House.

He says the original bill for moving the building was paid not by the owners of the Moat House but by Sir Robert Peel, on the condition that it was converted into a school.

Andrew Hale did his prize-winning history project on the Moat House and its history in 1978-1980 while he was at Wilnecote High School. His mother was the head chef at the Moat House for many years and much his information came from the trust and owners of the Moat House at that time. The history project earned him the school history and research prize for 1980.

When Sir Robert Peel was moving his school from Church Street to Lichfield Street in 1837, Dr John Woody was living at the Moat House, having bought it with his mother in 1821. The Woody family had been tenants of the Moat House, and they bought it when parts of the Tamworth Castle estate were being sold off by a London auctioneer, John Robins, to clear the debts of the Townshend family.

If Sir Robert Peel moved the former chapel at the Moat House lock, stock and barrel to a new location further each along Lichfield Street for use as a school, was this the original chapel at the Moat House? And does this explain some of its pre-Victorian details, including large the Gothic window in the gable and the lower Tudor-headed window and door?

It was whispered that the oak panelling inside the Moat House hid more than one ‘priests’ hole’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I first visited the Moat House around 1969 and 1970 and have often been shown the panelling that was said to have hidden more than one ‘priests’ hole’ that allowed Catholic priests to escape searches of the house in Elizabethan times when the Comberford family was recalcitrant in its recusancy.

The Act of Uniformity in 1559 had made absence from church a punishable office. Those who failed to come to church were known as ‘recusants’ and were to be fined. The Comberford family remained staunchly Catholic at the time and family members were frequently in trouble and were accused of taking part in some of the many plots against Queen Elizabeth.

On 20 January 1573, the Earl of Shrewsbury informed Lord Burghley that he had apprehended Thomas Comberford of Comberford, near Tamworth, ‘where masses were frequented.’ He also arrested two mass priests who had said a very large number of Masses there. Shrewsbury added that he wished ‘bishops and others in authority … would have more regard unto their charges and not suffer dangerous vagabonds to rest unpunished in their jurisdiction.’

Thomas Comberford was released after a short period. He, his wife Dorothy, and many other members of the family were fined on several occasions in Wednesbury and Leek in the 1580s for non-attendance at church. Thomas appears to have more careful to conform for the rest of his life. Although he and his family were frequently in trouble for non-attendance, he appears to have avoided the punishments inflicted on him.

However, in April 1588, his tenants, including Thomas ‘Heethe’ [Heath], were accused of harbouring seminarians and priests, including one ‘James Harryson.’ Harrison and Heath were arrested at Comberford were imprisoned in London. They were eventually released, but Harrison was arrested again in Yorkshire in 1602 and executed in York.

In the summer of 1606, acting on a tip-off, Sir Humphrey Ferrers of Tamworth Castle sent the bailiffs of Tamworth with a number of his servants to break into the locked Moat House, which was then the home of Humphrey Comberford. They were ordered to search all the rooms, including under the beds and behind locked doors and panels, for priests and for any evidence that the Mass was being said in the house.

Ferrers gave a dramatic account of the search when he wrote to the Earl of Salisbury on 18 June 1606. Three men were found hiding in the house and, with the search party also finding a number of religious tracts, they were arrested on suspicion of being seminarians. But, despite the weight of circumstantial evidence, there was no convincing proof that Mass was being celebrated in the Moat House.

A ‘priests’ hole,’ said to have been used by the Jesuits harboured in the Moat House by Humphrey Comberford, led to the River Tame. The river may have provided safe routes down to Wednesbury Manor or north to the homes of other Catholics among the Staffordshire gentry.

Although I have often seen the location of the supposed ‘priests’ holes’ in the Moat House, I was not aware until recently that there may have been a private chapel in the grounds of the Moat House. Until the late 17th century, members of the Comberford family used Saint Catherine’s or the Comberford Chapel in the north aisle of Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth, as the private family chapel, including for family burials and memorials. Some more research is needed on a possible chapel in the Moat House.

As for the third Peel school on the other side of Lichfield Street, it had been turned into church rooms by 1907, and after the 1930s it was used as the Civic restaurant. That building later became a small factory for Hart and Levy Tailoring and then part of the Shannon’s Mill sheltered housing complex.

The Moat House on Lichfield Street, Tamworth … did it once have a private chapel? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Listening to Theodorakis
and the Phoenician Women
while preparing a sermon

Mikis Theodorakis recorded ‘Symphony No 4, of the Choral Odes,’ in Athens in May 1987

Patrick Comerford

Next Sunday’s Gospel reading comes in two parts, and the second part (Matthew 15: 21-28), set in the district of Tyre and Sidon, tells of the Canaanite or Syro-Phoenician woman and her encounter with Christ.

In Saint Matthew’s account, she is a Canaanite woman (verse 22); in Saint Mark’s account (Mark 7: 27-31), she is a Greek-speaking or Syro-Phoenician woman (verse 26).

In the classical world, Phoenician women were pushy women. About 400 years earlier, the great Greek playwright Euripides wrote his tragic play The Phoenician Women (Φοίνισσαι, Phoenissae), rewriting a similar story used by Aeschylus in his play, Seven Against Thebes, and dealing with tragic events following the fall of Oedipus.

The title of the play by Euripides, The Phoenician Women, refers to the Greek chorus, which is composed of Phoenician women on their way to Delphi and who are trapped in Thebes by the war.

The two key women in the play by Euripides are Jocasta and her daughter Antigone, who have survived against all odds. They challenge the accepted concepts in Classical times of fate and free-will.

In the face of death, they refuse to accept what other people regarded as their destiny, they refused to be pushed aside, marginalised and dismissed as the men around then compete for power.

So, in the time of Christ, educated, Greek-speaking people, including those around Tyre and Sidon, would expect a Greek-speaking Phoenician woman and her daughter to be pushy in the face of what appears to be a cruel fate, even if this involves confronting successful or ambitious men: they are prepared to stand up to kings and rulers, prepared to challenge them, and prepared to risk rejection and exile.

Faced with her daughter’s needs, the pushy woman ignores the disciples: she is direct and aggressive in demanding healing and justice. And in demanding justice and healing for her daughter, she is, of course, demanding these for herself too.

The dialogue between this woman and Christ must have sounded crude and aggressive to those who had gathered around to hear what was going on.

This pushy woman forces herself into the house, addresses Jesus in Messianic terms, and demands not that he should heal her daughter, but that he should show mercy. On whom? On her tormented daughter? On the distressed mother? The NRSV translation is clear, where the RSV is not: in the original Greek, she asks for mercy for herself (verse 22).

As I was thinking this week about next Sunday’s sermons – in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick, and Saint Brendan’s Church, Tarbert, Co Kerry – and as I was reading and re-reading the second part of this Gospel reading, I found myself listening yet again to the second movement, ‘The Phoenician Woman,’ in Symphony No 4 (Of the Choral Odes), written by the great modern Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis in 1986-1987 for soprano, alto, narrator, mixed choir and symphonic orchestra without strings.

The recording I have been listening to throughout this week was recorded at the Pallas Theatre in Athens in May 1987, remastered at Soundstudio N in Cologne in June 1995, and released in 1998 by Intuition Classics.

On this recording, Kiki Morphoniou is the contralto, Aleka Drakopoulou the soprano, Lida Tassopoulou the narrator, with Dana Chatzigeorgiou on violoncello. The Athens Symphonic Orchestra is conducted by Lukas Karytinos and Elli Nikolaidi is the chorus director conductor with the Athens Symphonic Chorus.

The fourth symphony by Theodorakis contains just two movements based on texts by Aeschylus (Eumenides) and Euripides (The Phoenician Women). The remastered version of this CD was recorded live at Athens at the world premiere of the composition. The booklet includes the completely translated libretto, extensive liner notes and some personal remarks of the composer himself.

In this symphony, Theodorakis provides a setting of Eumenides by Aeschylus and The Phoenician Women by Euripides, brought together in a massive work that conveys classical Greek tragedy through the form of a modern choral symphony.

In his fourth symphony, Theodorakis weaves together three traditions: the symphonic tradition and the integration of vocals into symphonic works; the tradition of great tragic women figures, which he takes up in his operas Medea, Electra and Antigone; and the particularly Greek perception of history.

In his notes written to accompany this recording, Theodorakis suggests that, because the word symphony is derived from Greek, it is best left to a Greek to define it. He is not concerned with the conventional western sonata form, and this long, two-part work derives its tension and power from its ancient Greek texts, following its own logic rather than abstract rules.

Theodorakis is forceful and direct in his music. There is power in its dark scoring, austere counterpoint, massed unisons, and immense orchestral sonorities.

This live performance brings together these strength. Admirers of Theodorakis will take this work seriously, and appreciate his commitment to Greek national culture. But others may find it difficult to listen to with its sombre subject matter. Yet this is the very drama, focussed in the desperate plight of one woman and her daughter, that is enacted in the second part of next Sunday’s Gospel reading.

After this recording, Theodorakis embarked on a trilogy of operas based on classical dramas with female protagonists: Medea (1988-1990), Electra (1993), and Antigone (1999). Theodorakis has written that he considers the Theban cycle to be the ‘tragedy of tragedies.’ Antigone, struggles as an ‘innocent’ in vain against the ‘primordial Evil,’ the lust for power, symbolised by Creon.

In these works, Theodorakis – often known in the west only for the score and theme of Zorba the Greek – is reacting against the unrestrained desire for social and political domination that has oppressed and divided the Greek people since World War II and earlier. In his own lifetime, he has been active in left-wing politics between World War II and the fall of the junta in 1974.

Mikis Theodorakis, Symphony No 4, Movement 2, Euripides, ‘Phoenician Women’ (Φοίνισσαι)