Like most of our medieval churches, St. Chad’s underwent many alterations as the result of changes in architectural fashion and the way in which the building was not radically different from that of today, i.e. a cruciform church with aisles, transepts, a central tower and a chancel; so much is clear from the surviving Norman work in the nave, tower crossing and chancel. It is thought that the nave originally extended westwards by a further two bays, and that the chancel may have terminated in a rounded apse, as distinct form the present square-ended one. What is certain is that the tower was rebuilt from the top of the crossing-piers upwards in the fourteenth century (witness the pointed arches under the tower) and that the east end of the chancel was remodelled at approximately the same time.
For the remainder of the Middle Ages St. Chad’s remained largely unaltered, but following the Reformation it suffered gross neglect to the extent that by 1650 this once magnificent church was described as ‘very small, ruinous, and inconsiderable’. Some attempt was made to improve the churchyard, which was still used for burials, and no less a person than Izaak Walton donated £22 (no mean sum in those days) to build a stone wall around it. In 1672 he also assigned rent from a plot of land which could be used by the church wardens for the upkeep of the wall. The fabric of the church itself, however, continued to deteriorate. The aisle walls were so unsafe that they had to be pulled down, possibly even before 1650. The spaces between the nave pillars and arches were then bricked up to form the new exterior walls, the transepts disappeared, and the fine carvings on the chancel arch were covered with layers of plaster. An early nineteenth-century print shows the overall effects of this work: a narrow tunnel-like building, with most of its former glories hidden from view.
In 1740 the west end fell down, and this may have been the occasion of the shortening of the nave arcades, already referred to. At this time a complete remodelling of the exterior of the church was begun along neo-Classical lines, but there was insufficient cash to do the job properly. In 1757 four of the six bells in the tower were sold to enable the work to proceed, but it was never adequately finished. A picture dated 1837 reveals a re-modelling of the tower parapet, with a Grecian urn on each corner, but the nave is barn-like, the windows tall, with slightly curved tops and iron grilles reminiscent of the factory windows of the period. At this time services were held infrequently. By 1782 it was customary to hold only one service a month; it consisted of prayers and a sermon, and was held in the afternoon of the second Sunday of the month. Those who think that the religious observance is a twentieth-century phenomenon would do well to remember that the eighteenth century is unparalleled in English history both for its neglect of worship and for the dilapidation of church buildings. St. Chad’s was by no means untypical, and by the 1820’s its “big sister”, St. Mary’s, was also in a state of decay.
By the 1840s the Evangelical revival, followed by the Oxford Movement, were breathing new life in to the Church of England. This was reflected in church restoration programmes and the provision of new churches in areas where the Industrial Revolution had brought about population growth. In the 1840s the Norman Architecture enjoyed a brief but significant revival across the whole of the country, involving the restoration of many old churches and the building of new ones in this style. Between 1844 and 1847 the Stafford-based architect Henry Ward carried out a rebuilding of Armitage parish church, near Rugeley, in the Norman style, and Ward was chosen to undertake the restoration of St. Chad’s beginning in 1854. It was proposed to restore the chancel as a memorial to the celebrated Izaak Walton, the Stafford banker Thomas Salt of Weeping Cross taking the initiative in organising fund-raising.
All the plaster was removed from the chancel arch, revealing the sumptuous beak-head and chevron carvings for the first time in two hundred years, along with the magnificent dragon just above the north-east pillar of the tower, near to the “Orm” inscription. Further to the east the Norman clerestory windows were unblocked, adn below these restoration work was carried out on the blind arcades which have finely carved capitals with grotesquae heads including a “green man”. Finally the present three-light east window replaced a somewhat crude seventeenth-century lancet group. As work progressed indications of the Norman nave pillars, clerestory, south transept and aisles were discovered: Long forgotten features which showed just how important a building St. Chad’s had once been, and how very close to total destruction it had come. The tower parapet was crumbling, and it had lost its four urns. The nave had not been touched, but owing to lack of money it was not possible to carry out any further work until 1874 when, following the death of Thomas Salt, it was decided to restore the nave as a memorial to him. A plaque on the west wall of the nave records this.
It was at this stage that Gilbert Scott came on the scene, an architect well-known to both Petit and Salt because all had been involved with the restoration of St. Mary’s church in the 1840s. Scott’s contribution was the opening-up of the nave arcade on the south side, the reconstruction of the south aisle, and the building of the present west front. The statue of St. Chad in the gable over the west window was Scott’s own gift to the church – possibly a personal tribute to Thomas Salt. Four years later the north aisle was rebuilt by Robert Griffiths of Stafford, but along the lines recommended by Scott, who had died in 1878. In 1884 the tower was restored by Griffiths, but again working to Scott’s plan. The crumbling parapet was replaced by an embattled one, with eight graceful pinnacles. Griffiths was also responsible, two years later, for the rebuilding of the north transept on the foundations of the old one, and while cutting through the tower wall to make the archway for the new transept, the builders discovered portions of the original Norman pier-bases and capitals. An appeal was launched to raise funds for the final stage, namely the rebuilding of the south transept as a choir vestry and organ chamber, and the installation of a new organ. The history of the fabric is brought up to date with the early twentieth-century repairs to the tower parapet which involved – to the regret of many – the removal of its eight pinnacles in 1910.
The completion of the organ chamber and vestry on the site of the south transept is as late as 1953 – 55. The organ dates back in part in part to 1880 when the instrument then in use was described as “an inferior instrument, entirely unworthy of the Church, and pronounced by competent judges who have examined it to be hopelessly past repair”. In its place an organ “of excellent pedigree” was installed by J. Kirkland, and in 1909 it was rebuilt and considerably extended by J.J Binns of Leeds. Recent examination by the Diocesan Organ Adviser has shown it to be a far more important instrument, historically and musically, than was previously realised, and deserving of the thorough restoration that it proposed.
It is little short of a miracle that St. Chad’s still stands as the Church’s “shop window” on Stafford’s main street. By the early nineteenth century its Norman splendours were long forgotten, and what remained of them lay buried and therefore invisible beneath tons of post-Reformation brickwork and plaster. Even this was in a poor condition, and St. Chad’s might well have shared the fate of many medieval churches which, owing to advanced dilapidation, were during this period razed to the ground. Fortunately, however, its architectural importance was discovered, almost accidentally, during the restoration and conservation are here for present and future generations to see and enjoy. More than that, St. Chad’s is the spiritual home of a Christian congregation who love it first and foremost as “the house of god and the gate of heaven”.
Michael J. Fisher