ST CHAD’S CHURCH – foundation, stones, stories

St Chad’s Church was built in the middle of the 12th century – around 1140-50. St Chad’s would have been the biggest building in the town. This was 50 years before St Mary’s Church was built.

St. Chad’s is the oldest church in Stafford, and the oldest complete building of any kind in the town.

To us today it might seem strange that two churches should have been built within a few hundred yards of each other, and within the same few decades when the population of Stafford was no more than six hundred. The functions of the two churches were in any case quite different. The primary purpose of the Collegiate Church of St. Mary was to house a College of priests endowed by King John to pray for living and departed members of the Royal Family, its role as a parish church being subsidiary to this. St. Chad’s on the other hand was never, as far as is known, more than a parish church serving the needs of people living on the eastern side of the town.

The Domesday Survey (1085) records substantial property owned by the Bishop of Lichfield in this part of the borough, and one theory is that St. Chad’s was built for the benefit of the Bishop’s tenants; hence the dedication to St. Chad, the first Bishop of Lichfield (669-672) and Patron Saint of the Diocese).

ORM, THE FOUNDER

A Latin inscription under the tower reads: “He was called Orm who built me.”

Orm was probably Orm le Guiden. He was the son of Richard, the Forester of Cannock Chase.  Orm was son-in- law of the lord of Stafford Castle. His name means Worm or Dragon. There are several dragons in the carvings.  Orm was born in Darlaston. This was the Darlaston north of Stone, not the Darlaston in the Black Country. He held all the manors from Biddulph in the north of the county to Essington to the south, including Rodbaston. Stafford was in the centre of his domain. Many landowning families in Staffordshire today are descended from Orm. He seems to have been an unusually important landowner for someone of Saxon, or possibly Viking, origin.

Above the north side of the choir is a quirky carving of a fox and a hen. Some say this alludes to Orm’s coat of arms.

THE ARCHITECTURE

The church is in Norman, or Romanesque, style, with rounded arches. In the 1140s churches began to be decorated with strange or humorous carvings of animals and people. One of the first, and most extravagantly decorated, is Kilpeck, in Herefordshire. The style of the carvings suggests that St Chad’s was built in the 1140s. Some of the carvings at St Chad’s are typical of the period, showing that masons travelled through Europe bringing ideas, but some are unique to St Chad’s – especially the human figures on the chancel arch. Who are they?

There is a very detailed survey of St Chad’s carvings here.

MYSTERIOUS CARVINGS

There are several snakes or dragons in the stonework which probably echo the name of the founder, Orm.

High on the south side of the arch is a small man with arms raised, standing above a giant’s head. This is probably mean to represent David and Goliath, in which case it is the only carving in the church with any biblical significance. Chapter 17 of the First Book of Samuel, verse 51, says:

David ran and stood over him. He took hold of the Philistine’s sword and drew it from the sheath. After he killed him, he cut off his head with the sword.”

This does seem to fit the carving. The figures on the arch might be Philistines, holding their arms up in amazement.

There is a curious stone, a crudely carved severed head, at the foot of the northern column of the arch. It is curious that heads like this are a common theme in Celtic art. Could there be some mysterious survival here from hundreds of years earlier? The author of “Pagan Celtic Britain”, Anne Ross,  investigated examples of “severed head” carvings from North Staffordshire and Cheshire – some of which seemed to be of a far more recent date. There is a mystery here. Such things might have multiple meanings. Some of these ideas might be folklore, even modern folklore – but stories can be as important as stones.

(For more on stone heads in Staffordshire follow this link.)

 

There are several “Green Men” carved in the stonework of St. Chad’s. One is visible in the sanctuary at the left side of the altar. These “foliate heads”, faces sprouting greenery from their mouths, are common in Norman churches.

They are often thought of as pagan survivals, but, incredibly, this idea, and the use of the term “Green Man” to describe these heads, dates back no further than 1939, when Lady Raglan published an article in “Folklore” magazine.  Before that a “Green Man” would have been the character covered in leaves who appears on pub signs and who had certainly been a folklore figure for centuries, but no-one had ever suggested a connection with the faces in churches before.

Lady Raglan wrote at a time when the idea that ancient pagan ideas had survived into recent times had been made popular by writers like Jesse L Weston and Margaret Murray, influenced by Fraser’s 19th century study of mythology, “The Golden Bough.” The foliate head” is an ancient symbol, but its appearance in churches built in the mid-11th century, all through Europe, may be inspired by new ideas of Nature that became popular at exactly the same time. Understanding of the period has changed over the years.

Though local people might have worked on the churches the designers, stone masons, or possibly travelling priests, travelled from place to place. Ideas travelled great distances. The style is a mixture of influences, possibly Nordic, possibly from the Mediterranean.

The “Green Man” might have unconscious meanings, but sometimes it is associated with the medieval legend of Adam.

The most common version of the story tells that Adam, exiled from paradise, sent his son into the Garden to fetch a branch from the Tree of Mercy. This was planted in his mouth when Adam died. (There are variations of this, and the tree might equally have sprung from the pips of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge which caused the fall of Man.)

The tree that sprung from Adam’s mouth finally provided the wood of the cross. The cause of the Fall of Man leads directly to the cause of Man’s redemption.

The “green men”, the carving of “David and Goliath”, and the “severed head” may defy normal historical explanations.

In St Chad’s, the carvings of wild and mysterious Nature, and the astounded Philistines, or whoever they are, mark the gateway to the altar, where the divine unity at the heart of Creation is experienced in the Eucharist.

BELLS

Before 1600 there were six bells in the tower. The largest bells were sold in the eighteenth century to raise money for a failed attempt at a restoration. Two old bells survive.

There is a cracked sanctus bell, from the fourteenth century, on display in the church, and one surviving bell which is still in use. This has a diameter of 42 inches and bears the date 1632, and the foundry plate of Thomas Hancox of Walsall. The bell is probably a recasting of an older bell as it has an inscription which suggests a pre-Reformation date:

Sum Rosa Pulsata

Munde Maria Vocata

“Summoned by the bell, I am Mary, called the Rose of the World.”

THE CHURCHYARD CROSS

When the nave was restored in 1874 a group of stones were found buried which had originally been the base of a churchyard cross. These might have been buried when houses were built on the churchyard in the sixteenth century. These houses were the property of the Prebendary of Prees, a canon of Lichfield cathedral who, with his successors over several centuries, kept all the income from St Chad’s while the church decayed. Very unusually, these stones are carved with an inscription. Only a few words can be read today, but, according to an article in “The Church Portrait Journal” of April 1878, the then Rural Dean suggested that the complete inscription had been:

Fatalis vetita quod fecit in arbore fructus

Abstalit id sanguis Chr(iste) de corpore ductus.

This translates as:

“What the forbidden tree’s fatal fruit did for man.

The blood undid which from Christ’s wounded body ran.”

Perhaps this cross stood at the west front of the church, and formed a sacred centre of the town.

THE BLACK MEN OF BIDDULPH

The story of “The Black Men of Biddulph” goes back no further than the 19th century, and the first vicar of St Chad’s after its restoration, Rev. W Beresford.

The story goes that Orm, the founder of St Chad’s, had been a knight in the crusades and had brought back with him Saracen stone-masons, who had carved the strange figures in the church. This is, in fact, not an impossible story. Norman architecture stretches through Europe into Spain, which still had a large Islamic population, and into the Mediterranean. It is possible that Islamic influences, and craftsmen, travelled north. There is no evidence at all, though, that Orm had any role in the crusades. Does the possibility that he was a Saxon make this less likely?

To Beresford, in the late Victorian period, the carvings would have been seemed even more mysterious and exotic than they do now. He was obviously someone who liked a story. He would have thought about the inscription to Orm and several threads came together to make the story, which appears in his 1909 book “Memorials of Old Staffordshire.”

This is a lovely collection of articles about history and folklore by various writers. Any book with a chapter titled “Some Local Fairies” is a treasure. The story of the Black Men of Biddulph is told in the chapter “Extracts from Notes of a Tour in Staffordshire” written  by Miss Paulina Biddulph. This is a description of a delightful ramble by pony trap, by Miss Biddulph, who was a novelist and member of the old Biddulph family, perhaps a descendant or Orm.

Miss Biddulph calls the west door (actually by Scott) “Moorish” and the carvings “eastern.” She writes that “generation to generation” had handed down the story that people on Biddulph Moor were descended from seven Saracens, brought there by the Lord of Biddulph, was, indeed, Orm. The Bailey family, descended from these Saracens, she says, were stonemasons. Their present day descendants have “most lovely shades of red-gold hair.” The chapter is illustrated with a drawing of the Orm dedication inscription. Miss Biddulph says that no-one associated these people with St Chad’s, or knew who Orm was, when the inscription was uncovered.

The one element of this which is probably right is that St Chad’s founder was the same Orm as the Lord of Biddulph. Mr Beresford and Miss Biddulph were the first to connect the church to this intriguing figure. There is, through Orm, a connection between St Chad’s and Biddulph Moor, which would have been very wild and remote from the town in the 12th century, and still is.

In the same year as “Memorials of Old Staffordshire” was published, 1909, S.A.H Burne discussed the Biddulph Moor people in the transactions of the North Staffs Field Club. She claims to have visited them in 1893. They had “oval faces, brown, ruddy complexions, dark eyes and hair in shades of auburn.” This agrees with Miss Biddulph’s “red-gold hair.” She writes that these people are “said to be descended from 12 Saracen captives brought back by the Lord of Knypersley from the 3rd crusade.”

Though Miss Biddulph claims the story has been passed on from generation to generation it can be traced no further back than 1862, and Sleigh’s “A History of the Ancient Parish of Leek.”

Sleigh mentions just one “paynim”, brought back by the Lord of Biddulph, to be Bailiff of his estate, hence the name Bailey, from whose marriage to an English Lady the present race of “Biddle-moor men” has sprung. There is no mention of stone masons, which must be the invention of Miss Biddulph.

The story that the Bailey family were descended from Saracens could be older. They might have had unusual hair, though S.A.H.Burne wondered if they were really gipsies.

The idea that they were stonemasons was, almost certainly, invented by Beresford and Biddulph, who made the connection between St Chad’s and Orm of Biddulph, but who complicated the story by their idea that the carvings of St Chad’s are eastern in style. There might be some Moorish influence on Norman design, but this story is an example of how folklore can grow very rapidly, and not necessarily be as old as you might wish to think.

One attractive idea that Miss Biddulph mentions is that the font in St Mary’s, Stafford, which seems to be older than that church, might originally have belonged in St Chad’s. It’s a very odd font.