History of the St Chads Church
St. Chad’s is the oldest church in Stafford: indeed it is the oldest complete building of any kind within the borough, but the history of Christianity in this area goes back a good deal further. The origins of Stafford are bound up with the story of St. Bertelin, a Saxon saint who set up a hermitage here at the beginning of the eighth century. What is now the town centre was then no more than a kind of island surrounded by river and marsh, with a landing-place (staith) and a crossing place (ford) which combines to give Stafford its name. A church was built, first of wood and later of stone, on the site of Bertelin’s hermitage, and the foundations of the eleventh-century building can be seen adajcent to the west wall of St. Mary’s, the church which replaced it as the Collegiate Church and Parish Church of the Borough. Sometime between the re-building of St. Bertelin’s (c. 1050) and the building of St. Mary’s (c. 1190), St. Chad’s came into being. The principal style of architecture visible today is unmistakably late Norman, dating from after 1100, but no later than 1180 when Norman architecture was giving way to Early English Gothic. The transitional phase of this process is clearly seen in the nave and crossing piers of St. Mary’s just across the road, but there is not even a hint of it in St. Chad’s.
The precise date of St. Chad’s may be uncertain, but we do know something about its founder. Carved on the capital of the north-east pillar of the tower is the Latin inscription Orm Vocatur Que Me Condidit, which is translated as “the man who established me is called Orm”. This could be the signature, as it were, of the master mason who supervised the building of St. Chad’s more than eight centuries ago.
On the other hand, medieval masons did not usually identify themselves so boldly, but by means of secret symbols known as “masons’ marks”, many of them derived from ancient Runic characters. Each mason had his own mark, and by examining these today we can tell if one mason worked on several buildings, but they do not reveal names. Moreover, the use of the word “established” rather than “built” suggests that we are dealing here with a founder and benefactor rather than with someone who actually worked on the site. What is certain is that a document in the County Record Office confirms that a man called Orm lived near the east gate of the borough in the middle of the twelfth century. There is however, a more significant Orme who may be the founder.
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. In days when the entire population consisted of practising Christians, however, this was by no means unusual. The functions of the two churhces 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.