Thursday 4 July 2024

Old St Chads

 
Having spent a decade blogging about obscure spots in and around Shrewsbury, this is perhaps the most satisfying itch I have ever scratched. This is Old St Chads, not to be confused with the other St Chads by the Quarry Park. This delightful little ruin has loomed over many a dog walker, picnicker and teenage dirtbag, of which I have been all three. But it's not accessible to the public, and that lends it a hint of mystery. And if we rewind to the early 1900s we can see that very little has changed in the last century or so. 
 
(Photo Credit- Ray Farlow.)
 
The graveyard looked marvelously superior in its ominousitude (That's a word, shut up) but the church itself is as we know it today. And that tree on the right is the same tree too, and that is just awesome.
 
Generations of people have grown up knowing this place as it appears today, which is actually bonkers when we consider that what we have is still just a shadow of something that was previously mighty. 

A noticeboard on the grounds makes mention of the church being established in the far flung era of 1148, but there was a monastic college here long before that, privately owned by the Bishop of Lichfield and dating back to before the time of a unified England, when the country as we know it was divided into various kingdoms and the area that would become Shropshire was part of the Kingdom of Mercia, under the rule of some chap called Offa.


Echoes of the churches previous grandeur can be found in the area. The archway in Golden Cross Passage across the street was once the entrance to the churches sacristy, and the nearby and sadly closed "Candle Lane Bookshop" refers to a time when Princess Street was called "Candle Lane" because it was up that road that pilgrims would approach the church by candlelight.


Naturally St Chads has had many an alteration over the centuries. In fact a large part of its historic significance is that it allows a study on the evolution of building techniques throughout the medieval ages. Extensive alterations were made before and after 1200, and rather famously it needed severe restoration after a careless worker accidentally set fire to it in 1393.

Luckily enough, there are plenty of illustrations that show what once stood here by the 1700s, and I think we can agree that it is a tragedy that we don't have this thing in our town today. 

(Image not mine, obviously)

So what happened? Well in 1788 a few cracks appeared in one of the support columns and the church warden called in Thomas Telford, engineer extraordinaire behind many a road, bridge and aqueduct. Shrewsbury folk do like to point out his heinous crime of demolishing a good chunk of the Abbey and putting a road there instead, but in his defence the Abbey was a ruin at that point anyway and people were plundering it for building supplies all the time. He was, inarguably, a clever guy.

Thomas Telford came into St Chad's and after an inspection insisted that they take the conversation outside. The support columns were in fact hollow and merely filled with rubble. In addition to that a number of roof timbers had rotted away entirely while a number of deep graves dug too close to the church had weakened its shallow foundations, and consequently the tower and its heavy bells were too heavy for the church and could come crashing down at any moment. He said that the bells needed removing urgently and the tower should be disassembled temporarily until they could construct adequate support. 

A meeting of the vestry concluded that Thomas Telford was exaggerating, and only the most rudimentary support was given to the cracked column. 
On the 8th of July, during a funeral, the bells shook the tower so violently that the church was evacuated. The following morning, the clock struck 4am, the bell rang and the tower collapsed, taking a good chunk of the church with it.

(Image not mine, obviously.)

What survives today is the only part of St Chads that was unscathed by the collapse, although a few objects from within the church, including some stained glass windows, were removed and preserved in other local churches while the ruined shell of St Chads was demolished. The connecting archway to the surviving chunk was bricked up with masonry so that to the casual observer it never connected to anything.

In 1792, a replacement St Chads was built just next to the Quarry Park. The ruins of its predecessor gained the "Old" prefix, being known from then on as Old St Chads. New St Chads foundations are allegedly made out of stones taken from the wreck of the former church.

Before we slip inside, there's one external feature on St Chads that nobody ever notices despite it being right there, hiding in plain sight. It's a massive inscription on its wall.


Click the above image to see it big, and zoom in if you need to. Or better yet, go there in person. 
 
It reads "In this sacred enclosure stood the ancient church of Saint Chad which was founded AD DCCLXXX, the first Saxon church in Shrewsbury. Another collegiate church, spacious and cruciform, was erected on the same site AD MCCCXCIII. It fell July IX, MDCCLXXXVIII, this usually called the Bishops Chancel, being the only portion extant."

It's a cute memorial to the sad event, but fries my brain with the roman numerals. Luckily, online converters exist, so we know that the original Saxon church was erected here in 780, and despite the tourist information board in the churchyard claiming that the church was founded in 1148, this engraving indicates that the Saxon church was replaced with the larger church in 1393, after the fire.


And just because things aren't murky enough, the large oak doors of the church display the year 1663. It really is a mishmash of different eras. 

It's time to slip inside!


This is a proud moment. I've wanted to see inside this place for as long as I've known about it. It's actually really pretty, if a little dusty and neglected, and containing a lot of trinkets confined to the walls, presumably predating the churches collapse.

 
I'm totally loving these golden door statues above the crest. 
 


There's a memorial mounted on the wall for Martha and Richard Morgan, who passed away in the 1700s, prior to the collapse of the church tower. But what's really intriguing is that it lists their three children, who died in 1770, 1789, 1788 and 1797. These dates occur both before and after the church collapsed, which confused me initially. However this chapel was apparently still used for funerals once the rest of the church had been demolished, so that makes sense.

Far more intriguing is the memorial to the left of that, which is faded and crumbled to the point of being almost unreadable. The date mentioned on that is in roman numerals, but cuts off before it's finished, meaning I can't put a precise date to it.


But the biggest surprise were all the hatchments hanging high on the walls, displaying the coat of arms of various Shropshire families. I'm no expert in heraldry, but it's said that famous Shropshire families such as the Hills and the Myttons have their hatchments on display here.


But by far the most prominent coat of arms in here is the Crow of the Corbett family. This particular one can be attributed to Corbet Kynaston, a politician who died in 1740, and has both Corbett and Kynaston blood in him. As such his coat of arms displays the lions of the Kynaston coat of arms and the crow of the Corbetts. The Latin motto reads "Deus est nobis sol etensis," meaning "God is the sun stretched out for us."


This gorgeous relic is the of Norman origin, and really belongs in a museum, or in another church. Somewhere where it can be seen and appreciated.


So while I've heard it said that the churches precise origins are undocumented, that big engraving on the side puts the churches origin in the year 780, which is indeed Saxon times, pre-dating unified England. Shrewsbury itself doesn't show up in any written sources until 901, but it was clearly a well established part of the Kingdom of Mercia by that point. The Kingdom of Mercia was apparently established in 582, and historians typically believe that Shrewsbury was initially settled by the population of the nearby Roman settlement of Viroconium Cornoviorum, now Wroxeter, that they allegedly abandoned about 520, as it became indefensible when the last vestiges of Roman-British government broke down.
 
And King Offa of Mercia is largely credited with establishing St Chads, starting his reign in 756. So it all adds up. But what makes this even more interesting is that St Chads is alleged to sit on the site of a former palace, which was the seat of the former Welsh kingdom of Pengwern. Allegedly this right here was the capital of what would become Powys! No wonder the Welsh kept trying to take it back!


Pengwern was ruled over by Brochwel Ysgythrog, a man who allegedly once encountered St Melangell who he wanted to marry. He was apparently impressed by how a hare hid under her skirts during a hunt, and his dogs refused to approach her. She also rejected his marriage proposal so he gave her a monastery and left her alone.
And straight away, I don't believe a word of it. No man handles rejection like that. If this was true, he'd be the saint.

But I digress. While St Chads is widely believed to be the site of the former palace of the Kingdom of Pengwern, historians also think that Baschurch, Whittington Castle or the Wrekin are also pretty worthy candidates. A ancient poem mentions overlooking the old lands of Pengwern from "Din Lle Vreconn." 
"Din Lle Vreconn" means "Place of the city of Vreconn," likely in the past tense, and possibly refers to the Roman town of Viroconium. Removing the Roman suffix gives us Virocon, which the Welsh named Gwrygon, and the English named Wreocon, later Wroxeter. But then of course it's very easy to see a word like Vreconn being corrupted into the Wrekin, which is also said to have had a hillfort on it. It's all very interesting and fun to speculate about, but nothing has been confirmed for sure.


The Corbetts, whose name can be attributed to the crow hatchments, are one of the most prominent families in Shropshire, having had a number of Barons over the centuries.
Corb is the old Anglo-Saxon word for Crow, similar to the French "Corbeau" and the Latin "Corvus."
I'm not sure whose coat of arms this is, but the motto "Virtus Post Funera Vivit" means "Power lives on after death," and is probably a pretty true statement for the Corbett families, given that their name is prevalent all over Shropshire even today. Their name can be seen today in places like Moreton Corbett Castle, which they owned, as well as the Corbett Arms in Uffington. Allegedly some of them lived at Acton Burnell Castle where the first parliament was held, and some had Sundorne Castle for a bit too. In fact it was the wife of Hugh Drydon Corbett who ordered the demolition of Sundorne Castle in 1955.


Despite being neglected today, the church does have electricity, and was apparently still being used for the occasional service at least as late as the 1980s. As a result I have been able to find photos of it from the 20th Century when it was still somewhat in use.

 (Photo not mine, obviously.)
 
There are no pews, only rows of chairs. But the hatchments have always been here. 
 

This wall would have faced into the original church, so there was a time when this archway was open. After the tower collapse, this archway was filled with masonry. Presumably these memorials were retrieved from the ruins and mounted on the walls here.



It's a bit long-winded but it contains the date 1634. This is pretty cool!


This memorial is for John Weaver, a famous dance master and choreographer. The memorial lists him as the father of English pantomime, but he's also regarded as the father of English ballet too. This memorial, it seems, was only actually put here in 1985, two centuries after John Weaver was active. So I guess it's safe to say that Old St Chads did still hold services in the 1980s. They wouldn't have put this here unless they intended for it to be seen, after all. That makes it kinda sad. If the father of English ballet and pantomime is someone from Shrewsbury, surely that's a legacy the town should be proud of.




The hatchment on the left reads "Deus Pascit Corvos," literally translating to "God feeds the Crows." But in this context it probably means "God sustains the Corbetts."
They were a proud bunch.


The hatchment on the left reads "In deo solo confido," which I don't actually need a translator for, given the Latin influence in English is pretty prevalent. It means "I trust God alone."



The memorial here mentions someone called Job Orton, and it looks like something else was once hanging in the frame. A fragment of this is nearby, propped up against the wall. 


Presumably it fell, and this is the part that was retrieved.

Alas, the rear windows had light streaming through, giving me a little too much glare to photograph that angle efficiently. But that's okay! Someone else did it back in the 1960s.

(Photo not mine, obviously)
 
What's interesting about this shot is that it shows a doorway under the window. That's no longer there.
 
Window glare aside, I can still photograph the hatchments and the memorials along that wall.


It's entirely in Latin! This is so cool!


I don't know whose hatchments these are, but the one on the left seems to depict three figures holding clubbed weaponry.

 
So back in the Saxon times, the kingdom of Mercia was founded in 582, but Shropshire was not initially part of it. The Welsh still dominated Shropshire, Herefordshire and Cheshire for a considerable period of time. It is Offa, who began his reign in 756, who is credited with taking these places from the Welsh and establishing a boundary. 
Offa is known for his claiming of territory, and is sometimes credited with setting the foundation of a unified England, although it wasn't a desire for unity that drove him, just a lust of power. But he was generous when it came to churches and monasteries, founding quite a lot. As such he is often credited with the founding of St Chads in 780, once it was part of Mercia.

Some also credit a later ruler of Mercia, Æthelflæd, because she historically put a lot of work into establishing or enriching Mercian saints, bolstering the churches, and more importantly fortifying Mercia against the Vikings by establishing fortresses, which they called Burhs. The word "Burh" developed into Bury, Berry, or Burgh, so pretty much every town in England with this suffix began life as a fortress. Given that Æthelflæd was so instrumental in establishing them in Mercia, it's easy to see how some might credit her for Shrewsbury. The only problem is she didn't become ruler until 911, and our inscription specifies that St Chads was established in 780. 
But then that inscription is from after the towers collapse in 1788, so it is a secondary source. It's likely that nobody knows for sure. 

Either way, Æthelflæd is quite an important historic figure. Her status as a female ruler is said to be one of the most unique events in early medieval history, and she was bloody good at it. Shropshire and other parts of Mercia were relatively stable during the Viking era, and her conquest of Derby was said to be instrumental in breaking Viking control of the UK and laying the foundation for unifying the country. She died in 918, but it was only in 924 when Æthelstan was proclaimed the first king of the whole of England.
 





The pulpit is of the 18th century and similarly, I don't think it should be going to waste here.



And finally, before we vamoose, it would be remiss of me to not draw attention to the floor, which is entirely paved with gravestones.

 
But these people are not under here. The date on this one is 1794, so he passed away after the collapse of the church. He may well have had his funeral here, but at some point in the ensuing years, someone decided to pave the chapel with old gravestones. 
 

 
There are a few nuggets of information that tells us a bit about these old townsfolk. Elias Evans here was apparently very charitable to the poor folks. 
 

But one of the more unfortunate graves is that of Sarah Tayleur, spinster. I think it's slightly ridiculous that being unmarried and without children had such a weight on a woman's reputation and identity that it had to be displayed on a gravestone. We luckily live in more sophisticated times.


The more textured gravestones baffle me a bit. Someone decided that this belonged on the floor, where it could at best be a trip hazard, and at worst get eroded by footfall.


And then we have this fucking essay.

 
And here we have an actual Corbett grave! This stone marked the resting place of Victoria, or Lady Corbett. She lived at Longnor Hall, and her date of death in roman numerals is 1679, aged only forty.
 
 
So we're going to leave Old St Chads now, but it's very important to nip over to St Marys, because when St Chads Church fell, one of its most prominent stained glass windows was moved there to be preserved, and it sure is massive. 
 
Here it is:
 
 
This is allegedly the oldest stained glass window in Shrewsbury. It was originally made around 1330 for another chapel that closed in 1538. At that point it was moved to St Chads where it stayed until the disaster of 1788. It was allegedly touched up a bit in 1859.
And it's pretty fucking huge, and really captures the scale that old St Chads once achieved. If they had listened to Thomas Telford, perhaps this window would still be standing at Old St Chads today.
 
But the thing about stained glass windows is that back when these were made, people were mostly illiterate, so pictorial storytelling was the way to convey information. In the modern age we've sort of lost the ability to read pictures, so a lot of the finer details in stained glass windows go right under our noses.

This window depicts the family tree of Jesus. The inner four columns are the family tree, stemming from Jesse, who is shown napping across the four columns on the second to bottom row. There's a vine growing from him which entangles the ensuing generations before reaching the smaller windows at the top which depict Joseph and Mary, with Jesus right at the tip. Directly above Jesse is David, holding a harp. The rest all hold sceptres and swords, to illustrate that they were all leaders and warriors.
The outer columns, two each side, depict Old testament prophets. They hold vine tendrils and many are pointing up to Jesus.
 

Alongside Joseph and Mary are two windows depicting St Matthew and St Luke. They are said to be responsible for tracking Jesus lineage right back to Adam. 
 
But the thing is, "Adam" derives from the ancient Hebrew word for mankind. Adam is meant to be plural. In the original texts that the modern bible adapted, God didn't create Adam the Man. He created Adam the Humans. And that's sort of why I can't take Christians too seriously when they take their bible literally. Even the most rudimentary searches, even the most amateur of historians, can see that the book is subject to innumerable edits and mistranslations. Nobody should take these stories at face value. 

But I digress. What's truly significant about this window is that the man who had the window made, Sir John de Charlton, depicts himself on the bottom row with his wife, each of them flanking Mary and King Edward III. His kids are also on the outer columns of the bottom row. These panels are the only surviving images of Shrewsbury residents from that time in history.  That is pretty immense.

I'll return to the grounds of Old St Chads to look at a few more external points of interest.
 
 
This grave marks the death of an eighteen month old baby, who died in 1841, seemingly buried on the site of the original church. That's quite sad. Baby graves always move me. 
 
Behind that is a great big pit in the ground. 
 
 
This big mess of grass and slip hazards is, or was, the churches crypt. It was no doubt first  uncovered when the church collapsed. In fact some accounts tell that the church sank into it a bit, due to its foundations being so weak. It was known as the Dinnery, meaning dark place, and it was actually excavated in 1899, and photographed. 
 
(Photo not mine, obviously)
 
(Photo not mine, obviously)

And isn't this amazing? How awesome would it be if all of this was still exposed so that it could be appreciated today? From here there was a passage under the road to the sacristy, now the Golden Cross pub. They actually kept the passage open for many years and charged people a bit of money to go see it, but eventually some genius decided to block it off. 
 
And then some other buffoon decided to let this awesome crypt go to waste, in favour of a featureless grassy pit, when really this could still be appreciated today. They'd have to fence it off a bit to stop people falling in, but that's not exactly a challenging thing to sort out. 
 
 
There are a few other curiosities. Here we have the door that we saw in the old interior shot, now blocked off.
 
 
And here's a stone coffin.
 

 
But my personal favourite and overlooked external feature is the grave of Captain Benbow, the traitor of Civil War infamy. Shrewsbury had been a royalist stronghold, but in 1645 Benbow led the parliamentarians in through the gate at St Mary's Water Lane, earning it the title "Traitors Gate." 
Shrewsbury fell to the parliamentarians, but it was the covert nature of the conquest that led to us having a pretty intact castle, and not some war-battered inexplicably gravity-defying pile of wreckage like the one in Bridgnorth, so I guess everything worked out for the best.
 

But the grave says that Benbow was shot by the Parliamentarians in 1651. That is because even though he betrayed the Royalists to the Parliamentarians, he then flipflopped and betrayed the Parliamentarians too. What the grave doesn't say is that the spot in Shrewsbury where he was shot was the exact place he had been standing when the Parliamentarians had taken Shrewsbury thanks to his betrayal six years earlier. His death was one of poetic justice.
 


 But that is all I've got. It is a fucking relief to finally be able to document Old St Chads, and shine a light on a part of Shrewsbury that doesn't get seen very often, but actually has a great deal of historic value. It is a shame that the public can't enjoy this church. It is a shame that things like the Norman font are locked away, and it's a tragedy that many of the hatchments will be ruined by the damp that is visible creeping in through the roof. I understand that a few have since been removed to see if there is any hope of restoration, but for a few, the damage will already be too severe. 

But at least it's all been documented. If it can't be appreciated in person, it can be appreciated here and in the photos of others who have been lucky enough to get in. 

My next few blogs will be abandoned houses in the local area, before I turn my attention to Europe on my travel blog. It's all very exciting. 
In the meantime, if you like my blogs, follow them on social media. Presently social media is an algorithmic hellscape and I see very little point in posting on anything anymore. I'd get more reach if I bellowed by blog URL from a moving train than I do on Facebook and Instagram. Nevertheless, we're going down with the ship, and you can follow me on Instagram, Facebook, Vero, Reddit, Twitter and Threads. Maybe if you follow me on these, you'll see my posts. But maybe not.
Thanks for reading!

2 comments:

  1. That was an excellent read. So many interesting things.
    Thank you.

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  2. I believe I'm right in saying that there was a packed church for a military funeral - complete with volleys of musket-fire over the coffin - a day or so before the tower collapsed, but then they didn't have Health & Safety in those days. Had the musket-fire trriggered the collapse of the tower, what then might the death-toll have been? And on the day of the collapse there were some guys working on the tower - but they had nipped across the road for a pint to wash down their sandwiches just before the tower fell . . .

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