Situated mid-way between Stafford and Stoke-on-Trent on the A34 in north Staffordshire is the old market town of Stone. Said to have been the early capital of the origin of the Mercian kingdom on the east bank of the Trent; locals will argue that Stone was the first royal seat of Mercia, not Tamworth. On the west bank is Walton, centred on the ancient hundred of Pirehill, perhaps the settlement of the Britons in this area. Stone is named from the Old English 'stān' (stone).
About a mile north of the town nestled in the junction of the A51 with the A34 at Meaford opposite the Darlaston Inn is the massive bivallate hillfort of Bury Bank with views commanding the Trent. Known locally as "the Rings" it is said to have been the Royal Mansion of Wulfhere, king of the Mercians (657-674 AD), son of Penda, and the most powerful monarch south of the Humber. Indeed, old maps name the whole earthwork as “Wulferecestre”. This classic Iron Age defended settlement has two barrows within the interior, one a large low mound possibly of early Saxon date rather than prehistoric; excavation in 1860 found pieces of bones and ashes but there was absence of a main burial with inconclusive results. Half a mile north west from the hillfort is the site of a mound on Tittensor Chase known as Saxons' Lowe. Could this be the burial place of the Saxon King? The word ‘Low’ in the name of a hill indicates a tumulus or burial mound but it is now argued that this mound is a natural feature.
According to legend, the town of Stone owes its origin to the murder of two Saxon Princes, Rufin and Wulfad, the sons of Wulfhere. The story is told in the high street railings.
Wulfere, like his father Penda, was a pagan but converted to Christianity on his marriage to Ermenilda, a Saxon princess of the Royal and Christian house of Kent. Wulfhere and Ermenilda had three children, two sons named Wulfad and Rufin and a daughter, Werburga. However when he brought Ermenilda back to Wulpherecestre he soon reverted to paganism and refused to allow his two sons to be brought up in the Christian faith.
The story goes that as the boys grew up they became very fond of hunting. One day Wulfad was pursuing a white stag. As he was about to shoot, his hand was stayed by a hermit standing by a cave where he was living. The hermit was Chad, the man who brought Christianity to Mercia, later canonized as Saint Chad. Wulfad and Rufin often returned to the cave and as a result of Chad's teaching, were converted to Christianity and baptised.
Meanwhile, Werebode, King Wulfhere's general, desired to marry Werburga. Wulfhere gave his consent, but Werburga refused as Werebode was a pagan and she, through her faith, was determined to be married to Christ only.
Disgruntled and seeking revenge for this insult, Werebode decided to follow Rufin and Wulfad one day and spied them in conversation with Chad. He quickly reported back to King Wulfhere that the boys had become Christians and added his own elaboration that they were plotting to overthrow him. Wulfhere was so incensed by their betrayal that he ordered the boys to be killed. As they returned to the palace, the boys got wind of their fate and fled the way they had come. Wulfhere chased and caught them killing both with his own hands. Wulfad was killed first at what is now Stone and then Rufin was slain at what is now Burston. Other versions of the story claim that Wulfhere put his sons to the sword in the very cell where they had been baptised by St Chad.
|St Rufin's Chapel, Burston|
Their mother Ermenilda and sister Werburga gathered up their bodies and interred them, as was the Saxon way, “under a great sepulchre of stones” around the year 670 AD. Thus, it is claimed, the settlement of Stone received its name. Soon after this, Wulfhere was filled with remorse for his dreadful deed and sought and received absolution from St Chad. On this occasion he genuinely renounced his pagan beliefs and became the first Christian King of Mercia and filled with remorse he allowed Ermenilda to build a priory on the site of their sons' grave which soon became a centre of pilgrimage.
The priory grew and prospered until it was destroyed by the Danes and the canons dispersed. It was re-established as a secular college and Benedictine nunnery before 1066, but was abandoned before 1135. Re-founded as an Augustinian monastery of St Mary, St Wulfad and St Michael in 1135, populated with canons from Kenilworth, of which it was a dependency. In 1260 it became Independent and remained so until it was suppressed in 1537 along with other lesser Monasteries during the first phase of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries and the site and properties sold in 1538. The 12th century Priory Church remained and continued as a place of worship until 1749 when, in a dreadful state of repair, it finally collapsed; the present church was built as a replacement. Little remains of the priory buildings today, the site of the priory, on Lichfield Street, now houses St. Michael's church which was built in 1758 on the site of the twelfth century Priory Church of St. Mary and St. Wulfad using stone from the priory after its collapse. An undercroft survives incorporated in the 19th century former rectory, now `The Priory'.
Facts and Fictions in Mercia
Wulfhere was in fact already a Christian when he became king of Mercia, and the story on which the two Saxon princes is probably based is set by Bede in another part of the country over ten years after Wulfhere's death.1
After his death Wulfhere was succeeded as King of Mercia by his brother, Æthelred. In 704 AD, Æthelred abdicated in favour of Cenred, Wulfhere's son, to become a monk. Ermenilda ended her days as first Abbess of Minster-in-Sheppey then Ely. Werburga also 'took the veil' when Wulfhere died in 674 AD, retiring with her mother to Ely. King Æthelred, her uncle, recalled Werburga to Mercia and gave her charge of several nunneries in the Midlands. Werburga is said to have converted Weedon, once the site of Wulphere's royal palace, into a nunnery, however, the Danes destroyed the edifice; but Werburga's memory was preserved in a chapel there. Werburga is also credited with founding, or reforming, Hanbury (Staffordshire) and Threckingham (Lincolnshire) where she died.
Her remains were conveyed to Hanbury for interment at her own request, but nine years later her relics were translated to Chester owing to the threat from Danish invaders, then wintering at Repton. By the year 708 AD her brother Cenred had succeeded as king of Mercia. He made the decision to move his sister's remains to a more conspicuous place within the church at Hanbury. Her body was found to be miraculously intact. This was considered to be a sign of divine favour, and her shrine became an object of veneration and a centre for pilgrimage. Cenred is said to have been so affected by this miracle that he decided to abdicate and enter holy orders himself
The date at which her relics reached Chester is uncertain; the Chester Annals claim the late 9th century However, the minster at Chester was reformed in the early 10th century by King Alfred's daughter Æthelfleda, the lady of the Mercians who is strongly suspected of translating the Saxon Princess's relics and establishing her cult in the Cheshire town.2
An alternative tradition claims Werburga was originally buried at Trentham seven miles north of Stone. Trentham Priory is said to have originally been the site of an Anglian nunnery, built in the early years of Royal Christianity in Mercia at 'Tricengeham' (Trentham) on the east bank of the Trent. It was founded by King Æthelred and given into the care of his niece Werburga where she died on 3rd February 699 AD. However, no trace of the original site remains or even knowledge of its exact location. The remains of a stepped base for a Saxon stone cross can be seen today in the churchyard at St. Mary and All Saints at Trentham, but it is not known if this is authentic. There was also a claim that some large stones, uncovered during drainage works at the church in 1858 were the foundation stones of the original nunnery.
The Staffordshire tradition appears to be based on nothing more than a confusion of the names of 'Threckingham' (Lincs.) and 'Tricengeham' (Trentham) and rejected by historians.
It is possible that the passion of Wulfad and Rufin was invented by the 12th century canons as a foundation legend. However, it seems likely that the regular canons at Stone were preceded by another religious community. It is believed that when the priory founded by Erminilda was destroyed by the Danes in the 9th century the canons and nuns went to live on the Priory Farm at Walton. The Domesday book records a gift of land at Walton to a community of nuns.3
But the connection with Kent and Wulfhere's daughter Werburga appears genuine enough; in August 2011 a 13th-century bronze seal from the priory, was found in a field in Cobham, Surrey. Its inscription reads "S’ecc Sce Marie et Sci W(v)lfadi Martiris de Stanis" ("the seal of the church of Saint Mary and Saint Wulfad, Martyr of Stone").
It's all legend of course, which at many points contradicts the known facts. Werburga seems genuine enough but there is no historical account of Wulfhere having two sons named Wulfad and Rufin. He had one son named Cenred and it is possible he had another son, Berhtwald, mentioned by William of Malmesbury in Gesta Pontificum Anglorum (The History of the English Bishops).
But the question remains whether or not there were martyrs of these names at Stone, unknown outside traditional accounts, that were given a respectable pedigree by the legend.4
Today, 24 July, is the feast day of the Saints Wulfad and Rufin, martyrs of Stone.
Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson
Notes & References
1. M W Greenslade, R B Pugh (Editors), A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 3, Victoria County History.
2. John Crook, English Medieval Shrines, The Boydell Press, 2011.
3. M W Greenslade, R B Pugh.
4. David Farmer, Oxford Dictionary of the Saints, Oxford University Press, 5th Edition, 2011.
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