Monday, 28 July 2014

St Chad's Bones

After the death of Penda, King of The Mercians, in November 655 AD at the battle of the Winwaed, Oswiu of Northumbria came to rule Mercia. In the aftermath of the battle Mercia was divided into north and south, bisected by the Trent. Oswiu set up Penda's son Peada, king of the Middle Angles, as a subject king to rule the southern Mercians. This reward from his father-in-law suggests an allegiance to Oswiu at the Winwaed where Peada may have betrayed his own father.

Less than a year later in the following spring Peada was dead; according to Bede, "wickedly killed, by the treachery, as is said, of his wife during the very time of celebrating Easter." Peada had married Oswiu's daughter Princess Alchflaed on conditon that he received baptism into the Christain Church. Alchflaed's fate after the death of Peada is unknown. However, if Peada had betrayed the Mercians at the Winwaed, as is suspected, it is unlikely she was under any immediate threat in the Midlands.

On Peada's death Oswiu took control of all Mercia. But Oswiu's unchallenged domination of Britain was shortlived. Bede tells us that three years after the death of Penda, the generals of the Mercians rebelled against Oswiu, and installed their own king, Wulfhere, the youthful son of Penda and rightful heir, whom they had kept concealed. Wulfhere was the first Christian king of all of Mercia and ruled for seventeen years and installed four bishops succeeding each other. The third of these Mercian bishops was Chad, one of four brothers all active in the Anglo-Saxon church. According to Bede Chad is credited, together with his brother Cedd, with introducing Christianity to the Mercian kingdom.

The site of Wulhere's royal palace 'Wulfcesetre' has never been firmly identified but Bury Bank, commanding the north Trent, near Stone in Staffordshire, has a traditional claim. It must be beyond coincidence that Chad also features in the tradition of the The Trent Valley in Staffordshire legend.

One of the most famous legends of Anglo-Saxon times is the foundation of the mid-Staffordshire town of Stone. It is told that King Wulfhere, whose royal residence was at Bury Bank on Tittensor Chase, was horrified when his two sons, Wulfad and Rufin, converted to Christianity. The story goes that the two boys followed a white stag into the forest where they met St Chad, who persuaded them to become Christians. The story is told on the railings in Granville Square in Stone and at the Roman Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception and St Dominic where there is a martyrs altar showing the baptism of Wulfad and Rufin.

St Rufin's Chapel, Burston
The 19th century church in the village of Burston, on the bank of the Trent near Stone, is dedicated to St Rufin. The original chapel dedicated to St Rufin was south west of the village and said to mark the spot where he fell. It was known to have been in use in Tudor times but what remained of it was destroyed when the canal was built through here in the 18th century. A Holy Well on the east side of the canal nearby is called St Rufin’s Well, or alternatively known as St Chad's Well.

A short journey further south along the valley of the Trent, following the corridor of the modern A51 road, is a cave on the sandstone escarpment south of the village of Salt, west of Stafford, is said to be where St Chad lived at a hermit. It is here that Wulfad and Rufin followed the white stag and first met Chad and often visited him and took religious instruction. But St Chad's association with the area has a peculiar twist to it.

King Wulfhere asked Archbishop Theodore to appoint Chad as his new Bishop. Previous Bishops of Mercia had lived at Repton, but Chad chose Lichfield. This may seem an odd choice as the name 'Licetfield' was then thought to translate as "Field of the Dead" because one thousand British Christians were said to have been slaughtered there. Bede tells us that he came "to dwell by St Mary's Church". Where exactly that Church was in Lichfield is argued; some scholars say St Mary's church was on the site of the present St Chad's Church, others claim that Bishop Jaruman's church, on the site of the present Cathedral, was originally dedicated to St Mary.

Wulfhere gave Chad the land of fifty families upon which to build a monastery, at the place called Ad Barve (At the Wood) in Lindsey, thought to be at Barton-on-Humber, where the ancient Saxon church still stands. He is also said to have founded a monastery at Lichfield. However, by this time plague had broke out in Lastingham, claiming his brother Cedd, and Chad was forced to return to look after the monks there. In 699 AD Chad took up his position in Mercia but three short years later he died on 2nd March 672 AD. According to Bede, Chad was venerated as a saint immediately after his death.

Some places mentioned in the text
The Cult of St Chad
Bede writes that Chad was first buried by St. Mary's Church. Bede described his first shrine as 'a wooden coffin in the shape of a little house with an aperture in the side through which pilgrims could , as Bede says, "....put in their hand and take out some of the dust, which they put into water and give to sick cattle or men to drink, upon which they are presently eased of their infirmity, and restored to health."

So many pilgrims began to visit Chad's tomb at Lichfield that by 700 AD Bishop Hedda built a second church on the site, originally dedicated to St Peter, and moved Chad's bones into it. As the numbers of pilgrims to St Chad's shrine continued to increase that church was replaced by first, an 11th century Norman cathedral, and then the present Gothic building begun in 1195. In these times on the saint's feast day, 2nd March, the building was covered in colourful banners and the bones of St Chad taken out in procession so that pilgrims and the local people could celebrate their saint.

The number of pilgrims visiting the Cathedral grew at such a rate that by the 13th century they were disrupting normal worship. The Lady Chapel was then built to hold the shrine. He remained the centre of an important cult, focussed on healing, throughout the Middle Ages. St Chad's cult had two items of focus: his tomb, in the apse, directly behind the high altar of the Cathedral; and his skull, kept in a special Head Chapel, above the south aisle.

At the Reformation, despite special pleading by Bishop Rowland Lee to Henry VIII, the shrine was destroyed in 1538 and the bones dispersed. In February 2003, an 8th century sculpted panel of the Archangel Gabriel was discovered under the nave of Lichfield Cathedral. The sculpture was originally part of a stone chest thought to have contained the relics of St Chad. Traces of red pigment found on the Angel correspond closely to those of the Lichfield Gospels which have been dated to around 730 AD.

At the dissolution of the Shrine,  Arthur Dudley, a senior member of clergy of Lichfield Cathedral, removed a box containing some of St Chad’s bones from the Head Chapel. These were eventually passed to his nieces, Bridget and Katherine Dudley, of Russells Hall, for safe-keeping. They in turn passed them on to two brothers, Henry and William Hodgetts, who lived at Woodsetton Farm at Sedgley near Wolverhampton. They divided the bones between them. When William died in 1649 his widow passed his share of the bones to Henry. Two years later in 1651 when Henry was on his death-bed he kept praying to St Chad and received the Last Rites from a Jesuit priest, Fr Turner. When the priest heard his last confession he asked him why he called upon St Chad. Henry replied, "because his bones are in the head of my bed". He instructed his wife to give the relics to the priest.

Fr Turner then had his statement witnessed by two other Jesuit priests and they had a new casket made to hold the relics. The Jesuits kept the bones for some time at St Omer in France, but eventually gave them to Basil Fitzherbert of Swynnerton Hall, in Staffordshire,for safekeeping, oddly just two miles west of Bury Bank, the alleged site of Wulfhere's royal palace. Fitzherbert died in 1797 and his widow and young son moved to Aston, near Stone, across the Trent to the village of Burston where Wulfhere's son Rufin was martyred, taking the relics with them. A chapel was built at Aston Hall to serve the district in which St Chad's bones were housed in the altar. However, the Fitzherbert family moved back to Swynnerton and the chapel at Aston was closed, with the relics, now forgotten, left behind.

The chapel at  Aston was reopened in 1839 by Fr Benjamin Hulme who rediscovered the relics in a chest beneath the altar. The chest contained six bones wrapped in silk along with Fr Turner’s statement of what Henry Hodgetts had told him on his death-bed. The bones were taken to the Roman Catholic seminary at Oscott, Birmingham, and examined by Bishops Thomas Walsh and Nicholas Wiseman who made a report that was sent to the Vatican. Pope Gregory XVI confirmed that the bones were indeed the relics of St Chad, although of course in those days there was no scientific technique available to prove the bones actually dated from Chad's time.

The reliquary containing the bones of St Chad in front of the altar at the
Metropolitan Cathedral and Basilica of St Chad, Birmingham,
on the Solemnity of St Chad, 2 March
In the autumn of 1839 Bishop Walsh laid the foundation stone of a new Cathedral in Birmingham and when the building was consecrated on 21st June, 1841, some long bones declared by the Roman Catholic church as St Chad’s relics, were placed in a new shrine above the High Altar of St Chad's Cathedral which was designed based on the Venerable Bede’s description of the original at Lichfield.

A hundred and fifty years later in 1995 the relics in the Birmingham Cathedral were examined by the Oxford Archaeological Laboratory. By carbon dating techniques all but one of the bones, a third femur which could not have come from the same person, were dated to the 7th century, and were authenticated as St Chad's 'true relics' by the Vatican for the second time.

The examination concluded that one of the bones is 8th century and cannot have belonged to St Chad. The the other five bones are all of mid-7th century date; two of which are left femurs and therefore must be from different individuals. It is therefore reasonably certain that at least one and possibly three of the bones are those of St Chad. Archbishop Couve de Murville issued a Decree in 1997 which demands that the bones be kept together and venerated collectively.

Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson

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