Thursday, 31 July 2014

The Trail of the Mercian Saints

Across Europe figures for church-going continue to decline while the numbers embarking on routes tracing the footsteps of the saints is enjoying a revival. Popular pilgrimage routes in Britain include St Cuthbert’s Way which follows the steps of the Anglo-Saxon saint for 62 miles from Melrose Abbey in the Scottish borders to Lindisfarne in Northumberland and the 120 mile Pilgrim’s Way from Canterbury to Winchester. The trail of the Mercian saints can be traced through the heart of Staffordshire in which pilgrims can get an insight into life in Mercia 1,300 years ago.

The lives of the Mercian Saints Chad and Werburga can be traced through Staffordshire to Cheshire exploring the area’s links with Mercian legends. The two Saxon saints are credited with bringing Christianity to the ancient kingdom of Mercia in the 7th century. The market town of Stone in Staffordshire  is situated at the centre with its story of the Saxon princes Wulfad and Rufin whose legend is told on the iron railings sculpture at Granville Square at the top of the High Street.

The tale of Wulfad and Rufin involves both St Chad and St Werburga. In addition to the various sites in Stone itself, there were other places in the Trent Valley situated between Trentham and Salt that have connections with the legend, such as the hill fort at Bury Bank, celebrated Royal Palace of the Mercian king Wulfhere, St Rufin’s Chapel at Burston and the site of Trentham Priory.

St Werburga's Shrine, Chester Cathedral
 (Wikimedia Commons)
The shrines of St Chad at Lichfield and St Werburga at Chester have been popular destinations for pilgrims since medieval times. Local legend claims Werburga spent her last days at Trentham Priory before her remains where moved to Hanbury. Finally her relics where moved to Chester in safe-keeping from the Danes. Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians and founder of the county town of Stafford, is suspected of this final translation and establishing her cult there.

The shrines at Lichfield and Chester became places of pilgrimage because of their saintly associations with healing miracles reported to have happened there. A flourishing pilgrimage to St Chad’s shrine in Lichfield Cathedral is recorded by Bede in the 8th century. In the other direction, pilgrims made their way to Chester, passing through Stone on route. Evidence for this is found in the name of Newgate, the gate pilgrims would have entered Chester from the south-east, which was once called 'St Wulfad’s Gate'. Therefore, it seemed very apt to extend the route from Stone southwards through Cannock Chase to Lichfield and northwards to Chester and the shrine of St Werburga.

The trail of the Mercian Saints starts can be traced from the shrine of St Werburga at Chester Cathedral then, walking south, follows the Trent Valley from north Staffordshire through the market town of Stone, passing near the site of Aston Hall where St Chad's bones were found in 1839 and past St Rufin's Well at Burston before reaching the county town of Stafford with its patron saint Bertelin, said to be a Mercian prince, St Chad's church, the 'hidden gem' of Stafford in Greengate Street, opposite the Swan Hotel, is one of thirty-three ancient churches dedicated to the saint. The exact date when St. Chad’s was built is not known but believed to be around the year 1100 AD, said to be the oldest building in the county town, displaying architecture and sculpture that place it amongst the finest examples of Norman architecture in the Midlands. The stone carvings at St Chad’s include both Christian and Pagan associations with animal and human figures, abstract patterns and of course the ubiquitous ‘Green Man’ without which no Christian church would be complete. Local legends tell of Saracen stone masons at work in Staffordshire who may have been employed at St Chad's; there are certainly similarities to carvings on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain, where architectural historians see Moorish influence.

The precise date of St. Chad's may be uncertain, but we do know something about its founder, a Crusader Knight. 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 is thought to be the signature of the master mason who supervised the building of St. Chad's Church in Stafford at least eight centuries ago and said to have employed Saracen masons captured during the Crusades.

From Stafford the Mercian Saints can be traced across Cannock Chase to Lichfield and the pilgrim sites at the Cathedral and the shrine of St Chad. After visiting Lichfield Cathedral the trail comes to an end at the nearby Church of St Chad. This is claimed to be the site of the church he founded and a small monastery dedicated to St Mary. When he died in 672 AD he was buried nearby and the church rededicated to him. The first Cathedral was built some thirty years later and his relics were moved to a shrine within.

St Chad's Well
 (Wikimedia Commons)
It is said that when St Chad first came to Lichfield he settled in a secluded place near a spring of water where he baptised his followers. Nothing remains of the original Saxon church today but the Holy Well is still there by the Church of St Chad at Lichfield.

Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson

Further info:
On the trail of the Mercian Anglo-Saxon saints

St Chad's Church, Stafford
St Chad
St Chad's Well Lichfield
Chester Cathedral
Chester City Walls
St Werburgh and the Goose

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