The Midlands Saintly Landscapes

The Society undertook its first venture into Zoom meetings in February when, jointly with the Historical Association, Trevor James gave a fascinating talk on church saintly dedications - the story of which is not quite as straightforward as many of us would assume. The talk was based upon his book, "English Saintly Landscapes".

I, probably like many, had assumed that church dedications were random decisions, made by the local church builders and populace who might have adopted a popular local saint for their dedication. Trevor's research shows that that was only partly true. His contention is that church dedications, place names, pilgrimage routes and local industries all contribute to the study of religious dedications and hence our understanding of the historic religious landscape and the beliefs of the people who inhabited it. Furthermore, the origins of some church dedications and place names would be lost without a study of some of these related factors.

By way of example, Trevor drew our attention to the dedications to St Edburgha. Her shrine is at Pershore, yet she died at Aylesbury. However, it is possible to trace her funeral procession across country between the two, by reference to the location of churches which are dedicated to her. Once established, this line of dedicated churches could become, through frequent practice, a pilgrimage route; often with appropriately named supporting inns. These routes often follow main rivers or former Roman roads. So, by way of example, St Edith (or Editha) was buried at Polesworth, yet churches dedicated to her can be found on Watling Street at Tamworth and close by the road at Church Eaton and Amington. There are also a cluster of churches dedicated to her in distant North Lincolnshire around Louth (at the far end of the Fosse Way).

Using the same approach, pilgrim routes can be traced using saintly dedications for St Chad. Whilst his shrine is, of course, at Lichfield, pilgrim routes from four directions converge here and along these can be found appropriate church dedications. For example, at Chaddesden, north of Derby, Brewood to the west and Caldicot to the east along Watling Street.

Trevor continued by stressing the importance of rivers, crossing points and Roman roads. St Wilfred died in Oundle, Northamptonshire, in CE 709 but his roots were in Yorkshire, where he was appointed Bishop of Ripon. A popular saint, his funeral route (which became a pilgrimage route) extends from Oundle to Ripon, via Kibworth Beauchamp in Leicestershire, Wilford (Wilfred's Ford) in Nottingham, Kelham (Newark) and on via Scrooby in Nottinghamshire; all with churches dedicated to him.

The proximity of inns to churches turned the worldly needs of the pilgrims into a profitable business. Inn names were used as what we would now call marketing devices to attract pilgrims. A saint's name will often influence the place name of a town, a village or a deserted settlement, possibly because it was their birthplace, even though there may often be no local church dedicated to that saint. Many say that our own local inn, "The Scales", in Market Street was so named because it was used as the weighing room for jockeys in the days of Lichfield Races; but Trevor suggested that it probably reflects the symbol of St Michael, who is often portrayed weighing the balance in souls between good and evil before consigning them to Heaven or to Hell. Similarly, Cross Keys inns would be located on pilgrimage routes associated with St Peter. Locally, the Cross Keys Inn at Hednesford is located close by St Peter's Church.

Inns named "The George" were not dedicated to any of the Hanoverian kings, who were not generally popular; but rather to England's patron saint, St George. (George IV was, however, more popular and inns were specifically named for him, including in Lichfield). Street names, though often corrupted, can also be associated with local saints. Tooley Street, close by London Bridge, was originally named for St Olaf; and Bennett Street in Cambridge for St Benedict.

Finally, Trevor turned to place names, often associated with a specific locally venerated saint. Dwelling on one example, he explained that Aspatria (in Cumbria) means "the ash tree of St Patrick". Move due east to Patterdale in the Lake District and a further dedication occurs. On the east coast beyond Hull, lies Patrington; yet another, distant reference to St Patrick. Surprisingly, dedications to St Patrick in England are uncommon in mediaeval churches, mostly confined to modern Catholic Churches. So why do these dedications run in a due west-east line across the country? I suspect that Trevor will be undertaking more research to find the answer.

If you were unable to attend the meeting, but would like to explore this fascinating subject further, then Trevor's book, "The English Saintly Landscape", is published by the Lichfield Press at 10. Copies can be obtained direct from the author.

Roger Hockney
February 2022