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 Due to accidents and mishaps we only managed one trip as a group in 2015 and that was to Ludlow. However, not fazed, some of us severally and together visited some interesting local sites and events.

 

 

DERBYSHIRE WELL DRSSINGS

 

Continuing last month's look at spring and summer festivals and traditions, a group of us went to visit a couple of well dressings. Wells are dressed with flowers in other parts of the country but only in the Peak district and its environs are they dressed with elaborate flower pictures. These are  created by pressing thousands of individual petals and leaves onto clay-covered plaques. It is a community effort and the results are quite spectacular.  Undoubtedly the decoration of wells and springs with flowers has an ancient, pagan origin but these days it has been Christianised and the opening ceremonies generally begin with with prayers of thanks-giving for the gift of water, led by the local vicar. This year, the anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta was a popular pictorial theme.

This was the case at the first we went to visit, at Marston Montgomery, south of Ashbourne. Here the village water pump, which stands in front of the parish church had been dressed with a very fine commemorative Magna Carta picture. The water pump is Victorian and stands under a canopy which bears a plaque commemorating Queen Victoria's Diamond jubilee. Another, commemorating that of Queen Elizabeth II has been recently added. The skills required for well dressing are learned early: just a few yard up the street, outside the village primary school was a very creditable effort by the local children.

We have visited the lovely church at Norbury before but since our last visit the medieval windows have been restored. There is now much more information about them, dating them to be from the late thirteenth to early fourteenth centuries and identifying the armorial bearings. At the back of the nave a timeline display and a series of booklets chart the history of the church, which originated in Saxon times. A churchwarden pointed out to us a floor slab on which is a rough engraving of a body in a shroud and told us that this unusual memorial was thought to be that of Benedicta, wife of Nicholas Fitzherbert, who believed she had been unfaithful to him and so would not have her share his own memorial.  Of course, we also admired again the exquisite craftsmanship of the Fitzherbert tombs.

Norbury lies on the banks of the river Dove which forms the boundary between Derbyshire and Staffordshire. Our second well dressing was on the Staffordshire side, at Mayfield. Here there were three wells. As in Marston Montgomery, one was by the children of the village school. (From what I have seen of well dressings in the Peak district over the years, it seems to be regarded as an essential part of primary school education!) Here also, commemoration of Magna Carta was the subject of a very impressive well dressing. A second one was a very lovely picture of Mayfield church with a border of bell ringers.

With fine weather, a fine lunch and later, tea, provided by the Duncombe Arms at Ellaston, we had a very enjoyable day which drew together the themes of out last two meetings - spring and summer traditions and Magna Carta - in impressive visual imagery.

 

THE STANLEYS of ELFORD, STAFFS

 

Just a couple of miles east of Lichfield, lies the pretty manorial village of Elford. In 1485 it belonged to Sir John Stanley of Elford, sheriff of Staffordshire in 1474.  

Sir John was a great grandson of Sir John Stanley and Isobel Latham, being descended from their third son, Thomas and therefore a kinsman of Sir William and Thomas Lord Stanley, who were descended from the eldest son.

It was the marriage of Sir John's grandfather, Thomas Stanley, to the heiress Mathilda de Arderne that brought Elford together with the manors of Pipe Ridware and Clifton Campville, to this branch of the Stanleys. Thomas (d. 1463) was sheriff of Staffordshire in 1433 and 1438. His son, Sir John, b 1423, held the post four times: 1450, 1459, 1465, 1469 and was listed among those summoned to attend the Privy Council. He added the south aisle to the church and completed his father's foundation of the Chantry of the Cross "for the maintenance of one Prieste perpetually to celebrate dayly masse for the good of all Christians." His effigy, a fine example of Chelleston alabaster, lies in the chantry.

Sir John was married, by dispensation, at the very early age of five, to Cecilia Arderne, who must certainly have been a kinswoman of his mother. This marriage produced a son, Sir John the younger.  After Cecilia's death, the elder Sir John married Matilda or Maud Vernon, daughter of  Sir Richard Vernon of the Peak and this marriage produced another son, Humphrey. Humphrey was one of the four knights lent to Henry Tudor before the battle, by his kinsman, Thomas Lord Stanley. 

"Sir Humphrey Stanley the 4th did bee,

that proued noble in every thinge;

they did assay them with their chivalrye

& went to the vaward with our kinge"  (The Ballad of Bosworth Fielde)

Humphrey was knighted by Henry VII after the battle. He gained the acquired the manor of Pipe Ridware from his half brother, Sir John and like his father, grandfather and half brother, was sheriff of Staffordshire, holding the post in 1481, 1485, 1493.

The earliest known church at Elford was Norman. It was restored and remodelled in the style of the later 14th century by Sir Thomas Arderne (d. 1391), then Lord of Elford. Arderne accompanied Edward the Black Prince on campaign into Spain and and distinguished himself at the battle of Poitiers. He married Matilda, daughter and heiress of Sir Richard Stafford of Pipe Ridware and Clifton Campville, so adding these manors to his inheritance of Elford. The Arderne effigy is considered among the finest in the country. It is noteable in that Sir Thomas and Matilda are shown holding hands, hers resting in his. This is said to indicate that she was an heiress.

In the south east corner of the chantry lies another sad little monument, carved from Tixall sandstone. Sir John's young son was killed when hit on the head by a tennis ball (the balls used to play Real Tennis were hard.) The effigy of the boy holds a ball and the tomb bears the inscription: "Ubi dolor ibi digitus" (where the hurt, there the finger). The loss of his son meant that Sir John was the last of the Stanley name to hold Elford. At his death in 1508, the manor passed to his daughter Margery, wife of William Staunton. Since then it has passed several times through the female line, ending in 1945 with Frances Howard Paget who bequeathed Elford Hall and estate to Birmingham Corporation, who demolished the hall, 1962.

 

 THE ABBOTS BROMLEY HORN DANCE

 

The Horn Dance is a tradition that would have been centuries old in Richard III's time, having been in existence, to use the medieval phrase, from "time out of mind". The "Horn" refers to sets of reindeer antlers worn by the dancers. There is a record of the dance being performed at what was then called the Barthelmy Fair in August 1226, only five years after the right to hold a fair annually had been granted to Abbotts Bromley in 1221. However, the Horn Dance is much older even than that. In 1976, carbon analysis of a splinter from one of the sets of antlers, dated them to the 11th century, about 1065.

The dance probably originated in the pagan period, as a ritual of sympathetic magic. The kings of Mercia whose royal capital, Tamworth, was just fifteen miles away, owned extensive hunting grounds in the forests of Needwood and Cannock Chase and the ritual would have been performed to ensure successful hunting. Wild reindeer were extinct in England by this time and there has been some speculation that the antlers may have been imported from Scandanavia, though there are are no suggestions as to why this would have been done. On the other hand, the medieval aristocracy prized exotic and impressive animals and reindeer stags with a full head of antlers are certainly impressive. The Anglo Saxons had trade and other contact with Scandanavia so it seems more likely that the Mercian kings imported or perhaps were given as a gift, the reindeer themselves and kept a herd of these magnificent beasts in their royal forest.

As with the well dressings we visited earlier this year, the Horn Dance has been Christianised, at least as far as it might be possible to Christianise a tradition which so plainly has its roots in pagan sympathetic magic. This probably happened in the 11th century, after much of the hunting ground had been granted to Burton Abbey in 1004. However, the medieval church was quite open to accommodating, adapting and adopting such local traditions and monks were notoriously fond of hunting, as Chaucer observed of his Monk in the Canterbury Tales: "He yaf nat of that text a pulled hen/ That seith that hunters ben nat hooly men,". The  Horn Dance continued through the centuries: a writer in 1532 refers to the Hobby Horse and Robert Plott tells of it in his "Natural History of Staffordshire", published 1686.

These days it is held a couple of weeks later than the Barthelmy Fair on Wakes Monday, a move which was probably made for the convenience of the public holiday but which also co-incides with the start of the rutting season. The horns are kept in St Nicholas church and the ceremony of the Horn Dance begins with a service of blessing at 8am. The dancers comprise 6 Deer-men, a Fool, a Hobby Horse, the Bowman and Maid Marian (played by a man). The antlers are mounted on small carved heads of wood and carried or worn, on the dancer's shoulders. They dance to the music of an accordion: formerly a fiddle was played. The dances are simple because the antlers are quite heavy.

The dancers progress around the parish, a route of about 10 miles. The dances are performed at set locations, including Blithfield Hall, ancestral home of the Bagots of Blithfield, (the subjects of paper by one of our members last year). The Horn Dance concludes at 8pm when the thousand year old horns are returned to the safe keeping of the church and a service of Compline.

This year four of the dancers wore First World War uniforms to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the "Khaki Horn Dance", so called because in 1915, David, Arthur and Albert Fowell timed their few days leave-taking before going to the front, to join their brother Jack in the dance; a photograph shows them in their uniforms. Arthur died of wounds just 22 days later. David was also killed in the trenches. Two of this year's dancers were descendants of the Fowell brothers.

By the time of the Dissolution the post of Forester of Bentylee (the part of the parish which falls within the forest,) had become hereditary to the Bentley family and remained with them until 1914 when the inheritance passed by marriage to the Fowells. The heredetary title remains with them and they continue to organise the Horn Dance, although due to rising house prices, none of them now lives in the village but in nearby towns: sadly, an all too familiar story.

 

You Tube video of the Abbotts Bromley Horn Dance 2015