Sunday, 19 April 2015

By the Rood of Chester

St John's Church, just outside the city walls of Chester, the oldest surviving church building in Cheshire and location of the annual gathering of minstrels, was home to a renowned relic known as The Holy Rood of Chester.
This was a silver gilt crucifix containing a fragment of wood from the True Cross upon which Christ had been crucified, rood being a medieval word for cross. It was present in St John's church from the mid-13th century and was the city's most revered relic.
How it came to be in Chester is unclear.  According to legend it had arrived in Chester after travelling from Ireland on the tide and several 15th century poems allude to this.  The mid-13th century date for the earliest mention and its location in St John's church might suggest another possible origin.  Earl Ranulf de Blundeville, (who was famously saved by the Minstrels of Chester), had been on crusade to the Holy Land, setting out in 1218.  It is just possible that he acquired a piece of the True Cross in Jerusalem and returned with it to his treasured church of St John.  Geoffrey Dutton, a Cheshire knight and member of the family of benefactors of Norton Priory, accompanied Earl Ranulf on this crusade.  The only named relic at Norton Priory was a Holy Cross of Norton, mentioned as performing two miracles in 1287.  Coincidence perhaps, or did the two warriors both bring back pieces of the True Cross for the churches they were so attached to?
The Holy Rood of Chester was sworn upon in oaths.  Business contracts were agreed in St John's, in the presence of the Rood and in the 14th century "Vision of Piers Plowman" there is the following vow;
"I promise to repay - if I have pounds enough - All the wealth I have gained since I first walked, even though this may give me too little to live on.  Each must have his own, ere I join the hereafter; and if any remains, with the rest, by the Rood of Chester, I shall turn pilgrim towards Truth, rather than seek Rome."
The Holy Rood of Chester was known across England, also in Gascony, and was particularly revered in Wales.  No less than eight medieval Welsh poets wrote about the relic, for example Guto'r Glyn made an appeal to the Rood to heal his patron.  Maredudd ap Rhys wrote his poem to the Cross in the 15th century, you can hear a translation being read in this clip, filmed in St John's Church.
In 1492 a Chester plumber was asked to make moulds for two pilgrim signs for St John's Church, one being an image of St John the Baptist, it is tempting to think of the other being an image of the Holy Rood. 

An early 16th century commonplace book with woodcut prints pasted in bears the owner's personal notes of saints and relics that were particularly dear to them.  The "image of ye rode of Chestre" appears at the top left of the page. 
What happened to the Holy Rood of Chester at the Reformation is unknown, but it's great to see the heritage of St John's still being celebrated today and bringing visitors from across the world.

Monday, 16 March 2015

The General Historie of Plants

It's getting to that time of year when our work with herbs starts up again, and some of our forthcoming work will be celebrating the work of a Cheshire-born herbalist whose writings haven't been out of print in over four centuries.
John Gerard was born in Nantwich, Cheshire in 1545. He went to school in nearby Willaston, and some of his exploits with his friends were later recalled when he was writing about superstitions regarding yews, one of which was that sleeping in the shadow would kill you; "when I was yong and went to school, divers of my school fellows and likewise myself did eat our fills of the berries of this tree and hath not only slept under the shadow thereof, but among the branches also, without hurt at all, and that not one time, but many times".  All parts of the yew are poisonous, excepting the flesh of the berries but including the seeds, so eating the berries is a particularly dangerous thing to do! 
Gerard was apprenticed to a barber surgeon aged 17 and at some point thereafter he seems to have spent time as a ship's surgeon travelling in the North Sea and Baltic.  He later settled in London, living in Holborn where he superintended gardens belonging to William Cecil, Lord Burghley in the Strand and also at Theobalds in Hertfordshire for 20 years.
In 1596 he published his first book; a work of 24 pages listing plants he had cultivated in his own garden. This was the first complete catalogue of any one garden ever published. In 1597 Gerard published, ‘The Herbal, or General Historie of Plants’. He had a good practical knowledge of plants, and due to his powerful connections at court and elsewhere, he was able to add many new and previously unseen plants to his gardens.  Gerard combined his botanical observations with folklore about the plants and comments on the best time to harvest and use them.  Woodcuts of the herbs were commissioned to assist gardeners and apothecaries. 
Queen Elizabeth I was presented with a copy of the Herbal. Gerard gave Elizabeth a tour of the kitchen garden at Theobalds where he dug up a ginger root for her to have at supper.
In 1606 James I visited Theobalds and persuaded Robert Cecil, William’s son to exchange it for Hatfield House. Gerard was appointed royal gardener and herbalist and the new Queen Anne of Denmark gave him an additional garden next to Somerset House where he grew plants for the palaces.
In 1608 Gerard was elected as Master of the Barber Surgeons’ Company. Gerard died in February 1611-12 and is buried in St Andrew’s Church, Holborn. Gerard's Herbal remained a standard reference work for apothecaries and medical students for a couple of centuries.  Gerard's work continues to inspire gardens today, including two projects in his native Cheshire.
At the start of May, we will be taking an early edition of Gerard's Herbal to a major garden festival at Powderham Castle in Devon.  We're representing the Herb Society, of which Sue is a committee member, and exploring the world of Tudor herbalism in a living history display.  Soon after, the copy of the Herbal will be taken to the Garden Museum in London to be put on show there.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Sea-born Beads

I haven't written a pilgrimage related post here for a little while, so here's one to get back to how we started all of this and, as is so often the case, pick up a bit of folklore along the way. 
Over the past few years we've been to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne several times and enjoyed the tranquillity there after the bustling crowds have gone, on one occasion even recreating a medieval pilgrimage across the sands
From the beach just below St Mary's church it's only a short hop across the rocks when the tide is out to Hobthrush a little islet sometimes known as St Cuthbert's Isle as it was to it's relative peace that he moved when he found the distractions of the communal monastery too much. 
Walking along the beach beside the little island you can find tiny fossils in the sand, known as St Cuthbert's beads by pilgrims through the centuries.  In the museum at Lindisfarne Priory they have a whole string of them, which certainly would have taken some time to gather.
We've spent several evenings walking up and down that stretch of sand to find some of them.  The process is quite suited to the pilgrim, you need to be totally focussed on the task, but at the same time it's relaxing and rewarding, particularly with the song of seals drifting across the water from the nearby sandbanks.  
According to legend, St Cuthbert would use the beads for a rosary, but whilst they would have been collected from the 14th century, there's no evidence that they would have been used in the saint's lifetime. 
The beads are in fact segments of the stems of fossilised marine animals called crinoids, here's a picture I spotted of a model of some crinoids within an ancient sea, re-imagined in Buxton Museum in Derbyshire.
St Cuthbert's Beads fit in with other fossil folklore like belemnites, sometimes known as St Peter's Fingers, or the ammonites of Whitby, which were supposedly snakes cast over the cliff by St Hild.
Sir Walter Scott mentioned these, as well as St Cuthbert's Beads in his poem, Marmion. 
"But fain Saint Hilda's nuns would learn
If, on a rock by Lindisfarne,
Saint Cuthbert sits, and toils to frame
The sea-born beads that bear his name:
Such tales had Whitby's fishers told
And said they might his shape behold,
And here his anvil sound:
A deadened clang - a huge dim form
Seen but and heard when gathering storm
And night were closing round.
But this, a tale of idle fame,
The nuns of Lindisfarne disclaim."
Sometimes these fossils are known as fairy money as they resemble tiny coins, but in all the stories I know, when the fairies give you money it will turn out to be dried leaves or broken crockery later.


Sunday, 4 January 2015

A Merry Wassail

We returned yet again to lead the wassailing of the apple trees at Stretton Watermill with the largest crowd so far, it's becoming very well established in the calendar of traditions with some great support from the local community.
Sixty or so wassailers gathered and enjoyed mulled cider.
We shared the story of the apple tree man.
The company of wassailers processed through around the mill to all the apple trees accompanied by the beating of drums and ringing of bells to drive away the evil spirits.
We hung toast in the branches for the birds.
We sang the apple tree wassail, then cider was poured on the roots of the oldest, most ancient apple tree and a gun fired through the branches.
Then it was off to the Carden Arms for a good catch up with the wassailers, the sharing of cider from the wassail cup and much music.
The apple trees have been doing very well since we started wassailing them four years back, and the tradition is great fun, but only works so well as a result of everyone's efforts and support.  Thank you and wassail!

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

A Year of Stories

At 2014 draws to a close, I realise I've done more storytelling this past year than ever before.  It's been great fun to share these old tales with new friends.  
In January I started the year with some tale-telling at the Apple Tree Wassail at Stretton Watermill, Cheshire.
February brought a return to the lovely new Atkinson arts centre in Southport, Lancashire to share fairy tales for children.  It's always lovely to share some very familiar folk tales with young people hearing them for the first time.
As International Bagpipe Day is in March, I'd been involved in several events around that week to celebrate and my Piper's Tale set found its way to Northwich, Chester and Astbury.
In April, I opened my exhibition exploring the life and work of Robert Westall, one of the 20th century's greatest writers for young adults.  Aside from his excellent novels, he really was master of the short story, particularly creepy tales, and studying his work so closely has taught me a lot.
At the end of May I was back at the wonderful Chester Folk Festival to do a few storytelling performances on Cheshire Myths and Legends and also the Piper's Tale got another outing.
June was a real treat for storytelling, I loved sharing stories and music in the sun at the enormous Tatton Medieval Festival and the following week was a treat in telling a range of medieval tales from the borderlands with some other fantastic storytellers, Tom Goodale, Richard York and Chris Baglin, at the Minstrels' Court in Chester.
In July I was delighted to have the opportunity to have a storytelling show in the atmospheric St Mary's Church on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.  This really is a special place and it was a wonderful experience.  Later in the month we were at the greatest storytelling event of all - Festival at the Edge - having lots of fun and getting filled up with inspiration.
With the summer holidays underway in August, I found myself telling medieval tales in Northwich, Cheshire folk tales in Macclefield, Viking stories at Norton Priory and then sharing more bagpiper folk tales to a packed tent at Shrewsbury Folk Festival, all great fun.
In September, it was back at Stretton Watermill, sharing some harvest-tide tales for their Victorian weekend and some music too.  And I was lucky enough to deliver a few days of workshops for schools to help them develop their own stories, always a richly rewarding experience.
October was a particularly intense week for storytelling, starting with my first ever full-hour performance of Greek Myths to a packed house at West Park Museum.  I've struggled for a long time to find the real human side of these tales and so never really made anything of them, but earlier in the year I'd been inspired by Yannis Pantazis at the Bagpipe Society's Blowout, from meeting the inspiring Yannis Pantazis at the Bagpipe Society's Blowout who brought Ancient Greek tales to life and encouraged me to take my storytelling further, then at FatE, Daniel Morden's retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice was so powerful it changed my outlook on these Greek tales completely.  Anyway, my first proper Greek storytelling show was a great success and a wonderfully supportive audience.
The next few days I was busy telling more myths and legends from my native Cheshire, then Halloween daytime was filled with four performances of creepy tales for children at Chester's Grosvenor Museum followed by three sell-out performances of dark tales for Halloween at Port Sunlight museum, luckily the experience was more exhilarating than exhausting.
November always starts with soul caking for me, sort of storytelling if you want, but what the story is I'm none too sure.  I've been performing these folk plays for a long time, this was my 20th year.  It's also a busy time for doing storytelling for local history groups and societies and I was out and about several times with my Cheshire Legends and Piper's Tale shows.
As the nights grew longer in December and Christmas approached, I was telling festive folk tales and Victorian ghost stories for family events at Quarry Bank Mill, Styal and the Old Sunday School, Macclesfield, both in Cheshire.
I've missed out a lot here, I know, but that's more than enough to read through for now. It's been a very enjoyable twelve months for tale telling, here's all best wishes from us at Pilgrims & Posies for your New Year.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Goodnight Mr Pepys

Aside from all of the goings-on I write about on here, my day job for the past twelve years has been working as education officer at Weaver Hall Museum.  I've just finished there and in a few days time will be starting at the lovely Norton Priory in Runcorn, Cheshire, where I'll be helping to create an amazing new museum.  With all of its links to medieval religion I'll no doubt be writing about aspects of that work in future, but for now I thought I'd write about one of the people I'm sorry to leave behind - my alter ego Samuel Pepys.
It wasn't really planned, a special event week for schools back in 2004 proved so popular that it took on a life of its own and I spent a decade donning the periwig to become Mr Pepys in schools workshops for the Great Fire of London, at least a couple of times a week.  These were really popular and I worked with around 30,000 pupils during that time and had some great fun. 
The workshop had pupils meeting Sam Pepys, finding out a little about his life, and acting out the events of the Great Fire.  Pepys is the only "real" historical character I've ever portrayed, rather than an invented Tudor, Victorian, or whatever and so took a fair bit of research to get him right.  Admittedly he was somewhat edited to be appropriate for 6 year olds, and also his love of music extended to include bagpipes...  But the details had to be there, and I remember suddenly thinking as I began the first workshop that I didn't know when my own birthday was.  Luckily that never came up, but I made sure I knew all the details after that.  I've had classes turning up with questions for Mr Pepys many times, in the early days they were quite simple, but now it's so easy for infants to do internet research they get quite detailed.  The session was set in 1667, looking back at the events of the fire, and so I've even had questions like 'How many of your brothers and sisters are still alive?' which thankfully I was able to answer.  When I started I was six years too young to portray the role and I finished being four years too old.
Reading so much about the character, I couldn't help but grow attached to him, and when wandering around some of Sam's haunts in London it almost felt as if I had been there before.  I've written a bit about that on this blog a couple of years back.
My schools' version of Samuel Pepys even got his own fan mail - sometimes arriving like this, (from the days when Weaver Hall was called the Salt Museum). 
With my departure he's been put into hibernation, who knows he might make a comeback for an event somewhere in September 2016 when we reach the 350th anniversary of the Fire.  In the meantime, my good friend and colleague, Colin Mann made me a miniature Mr Pepys as a memento.
And so to bed.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Yule Riding

A little late in writing this up, but then Christmas got in the way.  About a week ago we headed over to York for the Yule Riding procession around the city.  This is a recreation of a 16th century midwinter tradition bringing colour, music and pageantry to the longest night and today organised by The York Waits. 
The original Tudor procession had seen the characters of Yule and his wife riding through the streets of the city accompanied by loud music and throwing nuts into the crowds.  This was banned in 1572, though other seasonal rituals continued.  One of these was the Yoole-girthol where the city sheriffs  would welcome in the feast of Yule and proclaim to the crowds that certain misdemeanours were allowed during the twelve days. 
We hadn't been to the Yule Riding for a couple of years and so it was lovely to see that the crowds following the procession had grown enormously in the meantime with many people making a special trip to the city to be part of it.
As well as the York Waits themselves, there were also many city officials in their livery and carrying halberds, bows and lanterns.  The procession set off from Micklegate Bar to the rousing music of shawms, sackbut and drum, impossible not to fall in step with and so the whole crowd makes good progress marching through the streets.
It really is a great way to see this historic city, as the procession visits most of the historic entrances for the proclamations, as well as the market and the east end of the Minster.  The route also passes along some often overlooked roads and its great to see families hanging out from windows to see the musicians go past.  One of my favourite parts of the experience is the change in sound as the procession turns from wide street into a narrow alley. 
At the various stops, a horn is blown and a different civic official reads out the traditional proclamation, some rather nervously, and some with great theatricality, often embellishing the words.
"Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! We command that the peace of our lady the Queen be well kept by night and day but that all manner of whores, thieves, dice players and other unthrifty folk be welcome to the city, whether they come late or early, at the reverence of the High Feast of Yule till the Twelve Days be past.  God save the Queen!"
The procession eventually ends up on the steps of York's Mansion House where the York Waits, accompanied by Deborah Catterall perform Gaudete to conclude the procession.  Here's a snippet.
It really is a great recreation of a centuries old tradition and an inspiring contrast to our midsummer Minstrels procession in Chester.  We'd highly recommend you make a trip to catch the Yule Riding next winter solstice.