Legend has it that Moorish captives left their mark on a glorious church in Stafford, writes Chris Upton.
There is a curious legend that still persists in the high Staffordshire Moorlands. I touched upon it once before in this column, though several years ago.
It tells of a race of dark-skinned and dark-eyed strangers – not locals by any means – who lived apart, up on the empty moors. They were known as the Black Men of Biddulph.
The tale first found its way into print in John Sleigh’s A History of the Ancient Parish of Leek back in 1862. It was then repeated in W. Beresford’s Memorials of Old Staffordshire, half a century later. In Beresford’s day the community still kept themselves to themselves. They were locally believed to be gipsies and went by the surname of Bailey.
Gipsies is very possibly what they were, but Sleigh had a far more exotic explanation, handed down through time. The Biddle-Moor Men (and, presumably, women) were the descendants of seven Saracens, captured in the Crusades, and brought back to Staffordshire by a local crusading knight. Beresford even had a name for the warrior; he was Ormus le Guidon, or Orm the Golden.
Now the historical side of my brain is very dismissive of this kind of story; the left side is not so sure. If it is complete nonsense, why and how did the tale arise in the first place ?
We need to head south a few miles for a possible explanation, and seek out the fair town of Stafford.
Modestly set back from the High Street stands the church of St Chad. It’s not the chief parish church of the town – that honour does to St Mary’s – and for that reason St Chad’s hangs back, keen not to steal the thunder of its more august companion.
First glance at the front of St Chad’s suggests Victorian. Walk on, then, and find something else to look at. Then there’s a second glance. It’s rather good Victorian and, very unusually, in a Romanesque style. And some of the stonework looks older. Go on, then. Five minutes and no more.
Inside we go, and how right we were to do so. The interior of St Chad’s, Stafford, is magnificent. It’s the finest 12th-century church in the country and up there with the great Romanesque giants of Iffley in Oxfordshire and Kilpeck in Herefordshire. If you have visited either of these, you’ll no that this is not faint praise.
The west front of St Chad’s is, indeed, Victorian, and modelled on Iffley, replacing a medieval original which tumbled down. Inside, however, it’s the real thing, a riot of Norman carving and dog-tooth moulding. The font would take your hand off, snarling lions prowling prohibitively around its base. There is, in Latin, a warning to that effect still carved around the bowl. “You are unwise if you do not run,” it says. “Here are lions.”
Down the aisle, where the nave meets the chancel in a richly decorated arch, the carvings become even more intense and unsettling.
The Norman imagination was a haunted thing, disturbed by dreams of dragons and inverted heads and Green Men and strange beaked creatures that no one dare name. One figure in a long robe looks as if he were imported straight from Egyptian mythology. You wonder what they get up to once you close the door.
Who made this place, you might wonder, and for once there’s an answer. Above the capital on the north-east column that holds up the tower there is another Lain inscription. It reads: “Orm vocatur qui me condidit”. (He is called Orm who founded me.)
So Mr Orm is not such a legend after all; here it is scratched into the very fabric of St Chad’s. Orm was just the kind of man to found a church. He was an important Staffordshire landowner of the 12th century, whose land stretched from Cannock Forest in the south up to Biddulph in the north.
Orm was important enough to marry the daughter of Nicholas de Tosni, the lord of Stafford Castle. His name is Viking in origin and means “dragon”. Perhaps that explains all the serpents scuttling around the church.
Another story that circulates around these parts is that Orm did not use local craftsmen when he commissioned the carvings in St Chad’s.
It was the men he brought back from the Crusades, and who later went to live on Biddulph Moor, who did the work. Understandably they drew on the imagery of the southern Mediterranean. The Norman writ did, as we know, run as far south as Sicily.
So we either have one legend – that begins in St Chad’s and ends high up on the moors – or two legends which cancel each other out. Perhaps the parishioners of St Chad’s needed to find an explanation for the strange and alien carvings that filled their little church, and found it in the story of Orm. And up on the moorlands – an alien landscape at the best of times – they put the finishing touches to the tale.
We will never know the truth of this, any more than we will ever find an explanation for all the carvings in the church. But beware next time you go to Stafford. Here be dragons as well as lions.