|St. Mary's from the south, April 2015|
|View from the NE showing East End and Tower|
|Entrance with morning light, 2015||Cottages overlooking the green, 2015|
|Gargoyle||View from the west|
|The Nave and Chancel||Three storey porch|
|Detail of Screen||West Gallery|
|Ceiling of Nave||East Window|
|The Astbury yew tree in April 2015||Canopied tomb of the Breretons|
St. Mary's at Astbury is one of the largest and most impressive churches in the county. It presents some problems for the amateur photographer and I keep returning in the hope of finding ideal conditions. Until the recent restoration the stone was quite dark. Because of the size of the church a wide angle lens would be needed to frame a shot of the tower from the church gate. To photograph the west end with the tower and three storey porch one needs a summer evening with the sun in the west. From the bottom of the churchyard on the south side the spire is almost lost from view as shown at the top left. The brochure available in the church has some very good photographs; the one of the south side appears to have been taken from the level of the clerestory windows, possibly from a helicopter, while the magnificent centre spread, showing the nave, screen and altar, must have been taken from the top of a step-ladder.
Pevsner described it as an exciting but puzzling church. It has a tower to the north of the main body of the church rather than in line with the nave and chancel as shown in the middle picture above. The money for the tower's construction was given in a will in 1366 and it has details are in the Decorated style. The earliest windows are in the north chapel and are from the late 13th century. The windows of the south aisle date from the period 1300 to 1310 as does the two storey south porch.
The church has a three storey porch at the west end, where the tower would commonly be built. The upper chamber of one of the porches formerly held a chained library. The view from the west also shows the 17th century stone arched gate.
The yew tree is believed to be over 1000 years old and its hollow trunk is now supported.
The Effigies in the Churchyard. A Cautionary Tale for Historians
There are old tombs said to be of the Brereton family in the churchyard. The one with a canopy shows the effigy of a knight with his lady. It is rare to see a monument of such age outside and these are badly weathered. Raymond Richards in his book on Cheshire Churches notes that it is the tomb of Sir Ralph Brereton but the brochure in the church mentions that it could be the tomb of a Brereton or a Venables. My photograph below, taken with flash and enhanced digitally allows one to pick out most of the following incripiton, but the beginning of the last word was provided from Ormerod's History of Cheshire, Volume 3 page 33. Note that the letter N is written back-to-front throughout. It translates as "Here lie Radulphus Brereton, knight, and lady Ada his wife one of the daughters of David Earl of Huntingdon. Ormerod gives a family tree of the Breretons of Brereton in which he states "Sir Ralph de Brereton, knight, said in some pedigrees to marry Ada, daughter of David Earl of Huntingdon, relict (widow) of Henry Hastings, and living in 1275".
However, it appears that this inscription is much later than the tomb itself. Moreover the claim that Ralph was married to Ada, daughter of David Earl of Huntingdon, while being picked up and repeated by various historians over the centuries, cannot be validated. Indeed detailed contemporary accounts in the Curia Regis Rolls, supplied to me by Douglas Richardson, show that Ada, the daughter of David Earl of Huntingdon married Henry de Hastings. However, she died before Trinity Term 1242 and in 1247 her widower Henry de Hastings was holding her lands. Consequently, she died before her husband and was not free to marry Ralph Brereton. Who erected the inscription and for what purpose remains a mystery. Thomas Helsby, in revising Ormerod's History of Cheshire was anxious not to cast aspersions against the Breretons but nowadays we would be less charitable to falsification of records. Such actions are not unknown. The Leghs of Lyme Park in Cheshire requested in Elizabethan times that they be granted an augmentation of honour for the heroic deeds or their ancestor, Piers Legh, at the Battle of Crécy. It was granted by William Flower Norroy King of Arms. However, the Piers Legh in question was not born at the time of the battle. The heroic deeds were performed by his wife's grandfather, Sir Thomas Danyers. Such information was available at the time as the charter of Richard II which granted the Leghs the land at Lyme Handley in 1398, specifically mentions it was as a reward for Sir Thomas Danyers. At best the claim was an error motivated by vanity and wishful thinking, at worst a deliberate dececption.
I quote below at length from the footnote in Ormerod's History of Cheshire, prepared by Thomas Helsby for the 1882 edition. It would appear that there has been dispute about these tombs at least as far back as the 19th century. Helsby gives a series of arguments about the claims for the tombs to belong to the people mentioned in the inscription and then answers each point. Note that even in Helsby's day, the historian Andreas Cockayne reported that various documentary sources said to corroborate the inscription had the inscription as their sole source of information. Hence there has been a circular motion of supposed evidence which has given unwarranted credence to the claim that they are Brereton tombs. Repetition of an error does not make it correct!
“Near the north-east angle of the church-yard are four recumbent figures carved in red stone. The figure to the north is that of an ecclesiastic resting on a slab which forms the lid of a stone coffin, wholly above ground; that on the south is a figure of an armed knight placed on an altar tomb, the feet resting on an animal, the helmet conical, and the shield emblazoned two barrs, in chief three leopards’ heads, of which the centre and sinister (left) head alone are remaining. The two middle figures, an armed knight and his lady, rest on a tomb higher than the last, over which is a raised pointed arch, with a pediment and pinnacles ornamented with crockets. The following inscription has been cut in capitals within the arch on the west end. (see my picture and the translation shown below)
"This inscription is mentioned in Church Notes taken in 1576, but is noticed as being in characters more modern than the rest of the monument, which in Camden’s time was claimed by the families of Venables, Mainwaring and Brereton. It is, however, presumed [at least so far as regards the tomb on the south side,] that the question is settled, by the seal (footnote 1) mentioned in the account of the family of Venables of Astbury, which accords precisely with the arms on one the shields of the figures already described."
(Note that William Camden 2 May 1551 – 9 November 1623 wrote his work Britannia a topographical and historical survey of all of Great Britain and Ireland, with the first edition in 1586 and in all seven editions up to 1607, each larger than the previous one.)
This seal scarcely settles the question of the ownership of all the monuments, and the possibility of settling it seems almost as remote as ever. All that can be said on the subject may, perhaps be comprised in a few lines. Unless the monuments, or some of them, were turned out of the church during its renovation towards the end of the 15th century, the probabilities appear to be much in favour of the effigies representing members of the family of Venables. The church, about the period of the erection of these monuments, may have been much smaller than it now is, and the character of the canopied monument is such that it is not likely to have ever occupied a place in the church. The Brereton inscription is no evidence whatever of the ownership of that family. The Breretons resided some miles away from Astbury, and from an early period, had a considerable chapel of their own, to which they presented their own clerks, whose institutions were regularly registered at Lichfield from the time of Edward I (1272 to 1307). That there was a general right of burial in this chapelry even at this time, there can be no doubt; and it will be supposed that the Breretons themselves, perhaps invariably buried there. Moreover, they held no lands in Newbold Astbury, from which any sort of argument can be drawn in support of their claim this monument. But there are some very doubtful points in their favour, viz.
1. That the heralds would have interfered had the Breretons no title to set up the inscription, Mr. Ormerod mentions as having been newly cut, some few years perhaps, before 1576. Nothing however appears to have been known at this time, of the precise arms of Venables of Newbold-Astbury, lords of the manor; and although there seems to have been various claimants to the monuments, yet the influence of the Breretons, (coupled with the facts of their residence within the bounds of the ancient parish, and the similarity of their armorial bearings to those on the monument) must have been sufficient to enable them without any opposition of importance to take formal possession of the monument; though in at it does not appear that anyone troubled himself about the matter, or the help of the heralds would no doubt have been invoked, although it would have been impossible for them to settle the question, if they had possessed the power, which is by no means certain.
2. The Brereton inscription is correct in the marriage it mentions, because such a marriage appears in several pedigrees. To this Mr. Andreas E. Cockayne, an intelligent local antiquary, in a communication some years ago on the subject, suggested to me, and not without reason, that the genealogists took their evidence from this very inscription. There is in fact no real evidence for any such marriage; but even allowing the marriage, it is improbable that the monument is as old as the century in which such marriage took place. Nevertheless, the honesty of the Breretons is not to be called into question as some have assumed.
3. The Venables of Kinderton from a very early period ceasing to have any real interest in the parish, the Breretons were the only other family who could possibly be owners of the monument, since the arms upon it are precisely similar to their own. This cannot be admitted, because it by no means follows from the fact that in Edward III’s time, the Venables of Newbold differenced their coat with three leopards’ heads, that they, therefore invariably used the same coat in every transaction in life, both then and at an earlier period. For they may well have used the bars occasionally without any difference whatever; or the bars were very likely so carved on the tomb by a blundering sculptor. Such may not only be the case, at a period when the arms of families were not altogether much more settled than their names, but there is actual evidence of one of the Venables of Newbold in Edw. IInd’s time, having borne on his seal a carbuncle. Heraldic rules had not then become so rigid as a few generations later, and such circumstance as the loose use of an undifferenced coat in painting or sculpture, was not infrequent.
4. That the lesser monuments were formerly within the church, is probable from the fact that tombstones were often built up into the walls of churches, and therefore as early as the latter end of the 15th century no veneration for church monuments, not even that of an ecclesiastic, would save them from being turned out of doors. Hence the continguity of these monuments, and the fact that the canopied monument being so much more worn than that of the Venables. It may be answered that there perhaps never was an instance known of such ancient monuments having being expelled from a church in Roman Catholic times; and (except in churches where the ordinary cross-grained tombstones were common, and there existed little material for building, in perhaps a poor parish), there is no good evidence of ancient tombstones having been frequently used as building stones, unless by the recklessness of the builder. The canopied tomb is, perhaps, older than the others, or the stone more worn through being worked across the grain? But among many other arguments that might yet be urged, it may finally be added that the erection of the canopied tomb in so unusual in a place, may well have originated in the determined and foolish attempt of one of the Barons of Kinderton, to wrest from the Abbey the advowson of the church; failing, he may have enjoined his exectors to bury him at Astbury and erect the monument as a perpetual reminder of his claim. This would be quite in keeping with the spirit of the times, and the suggestion is scarcely more extraordinary than is the monument itself. It should be remembered that down to the latest ages, the Venables of Kinderton were paramount lords in Newbold-Astbury, in which township they also held lands.”
HIC IACENT RADULPHUS BR
ERETON MILES ET DOMINA
ADA UXOR SUA UNA FI
LIARUM DAVIDIS COMI
The Buildings of England: Cheshire, by Nikolaus Pevsner and Edward Hubbard, first edition 1971, Yale University Press edition in 2003.
The King's England, Cheshire, edited by Arthur Mee, published by Hodder and Stoughton, 1938, fourth impression 1950.
St. Mary's Church, Astbury, published by the Rector and Wardens in 1995, Old Vicarage Publications, Reades Lane, Congleton, CW12 3LL, ISBN 0-947818-75-8, a coloured brochure available in the church for £1-50 in 2005.
Old Cheshire Churches, with a supplementary survey of the lesser old chapels of Cheshire, completely revised and enlarged by Raymond Richards, first published in 1947 and reprinted by E. J. Morten, Didsbury, 1973.