Amazing Place – St Gregory’s, Morville.
by Gawain Towler
Castles are fine, manor houses have their place, mills and industrial buildings too, and other edifices have their charms. There is however one type of building that has the ubiquity, antiquity and variety to constantly grab my attention. I should say, devotion.
For understanding the locality, the history and the story of a place, only churches have it all. And amongst the 40,000 or so churches and chapels in England, the 16,000 or so parish churches are the paradigm.
In Canterbury stands St Martin’s. It was here, in about 580, the pagan King of Kent refurbished what may have been a Roman church for his Christian wife, Bertha. Ever since, parish churches have been a permanent presence in our landscape. Their towers, spires, pinnacles and belfries provide architectural punctuation to our collective lived experience; whether a believer or atheist.
With so many thousands to visit, each with their own combination of architectural styles, it is almost impossible to pick out one, or even a few, that can act as exemplars.
Here, I will focus on St Gregory’s Morville. I’d never been to St Gregory’s before, but its stately tower hove into view a couple of hundred yards from the road, in glorious isolation. It only had a manor house for company in the limestone valley of the Mor Brook, a tributary of the River Severn.
The manor house itself, now in the possession of the National Trust, was built upon the foundations of a Saxon priory that sat at the centre of the largest parish in Shropshire. Little if anything survives of that church, bar a rise in the turf, some fishponds, and, the remnants of a preaching cross in the churchyard.
St Gregory’s was built for the laity in 1118, the priory church (demolished in 1545 to mine its ashlar for the new manor house) for a cell of Shrewsbury Abbey’s Benedictines, we know that its consecration met with disaster. When the Bishop of Hereford departed with his retinue for the two day trek to his Cathedral they encountered a storm,
“a violent storm of thunder and lightning suddenly arose, and some of them, overtaken by it on the road, and not being able to retreat from the spot they had reached, halted there. They were five in number, three men and two women; one of the latter was killed by a stroke of lightning, and the other, being scorched by the flash from the navel to the soles of the feet, perished miserably, the men only narrowly escaping with their lives. Their five horses were also struck with the lightning, and killed”.
Not a great start, but what they left behind includes a dug-out log chest, some fine Romanesque work on the font (greatly influenced by the famous Hereford School) and the nave. Later that century comes the south door, whose ironwork – though restored – originally dates from 1168.
And so the centuries roll by. One door is classic English Gothic (specifically, circa 12-1300). The fenestration contains a rare fragment of devotional glass of a C14th crucifixion. There are Tudor and Jacobean aspects, like the grotesque heads on the western tower door. The altar silver plays its part in the story.
A Parliamentary army had arrived in Much Wenlock, marching toward Bridgnorth, directly past the church. The Church wardens threw the parish plate into an Elizabethan trunk, dragged it across the fields and buried it in the mud of the Mor Brook. They then joined the Royal army and died in combat leaving the trunk lost and forgotten. 70 years later, in a dry summer, a local farmer found it, and thus the church’s silver was saved.
Over time, this church estate became the home of a variety of minor nobility, local Sheriffs and MPs, who left their marks and tombs in the form of monuments and funerary hatchments. Latterly it became a dower house (i.e., owned by the widow – the dowager – of the previous owner).
The other grand house in the village, Aldenham Hall, home since 1485 to the Acton family, who over the years provided the Church with funds; London with a Lord Mayor; Charles the first with loyalists; a Prime Minister of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies; and the eminent historian Lord Acton. During his time, as with so many churches St Gregory’s was restored and re-ordered.
What is remarkable about St Gregory’s is that it is not remarkable, it is just a small parish church. It is nothing special: just one parish out of 16,000. Each is a palimpsest of art, beauty, culture, history and dreams. Of love, loyalty and betrayal, of ideas fought over and lost. And they are everywhere, most are unlocked and not one fails to interest and inspire.
One of the simple ways to understand, appreciate and inspire interest in these ancient treasures, are the Ladybird books. These two, in particular, are well worth getting hold of to spark an interest in history, art, architecture and the infinite capacity of churches to reflect our world.