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Over 800 years of history at Black Country parish church

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: December 22, 2013

By John Workman

  • The spire and tower of St Matthew's Church.

  • St Matthew's Church still dominated the Walsall skyline at the end of the 18th century

  • The St Matthew's window that was damaged in gas explosion in 1847.

  • A medieval Nativity scene

  • The magnificent ceiling in St Matthew's Church

  • The choir stalls and high altar in St Matthew's Chuirch, Walsall

  • One of the stained glass windows in St Matthew's Church carrying a quote from St Peter

  • Dance and revelry in medieval times.

  • This character may resemble a medieval Walsall mon of 1213

  • Enjoying a hearty meal at Christmas in medieval times

  • How Walsall may have looked in 1213

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THE Black Country is more famous for its industrial history and the dramatic changes over the past 250 years, than the more placid years that preceded the plunder of minerals and the establishment of the urban society.

But there are still a few buildings scattered throughout the four Black Country boroughs that evoke a history stretching back into the mists of time, the most obvious of which is Dudley Castle.

Some parish churches too have survived the rigours of time and their stones stand proud in amongst the concrete and steel of the modern era.

This year marks the 800th anniversary of the parish church of St Matthew's in Walsall, founded when the town's population barely reached 1,500 and the immediate neighbourhood, probably as far as the eye could see, was a swathe of open fields and ancient coppices.

Although much of the church was rebuilt between 1819 and 1821, the tower, with is tall spire, is a reminder of what the medieval church may have looked like.

The history of St Matthew's Church and Walsall go hand in hand, and a street plan of the early town appears as a cross with its head at St Matthew's, its shaft continuing along High Street, Digbeth and Park Street, its foot lying at Townend, and its arms formed by Rushall and Peal Street. Open fields lay in three of the four spaces between the shaft and the arms, and meadow land occupied the fourth, and the early inhabitants of Walsall probably built their wattle and daub homes on top of the limestone hill where the church stood.

The church was first mentioned in 1200 when the crown gave it to the Bishop of Coventry and his successors, but it probably existed before then and it is possible its Norman doorway dates from the previous century. The church seems to have been lost when King John seized the lands of the clergy in 1208. It does not appear to have been restored when John reached his settlement with the pope in 1213 but about 1220 William de Rous granted the church to the Premonstratensian abbey at Halesowen, and after several years of indecision the pope licensed the abbey to take possession of the church in 1235.

There were times of dispute, but apart from the odd year here and there the running of the church and the patronage of the vicarage remained with Halesowen until the Reformation in the mid 16th century.

The church was originally dedicated to All Saints, and remained as such until the 18th century. A window dedicated to St Matthew, together with much of the south-west corner of the interior, had to be repaired in 1847 after a gas explosion that killed a church beadle caused substantial damage.

Two centuries before Walsall church had also suffered greatly during the English Civil War. The organ was pulled down and burnt together with prayer books, and monuments, carvings and windows were destroyed or mutilated when the building was used as a stable.

In the Middle Ages St Matthew's had a number of chantries for the exclusive benefit of local landowners and their families, who gave money and endowed land, which were used to ease the souls of the wealthy in death and speed their passage to heaven by the process of prayer. Daily services and prayers would have been carried out by a chantry priest, normally funded by the endowed land, and those original chantries were dedicated to St John the Baptist, the Blessed Mary, St Clement, St Catherine and St Nicholas. The chantries continued to be used right up to Henry VIII's Reformation.

The church had at least five altars, two chapels, and extensive parts of the interior were rebuilt and redecorated in the late 15th century. At the same time the tower, including the porch, was built, possibly with the first stone spire. Then in 1669 the spire was rebuilt and in 1777 completely replaced when the tower was reduced in height.

Further changes to the interior have occurred on a regular basis for the past 200 years. The cost of rebuilding much of the church between 1819 and 1821 reached a staggering £17,000, but the architect responsible, Francis Goodwin of London, added cast iron columns and window frames, and the beautiful fan vault that can be seen today.

On a recent visit to St Matthew's Church the Bugle found its Christmas celebrations had begun. A Christmas tree, kindly donated by Walsall St Matthew's Asda, had been erected, and the furniture and fittings were receiving a dust and polish. But its fine stained glass windows, its ceiling in the nave, and the magnificent chancel, with its beautifully carved wooden misericords and sumptuous choir stalls, always catch the visitor's eye.

Walsall folk, who for centuries never ventured far from their roots, and were probably born, baptised, married and died within the sight and sound of St Matthew's Church, were ordinary people who worked the land, and Christmas was the most special time of year for them all.

The word Christmas first became a part of the English language in the 11th century as an amalgamation of the Old English expression "Christes Maesse", meaning "Festival of Christ", and quickly become the most prominent religious celebration in Europe, superseding the Epiphany which had been deemed as more important since the early Middle Ages.

As we contemplate the Christmas ahead and everything we have planned, it's time to stop the clock and travel back in time to perhaps the first Christmas celebrated at St Matthew's eight centuries ago, and imagine what experiences the folk of Walsall were enjoying back in days of yore.

The Catholic Church held sway over most people's lives in medieval England, and Christmas, as a sacred time of year, was dominated by the Church's liturgical calendar. Advent, the period of four weeks prior to Christmas, was a penitential season when certain foods were not allowed, but this made the anticipation for the glorious Christmas feast grow ever stronger.

Not that many people in Walsall would have been gorging on foods that the lord of the manor or the wealthy merchant would normally expect to enjoy, such as a boar's head or roast goose. They had to make the best of what little they had, perhaps using up meat preserved by salting or smoking, or simply keeping the animal they wished to eat alive until needed. This meat would have been roasted or stewed and, if available, fish caught from the local brook would have been steamed.

The most common vegetables, besides onions and garlic, were peas and beans, the staples of a poor man's diet, and many a tankard of ale, made from barley, wheat or oats, would have been consumed during the festivities.

Ale drinking, because of its easy availability, became a favourite recreation of villagers, and both men and women would gather in the tavern, usually the house of a neighbour who had recently brewed a fresh batch, passing many an evening during the twelve days of Christmas, getting drunk and probably suffering accidents, quarrels and acts of violence, and definitely feeling the worse for wear the next morning. Breweries in a village such as Walsall would have been located in every street, most of them worked by women, mirroring a situation that existed throughout the country. Ale was as necessary to life in an English medieval village as bread, but whereas flour-grinding and bread-making were strictly regulated, brewing was freely permitted.

Both the church and the humble homes of Walsall folk would have been decorated at Christmas, not with a Christmas tree, an invention of the Victorians, but with festive greenery that was carried over the threshold as part of old pagan traditions at the time of the winter solstice, and which were meant to chase away the drabs of a cold and dead season.

Sprigs of evergreen would have been attached to the timbers and the tradition of mistletoe was utilised over doorways. Dragging home a yule log from the wood was also a tradition from pagan times and a good one would be kept burning in the hearth throughout the Christmas period.

Any activities taking place outside would have been dependent on the weather, but at Christmas people were encouraged to enjoy themselves as much as they could, in playing games or taking part in pastimes such as mummer plays, singing and dancing. In a small community like Walsall of just 1,500 people, the chances of escaping the more strenuous aspects of the Christmas festival were probably very small.

St Matthew's itself, a building with rudimentary features, a nave devoid of any seating, straw strewn across the floor to give the minimum of comfort, and a rood screen between the altar and the congregation restricting the view, was a mysterious place to all except the incumbent priest. Candlelight offered just a pale glow and they would probably have been made of tallow, a rendered form of beef or mutton fat, that dissolved into the air filling the church with a strong smell.

But Christmas, even 800 years ago, was still a magical time for Walsall folk, as the birth of Christ was celebrated with reverence and humility inside the newly founded St Matthew's Church.

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