Mark Room of ‘Remembering You Grave Tending’ is often in touch with us with a tale to tell, and his stories are more often than not the kind that would normally pass us by if it wasn't for his inquisitive nature, and by the very nature of his work he provides stories that are both interesting and historically important to the Black Country.
Back in July we featured a plan to uncover war graves in the churchyard at St Peter's in Cradley, and hopefully Mark will be adding some more information to this subject in the near future. Meanwhile on his recent travels in the Dark Region he came across work being carried out in the grounds of St Mary's, Kingswinford, which he felt deserved investigation. So we duly obliged and thanks to his observation we have uncovered a story that takes us back to our medieval ancestors.
There has most likely been a church on the site of St Mary's since Anglo Saxon times, even though the oldest fragments left in the current building date back no later than the Norman period. But this story isn't about the magnificent church that was once at the centre of a parish that spread its influence far and wide to include present day Brierley Hill, Brockmoor, Pensnett, Quarry Bank and Wordsley, but of the ancient cross that stands within its graveyard, a pile of stones one might argue, but nevertheless hewn blocks of sandstone that occupy an important place in our history.
Both the base and shaft of the cross are of medieval age, circa 1400, and it is commonly known as a preaching cross, where travelling clergy would bestow their knowledge and teaching on the mainly illiterate villagers, quoting the gospels and emphasising the fear of God. Churchyards in medieval times were busy places and were not as full of graves and gravestones as they are today. On feast days, of which there were many, dancing and games took place, and fairs were also held at specific times of the year, so the churchyard represented a very communal place for the living as well as being the last resting place for the dead.
Preaching crosses are relatively rare, and the work being done at St Mary's is hopefully going to secure a long future for this important relic of the Middle Ages.
When we arrived on site it was immediately apparent that a lot of work had already been done to expose the foundations as a whole, making the base of the cross huge in comparison to what visitors to St Mary's are used to seeing above ground level.
We were invited to have a good look by Brad Steele, the stone mason and stone carver who has been given the task of restoring the cross to its former glory, without necessarily affecting its current appearance, and consolidating the sandstone blocks that over time have weathered and cracked. A trench about a metre deep had been dug all around the base of the stones and this came up to Brad's waist when he jumped down to explain how only a very strong weed killer had finally eradicated the weeds and in particular the roots that had managed to find their way into every nook and cranny on the site. It appeared the weather and the fruits of mother nature had had a far more devastating effect on the medieval cross than man himself.
There was evidence of repair work carried out years before, and after one of the sandstone blocks had been removed, a plug of Victorian blue bricks was clearly visible.
So too were the tell-tale marks on the edge of another sandstone block, made by a medieval stone mason, a highly respected craftsman of his time. The making of the square blocks that constitute the base of the cross were probably carried out by a rough-mason using a tool rather like the modern fireman's axe for shaping the stone. The shaft however was probably the work of the master mason, in charge of a team of stone masons possibly brought in from an outlying town, and who would move on to their next commission once the job was done. At the top of the shaft there is what Brad described as a lantern, made in Victorian times that at one stage carried a sundial, and after the erection of scaffolding it will be carefully removed for inspection and repaired if necessary.
During the excavation certain artefacts common to a graveyard, were carefully removed and will be respectfully returned when the site is restored. When the initial diggings were taking place Brad also disturbed several toads that had made the medieval cross their home. Much to their annoyance, they will now have to find alternative accommodation.
After Brad and his team have finished their work it will again become a stalwart reminder of the folk who resided in the parish of St Mary's over 600 years ago, the God fearing villagers who watched the original build became a place to gather and listen to travelling preachers expounding the teachings of the church, and where beneath the heavens above they gave thanks for what they had on the earth below!