CongregationRefreshments after service
St Michael'sHarvest Festival
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Church about 1900

 

 

The History Of St Michael's Church, Shotwick

taken from 'The Church at the Ford' by Lavinia Whitfield
photographs by Mike Whitfield
 

 

 

The origins of the church itself are as obscure as those of the village. The Saxon church, which was most likely a wooden structure, would have either perished, or disappeared in the general rebuilding of churches that followed the Conquest. What is certain is that when the Domesday Book was compiled, a church existed at “Soto-wiche”, belonging to the secular canons of St. Werburgh. This church had probably been established about 100 years before.

 

South Door

The Norman Church, which supplanted the Saxon one about the beginning of the 12th Century, consisted simply of a nave and chancel without aisles. The Norman arch of the South doorway is part of this first building, and is the oldest part of the present church, the chancel doorway being a little later, probably Transitional.

 

The secular canons of St. Werburgh had by this time been succeeded by Benedictine monks, Shotwick having been confirmed to them by the foundation charter of St. Werburgh’s in 1093. At the same time as the Norman church was being built, rebuilding of the Abbey, now Chester cathedral, was also taking place and it was probably monks from the abbey who were the master masons at Shotwick.

 

The stone used was from the local quarry. The walls were built by using outer casings of dressed stone filled in with rubble. The roofs of most Norman churches were of wood covered with thatch or tiles, and we can assume that ours was the same. If windows were added these were primitive and narrow and placed high in the wall, maybe covered by a wooden shutter, although sometimes bleached fabric or horn was used.

14th Century

Shotwick Church, North AisleDuring the 14th Century the church was rebuilt and extended by the addition of a north aisle throughout its length, and by elongation of the chancel. This pattern of development was common at this period, partly to accommodate the increased ceremonial in the services, but mostly because in the later Middle Ages there was a deep devotion to Mary the Mother of Christ, and if a church was not dedicated to her, it usually had to have a lady chapel added toit. In Shotwick’s case it would appear that the line of octagonal piers was built before the wall of the earlier church was knocked down as the arcade is not quite in line with the chancel wall. In this way the church could be in continuous use as the work progressed. The master masons employed are reputed to have been part of an army of craftsmen involved in the building of the Abbey of Vale Royal.

 

So many men were concerned in building the Abbey, and the work took so long, that from time to time some were redundant and these were employed in the rebuilding or restoration of several churches in the county. One only has to look at the many churches in North Wales known as “Vale of Clwyd” type or, in Welsh “Ddwbl Eglwys”, to see where the inspiration for the extension came from. Nowhere else in Cheshire can one find another “double-aisled” church.

14c. Glass in North AisleBoth East windows were part of the 14th Century work, and fragments of the 14th Century glass, some of the oldest in Cheshire, can be seen in the tracery. That in the North aisle is particularly interesting as it was only ‘rediscovered’ comparatively recently. It had been lost to view behind two sheets of plain glass added as protection during the 19th Century, and dust and dirt had so obscured it from view, that historians had dismissed it as “fragments of oldglass”. The windows having been examined in 1947 and found to be in urgent need of repair, the glass was removed and carefully restored at York, and revealed as an Annunciation group and the only 14th Century windows of this nature remaining in Cheshire. Apart from the heads which are missing from both figures, they are otherwise complete, being those of the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary.

 

Rood Screen, Shotwick ChurchThe stained glass windows, the paintings covering the plastered walls and the carved images in the niches, together with the rood screen stretching across both aisles were “visual aids” for the illiterate parishioners of the period. As services were in Latin, few understood them word for word, although from the priest’s teaching, they knew what was going on and when to stand and when to kneel. It was only in the late 14th Century that seating was introduced. Dark as the church must have been in the winter months, no artificial lighting was provided, apart from lamps and candles used for ceremonial purposes.

 

Apart from its primary role of worship, what other functions did it perform, this solid stone building which dominated the village and was so different from the humble timber framed wattle and daub dwellings which surrounded it? It was in every sense a community centre which served as school, meeting place and place of entertainment. It belonged in part to the parishioners who had to keep the nave in repair and also some of the vestments. At this time the only consecrated part of the building was the sanctuary, which the vicar was responsible for. By the 15th Century most churches had churchwardens whose duty it was to raise money for repairs and replacements. They collected money as people left the church, or went round the parish collecting from house to house, if something expensive was to be done. People sometimes left their best clothes to the church and the wardens had them cut up into altar curtains, frontals or vestments.

Grooves made by sharpening arrows - Shotwick ChurchThe church porch was often used as a schoolroom, and until the 16th Century it was the place where marriages were solemnised. Here alsothe preliminaries of baptism were performed before moving to the font for the second part of the service. Our church porch bears witness to another activity carried on near the church. By a decree of EdwardIII, after Mass the rest of Sunday had to be devoted to the sport of archery, all other sport being prohibited in its interest. The grooves worn in the stones in the porch were made by archers sharpening their arrows before practice at the butts. No wonder these deadly English archers won Agincourt, Crecy and Poitiers against armoured troops, as the English 6ft bow when drawn fully to the right ear could drive an arrow through an oak door 4 inches thick.

 

The Butts - ShotwickThe fields to the west of the church were still called “The Butts” on the 1843 tithe map.

 

15th Century

The Black Death, the plague that swept the country in 1348-9 and reduced the population by at least one third, put a stop to church building, and there was an interval of twenty-five years before it was resumed. In Shotwick’s case, it was only in the late 15th Century that more major alterations and additions were made to the fabric of the church. The chancel arch was removed and the chancel north wall pierced by two arches making two aisles of nearly equal size, side by side and with no division between nave and chancel. The windows in the north aisle were added, and in order to accommodate them the wall had to be built up. It would seem that at this time also the double span roof was replaced by the single span described by the antiquarian Joseph Mayer:

“The roof is open to the apex; very rude but strongly constructed of oak; the timbers rest upon large brackets lying across the wall formed by the arches, which occupy nearly the middle of the church, and the ends of the brackets being ornamented with grotesque heads and leafage scrolls”.

The Tower - Shotwick ChurchThe tower was built during the same period, being one of a group within a 10 mile radius of Chester. The others were at Backford, Handley and Tattenhall. The four towers have much in common, each having three stages, diagonal buttresses and battlemented parapets.

 

 

 

Shotwick Church TowerOn the south side, beneath the belfry window separated by almost the entire tower are two sets of initials, RC or RG and MD.

 

Shotwick Church TowerThe M.D. almost certainly stands for the date of completion, 1500, and the letters R.G. probably stand for the Latin “Resurgam” meaning “I shall rise again” referring either to the much weathered letters on the North side “IHS”, that is, Jesus, or to the name on the other inscription.

 

Shotwick Church TowerThis isimmediately under the highest string course, beneath the battlements and a little to the left of the belfry window. The letters are also much weathered but the first name seems to be Thomas and the suggestion has been made that it was the name of the incumbent of the time.

 

The tower would seem to have been added in the general wave of tower building which occurred throughout the country at this time, primarily to accommodate bells. It is recorded that in 1549 Shotwick had three bells. It did not look at that time as fortress like as it does at present as it was topped by eight decorative pinnacles which were probably destroyed during the religious spoliation of the mid 16th Century or during the Commonwealth.

Master Mason's Marks - Shotwick ChurchWhen the building of the tower was completed the west wall of the north aisle was opened up to reveal a lofty arch through which light could stream from the Perpendicular window in the west wall of the tower. There are some fragments of ancient glass in the tracery of the window. The door in the west wall was to allow the passage of processions through the church. The small door in the corner leads by way of a spiral staircase to the bell chamber. The master mason’s marks have fortunately not been obliterated in later years and can, clearly be seen all over the tower walls.

 

16th Century

The religious upheavals of the 16th Century brought about a great change in the internal appearance of parish churches throughout the land. All “superstitious” objects were ripped out and either sold or broken up. Had we come into Shotwick church around 1600, what would it have looked like? The walls are now plain whitewashed, perhaps adorned here and there with a sentence from the Scriptures. The statues have gone from their niches and the stained glass has been replaced by plain, apart from some small areas too high up for Puritan hooligans to have bothered about. The new windows in the south wall added some time during the latter half of the 16th Century are plainly mullioned and functional. The Great Rood has disappeared from above the chancel screen and the stone altar has been replaced by a solid wooden table, free standing and with no ornament or covering, which now stands in front of the screen at the end of the nave.

Shotwick Church - The SanctuaryWhen Holy Communion is celebrated, once a month or less, the “Lord’s Table” is removed to the chancel and placed against the east wallor a few paces out from it. The communicants enter the chancel at the offertory sentence or Invitation prayer and remain there for the rest of the service which, like all the other services, is now in English.

 

It was quite common at this period for wrongdoers to have to stand up during the services and confess to their sins. As witness to this is the account, in 1588, of a man and woman who were ordered “to do open penance in the parish church of Shotwick in shirte and sheete with white wandes in their handes. from the beginninge of the letanie to the end of a sermon or homily on fornication”, for two Sundays and a feast day. They had to make their confession to the congregation and the curate was required to send a certificate to the Bishop that the penance had been performed as directed.

Another incident concerns Margaret Dannett who, in 1605, was forced to do penance in Shotwick church, for being “a common scold and disturber of her neighbours”.

17th Century

The 17th Century is noteworthy in the history of the church on several counts. In 1624, a young man of 25, the Rev. Samuel Clarke, became its minister and his years at Shotwick were a resounding success. His preaching brought people from miles around flocking to hear him. As a student of Emmanuel College Cambridge he had come under the influence of the Puritans and was later to write many valuable theological books. After five years he was presented in the Chancellor’s Court for the omission of church ceremonies and was forced to leave the parish. He died at lsleworth in 1682, universally respected for his piety. It is interesting to note that he wrote of his parishioners at Shotwick that “I was never acquainted with more understanding Christians in all my life”.

When William Laud became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633, he directed that altars be restored to their rightful place against the East wall of the chancel. In addition he introduced communion rails in front of the Sanctuary, so that communicants could come up to the altar, receive the Sacrament in relays and then return to their seats. This solved the problem of crowding in the chancel and also emphasised the separateness and sanctity of the altar. Shotwick’s communion rails date from this period and throw light on church-going habits, as the rails are set close enough together to prevent dogs from entering the Sanctuary.

Churchwarden's Pew - Shotwick ChurchAnother interesting item of church furniture also dates from this century. The Churchwardens’ pew, has the date 1673 carved on the lower part, together with the Wardens’ names, The canopy dated 1709 is thought to have been added at that date. It is a piece of furniture befitting the dignity of the office and reminds all and sundry of the Churchwardens’ job of keeping order and putting out unruly folk. At some time it must have been furnished with curtains and a mat, as these are charged for in the accounts.

 

Tower South Wall Pock Marks - Shotwick ChurchMention has already been made of the fighting at Shotwick during the Civil Wars when stones from the churchyard walls were used to barricade the doors. The “spy holes” in the South door and the pock marks on the South wall of the tower may date from this time. The church plate and several other items were lost or stolen during the wars.

 

The chalice and pewter flagon bought as replacements in 1685 are still in use. The chalice, which is silver and is by Peter Pemberton is interesting in that the Chester assay mark consists of a single garb instead of the usual group of three. Both the chalice and the pewter flagon are inscribed with the names of the Churchwardens, John Hale and William Briscoe.

 

Shotwick Church - BellOther replacements during the same century were the bells.

These are inscribed:

 

+JESUS BE OUR SPEED 1616
WC

 

+GLORIA IN EXCELSIS DEO 1621

 

GLORIA IN EXCELSIS DEO CW WD IB 1664
W
IS

 

Towards the end of the 17th Century another of Shotwick’s ministers achieved some notoriety. It would seem that the Parish was the setting for many a romantic episode as the curate, a certain Mr. Heath, would perform “irregular marriages” in “an alehouse at Shotwick” for 7 shillings a time.

18th Century

Some mystery surrounds the origins of the box pews. It has been said that they came from a church in Chester in 1812. At that date many churches were throwing out their box pews in favour of more up to date seating, and many fine old box pews were burnt. If Shotwick’s were indeed discarded by another church, even had there been no charge for them, there would surely have been some record in the Churchwardens’ accounts of payments for carriage or carpenters work in setting them up. The accounts for the 1812 show no such items, nor do they at any other time.

John Basnitt - Shotwick ChurchOn the other hand, we know that in a Bishop’s Commission dated 1706, the parishioners were bidden to replace the “irregular and un-uniform seats”. Unfortunately no accounts exist for this year, but evidently when the new seats were put in the church they must have been box pews as the accounts during the later part of the 18th Century mention repairs to the pews and new hinges for the pew doors. It is therefore very probable that the pews in the church at this moment are those installed in or around 1706. This view is confirmed by the inscription cut into the inside of one of the pew doors, “John Basnitt, December 4th, 1710”. John Basnitt was one of the Churchwardens named in the Bishop’s Commission. When he was a warden John would have been used to sitting in state in the only “proper” seat in the church. Did he regret the fact that his name was not recorded on either the Churchwardens’ pew itself or on the smart new canopy which was added in 1709 so as to distinguish it from the seats for ordinary members of the congregation?

 

19th CenturyShotwick Church - The Devil's Door

When John Owen the historian visited Shotwick in 1850, he reported that the church had not suffered from modern restorationbut was suffering from neglect. Neglect of the fabric over long periods had reduced many churches in the country to a state bordering on ruin. Unfortunately, in the restoration mania that swept the land during the 19th Century, thousands of mediaeval churches were “restored” to what may or may not have been the original masons’ conception. The copy was substituted for the original and untold damage was done in many cases by the substitution of new doorways, windows, capitals and other architectural features in place of what had been. How fortunate we are that, whether due to lack of funds or to being by this time a village church in a somewhat isolated community, Shotwick escaped the worst of these attentions. Alone throughout Wirral it remains the only truly mediaeval church.

 

During the restoration which took place in 1871 the walls were raised by two courses of stone and a double span arch braced roof was built replacing the old single span roof. It was not until 1905-6 that the plaster was stripped from the walls. Running in a band across the North door can be seen the pattern which continued around the church on the plaster.

20th Century

In 1970 it was discovered that, largely due to the inadequate heating, the church roof was suffering from dry and wet rot. The prospect of having to raise £14,000 to restore it and prevent further deterioration of the stone work was a daunting one for such a small parish, but it was decided to go ahead. An appeal was launched by the Lord Bishop of Chester in January 1971. By means of a great deal of hard work and generosity of friends and organisations outside the parish, sufficient money was raised to restore the roof and install efficient central heating. Although costs rose and the original target had to be increased to £15,000, sufficient funds were eventually raised for the restoration of the stonework. An ancient church such as this is in constant need of care and repair and St Michael’s is fortunate in having many good friends and devoted parishioners who believe it important to pass it in to future generations in as fair a state as possible, although it is a constant struggle.

Mediaeval Effigy - Shotwick Church1975 also saw another exciting event in Shotwick’s history. Masons replacing a badly eroded window sill under oneof the Tudor windows discovered behind it a mediaeval effigy. Experts say that it is probably that of a man and most likely dates from the early 14th century. It was put into the place where it was found when the windows were being added during the 16th century and had lain there undisturbed for four hundred years. Although badly fragmented, the face and the hands are complete. It is likely that the effigy had been removed during the Reformation and left lying around outside until the 16th century mason found a use for it as in-filling. Whose tomb it had adorned we shall probably never know, although it is possible that it was that of Robert de Hockenhull, husband of the last of the de Shotwicks, Lady Alice. It is also probable that the figure is holding a heart, or heart casket, denoting a heart burial. It was common practice in those days if someone died abroad for their heart to be brought home for burial. The effigy can be seen in a glass case in the North aisle.

 

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