A Taste of Shropshire

Until recently, Shropshire has been somewhere I drive through to get to Wales. Until recently, I have been missing out. In my defence however, even the county’s tourism people describe it as ‘Surprising Shropshire’.

Ratlinghope door

Oh how right they are. I spent a weekend in Ratlinghope with swallows flitting between honeysuckle hedgerows in a wildflower strewn campsite alongside a pretty stone church with a wooden bell turret. A carving on the south door dates to 1625 and inside there is a memorial to the villagers who served in the Second World War, including the two WAAFs and a Bevin Boy whose contributions are often overlooked on such monuments.

Ratlinghope memorial

One of the things that fascinates me about the countryside is the idea of the English eerie, as I’ve seen it described, and part of this is the sense that something dark might be lurking in those pretty honeysuckle hedgerows and long forgotten beliefs might not be quite as long forgotten as you’d imagine.  The church yard at Ratlinghope does not disappoint, being the final resting place of the last sin-eater in England. I’d first heard of this custom as a teenager but I can’t remember the context. What I do recall is being on a school trip at Worcester Cathedral and telling one of the girls who bullied me that by eating her sandwiches off a tomb, she was eating the inhabitant’s sins. Oh the sweet, sweet taste of revenge.

Ratlinghope Sin Eater

I confess to using a little poetic licence in the cathedral, as the custom technically involves eating a meal from the coffin of a recently deceased person rather than the alabaster tomb of a nobleman who has been dead since the middle ages.  What makes Richard Munslow, the sin eater of Ratlinghope, especially interesting is that he was not the usual pauper or social outcast who took on the role to earn their only bread and butter, but a well off farmer. What possessed him to take possession of his neighbours’ sins? Some suggest that the death of three of his young children, all within a week of each other influenced his decision. On a much happier note, Richard and his wife Ann went on to have two daughters, Mary Ann and Annie, who both outlived their parents.

Ratlinghope porch

One of Ratlinghope’s other dark tales also involves the church – from time to time, a phantom funeral is said to set off from the churchyard, travelling up across the Long Mynd to Church Stretton.  Thankfully, the only procession we encountered as we drove across the moorland was four classic cars. As we pulled over to let them pass, a cyclist appeared at my window. ‘Any chance of a lift?’ Poor chap looked so exhausted I think he’d have asked the same of the spectral cortege had it materialised.

Ratlinghope 2

From a place name perspective, Ratlinghope has a fairly mundane origin, meaning a valley (OE hop) connected with a person called Rotel. Here, it’s the pronunciation that’s of more interest – until recently, locals called it Ratchup, or even Ratchop which is what it appears as in a court case about a land dispute from 20th April 1698 and conjures up images of something almost as unappetising as sin-eating. The Shropshire Gazetteer of 1824, also points out the discrepancy between spelling and pronunciation. These place names with counter-intuitive pronunciation are definitely something I’m going to have to get my teeth in to as this project continues…

 

Sources:

http://www.discovershropshirechurches.co.uk/south-west-shropshire/ratlinghope/churchyard/

http://www.shropshireplaces.uk/places/ratlinghope/

93/25, 26 Shropshire Archives Case presented to the Court of Rattlinghope

http://kepn.nottingham.ac.uk/map/place/Shropshire/Ratlinghope

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The Devil’s Ring & The Queen’s Shoes

I’m never usually organised enough to do an ‘On this day in history…’ type post but I woke up this morning, saw it was the 558th anniversary of the Battle of Blore Heath and thought oooh, I know a couple of good stories about that.

The tales take place away from the blood and gore of the battlefield, a mile up the road at Mucklestone, the most westerly parish in Staffordshire. Its name may derive from the OE ‘micel’ meaning large and ‘stan’ meaning stone, and refer to the presence of two neolithic standing stones known as the Devil’s Ring and Finger.  There are many ancient sites across the county with names relating to the devil, and I suspect this can be attributed to a heady mixture of fear, lack of understanding and sensationalism.  As this project develops, I’m hoping my own understanding of such things will increase.   The stones are believed to have been part of a chambered tomb – the ‘ring’ stone has a porthole, apparently large enough for a person to climb through,  or be passed through. Some say to do so increases fertility. Having been erroneously told that several gaps on a recent and traumatic caving expedition were big enough to get these child-bearing hips through, I’ll stick to two kids and a small amount of dignity thank you.

geograph-227107-by-Mr-M-Evison (1) (1)

From the church tower at Mucklestone, Queen Margaret of Anjou is said to have watched the battle. On seeing the standard of her Lancastrian commander Lord Audley fall (a cross marks the spot where he was slain), the queen knew defeat by the Yorkist army was imminent. In a fit of rage and frustration, she is said to have stamped her feet so hard that her footprints remained on the stone floor of the tower long after she fled to safety. This sounds preposterous I know but I do have a theory about this. The outline of shoes are often found carved into church roofs (I’ve yet to find a satisfactory explanation as to why) and if there was such graffiti on the church roof at St Mary’s in Mucklestone, someone may have decided that it fitted into the story very nicely. Obviously, if I’d got in touch with someone at the church to ask them if such graffiti existed to back up my theory that would have bee useful, but yeah, that thing about being organised…

Mucklestone church tower
Mucklestone church tower

The most well known element of the legend is that Margaret’s escape was aided by local blacksmith William Skelhorn who was ordered to reverse the shoes of the queen’s horse in an attempt to fool those who attempted to follow.  His reward was to be beheaded on his own anvil, which can be found in the churchyard opposite the site of the smithy. Whether the execution was carried out on the orders of the queen to ensure Skelhorn’s silence, or by her enemies, as punishment for assisting her, depends on who is telling the story.

 

skelhorn mucklestone anvil

It’s not the only instance of the old horseshoes-on-backwards-to-disguise-your-tracks ruse to be found. Amongst others, Robert the Bruce supposedly did it to escape from London after being betrayed there (with tracks going in the opposite direction to Scotland, presumably). Logically and practically it seems an unlikely tactic for Queen Margaret or anyone else to use, and is crying out for someone to do a myth-busting style experiment. I’ll volunteer to dress up as the queen and get on a horse if necessary. I’d look great in a crown and I’ve been pony trekking. Twice.

The thing about myths and legends is that it’s relatively easy to bust them if you try. Once this happens, there are several different ways to go. Either ignore the evidence and keep telling it anyway because why ruin a good story with facts. Dismiss it as a lot of nonsense and as having no value whatsoever. Or sit yourself comfortably somewhere between the two positions, enjoying it as a story in its own right but also exploring where it came from and why, who told it and if any nuggets of truth are actually contained within.  The same themes and events turn up in our folklore time after time.  As with the horseshoe part of the myth, echoes of other aspects of the Mucklestone story can also be heard elsewhere. Over at Stoke Golding, in Leicestershire, local tradition has it that the villagers climbed onto the battlements of the church of St Margaret to watch the Battle of Bosworth on 22 August 1485, and later watched the Tudor King’s coronation at Crown Hill.  Did someone draw on these existing stories and create one to put Mucklestone on the map? Could someone like William Skelhorn, directly descended from and carrying on the same trade as his 15th century ancestor and a parish clerk in the mid 19th century have forged his family into history? Not too far-rier fetched is it?

Sources:

http://www.bloreheath.org/mucklestone.php

https://content.historicengland.org.uk/content/docs/guidance/draft-historic-graffiti-guidelines.pdf

Fleming, G. (1896) Horse-shoes and Horse-shoeing

http://www.search.staffspasttrack.org.uk

 

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