Chillingham, Northumberland – St Peter

Any Man’s Kingdom is a lovely film. It is a travelogue of Northumberland produced in by 1956 British Transport Film for British Railways, directed by Tony Thompson. As it includes a scene of the Lindisfarne taxi, a rusty Ford, driving across the sands onto the island, it gets a mention in my MA dissertation. (For my blog readers I should explain that Julie and I have just both completed MAs in Public History and Heritage at Derby University). Details of the film are here – screenonline.org.uk/film/id/1396782/index.html. The original film was filmed in 1953 and is available on a DVD produced by Northern Heritage – https://www.northern-heritage.co.uk/. At a trial screening it was realised that a sequence showing passengers travelling to Bellingham Fair by train was no longer possible as the line had been closed. That sequence was re-shot the following year, with passengers travelling by bus! The later version is available on See Britain by Train, a DVD released by the BFI. The film’s music was written by the composer Elisabeth Lutyens, who lived with her family in Lindisfarne Castle.

The film also has a section on Chillingham, the Castle and the wild cattle who live here. But Chillingham, its castle and its cattle, is a place I have never visited – until today. Passing the Castle, it wasn’t immediately obvious whether it was open or not. The Wild Cattle were better signposted, and they are just up from the church of St Peter, NU 062 259. The Cattle have a website at https://chillinghamwildcattle.com/days-out/church/. As you can see, it has a page about the church – so a round of applause for them! The castle has a website, but no mention of the church – https://chillingham-castle.com/. No applause for them. They are advertising themselves as Britain’s most haunted castle – and even the tearoom is not accessible to those in wheelchairs (so we won’t be going there!)

My photos are not brilliant. Have a look at those on other wesbites: https://co-curate.ncl.ac.uk/church-of-st-peter-chillingham/, http://wasleys.org.uk/eleanor/churches/england/north/northumberland/northumberland_one/chillingham/index.html, and https://www.britainexpress.com/counties/northumbria/churches/chillingham.htm.

There is parking outside the church, but it isn’t disabled accessible either. I climbed the steps and stopped to admire the headstones en route. The nave and chancel are C12, nave windows C16 and the lovely bellcote is of 1753.

Entering the church, it is rather frustrating to find there is no leaflet, no guide, nothing. Here is a church in the tourist spot, where at least one of the tourist attractions wants to advertise them, so they need to talk to the people at Kirkharle and do some joined up thinking. In a moment we will see a stunning tomb – again with no information, no display panel, nothing.

A C16 king-post roof, a memorial half way down, a Jacobean pulpit, and a font which is dated 1670 and originally came from Ancroft. here was an 1828 renovation, and the box pews date to this time. Then you climb several steps into the Chancel. 1960s altar and east window – as Pevsner puts it “some hate it; others welcome the glorious view of the trees beyond.”

Let me quote Pevsner again: Sir Ralph Grey +1443 and his wife. A sumptuous monument of considerable artistic importance, because against the tomb-chest there stand fourteen figures of saints in niches separated by figures of angels, and all these figures escaped the iconoclasts of the C16 and C17. So here is an example of dated sculpture of c. 1450, the date of the Beauchamp Chapel in Warwick, and though the sculptural quality of the Grey tomb is much inferior to the Earl of Warwick’s, the stylistic position is the same – drapery folds just breaking, though not so crackly as generally late in the C15. Rich, thickly encrusted canopy work. Alabaster effigies, and a background or reredos – for the head side of the tomb stands against the wall – with a standing angel and left and right two demi-figures of angels holding big helmets. Above this, Jacobean addition with elaborate strapwork cartouche and obelisks.” There is a book by Barbara Harbottle and David Heslop entitled Chillingham church, The South Chapel and Grey Tomb (2000).

According to a note in church, Sir Ralph was a crusader knight, and his wife is Elizabeth. Nothing is mentioned about his crusading days, but apparently he fought for the Lancastrian side in the Wars of the Roses, while his son fought for the Yorkist cause. When the Lancastrians had the upper hand Sir Ralph sentenced his own son to death by hanging, drawing, and quartering. The sentence was eased at the last minute and the younger Grey was ‘only’ beheaded. I wonder what Elizabeth thought of that, and I looked at a beautiful tomb in a new light. A very sad world.

At the beginning of November I did some more research. Apparently, Sir Ralph was born in 1406, and was the youngest son of Sir Thomas Grey and Lady Alice Neville. His father, Sir Thomas, was part of a plot to assassinate Henry V, and was executed on 2 August 1415. (Henry was of the House of Lancaster). Ralph died in France in 1443 and was buried here in Chillingham – imagine the logistics of bringing his body home. One of his sons was another Ralph, born in 1432, who was executed in Doncaster on 2 July 1464. So Ralph senior (died 1443) did not sentence his son Ralph junior (died 1464) to death.

In his book, The Brothers York: an English tragedy, Allen Lane, 2019  Thomas Penn notes that after the Battle of Hexham (15 May 1464) Edward IV (of the House of York) turns his fire on Northumberland Castles. Ralph junior is commander of Bamburgh. When his castle is captured he is taking south to Doncaster and brought before the King.

“Edward’s instant response was to hand Grey over to his constable of England, John Tiptoft, to be tried for treason. The trial, as all parties knew, was a formality. Sitting in judgment, invoking the full force of the laws of chivalry, Tiptoft detailed to Grey precisely why it was he had to die. Before Grey was killed, Tiptoft told him, he would undergo the full ritual degradation of knighthood. First his spurs would be hacked off – here, Tiptoft gestured to Edward’s master cook, standing aproned and clutching a knife in readiness – then, the royal heralds would cluster round and rip his coat-of-arms from his body, before dressing him in a paper replacement painted with his coat-of-arms reversed that he would wear as he went to his execution. Here, Edward saw fit to intervene, graciously commuting the humiliation in memory of Grey’s loyal grandfather, Sir Thomas, who, half a century before, had been convicted for his part in a plot to kill the Lancastrian king Henry V, and executed alongside Edward’s grandfather. Without further ceremony, Grey was drawn on a hurdle to a makeshift scaffold and beheaded.” (Thomas Penn, The Brothers York, an English tragedy, Allen Lane, 2019, page 103).

Still a pretty dreadful story – what human beings will do to other human beings. I suppose it puts Brexit arguments into some sort of context!

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2 Responses to Chillingham, Northumberland – St Peter

  1. Katherine says:

    Chillingham is one of our favourite churches and we visit regularly from our home in Spittal. The Grey tomb is fabulous – our favourite feature is the angels bearing the souls of Sir Ralph and Lady Grey up to heaven in sort of slings. (Not sure Sir Ralph deserves that now I have read here about his cruel treatment of his son.) And I love the clear glass behind the cross over the altar. But what really makes Chillingham a star church in our opinion is the jam! They sell the very best local-made jam here including Worcesterberry. Oh yum! Jam heaven 🙂

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