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exterior view of St Bertoline Church

above and below:
Exterior views of St Bertoline

exterior view of St Bertoline Church

Below: Interior view of nave looking west
towards the tower arch and base of the west tower.

Interior view of St Bertoline Church




Cromwellian Britain - Barthomley Church - Cheshire

The village of Barthomley lies near the south-eastern boundary of Cheshire, close to the border with Staffordshire. Although it is less than a mile from junction 16 of the M6 and is bypassed by the busy A500, it remains a small, peaceful, rural village. Agriculture has long dominated the life of the village and Barthomley is encircled by farms which work the now enclosed heath and mossland of the area. The Wulvarn Brook, running through the settlement, is named in memory of the last wolf in England, supposedly killed in Barthomley Wood. The village itself, with its seventeenth century black and white half timbered cottages as well as more modern houses, clusters around the junction of two country lanes. At this junction stands The White Lion Inn, dating from 1614 and formerly the home of the parish clerk. But by far the largest building in Barthomley, overshadowing and dominating the village, is St Bertoline’s Church.

The church, with its very rare dedication to an eighth century saint who performed a miracle here, stands on an ancient barrow mound. There may well have been a church here in the Saxon period, but the present church apparently contains nothing older than the late eleventh century. A Norman doorway, with its distinctively patterned round arch, survives from the rebuilding of c 1090; now blocked, it is set into the north wall. Most of the present church dates from the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Built of local red sandstone, it comprises a heavy western tower, nave, southern and northern aisles and a chancel. Slight variations in the design of windows and pier capitals suggest that, although everything is essentially Perpendicular in style, the church was not of one build, but was extended and added to over several decades or generations. St Bertoline’s was restored, sympathetically and without the drastic alterations to the existing fabric, in the mid nineteenth century. In the 1920s the chancel and chancel arch were largely rebuilt, but otherwise the main structure remains in essence as it would have been in the Tudor and Stuart period, complete with the carved oak ceiling above the nave. However, with the exception of the carved Elizabethan altar, most of the fittings – font, pews, pulpit and coloured glass – are fairly modern.

The church retains several important links with the early and mid seventeenth century, many of them connected with the Crewes. In the seventeenth century the parish was dominated by a branch of the powerful Crewe family, whose seat of Crewe Hall lies less than three miles to the north-west. Sir Ranulphe Crewe (b 1558), who built the present Hall in the opening decades of the seventeenth century, was a serjeant-at-law under James I, served as Speaker of the House of Commons in the brief parliament of 1614 and was knighted in the same year, and was created Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench in 1625, just before James I’s death. However, he was one of a number of senior judges who questioned the legality of forced loans during the opening year of Charles I’s reign and was dismissed by the king in November 1626. The aged Crewe took no active part in the civil war. He died in London in January 1646 but chose to be buried at Barthomley church, in the new chapel which he had built for his family on the south side of the chancel, abutting the east end of the south aisle. Although Sir Ranulphe himself has no visible funereal monument, the Crewe chapel contains mural monuments to several of his descendents, as well as fine recumbent effigies of earlier and later figures. At the north end of the north aisle is a second Crewe enclosure, a late Elizabethan oak screen, carrying carved inscriptions, which formerly surrounded the family pew. It now encloses the nineteenth century organ.

Affixed to the wall by the door of the Crewe chapel are four brass plaques, dating from the seventeenth century and commemorating members of the Malbon family of Bradley Hall, Haslington; the Hall, which no longer exists, stood about four miles to the north-west. A stone tablet now affixed to the south wall of the south aisle records another Malbon, Thomas, sometime attorney at Chester, who died in 1658. Born in 1578, Thomas Malbon practised law in both Nantwich and Chester, and rebuilt Bradley in the opening decades of the seventeenth century. Like Sir Ranulphe Crewe, he was too old to fight in the civil war, but Malbon clearly supported the parliamentary cause, playing a minor role in the wartime administration of the area. In 1651, after the war was over, he wrote ‘A breefe & true Relacon of all suche passages & things as happened & weire donne in and aboute Namptwich in the Countie of Chester & in other plac[es] of the same Countie’. A lively and colourful history of the civil war 1642-48, focussing on the area around Nantwich, but encompassing most of Cheshire, Malbon’s account is one of the principal sources for the history of the civil war in Cheshire. It was almost immediately paraphrased and plagiarised by Edward Burghall, vicar of Acton in the 1650s, who cobbled together his own manuscript account of the war in Cheshire, ‘Providence Improved’. In 1889, both accounts were edited by James Hall and published by the Lancashire and Cheshire Record Society.

We know a little about Barthomley’s incumbents at this time. For part of the war years, the living was held by George Mainwaring, member of another old Cheshire family with tentacles in many parts of the county; the Crewes had married into a branch of this family in the sixteenth century. From 1649 until 1684 the incumbent was Zachary Cawdrey. In 1647, while a fellow of St John’s College, Oxford, he had been in trouble with parliament for ‘using the Prayerbook against Protestant orders and praying to the King’. But Cawdrey retained the parish throughout the 1650s and the Restoration period. A silver chalice and paten which he gave to the church are still in use. The author of a number of minor religious works published during the 1670s and early 1680s, Cawdrey died in 1684. A brass plaque, now affixed to south chancel wall, records not only his own death but also that of his wife, three years earlier.

Barthomley church has a much stronger and darker claim to fame and has an infamous niche in the history of the civil war, for it was here that one of the most notorious massacres of the war took place. The basic facts are clear enough. Bolstered by newly arrived reinforcements from Ireland, in the closing days of 1643 the Chester royalists sent out parties to harry the parliamentarians, who controlled much of the county. On 23 December royalist troops entered Barthomley. Malbon gives a graphic account of what followed:

‘The Kinges p[ar]tie comynge to Barthomley Churche, did sett upon the same; wherein about xxtie Neighbours where gonne for theire saufegarde. But maior Connaught, maior to Colonell Sneyde,...w[i]th his forces by wyelcome entred the Churche. The people w[i]thin gatt up into the Steeple; But the Enymy burnynge formes, pewes, Rushes & the lyke, did smother theim in the Steeple that they weire Enforced to call for quarter, & yelde theim selves; w[hi]ch was graunted them by the said Connaught; But when hee had theim in his power, hee caused theim all to be stripped starke Naked; And moste barbarouslie & contr[ar]y to the Lawes of Armes, murthered, stabbed and cutt the Throates of xii of theim;...& wounded all the reste, leavinge many of theim for Dead. And on Christmas daye, and Ste Stevens Daye, the[y] Contynued plu[n]dringe & destroyinge all Barthomley, Crewe, Haslington, & the places adiacent...’

Of the twenty ‘neighbours’ who had been smoked out of the steeple, twelve (all males, named in Malbon’s account) were killed on the spot and many of the remaining eight badly wounded. They seem to have been cut down at the base of the tower, and thus within the church itself. By 26 December Lord Byron, royalist commander in Chester, was crowing to the Marquis of Newcastle:

‘the Rebels had possessed themselves of a Church at Bartumley, but wee presently beat them forth of it, and put them all to the sword; which I finde to be the best way to proceed with these kind of people, for mercy to them is cruelty.’

Malbon’s account, largely followed by Burghall, portrays the event as a completely unprovoked and unlawful attack upon villagers who had surrendered at Connaught’s promise of quarter. Other accounts, however, suggest that the sequence of events may have been rather different. In a letter of 9 January, John Byron claimed that the royalists had initially issued a summons to the men inside the church but that it had been refused. Only then did the royalists attack and capture the church, possibly having to fight their way in. Although in the civil war quarter was usually then given at that point, there was no legal obligation to spare defenders who had spurned a formal summons and had pushed the issue to violence and bloodshed. Although very unusual, the capture of Barthomley church was not the only occasion during the civil wars when, in such circumstances, the attacking force proceeded to put the defending force to the sword. Some historians have suggested an alternative sequence of events to explain the bloodletting – that having initially agreed to surrender on offer of quarter, one of the villagers wounded or killed a royalist soldier, thus negating the agreement and provoking what followed.

Whatever the exact sequence of events at Barthomley church on 23 December 1643, the killings became notorious. Eleven years later, at the Chester assizes of October 1654, vengeance was exacted. John Connaught, formerly a royalist major, was tried for his life. Although he was charged with murdering ‘several persons’ in the church, the trial focussed on the death of just one of them, John Fowler. The jury heard that Connaught, with a battleaxe (valued at 6d) in his right hand, had caught hold of Fowler and struck him on the left side of his head, inflicting a wound which, though only one inch long and one inch deep, was instantly fatal. The jurors found the case proved, Connaught offered nothing in mitigation and John Bradshaw, who five years before had presided over the king’s trial, passed sentence of death. Connaught was hanged at Boughton, on the outskirts of Chester, on the aftemoon of Tuesday 17 October 1654. According to the diarist, Henry Newcome, he went to the scaffold protesting his innocence:

‘The matters he died for were clearly proved, and yet he seemed to take a great glory in his innocency, and would freely tell of his other sins, as gaming, drinking, nay
conjuring, which were some of them not known, and yet would stand in the denial of a thing that was proved.’

It is now hard to believe that this attractive church in its quiet rural setting once witnessed such horrors as those of Christmas-time 1643. St Bertoline’s is still in regular use for services. It is in good condition and is well kept. It stands amidst an equally interesting churchyard, and an unusual number of well preserved early eighteenth century gravestones – a handful date from the latter half of the seventeenth century – are now laid to form a path around the outside walls of the church. St Bertoline’s itself is generally unlocked and open to visitors during the day. Sadly, because of the threat of vandalism, the Crewe chapel is normally locked, though a notice directs visitors to the adjoining modern rectory, where the key may be sought.

By Dr Peter Gaunt.


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