English Churches - West Midlands

St Peter’s Church, Elford,  Staffordshire

Splendid alabaster family tombs and an interesting story

There has been a Christian community in Elford since the C7th when St Chad sent out missionaries to preach the gospel and there has been a church here since the C12th. There was a major restoration in the C14th. The south aisle, tower and chantry were added in the C16th. The church survived the Civil War as the rector was a puritan and managed to save the church and monuments from the ravages of Cromwell’s troops. The present building is mainly a C19th restoration, although the Rector at the time was a follower of the Oxford Movement and determined the restoration should be as near to the C14th church as possible. The C14th east wall of the chancel and C16th tower survive.

The church is open daily and is reached down a tree lined drive. The red sandstone tower at the west end looks incongruous against the paler stone of the rest of the church. The tower is short compared with most other churches. Dated 1589, it has battlements and pinnacles. A small angular tower on the south side gives access to the bell chamber. The buttresses along the south aisle have badges carved on them.

Entry is through the south porch which has a small statue above the archway. Inside is a wooden roof with carved stone bases to the ribs. In the chancel these are replaced by carved stone angels. Pillars with pointed arches separate nave and south aisle.

The pointed chancel arch has an inscription painted on it “THIS IS A TRUE SAYING AND WORTHY OF ALL THAT CHRIST JESUS CAME INTO THE WORLD TO SAVE SINNERS”. There are more inscriptions round windows in the nave and also the arch at the base of the tower.

The chancel is very simple with patterned Minton tiles on the floor and organ on the north wall. There is a simple table altar under the C19th stained glass window.

The window at the west end of the south aisle contains C15th Flemish glass from Herkenrode Abbey.

The chantry chapel is the highlight of the church with painted shields of all of the Lords of the manor round the walls and the splendid alabaster tombs. 

The oldest is that of Sir Thomas Arderne, the C14th church builder who died in 1391 and his wife, Matilda. They are shown holding hands.

Elford Church

Sir Thomas fought with the Black Prince at Poitiers and is shown in full armour with a sword at his side. His feet are resting on a lion and there are angels at his head. Matilda’s head rests on two cushions held by angels. Round the base of the tomb are angels holding family shields, still with their original paint. Between them are figures called ‘weepers’. These were probably relatives, friends or officials.

Set against the north wall is the tomb of Sir John Stanley, founder of the Chantry, again wearing armour, who died in 1474. He was married three times and had one son, John. His head rests on a jousting helmet which carries the crest of the Latham family with an eagle and small child.

Elford Church

Sir John was descended from the female side of the Latham family. He was a descendant of Sir Thomas Latham. According to the legend, Sir Thomas had an illegitimate son he wished to adopt as his wife was barren. An eagle had built a nest in an oak tree in the park, so Sir Thomas placed his illegitimate son in the nest and then sent for his wife. She was overjoyed by this ‘miracle’ and accepted the child as her own.

Elford Church

The other splendid tomb is the centre of the chantry is that of Sir William Smythe, Lord of Elford, who died in 1525, and his two wives, Anne Staunton and the Lady Isabella Neville.

Elford Church

He inherited Elford through his first wife and his second wife was a niece of Warwick the Kingmaker and a cousin of Richard III. Sir William is wearing armour and his feet rest on a lion. His head rests on a helmet. His wives have cushions with angels round then.

Elford Church

At their feet is a small dog holding the base of their dress.

Elford Church

The base of the tomb is decorated by carved and painted shields set in elaborately carved niches with pinnacled and crocketed canopies. Between are carving of monks who were often hired for funerals, holding books or rosaries

Elford Church

The final tomb is tucked away in a corner of the south wall. This is completely different from the rest as it is smaller and carved from the local soft gritstone. The carving is poorer quality. It is an effigy of Sir John Stanley’s grandson who was the last of the male line of Elford Stanleys. After his death, the title passed to his niece Anne Staunton. He is shown with short hair and a simple robe that ends well above the ankles. One hand holds a round object, the other points to the side of his face.

This has led to the story in all the guide books that he died after being hit by a real tennis ball although there are no records to support this. Digging around the web, I came across another theory that this is a ‘heart burial’. During the Middle Ages, separate heart burial became a mark of prestige. It offered a focus for prayers for the deceased in more than one location and allowed families to patronise different churches. Miniature effigies were sometimes erected to mark such heart (and sometimes entrail) burials. The round object in his left hand may represent a heart. 

The effigy may be a post medieval copy (or forgery) as it is carved out of hard gritstone unlike the other tombs which are alabaster. The position of the right hand may have been added to illustrate the local legend. Either way, it makes a good story.

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