Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Mysterious Origins of St. Helen’s: Part One

We’re often surprised at how many locals don’t actually know where Churchtown is. We shouldn’t be though. Churchtown isn’t really a town at all, as its name might suggest. In fact it’s not even much of a village. It’s more of a hamlet of creaky old buildings surrounding the ancient parish church of Garstang and Catterall. (There’s actually a similarly named Churchtown in Bispham…but that’s not the one we’re concerned with here.)
St. Helen’s itself practically bulges beneath the weight of its incredible past, the central aisle dating back by at least one thousand years, whilst the site on which it stands can be traced back several thousand more. Take a look at the photograph below. It shows one of the crooked central pillars holding the roof up, skewed out of the perpendicular by age but Norman in origin.
So exactly how far backwards chronologically does this stately pile reach?
Well, according to Ken Emery (secretary for Wyre Archaeology) some of the stonework incorporated into the walls appears to be Roman. And we’ve no particular reason to doubt him. Here’s why…
St. Michael’s was the only local church mentioned by name in the Domesday Book. However, during the mediaeval period (in 1203 to be precise) a dispute arose between St. Michael’s and St. Helen’s as to which was the mother church, and documents were produced (now, sadly, although ‘typically’, missing) proving that St. Helen’s was the elder of the two.
And that’s not surprising either. You see, Churchtown also goes under another name; Kirklund, a combination of the Norse word ‘Kirk’ meaning ‘Church’ and the Celtic word ‘Lund’ referring to a ‘Sacred Grove’. This, coupled with the pagan burial ground (the churchyard is oval rather than square, as is generally the case with prehistoric burial sites) and the single-slab cross bases lining Many Pads (the Celtic road that effectively denotes the route to the church) indicate that St. Helen’s was once a keeill.
Adding weight to this theory, the churchyard, until 1746, was surrounded by two branches of the River Wyre, also typical of prehistoric burial sites.
Unlike the usual sixth to eight century Celtic/Norse keeills that we’ve written about on numerous occasions in the past, that crop up all over the Fylde and Wyre, St. Helen’s appears to have been established even earlier by the first Pagan/Christian Celtic/Romano worshippers in the district. This, as you can probably imagine, would have happened many years before St. Patrick allegedly boarded his millstone in Ireland and set off towards Heysham.
What makes us think this? Well, round the back of the church, leaning against the vestry wall, is a carved stone slab, engraved with a very early form of Keeill cross. This is a Chi-Rho cross, of which, or so we believe, there are only three in the whole West of England. (Apparently there's another in North Wales, four more in Southwest Scotland and one on the Isle of Man...which makes for an interesting grouping, don't you think?) The ‘P’ and ‘X’ symbols are, apparently, the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek. Rather annoyingly we’ve lost our own original photograph of it. Fortunately, however, Martyn King has supplied us with the one below.

St. Helen’s Chi-Rho cross, to put it simply, is an extremely ancient bit of work. It is a keeill cross, of sorts. One remarkably similar to it crops up at the Maughold keeill in the Isle of Man. But it isn’t the usual Celtic/Norse cross shaft with its crude carving of the variety that you’d expect around this particular district.
Legend has it that Emperor Constantine designed the Chi Rho symbol himself in the fourth century, having witnessed it first in the form of a vision on his way to Rome the night before battle. Constantine’s connection with St. Helen’s, however, goes far beyond this simple carving, so it might be an idea to examine his history in a bit more detail before continuing.
Constantine was born in Naissus, Turkey, circa AD 273. (He wasn’t actually British, as many people think, although he did move to York during his governorship of this country.) His mother (after whom St. Helen’s is named) was an innkeeper's daughter and some scholars even suggest that Constantine himself was illegitimate.
It was Constantine, however, who, as Emperor, basically legalised and established Christianity as the official religion of Rome, bringing the gospels together to form its basis and establishing Rome as the head of the church. Not that Constantine wasn’t against murdering a few Christians himself. (Well…he wouldn’t have been much of a Roman emperor if he hadn’t, would he?) He just had a firm idea of what constituted a good Christian and what constituted a bad one, that’s all.
There’s another connection with this early period of Christianity inside St. Helen’s, as can be seen in the photograph below.
The only trouble is, we’ve just about run out of space for this week. So we’ll leave you on that cliff hanger (all will be revealed in seven day’s time if you want to come back) so that we can put the kettle on.


John said...

Having visited many ancient churches and cathedrals in England, I thoroughly enjoyed this post, since it's one I can especially relate to. Just a few comments and questions, though...

1, just to be crotchety, you mention that the 'site where St. Helens stands can be traced back several thousand more' (years). I'm assuming that you meant the 'history' of the site can be traced back that far, and that the ground itself has in fact been there since the last ice age at least.

2, with that out of the way, let me add that the stone column is skewed out of the perpendicular by the weight of the roof above it, not by age alone. Salisbury Cathedral and many other churches and such in your fine country have columns in which the very stone is being compressed from the weight above them, due to some very ambitious architects.

3, If there are only 3 of those PX crosses in England, why is one leaning against the back of the vestry, where acid rain and/or vandals can remove or destroy it? Honestly, you've shown us some wonderful bits of history, and so many of them are just lying around like a discarded plant pot. I'm not happy with this.

4, I think I brought this up before, but why were ancient burial mounds built surrounded by 2 rivers? Wouldn't they worry about erosion? Also, in the US, a hill above a river bend or between two rivers made a perfect site for a village, due to closeness of fresh water, and the attraction said water has for animals. Surely a good living site wouldn't have been given over to the deceased? Just curious...

thanks for the info on Constantine, and St. Helens. I look forward to part 2, and many, many more photos.

Cheers, JOHN :0)

Brian Hughes said...


Okay...Answer the First: The central part of the church, being Norman, gives it the first thousand years of history. The idea that the original keeill predates the Norman construction (and, as part two will attempt to clarify, takes it back to somewhere between the third and fourth century) adds another six hundred years, but the pagan burial mound (most probably Bronze Age) on which the church stands takes it back even further (several thousands years in fact) as a sacred site.

Answer the Second: You're absolutely right. The roof of St. Helen's (as can be seen from the outside) has been raised by several feet at some point during its history. Added to the fact that sandstone isn't that durable in the first place, no doubt this had a hand in skewing the pillar off it's axis. There is another theory, however, that I've read in a couple of local history books, that claims at some point in the past the Wyre burst its banks and flooded the church thus destabilising the structure. Apparently that's why the course of the river was deliberately altered. Exactly how much truth there is in the story I couldn't honestly say, and my money's on the weighty roof theory.

Answer the Third: The reason why the Chi Rho cross is outside, in the rain and wind with no protection, might have something to do with the fact that the church officials have it down as a gravestone...which clearly it isn't. There's also the fact that nobody round here gives much of stuff about these things. I'm with you on this's not a happy situation, but we're trying our best to raise people's awareness.

Answer the Fourth: Now that's the million dollar question...which is about thirty quid in real money at the current exhange rate I believe. Nobody really knows why burial sites were located at the junctions of rivers. Michelle and I have this theory, which is probably about as good as any other, that, being of an agricultural persuasion, our prehistoric ancestors were possibly burying the dead as though they were seeds (hence the decapitations and cremations...both common practices with crops) and the positions of the graves/barrows near water had something to do with the corpses being watered to generate rebirth.

Or something. makes more sense than Stone Henge being a massive calendar when a simple slate on the back of the privy door would have sufficed.

Answer the Fifth: Er...there isn't an answer the fifth because there isn't a question the fifth.

And if that doesn't answer all your queries then, no doubt, next week's exciting installment will...hopefully.

The Actor said...

Very interesting, Brian. I'm looking forward to part two.

Hopefully there aren't any nefarious people reading this with an intent on finding out how easy it would be to purloin the Chi Rho (What a fantastic photo btw).

I have a theory about the burial ground and the rivers but as I don't know if Pagans buried the dead east/west I won't divulge it as I can make a fool out of myself easily enough as it is.

Brian Hughes said...


Go on...take a chance. We do it every day with some of our theories. I've discovered that if we repeat them often enough, and sound convincing enough, and project enough authoirty (whether it's warrented or not), then people seldom ask awkward questions.

Incidentally...I'm going to post a few photos of St. Helen's over at the forum that George Birchall let us have today, so if you want to post some of yours aswell, feel free.

Ozfemme said...

I just finished reading a book by Marion Zimmer Bradley... oh shut up, it's still holidays and the library was closed and it was the closest thing at hand... where was I? Oh, the main character of the book is Elen of the Ways (aka St HelenI in which she is, albeit fictionally, portrayed as daughter of a king who got one of the priestesses of Avalon in the family way after a rather fun Beltane rite... more romantic than... Helen the barmaid.

That is all.... I'm off to feed the ravens.

Brian Hughes said...

Helen, Elyn, Helina, Ellen...they're all the same woman basically. Whether she really was a barmaid or the daughter of some Turkish aristocrat, I couldn't honestly say, but that's how the scholarly theory runs. Then again I'm still trying to decide whether Fergie was a barmaid or not. She certainly acts like one.

JahTeh said...

Bella, if you like 'The Mists of Avalon' look for her book on the Trojan War and why Cassandra was cursed with having her visions ignored. I enjoyed it.

Sorry Fleetwood, about the Church, is that a tessalated floor? Wasn't Helen the one who trawled Europe for relics of the true cross, the first archaeologist or collector as it were?

Is that Fergie the ex-royal tart or Fergie the singing tart?

Brian Hughes said...


" that a tessalated floor?"'s a 'tiled' floor. Victorian, most likely. The church did get flooded in 1800 and odd, so they probably relaid the floor courtesy of the insurance money at the time.

"Wasn't Helen the one who trawled Europe for relics of the true cross, the first archaeologist or collector as it were?"

Correct...only you've jumped the gun a bit there because that's all in part two, next week.

"Is that Fergie the ex-royal tart or Fergie the singing tart?"


Actually, I'm not sure who 'Fergie the Singing Tart' is, but she sounds like a Disney creation.

Bwca said...

St.Helena the finder of the one True Cross - an Essex Girl (Chelmsford)

Brian Hughes said...


I heard a story about an Essex girl who went into a jewellers and asked for a pendant with a cross attcahed. The jeweller chose what he considered to be appropropriate from beneath the counter, and showed it to her for approval. "Nah, I darn't want thart..." she said, after a moment or two's introspection. "Arh want one wiv a little man on it."