OVER the years, I’ve been keeping a file of unusual discoveries that have appeared in or near some of our older churches or in churchyards and in the vicinity of our amazing display of local ruined abbeys.
I am not referring to ancient graves that are discovered from time to time but I mean concealed valuables that may be anything from artworks to precious metals or even money still in its collection plate. Hoards of hidden wealth may include coins of the period but also silverware used on altars in times past, beautifully-carved statues, altar stones, wall-paintings of biblical scenes or other discarded or concealed objects ranging from rood screens to baptismal fonts.
Stories of hidden treasure and the efforts to recover it have long appeared in local folk lore and many of these tales are thought to be loosely based on real events dating to the period around the Reformation. There are also tales of a hidden Roman city somewhere in Hertfordshire; the famed Knights Templar are said to have concealed precious gold coins in secret places whilst the gold and monys (sic) of St Alban’s Abbey are rumoured to be secretly hidden somewhere within its grounds.
So long as there are stories of hidden treasure, people will try to find and recover it despite protective measures. In the past, the methods of protection would include stories of fearsome creatures that guarded the riches. At Guisborough Priory, for example, a giant raven is said to protect the treasure buried beneath the ruins and a similar tale says a Black Monk (a Benedictine) returns to this priory once a year to inspect the ruins and doubtless to check that its treasures remain secure.
Treasure is also said to be buried within the ransacked ruins of Kirkstall Abbey near Leeds. The exact location remains unknown but long ago a local man called Ralph Armitage was mowing long grass in the grounds and during the heat of the summer sunshine, felt tired and laid down to rest. He felt his head go into a small depression in the earth and upon removing some briars and stones, discovered an unlocked door leading down into a deep passage extending beneath the abbey.
The local people knew that just before Henry VIII’s ransacking of the Abbey at the Reformation, the Abbey’s valuables were saved and concealed. The treasure comprised religious valuables such as crosiers, chalices, silver and gold plate, jewelled crosses and coins – and it had never been found because the entrance to the vaults remained hidden under the debris that followed the abbey’s destruction.
However, Ralph realised he had found the entrance to the vaults. He opened the door and descended the dark staircase.
Sufficient light filtered in for him to see a black horse tethered near the treasure chest, and then a black cockerel attacked him and knocked him unconscious. When he regained consciousness, he was lying somewhere in the grounds. He searched in vain for that door but never again found it. The treasure of Kirkstall Abbey still awaits a finder.
Among the creatures that protected holy treasures was the mythical Barguest which was said to resemble a giant black dog with huge staring eyes. Sight of a barguest was said to herald death for anyone who encountered it but it could take the form of different animals such as donkeys or horses. Similar creatures overseas were known as kirkgrims.
The Egton barguest guarded the valuables in the old church of St Hilda at Egton, including its altar furnishings, wall paintings and two splendid Norman pillars but it also protected the then Catholic graveyard against vandals. This was the local church for the Martyr of the Moors, Father Nicholas Postgate; he and his family would have attended Mass in this lonely church. It is now Egton Mortuary Chapel but was so severely damaged by the Edwardine Visitations following the death of Henry VIII that it had to be demolished.
The font was thrown down nearby Kirk Cliff but was recovered and is said to be in an Anglican church at either Glaisdale, Grosmont or Goathland. A font from the old church of St Stephen at Robin Hood’s Bay was found in a field in 1895 and is now in the new St Stephen’s.
Massive altar stones were also targeted at the Reformation and destroyed. However one from Byland Abbey is now safe within a chapel at Ampleforth Abbey. A former purchaser of the ruins of Byland Abbey found the stone buried on the site and donated it to Ampleforth Abbey.
However, there is another huge altar stone concealed behind the altar of the tiny but beautifully restored Church of St Mary at Scawton not far from Sutton Bank Top. Believed to have been founded by the monks of Old Byland c. 1146 but restored later, this lovely old church is said to contain some of the finest medieval detail.
The altar stone is almost concealed in a recess in the wall behind the altar and can be identified by five X-marks on its face. There is one in each corner with the fifth in the centre, forming another X. This X, the Cross of St Andrew or saltire, is the symbol of the Five Wounds of Christ and has been depicted on many banners throughout Catholic history.
Birds on the edge
AS I compile these notes for publication two weeks ahead, I have not yet seen any house martins. Most of us associate them with swallows and swifts for all those species arrive in this country from Africa at roughly the same time, and then spend the summer with us. Perhaps when these notes appear in print some of those martins will have arrived and may be building their distinctive mud nests.
Years ago when I was a lad, there was an old character in our moorland village who persisted in referring to house martins as house builders. If he remembered, or perhaps if he was reminded that it was their wrong name, he would then describe them as house swallows. I never heard him call a house martin by its real name. The easiest way to distinguish a house martin from a swallow is to look for the martin’s white rump. That is very clear when the bird is in flight.
House martins build their mud nests beneath the eaves of our houses and outbuildings without any visible signs of support. The martin’s building work is achieved by its beak alone – collecting the mud, carrying it, preparing it, placing it in the right place and finishing off to ensure the structure doesn’t fall down. Perhaps that old man mentioned earlier was correct in calling them house builders?
Swallows also collect mud to build their nests but their under-parts are a soft buff colour that might disguise any faint stains. They have red chins and long forked tails and so they differ from house martins whose tails are short but forked. But they like to place their nests on firm foundations such as a protruding stone or a shelf in an outhouse or porch.
And swifts, coloured black, are quite different, screeching through the skies, rarely if ever settling on the ground or tree branches, but building their nests beneath the eaves.