Stoke lies at the point where a Roman road, Ryknield Street, crosses the confluence of the River Trent and Fowlea Brook.
The road ran from Littlechester near Derby to Chesterton north of Newcastle-under-Lyme. It is likely that the road was located along the line of King Street and City Road between Longton and Fenton and continued this line north of Stoke town centre.
Stoke – ‘Holy place’
There is a great sense of history to this place which draws me to it time and time again. It is the most historical site in the city of Stoke and indeed within the six towns of Stoke on Trent.
This place has been a special place of worship and the site of the most important church in the area for over 1,300 years.
Just a short walk from Stoke-on-Trent train station is Stoke Minster, believed to have once been an important Celtic religious site and where Christian worship has taken place since Saxon times. The first Christian missionaries decreed the spot to be a ‘Holy place on the river’ (‘Stoche on Trent’) in the seventh-century and it remains an important calling point for pilgrims following in the footsteps of St Chad and St Werburgh along the 92-mile Two Saints Way.
The first church on the site was built in wood in 670.
This was replaced by a stone building in 805 and this was further extended over the years. Throughout the medieval period the settlement consisted only of the church and rectory with the later development not occurring until much later on. The nearby hamlet of Penkull was the closest established place of community.
The church itself is first mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, where a half shareof the church is included in Robert of Stafford’s holdings in Caverswall manor: ‘Robert himself holds…
The remarkable remains of this second construction can still be found in the church graveyard today, one side bearing what is believed to be the earliest example of the Stafford knot.
The origin of the pretzel-like design (now the traditional symbol of Stafford) has generated much debate over the years, some claiming it to have been a heraldic symbol of early Mercia or a Celtic Christian emblem brought to Staffordshire by missionary monks from Lindisfarne. Another, somewhat less romantic legend has it that the knot was devised by a hangman as a three-way noose to settle a quarrel between three condemned prisoners in a Staffordshire gaol over who should be hanged first.
The first recorded Rector of this ancient church was Vivian de Stoke (1154 – 1189) and there is a continuous list from that date. He was one of the most secular clergy under King Henry and John. Vivian was fined many times for hunting with his dogs in the Kings forest, then called Hay of Clive, now known by the name Cliffe Vale.
One Rector was a Spaniard who never even set foot in the country, a gift bestowed by the King for some favour or another. The Rector of Stoke would receive considerable weather from their appointment. Pope Nicholas Taxation of 1297 records the wealth of Stoke parish as the third highest in the country. Until the first Rectory act of 1807 this area stretched right to Nortin Le Moors and Caverswall over 5 miles away.
The Doomsday book records ‘In Caverswall 1 virgate of land. Arnulf holds from him. Wulfgeat held it and was a free man. Land for 4 ploughs. In demesne 1 plough. 10 villeins and 2 bordars with 3 ploughs. Meadow, 6 acres; woodland 1 league long and 1⁄2 wide; a half of Stoke church, with 1⁄2 carucate of land (medietas aeccl’ae de Stoche cu’ dim’ caruc’ t’rae) Value 30s.’
SAXON CROSS SHAFT
Interestingly there is an original Anglo-Saxon cross shaft within the church yard that was discovered in the late 19th century and re-erected in 1935.
The shaft dates to c750 – 780 and probably replaced an earlier cross made of wood.
The cross-shaft is both a Scheduled Monument and a Listed structure.
It is an extremely significant and fascinating monument to millennia gone by in what is now a quiet church yard sat in the middle of a busy modern town. I often wonder how many people walk past this cross without realising what it is or how old it is. It was once a fundamental part of Saxon ritual and an important object within the local community.
The new church, now once again known as Stoke Minster, was built between 1826 and 1830. The church was designed by Trubshaw and Johnson of Haywood, Staffordshire. Funding included grants from the crown and the diocese of Lichfield, with an element of public subscription. Amongst the public money was around £500 supposedly donated by the workers at Josiah Spode’s pottery factory, but closer investigation revealed this had been compulsorily docked from the workers’ wages by Spode.
The medieval church, with elements dating from at least the 13th century, was demolished in 1826 to make way for the present building, that was completed in 1830 and consecrated on October 6th.
Stonework from the demolition was dumped in the River Trent adjacent to the Glebe Mills.
Some of this was recovered by local architect and antiquarian Charles Lynam in the 1880s and a nave arcade re-erected in its original position in the church yard.
The church has the unusual dedication to St Peter ad Vincula (St Peter in Chains) which falls on 1st August and is an early Celtic festival.
The church became a minster in 2005.
It almost certainly would have been an Anglo-Saxon ‘Mynster’ with the name having been lost down the centuries.
It is known the site once had a moat and in excavations many years ago a stone wall was discovered some four metres below the current road indicating some sort of fortification of the site or part of some early British settlement.
It is reasonable to assume that Saint Chad who was Bishop of Lichfield (669 – 672) would have visited the early church of Stoke.
To Charles Dickens in 1852 Stoke was ‘a picturesque heap of houses, kilns, smoke, wharfs, canals and river lying (as was most appropriate) in a basin’.
Location of the High Altar in the original Saxon church
Roman numerals on one of the columns
The great pottery magnate Josiah Wedgwood (12 July 1730 – 3 January 1795) was buried in the church, however Josiah was was a nonconformist, and was therefore buried in what was the porch of the old parish church.
Wedgwood was a master potter and was one of the great revolutionists, thinkers and entrepreneurs of his time, akin to the Steve Jobs of today’s world. Meeting the demands of the consumer revolution and growth in wealth of the middle classes that helped drive the Industrial Revoluation in Britain, Wedgwood is credited as the inventor of modern marketing.
He was also noted as a great philanthropist, and produced many copies of the small size so-called ‘Slave Medallion’. ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ The kneeling manacled figure of a slave, surmounted by a legend ‘Am I not a Man and a Brother?’, formed the seal of the Abolition of Slavery Movement.
He was the Grandfather of Charles Darwin.
A most fitting tribute to this multi-talented individual was given in 1863 by William Ewart Gladstone, the prime minister who was also a collector of Wedgwood ware. He said of Josiah I ‘……that he was the greatest man who ever, in any age or country, applied himself to the important work of uniting art with industry’.
Construction of the nearby dual carriageway between 1974 and 1977 involved the destruction of streets and businesses within Stoke’s town centre, as well as the excavation of a mass grave of the victims of a 17th-century cholera epidemic within the boundaries of the church yard. There were a total of four cholera epidemics between 1831 and 1866.
The churchyard used to be a lot bigger than it is today – and contained an area known as ‘the cholera patch’, where hundreds, perhaps thousands of victims of the epidemic were buried in mass graves.
As you walk around this hallowed ground amongst the remains of the great architects of the pottery industry and the members of bygone communities and worlds there is an ancient sense of history deeply imbued within the site, this being a place of communal worship and sanctity for over a millennium with people finding inspiration or solace from this place for as long as people have settled here and travelled to this very spot.
It has retained its sense of tranquility and peacefulness throughout the centuries and through upheavals of war and the darkness and smog of the industrial revolution, still today, as ever, offering that sense of reprieve from the tribulations of the modern world and standing tall against the now clear blue Stoke skies.
As the grass sways in the gentle wind, the ancient remains and the altar stand defiant in the face of the incessant march of time, a fascinating window into centuries now long forgotten. Footsteps of people have echoed around this hallowed ground for over a millennia and it remains one of the most fascinating places in the city today.