Treasures in a Shropshire Church
Faded, yellowing wreaths found in a handful of parish churches remind us of a oncepopular custom to mark the death of an unmarried woman or young girl.
Maiden’s garlands were crown-shaped structures placed on the coffin or carried in the funeral procession. They were decorated with flowers, ribbons and gloves, which represented a challenge to those who doubted the maiden’s reputation or virginity.
After the ceremony the garlands were put in the grave or, more commonly, hung in the church where they remained as poignant reminders of lives lost.
No fewer than seven such tributes — also known as crowns — can be found in Holy Trinity Church in the village of Minsterley, Shropshire. The garlands, which date from the 18th century, are regarded as nationally important. Six of them hang over the west gallery, while the seventh is on display alongside a modern replica. This shows what the original garland may have looked like when it was first made.
Historian Rosie Morris, who was born in Minsterley, attended Sunday School at Holy Trinity and used to gaze up in wonder at the strange-looking objects suspended from iron hooks. She decided to research maiden’s garlands as a dissertation topic for her final year of degree study at Birmingham University, and delved even deeper into the subject when she embarked on a PHD.
Rosie says: “Holy Trinity became an early tourist attraction during the latter part of the 19th century because of the garlands. They are fine examples of 18th-century skill, ingenuity and pride. The embossed papers used in the flowers and rosettes which cover the wooden frames are common to each garland and were probably taken from 18th-century wallpaper sample books.”
She adds: “The garlands at Minsterley are of national importance as they represent a snapshot in time of the long 18th century, politically, socially and theologically.
“Minsterley also had a unique custom involving those who were betrothed to marry but lost their love through early death. If they remained true to their betrothed and didn’t marry anyone else, they went on to receive a crown at their own funeral.”
The earliest of the garlands is from 1726 and the latest from 1794. Elsewhere in Shropshire, a maiden’s garland commemorates Hannah Phillips who drowned on the eve of her wedding in 1707 while crossing the River Severn by ferry. The garland is to be found in the Church of St. Calixtus at Astley Abbotts, where she was to have been married.
The oldest surviving garland in the country was made in 1680 and is displayed at St. Mary’s Church in Beverley, Yorkshire.
In most parts of England the garlands were specifically for
women, but some were made for men or young boys.
Holy Trinity Church at Minsterley, Shropshire SY5 0BA, is open in daylight hours each day for people to visit and view the garlands.
For more details about maiden’s garlands visit Rosie Morris’s website: www.maidensgarlands.com .
Holy Trinity Church in Minsterley, Shropshire (above), is home to a nationally important and intriguing collection of 18th-century maiden’s garlands (right).