Treasures in a Shropshire Church

This England - - Cornucopia - LYNNE HAY­WARD

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).

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