Some places are hidden not just from the modern world but from time itself which seems to pass by without causing any change or decay. Ingestre, near Stafford in Staffordshire, is one of those places. Yet, at the heart of Ingestre’s untold story is loss, grief and death.
Lashed with Rain
As we (me and my good friend) cycled through the Vale of Trent, the unseasonal June weather was lashing us with rain and we didn’t see the outline of Ingestre hall in the distance until we were half a mile away.
Ingestre, was the ancestral house of the Chetwynd family from 1263 to 1767 and had originated, partly, as a site of pilgrimage to a local salt spring. A chaplain is recorded at Ingestre from 1305 and the early sixteenth century church, built by the Chetwynd family, contained hundreds of crutches from those who had been cured.
A Family called Chetwynd
The Chetwynd family had played a role in almost every major national event since their inheritance of the Ingestre estate. Most recently to our tale, a Chetwynd, a family of steadfast royalists, had been present at the siege of Lichfield, when one of the three sandstone cathedral spires, both a symbol of the Trinity and the divine right of kings endowed by the Church, was brought crashing down by Parliamentarian cannon fire in the English Civil War.
But it was later in the seventeenth century that Ingestre and the Chetwynd family experienced its most profound moment.
Death and Vision
After an ardous climb up a long and somewhat steep gravel path, taking a wrong turn and then having to come back again, we had reached the imposing estate of Ingestre. The Victorian stables loomed down upon us, their broken drain pipes gushing water onto worn brick facades. And there, around another corner, stood Ingestre hall itself standing apart and triumphant in the rain.
In 1672, this had been the home of the newly inherited Walter Chetwynd. On a day similar to this, Walter had returned home only to lose both his wife and son in childbirth.
Close friends of Walter shared his pain describing Walter as ‘stricken with grief’. But in this moment of darkness, Walter made a remarkable commitment, he was so motivated by ‘profuse love’ for his recently lost wife that he was determined to ‘create a sacred monument’ both to her and ‘the glory of God’.
The Great Project
Events moved fast and it is thanks to the eyewitness account of Dr Plot that we able to keep pace with the grieving Walter. Plot describes the medieval church at Ingestre to be ‘ruinous’ and Walter used this to his advantage by petitioning the Archbishop of Canterbury, to grant permission to rebuild the church at his own expense. By 12th April 1673, the Archbishop had consented ‘to the religious desire of Walter Chetwynd’ and the building began.
Sir Christopher Wren?
The identity of the architect of this new church is lost to the uncertainities of the past with all documentary evidence having vanished in an 1882 fire which gutted Walter Chetwynd’s house. But, other forms of evidence can be employed to suggest Sir Christopher Wren was Walter’s architect.
Both Walter and Wren were members of the Royal Society, based in London, and Wren’s office produced a drawing for ‘Mr Chetwynd’s tower’. Furthermore, during restoration work in the 1960s, the names ‘Gilbert’ and ‘S Hand’ were found inscribed in the church ceiling. It is known the Hand family were responsible for organising stone quarrying for St Paul’s Cathedral in London, one of Wren’s key works.
Although, we cannot be certain, it is highly likely Wren designed this, his only parish church outside London.
England’s Taj Mahal
Thus, in grief and out of love, Walter had created England’s Taj Mahal. The church, called of St Mary the Virgin, was consecrated in 1677 by the Bishop of Conventry and Lichfield. Dr Plot’s intimate account even describes Walter’s dog, ‘Guiney’, to be in attendance.
Walking in, out of the rain, we felt ourselves to be present at that ceremony. The church, built in the Palladian style, was besieged by light pouring in from the windows.
White and black marble flooring cast back the light thrown from the swirling white stucco ceiling and clusters of columns strained upwards towards the heavens. Beside the altar, Walter had constructed a memorial to his much loved wife in stunning marble.
Death of Walter
By 1690, Walter’s chaplain, Charles King, reported him to be in ill health. During that spring, Walter wrote his will whilst trapped by floods in a nearby house to Ingestre. Declining rapidly in health, on 31st March 1693, Walter died. On 1st April 1693, Walter was buried in Ingestre. This was in response to his will where he decreed his body to be buried in his new church ‘close to that of my dear wife’.
We rode away from Ingestre, abandoning the church and hall to the rain once more, knowing deep in the vault of his vault of his church, Walter and his wife were united in death, united in love.
To these whom death again did wed
This grave’s the second marriage-bed
(Richard Crashaw’s An Epitaph upon Husand and Wife who died and were buried together)
(My thanks to St Mary’s the Virgin’s invaluable church guidebook by Reverend AJ Poole with later revisions, Major-General the Hon. George Wrottesley who translated the Chetwynd Chartulary, H.E. Chetwynd-Stapylton, The Chetwynds of Ingestre: being a history of that family from a very early date (London, 1892), and Pevsner’s The Buildings of England: Staffordshire (London, 1974). Also, to Keele University Library for use of their archives)