The Crypt

Crypts are thought to originate from the catacombs in Rome where they provided places for worship and burial. These Norman crypts imitate that of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the goal of many a crusader.

The irregular octagon of Berkswell's western crypt has a vaulted roof and is connected to the eastern crypt by an arch. Whilst this is a fine example of a Norman crypt it is as well to remember that the Anglo Saxons had themselves built crypts of a of similar design. It has been said that "crypts in England are memorials of Saxon churches".

In 1881 Jethro Cossins and the then Rector H W Watson dug down through the floor to find some Saxon stonework which they conjectured was probably the base for a Saxon tomb for some revered person or the base for a baptistery. If it was a Saxon crypt it was rebuilt to its present form by the Normans in the 12th century.

In the 19th century the crypt was used as a family vault for the Lords of the Manor. In the 21st century it is occasionally used for baptisms, small services and from time to time as an art gallery.

Crypt font

The font made from Caen stone was part of a set of three stone works, a font, a lectern and a pulpit. They were given in memory of the Rev Thomas Cattell who died in 1835. He also left money for the maintenance of the North aisle gallery which he had had erected. The font is the only legacy left of the Rev Cattell. In 1926 the north gallery was deemed to unsafe and was demolished. Also in 1926 a new pulpit was donated (see Nave hotspot) and soon thereafter carved wood work replaced the stone pulpit, font and lectern. No church could be found that wanted a font and the instructions were that it was to be broken up and buried in consecrated ground; then the churchwarden had the bright idea of putting it in the crypt. Very occasionally the font in the Crypt is still used for baptisms (Gibbs pg 18).

The Rev Thomas Cattell was Rector of Berkswell from 1791 to 1834. He was a keen huntsman and said that eloquence came best to him when in the saddle. He therefore had a ”hobby horse stool” made to sit on in the pulpit the better to preach his sermons.

Saxon sandstones and Saxon foundation stones

In 1967 worked stones were found behind the walls of the crypt and were thought to be of Saxon origin. However archeologist/historian Dr John Hunt observed in 2014 that these stones are not definitively those of Saxon craftsmen. The exposed stonework near the arch between the two parts of the crypt is decorated by a string line, a characteristic that is usually found on exterior walls. For this reason Dr John Hunt suggested (in 2014) that the first build of the Norman church was the base of the rectangular crypt to form a free standing church, with this piece of stonework forming part of the exterior wall.

The nearby Well could have influenced the location of the present church. Such reliable flows of quality water in the midst of forested areas were often the site of holy Saxon shrines. Augustine had instructed the missionaries who came to England to use the existing places of worship and pagan shrines were often replaced by christian crosses. The Well would have provided a suitable location for total immersion baptism which was popular in early times.

It is conjectured that the name Berkswell was derived from “Bercul's Well”.1 Bercul was a leader in these parts at this time. Perhaps it was the Bercul who was a signatory in 749AD to a document drawn up by King Ethalbald of Mercia. Ethalbald had behaved, according to Pope Boniface, with such "dissolute and irreligious acts" that he was threatened with excommunication and thus to an afterlife of everlasting hell. An intimidated King Ethalbald gathered other leaders in Mercia, including Bercul, and agreed to grant the church in Mercia indemnity from any forms of service or taxation. “until the end of the world”.2Mercia was the Saxon kingdom within which Berkswell lay.

1. English Place-Name Society
2. See http://www.anglosaxondocs.org

Pilgrim doors

Tucked away behind the lectern and the pulpit in the nave are two small wooden doors that lead in to passages which go down inside the thick walls in to the Crypt. The arrangement of these doors indicates that they were built to accommodate numbers of pilgrims, with one door to enter the small space below and the other to exit. This arrangement was frequently used following several disasters in Holland where overcrowding whilst visiting relics had caused deaths by crushing.

Up until the reformation in the 16th century, large numbers of pilgrims traveled surprising distances to visit the tomb, or relic, of a particular saint. Dugdale in the 17th century mentions St Mildred as having been buried at Berkswell, and relics of this saint may have been placed in the crypt. Similarly, Leland, writing in 1535-43 about the 8th century, says “St Mildred was buried at Berkswell about 7 (Roman) miles from Warwick”.1

It is not altogether clear who this St Mildred was. There was a very good man living near by, Mildred, Bishop of Worcester 743-775, but he was never canonised. Perhaps Leland meant St Mildred, Abbess of Minster in Thanet who died about 725. Her remains, which were moved from time to time, were held in great veneration. As she was related to the Kings of Mercia (wherein Berkswell lay) it is possible that Ethalbald of Mercia obtained a small relic to establish Berkswell as a place of pilgrimage and provide an income for the church. While the crypt was an exceptionally fine and large one, and the passage ways typical of shrines holding relics of saints, it does not appear to have proved a popular destination for pilgrims – the steps are not worn, and other references regarding a shrine to St Mildred at St John Baptist have not come to light.

The crypt passage ways were exposed in 2013, and they are now visible from the crypt through wrought iron doors designed and donated by Alastair and Ann Dymond.

1. Berkswell Through a Looking Glass... DE Gibbs pp 9-10

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