One of the highlights of the St Mary’s 200th History Exhibition earlier this year was the display at it of the church’s extraordinary 600 year old clerical vestments.
St Mary’s, the Catholic church in Cresswell, was celebrating the anniversary of the opening of the church back in 1816.
A strange history
Vestments such as the ones that displayed in the exhibition are worn by priests during church services. They are different colours on different days to mark the significance of each day in the church calendar.
As such, they are very precious to church-goers, and can be highly decorated.
So …imagine the surprise when, back in 1846, the owner of Rookery Farm in Cresswell discovered a wooden chest, full of ancient vestments, bricked up behind his chimney!!
Local historians quickly concluded that the chest had been secreted away by local Catholics during the Reformation 500 years ago. This was the period when the old Catholic religion was being replaced by the new Protestant religion; and many churches were very worried about having their property confiscated by King Henry VIII and sold off.
The chest was taken by the farmer to St Margaret’s Anglican Church, the rightful possessor in law.
Very generously, St Margaret’s decided that the vestments should be ‘returned’ to local Catholics, so they were passed to St Mary’s – although St Margaret’s decided they would keep the chest itself!! (You can see the old chest in St Margaret’s even now).
Some local historians have surmised that it was the famous Anthony Draycott, the local priest of the time, and a member of the local gentry family, who was responsible for taking away these treasured items to his family home of nearby Paynsley Hall and hiding them there. A hundred years later, during the Civil War, it is thought they were transferred again, this time to Rookery Farm.
Although we talk of “vestments” being found, actually what was found were ‘orphreys’ – as the cloths to which they were attached had virtually rotted away. Orphreys are the thick (quite heavy), decorated panels attached to priestly vestments. They can have beautiful needlework, full of gold thread and coloured silks, and often show scenes from the Bible.
The most fascinating of the Cresswell orphreys (see examples, above) is the green one. Historians now believe this was probably brought over from Spain, as part of the baggage brought with her by Katharine of Aragon, a devout Catholic and the first wife of Henry VIII. They believe this because it resembles so much one at Oscott.
The others are thought to be fourteenth-century.
As you can imagine, the orphreys were not in a great state when they were found. Father Meagher, Cresswell’s priest sixty years ago (see pic, right), decided they should be restored (with the encouragement of his curate Father Bailey, who was also one of this area’s great historians).
They were restored, and mounted on new cloth, by nuns at Oulton Abbey.
Unfortunately, one nun did decide to add a few embellishments, which historians are annoyed about (!), but nearly all of the orphreys are as-original, and now attached to modern cloths, making them better for display.
Following advice from the Victoria & Albert Museum, it was decided that one of them however was too frail to be repaired. This is in store in Leek; but the rest can still be seen at Cresswell.
Although Fr Meagher did wear them a few times during a Mass shortly after they were repaired, they are not used nowadays.
It is hoped that before this 200th anniversary year is over St Mary’s will have a second history exhibition. Unfortunately, the church is without a priest at the moment, so things are a bit in flux at the parish.
But, if the parishioners do have another exhibition this year, no doubt the orphreys will take pride of place!
‘Cresswell Church Vestments’ – article by Albert E Doran
‘A History of The Parish of Draycott-en-le-Moors’ (2006) by Matthew E Pointon
‘Painsley – A History of Cresswell’s Roman Catholic Community’ (1973, reprinted 2005) by Fr Philip Bailey SCJ.