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October blog: A fascinating synopsis of Breedon Church, St. Hardulph's, & the murderous Earl Pt.1

The church of Breedon, in Leicestershire, stands alone and unmissable on a high hill above the village. Nowadays known as the Priory Church of St Mary and St Hardulph, it was originally a monastery founded in about AD 676 on the site of The Bulwarks, an Iron Age hill fort. It was re-founded as an Augustinian priory early in the 12th century, and before becoming a monastery it was a hermitage.

Excavation of The Bulwarks in 1946 identified occupation between about the 1st century BC and about 1st century AD.

Breedon Hill Fort (depiction)

A depiction of what Breedon Hill Fort might have looked like.

What remains of the priory church includes a large number of Anglo-Saxon sculptures, an ornate family box pew and notable Renaissance church monuments.

Anglo Saxon sculpture, early medieval carving

Here is a 2.5 min clip mainly concentrating on the stained glass windows above the altar. The church contains many 16th and 17th century tombs of the Shirley family which bought the monastery site.

There are two substantial tomb chests carved from Chellaston alabaster. The oldest chest tomb is for Francis Shirley and his wife. Around the chest are carved mourners arranged in pairs. This tomb is dated 1571. The other, similar tomb is for John Shirley and his wife, and is dated 1585. The tomb of Sir Francis Shirley was repaired after 60 years by his great-grandson, Thomas Shirley. The latter recorded that even after 60 years, Francis' body was well preserved, with only a black mark apparent on one of his toes but with no sign of rot. His body was re-wrapped in material and returned to his tomb.

Three substantial tombs were constructed to memorialize Sir George Shirley, his father John, and his grandfather Thomas. By far the largest monument dominating the inside of the church is that dedicated to Sir George. It was made over 20 years before Shirley died in 1622. It is dated 1598 and consists of three storeys.

A private chapel 'box' for the Shirley ladies

Medieval Hagiography Manuscripts record four saints buried in Breedon-on-the-Hill. They are Friduricus, donor of the Mercian Royal Monastery built in Breedon during the seventh century, King Eardwulf of Northumbria, and relatively unknown Anglo-Saxon Saints Beonna of Breedon and Cotta of Breedon.

Breedon Church with distinctive slate headstones

Outside the church, the churchyard is notable for the widespread 18thC usage of slate headstones, which although are a sombre black and may seem a tad dismal to our modern sensibilities, nonetheless are virtually weatherproof, and the script/decorations remain clearly legible even after a couple of hundred years in some cases! There are two other interesting graves to spot whilst up there: first is the grave of the 4th Earl Ferrers' bookkeeper, Mr Johnson, who was shot by his master in a fit of rage, and his Lordship was subsequently tried and hung at Tyburn in 1760. Lord Ferrers had a foul temper when 'in drink' - as this article explains - and his final act was after a long litany of aggressive and abusive behaviours.

Lord Ferrers shooting his accounts steward, Mr Johnson.

There are other notable graves in Breedon, one being the family plot of the Wyatt family, made notorious through their kinsman Wyatt Earp, late of Tombstone, Arizona, where he became the famous Sherriff who dealt with the Cowboys Gang at the OK Corral .

Wyatt Earp 1848 - 1929

Onto the more secular, Breedon village has a circular stone-built village lock-up. It is 18th-century and similar to the one in the nearby village of Worthington. It was used for detaining local drunks or lost cattle, a preponderance of the former due to extensive quarrying at Breedon, that continues to this day!

Lock Up and Compound.

So, its all to discover here in Breedon! Come and have a nose around, there are lots more things to see and do!


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