When we had finished looking at the Saxon crosses and the yew trees, we headed into the little Church of the Holy Cross. Even the doorway looked promising, especially as the porch was home to a nest of swallows, darting in and out to feed their young. Even after all this time and the number of ancient churches we have visited, there is still a thrill when you put your hand to the handle. Will it be open or locked? And if it yields to our touch, what will you find? Simplicity or ostentation? There is always history, but sometimes it is just interesting… sometimes it is spectacular. It does not seem to bear any relation to the size of the church, but the older its origins, the more disappointed you are when the past has been erased. Either way, you never know until the door opens.
In this case, we had barely stepped through the door before my jaw dropped and wholly unsuitable expletives were bitten back. One of the most amazing fonts we have ever seen stood in front of the tower arch. If there had been nothing else to see…and there was plenty… the font alone would have been worth the trip. The date is generally given as ‘probably 12th century’, which would make it Norman, yet it is always described as Saxon. Either way, for the best part of a thousand years or more, this carved font has played its part in the baptism the people of Ilam.
Around the sides are panels separated by carved columned arches, each one differently decorated. The panels seem to tell the story of St Bertram whose tomb is in a side chapel of the church. It takes little imagination to read the images when you know even a fragment of Bertram’s story, and the faithful who used the church or who came as pilgrims would have done so. In places there are still traces of the bright paint that would once have coloured the stone, making it resemble the incredible cloisonné jewels prized by the Saxons.
There are many versions of the saint’s story, but most agree that Bertram was a Mercian king of the 8th century. Unusually for a king, the legends say that he was raised in a cave at Wetton, and oddly enough, that was exactly where we were going that afternoon. As he grew to manhood, he felt called to a religious life. Bertram travelled to Ireland; knowing that Saint Patrick had found inspiration there, he hoped to find the meaning of his mission. Instead, he fell in love with an Irish princess and the two eloped, making their way back to Mercia.
By this time, the princess was pregnant and her time came upon her in the wild places. Some tales say that she gave birth in the forest, others say that their child was born in Thor’s Cave… a cave near Wetton…. as they made their way back to Mercia.
Tragedy struck while Bertram was out hunting for food for his little family. When he returned to their camp, wolves had attacked and both his princess and his child were slain.
Grieving and convinced that his refusal of the religious calling was to blame, he renounced his heritage. He returned incognito to the Mercian court and begged for a grant of land on which to build a hermitage. The request was granted and the king became a hermit, devoting his life to his faith and its service.
Bertram became revered as a holy man. Many sought him out for spiritual advice and he converted many from the old religion to the new faith of Christianity. Tales were told of the miracle he wrought when the devil tempted him, by asking him to turn stones into bread in an echo of the Temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Bertram refused and prayed instead that bread would be turned to stone…and the stones were still said to be kept in a local church in 1516.
The constant stream of people seeking his counsel, though, was too much for Bertram and he withdrew further from society, eventually settling in a cave at Ilam where he stayed until his death. The village became a place of pilgrimage and the church still holds his tomb. The south chapel was built in 1618 to house the thirteenth century chest tomb made to house the relics of the saint.
Today, pilgrims still come to pay their respects, leaving written prayers and thanks upon the tomb of the saint. I may not subscribe to the idea of intercession, but I do not discount the power of prayer and personal faith or the way in which it can change a life or a perspective, just as it did for Bertram of Mercia, regardless of the name of the faith that speaks to the individual heart. In the quiet chapel, the very stones seem to hold the sanctity of hundreds of years of prayer and the peace that comes with trust in a higher purpose. As those slips of paper disappear to be replaced by others, the atmosphere of the chapel takes them to its heart, offering their peace to those who keep the silence.