A FIRE which devastated a village church almost 12 years ago exposed a secret which archaeologists are hailing as a major discovery.
High temperatures which vaporised the interior of the 1,000-year-old church at Brancepeth, on the western outskirts of Durham, also revealed more than 100 medieval tombstones hidden in the walls – the biggest collection in the North.
The grave covers known as cross slabs are decorated with swords, crosses and emblems including a pair of shears to signify a housewife, and are related to figures in the history of the village.
Many had been hidden high above ground near the church roof and a popular theory is that a former Bishop of Durham, John Cosin, had secreted them there 450 years ago.
Jim Merrington, of the Brancepeth History and Archive Group, explained: “After the roof burned off we discovered a ring of cross slabs high up around the perimeter of the clerestory which was built in 1638 by Rector John Cosin, who later became Bishop of Durham. All were neatly placed facing skywards. It is possible that Cosin had them gathered up from the churchyard and secreted them away on the very top course of the building safe from vandals and reformists. It was obviously quite a task to get them up there for no real structural purpose.”
Archaeologist Peter Ryder said the collection of cross slabs was the biggest in the North, and possibly the second largest in the country after a collection at Bakewell, Derbyshire.
Throughout history cross slabs and tombstones have been recycled as building materials in churches everywhere, but in Brancepeth a large number appear to have been deliberately hidden.
Twenty have now been mounted on the walls of the church and forty more will be displayed next door in Brancepeth Castle at a later date.
As the name implies, cross slabs are blocks of stone around the size of a coffin lid and bearing a full length cross. Many carry emblems such as shears for a housewife, swords for the right to bear arms and a chalice for a priest.
Mr Ryder said: “Every cloud has a silver lining and this is Brancepeth’s. The fire was a disaster but out of it has come a major discovery. The stones are of a great variety spanning two centuries.”
The stones are being displayed in the church alongside a series of newly sculpted roof corbel stones in an ancient and modern display.
The new stones have been sculpted by artist Melanie Chmielewska, a former Brancepeth resident now living in Scotland. Made from Swaledale stone, they take the form of eight pairs of heads representing Christian life.