[ELH] Dr Graham Jones: St Morrell of Hallaton



A newly-recovered saint of Leicestershire

Hallaton, looking north-east from Whetstone Hill


Looking west from Whetstone Hill, with the motte-and-bailey in the right foreground and The Armitage (hermitage) in the far distance


St Michael's church, Hallaton. The scar below the east-end window represents the probable entrance to an extremely rare monstration turret of the fourteenth century, demolished in the seventeeth and discussed below.


No images of Morrell survive, but this is the village where he was venerated in 1532. In the Middle Ages Hallaton was one of the busiest towns of Leicestershire in the English East Midlands, with no fewer than four annual fairs as well as its market. After the rise of Market Harborough, some miles away, its importance declined, and today it is described as 'the quintessential English village', with village pub, village green, butter cross (where dairy products were sold), the site of a castle, and even one of England's few remaining local customs - a roisterous annual 'hare-pie scramble and bottle-kicking', in which a wooden, hooped 'field bottle' (for labourers' mid-day refreshment) is contested with stalwarts from a neighbouring village, Medbourne. The bottle-kicking part of the custom begins at an elevated location known as Hare Pie Bank. The object of the is to carry the bottle over the stream of Hallaton or the Medbourne stream (not necessarily the parish boundaries). The winning team is the one that succeeds in two of three matches, each of which can last well over an hour, consisting mostly of a slow-moving, loose scrum. The beer in the bottles is consumed on the village green around the Buttercross, the hare pie having already been consumed before the contest starts.

Hallaton's church of St Michael is shown here in an engraving from John Nichols' eighteenth-century History of Leicestershire. On this page from Nichols can also be seen a fine eleventh- or twelfth-century tympanum of St Michael fighting the dragon and rescuing souls from damnation. This, a high-quality Anglo-Saxon grave-cover, Hallaton's status as a mother church with at least one dependent chapelry, and probably also the existence through the Middle Ages of not one rector but two (each endowed with more than 50 acres of glebe), indicates that Hallaton was served by a church of relatively high status from at least the last century before the Norman Conquest.

The church is graced by a fine north aisle with elaborately pinnacled east end turret and a crypt under the aisle's east end altar. Rebuilding of this aisle, about the year 1340, seems to have been a cooperative venture. Niches in the turret hold carved shields respectively bearing the arms of Bardolf and Engaine, the families who then held the two major manors of Hallaton. A third shield (possibly once bearing the arms of the Hacluit family, then holding a subsidiary manor from the Bardolfs) has been defaced - but for what reason?

The church's other distinctive feature may be unique in England - other examples are being urgently sought. This is the remains of a stair turret in the east wall of the chancel, reached via a door behind the high altar. Steps led upward, conceivably to a monstration ('displaying') platform from which a reliquary could be shown to the congregation. Nichols wrote that a 'column' similar to that at the east end of the north aisle was demolished in 1637. He did not specify its location, however. His description and the remains of the turret behind the high altar, combine to suggest that a single, communal building campaign was responsible for the north aisle, with its crypt and embellishments, and this hypothesised monstration platform.

Architectural analysis by Dr David Parsons, Warden of Vaughan College, Leicester, and Head of this university's Department of Adult Education, permits a further suggestion. This is that the building campaign was designed to celebrate an existing devotional feature or focus. Dr Parsons points out that surviving fabric on the outside of the east wall of the chancel appears to indicate two lancet windows, either side of the stair turret, which may be datable to the middle of the thirteenth century.

These features alone (together with evidence of a 'holy' well, discussed below) hinted strongly at the presence of a local cult at Hallaton. However, it was not until 1998 that a former student of this department, Dr Jane Laughton, while trawling through Hallaton documents as part of her work as a member of the staff of the joint Leicester and Birmingham Universities' 'Midlands Small Towns Project', came across the will of a priest of Hallaton, Frances Butler, written in 1532.

In his will (Footnote 1), Butler bequeathed to a fellow priest, Edmund Oliver, his 'best gown' and the residue of his goods to go on pilgrimage for his, Butler's, soul to four shrines: those of Our Lady of Walshingham in Norfolk; Our Lady of Oldwell (possibly a misreading for Outwell, at a crossing of the Nene from Norfolk into the Isle of Ely, where there was a Light of Our Lady in the Chapel, i.e. the tiny Lynn Chapel, eighteen feet by fifteen, adjoining the parish church); St Helen of Langham (a chapel in the Rutland village of that name, just north of Oakham); St Augustine of Bestow (an unidentified destination); and 'St Mawrell of Hallaton'.

Who was St Mawrell? His existence had been suggested by records at Hallaton of a 'St Morel's well' in 1675 and 'Morrell well furlong' in 1707. However, distortions of local English place-names to produce bogus saints is not unknown, and the chance that 'Mor(r)el(l)' could represent 'moor well' or 'moor hill well' could not be dismissed.

Butler's will clinches the matter. Further, thanks to the researches of John Morison, chairman of Hallaton Historical Society, it has been established that the saint's well lay in Stowe Close. Dr John Field of Leicester University, author of the standard work of reference on English field-names, A Dictionary of English Field-Names, recorded (in his 1961 MA thesis on 'The Field-Names of Gartree Hundred') references both to 'Mor(r)el(l)'s well' and to 'Banhill [bean hill] supra Stow welle', the latter in a deed of 1318. Mr Morison's researches show that Stow Close has been so-called since at least the seventeenth century and is identical with an enclosure called 'Stow Well'. It appears likely, therefore, that the saint's name may have been transferred to the well at some period between the mid-fourteenth and late sixteenth or early seventeenth centuries. Moreover, thanks also to Mr Morison's scrutiny of a Glebe Terrier of 1606, it is now clear that on or beside Hare Pie Bank there stood a Chapel of St 'Morrill'. The transfer of the saint's name may have been an attempt by devotees to retain his memory after his chapel fell out of use, and conceivably also in response to an expunging of his cult from the parish church.

Who was Morrell? The name in English is derived from French and means 'small, shrivelled dark thing' - compare the name of the Morello cherry. Queen Elizabeth I of England was known (not entirely pejoratively, perhaps) as 'a little morrella'. Because of the name's unusual flavour in the context of an English local church, the conjecture has been canvassed that it is a corruption of some Old English name such as Merewalh. This was a name borne by a Mercian sub-king on the Welsh marches of England. These lie in the far west Midlands rather than the east, but Merewalh was a benefactor of an east Midlands saint, Botolph of Icanho (what later became Boston), and several of his relatives were commemorated in Leicestershire and its neighbouring counties.

However, a much more plausible explanation, and one with evidential support, is that Morrell, 'Mawrell' in 1532, represents St Maurilius of Angers, a fifth-century bishop and patron of that French town, whose legend purported that he sought exile in England where he worked as a gardener for an English noble. The families of Norman lords of Hallaton originated in that region of France. Also, land in Leicestershire and neighbouring Warwickshire was given in the eleventh century to the monastery of St Nicholas of Angers. Nevertheless, an association between Morrell of Hallaton and Maurilius of Agen remains to be substantiated.

As for Stowe well and close, the 'close' field lies next to Hare Pie Bank where the bottle-kicking takes place. Is there a possible connection here, between local saint's cult and local custom? Certainly the hare pie has been paid for by the rector of Hallaton for at least two hundred years. Dr Margaret Gelling of Birmingham University has suggested that 'Stowe well' may be best explained as 'stone/stony well', though it ought to be noted that 'stow' is an element that appears frequently in names such as Plaistow and Playsted, meaning a place of play, games or sport.

Finally, recent geophysical survey by the Hallaton Fieldwalking archaeology group suggests that underlying the site of St Morrell's Chapel are the foundations of a sub-rectangular building whose plan is reminiscent of those of small Romano-British rural shrines. Together with the presence in the neighbourhood of a major religious centre of the first century BCE, it is reasonable to ask whether the presence of Maurilius here could be traced to his miracle of the destruction of the temple at Prisciacus.

My book, 'Saints in the Landscape' (Stroud, Tempus, 2007) has more on this saint and site and details of the holdings in this region of the monks of St Nicholas, Angers.

In the meantime, you can enjoy scenes from the Life of St Morrell (Maurille) of Angers, as painted in the choir of Angers cathedral in the fourteenth century. Seven of the scenes (which came to light in 1984 on removal of choir stalls) have been published in Images du Patrimoine: Angers, Maine-et-Loire, whose publishers, the French Ministere de la Culture et de la Communication and the Ville d'Angers, I wish to acknowledge. Thanks to them and to John Morison for drawing them to my attention after a pilgrimage to Angers in the summer of 1999 on the trail of Hallaton's rediscovered saint. They follow episodes in the life of the saint, for which John Dillon has kindly supplied details to the Medieval-Religion discussion group: starting with Arconaldus in the tenth century (BHL 5731-5731d; once falsely attrib. to Venantius Fortunatus) and including Marbod of Rennes in the early twelfth (BHL 5732; PL 171, cc. 1635-48; passage is at col. 1644B-D). See this version of the passage in French.

Footnotes

(1)Leicestershire Record Office, 1st Register Book of Wills, ff. 207v-208. I am grateful to Dr Jane Laughton of the Midlands Small Towns Project for alerting me to this will in advance of my own examination of wills and other documents for the TASC coverage of the pre-Reformation diocese of Lincoln. It allowed me to confirm, and to make early conclusions about the existence of a local cult as implied by the well- and field-names.

Thanks, too, to Dr David Parsons for the benefits of his keen-eyed knowledge and assessment of church architecture - and stimulating conversations about this fascinating example of a little-known local cult.


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Last updated: 20 May 2004 18:01
Dr G.R. Jones

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