St Mary and St Margaret Church

Castle Bromwich Church: The First Evidence

And then came the cataclysm of 1066: the defeat of the Anglo-Saxon regime and the Norman Conquest. King William rewarded his followers at Hastings by giving them estates spread out across England to prevent the new lords building up a powerbase that might threaten his authority. Before 1066 most of the manors in the Birmingham area belonged to Earl Edwin, the Anglo-Saxon Lord of Mercia. When Edwin revolted against the Conqueror in 1068 the king confiscated his lands. Ansculf of Picquiny managed to acquire some 30 estates belonging to Edwin centred on his castle at Dudley. By 1086 when the information for the Domesday Book was gathered, these estates were owned by his son, William FitzAnsculf. Almost all of these manors were sub-let to Norman lords - including that of Castle Bromwich. The new lord, probably one of Ansculf’s officers or his son, was called Ralph. During the next century his descendants would take on the surname, de Bromwich.

William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book of 1086 records the manor of Castle Bromwich thus:

Ralph (the new Norman lord) holds 3 hides (3 x 120 acres) from William (FitzAnsculf of Dudley Castle). There is land for 3 ploughteams. In the demesne (the lord’s land) 1 ploughteam. 10 villeins (freeborn tenants) and 3 bordars (smallholders) have 3 ploughteams. Woodland 1 league (1.5 miles) long and half a league wide. The value (for tax purposes) was and is 40 shillings. Brictwin (the former Anglo-Saxon lord) held it (in the time of King Edward the Confessor).
(Bracketsare editorial.)

Conjectural view of the castle at Bromwich by David Adams.

This could well have been the castle of the first Norman lord, Ralph de Bromwich. Where his Anglo-Saxon predecessor, Brictwin had his manor house is open to conjecture.

Bromwich Castle
At some time after 1066 a wooden palisaded castle was built on top of the Castle Hill, popularly known by locals as Pimple Hill. This was designed to command the important crossing place of the River Tame. The hill appears to be a natural feature that was heightened by its Norman builders or their Anglo-Saxon slaves. Worn away by 900 years of wind and rain, the hill looks much less impressive than it must originally have done. The motte ie. the hill, is some 40 metres in diameter. The bailey, ie. the courtyard, some 100 metres in length, runs roughly parallel to the present route of the Chelmsley Collector Road.

Because of the castle’s relatively small size it is thought to have been a manned watchtower rather than a manorial residence. It would have been garrisoned by small force of Norman soldiers provided by and under the control of Ralph, the new Norman lord of Castle Bromwich manor. His tenant-in-chief was William Fitz Ansculf of Dudley Castle. Ralph is unlikely to have lived in the castle but would probably have lived nearby, though precisely where is unknown. It may have been on the site of a timber-framed building recorded in 1970 but which was destroyed by the building of the Chelmsley Collector Road, or possibly a house on the site of the present Castle Bromwich Hall.

The Chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Our church first comes into the record books over 800 years ago when it appears in documentary evidence of 1165. This was a charter recording the granting of Castle Bromwich by the de Peynel family to Tickford Priory. Another document of 1175 mentions a Norman chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary at Castle Bromwich. Wido de Bramewic is recorded as lord of the manor in 1168, and Alan de Bromwych in 1185. Was either of them responsible for the foundation of our church?

There is a further reference in a document by William of Berwood in 1301. As part of a land transfer the recipient is required to ‘sustain annually a wax light and torch burning before the altar of the Blessed Virgin in the Chapel of Wodybromwig all the year when other wax lights and torches are lighted in the said Chapel.'

This is likely to have been the private chapel of the lord of the manor and subject to the parish church at Aston. It is not known when this chapel was first established, nor indeed with complete certainty where it was. The chapel of a large hall may have been a room within the house, or a small building attached to it.

However, there is credible evidence that the Norman chapel is the site of our present chancel and that the high altar of our church still stands in the same place that it has stood for nearly a thousand years. And it is almost certain that parts of a Norman church survive within the 18th-century brickwork.

Norman Evidence
Take a look outside the church and note how the 18th-century building at ground level has a run of decorative sandstone above a brick foundation. At the east end, however, there is no brick. The chancel foundations are entirely of stone. These are very likely the original foundations.

Inside the chancel is the sanctuary where the altar stands. In the north wall an aumbry has been built, a cupboard to house the Holy Sacrament. Behind the Georgian oak panelling can be seen a wall of sandstone where you might expect to find 18th-century brick.

The suspicions of local architect Charles Bateman had been aroused when he examined the dimensions of our church at the end of the 19th century. For a church built in the 18th-century as ours apparently is, the chancel was very large. 18th-century Anglicanism stressed the importance of listening to the words of scripture as opposed to the ceremony of the mass. Contemporary neo-classical churches, if they had a chancel at all, often had a small added apse, rather than a large chancel where the full ceremony of the Eucharist could take place.

Bateman’s curiosity led him to remove part of the wooden dado panelling in the chancel. Revealed behind the woodwork was a wall of stone. Bateman described in 1893 as having seen on this wall the evidence of painted plasterwork, anathema to the 18th-century mind and a sure clue to the church’s medieval origin.

That this was the earlier stone chapel seems to be confirmed by Henry Beighton’s contemporary drawing of the rebuilt Castle Bromwich Hall, gardens and church. Here the nave of the church is shown built entirely of brick, while the chancel remains in stone. It seems likely that this was indeed the Norman chancel, which was finally encased within the 18th-century brick. Neo-classical architecture demanded consistency, not the organic growth of the medieval period.

The date of this stone building is uncertain, though it is considerably older than the timber-framed church which was added at the west end in the 15th-century. It could be 12th-century or earlier and may be described as being of Norman origin.

This conjectural picture is based on Beighton’s 18th-century drawing of the church. He has drawn the neo-classical rebuilding in brick, but shows the chancel left in stone. It seems likely that this is the remains of the Norman chapel now encased in brick.