Brewood: A Short History

by David Horovitz

Brewood (pronounced Brood) is a small village in the undulating lowlands of south-west Staffordshire. It is the centre of one of the larger Staffordshire parishes of the same name, which has as its northern boundary the Roman Watling Street, and its western boundary follows the Shropshire border.

The origins of Brewood are lost in the mists of time, but finds of prehistoric stone and bronze tools have been recorded which show that prehistoric man certainly passed through the area, and tumuli or burial mounds, probably of Bronze Age date, are known to have existed at Four Ashes, on the north-eastern side of the parish. They were destroyed by gravel working in the early part of the twentieth century.

Flint artifacts and knapping debris found on the east side of the river Penk near Watling Street suggest that prehistoric man may have found riverside locations attractive as camp sites, a view seemingly shared by the Romans, for in 1937 the remains of a Roman villa were accidentally discovered close to the river Penk to the north of Brewood by a workman digging for gravel who narrowly escaped injury when a large chunk of masonry toppled into the pit in which he was working. Fortunately the daughter of the vicar knew sufficient to recognise Roman material, and archaeologists called in to investigate were excited at the prospect that the Roman site of Pennocrucium, mentioned in many early sources including the Antonine Itinerary, had finally been discovered.

The remains, whilst not Pennocrucium, were an impressively well-preserved winged villa dating from the late first to the early fourth centuries, perhaps the home of a local official. The remains, carefully investigated by Kathleen Kenyon (later made Dame for her excavation work in the Middle East) had a built-in bathhouse, and remains of a hypocaust or heating system and fragments of painted plaster showed that the occupants had lived in some comfort. The walls remained in many places to a height of several courses, and the use of a hard blue stone from outside the area showed that the earliest building, of local red sandstone, had been substantially rebuilt at least once. Finds consisted of a few corroded iron fragments, identified as agricultural tools, and a few coins. One puzzling find was a huge pit several feet deep dug in front of the villa, probably after it had been deserted, in which was found a short sandstone pillar. The find echoes similar pillars or posts found elsewhere: the report on the excavation of another villa at Hales near Tyrley reveals that a similar object was found there. But more curious was the finding of a human skull during the excavations. The skull, strangely, is not mentioned in the archaeological report, but is mentioned in contemporary newspaper reports, and the finds, now held by Birmingham City Museum, do indeed include a human skull, although the Museum records do not mention any skull in the list of material received from the dig. A puzzle worthy of Agatha Christie herself.

The mystery of Pennocrucium was solved in 1946 when aerial photographs revealed crop marks of a rectangular double-ditched enclosure with rounded corners straddling Watling Street at its junction with Engleton Lane. The site has been the subject of a number of relatively minor excavations, which revealed traces of wattle and daub huts and cobbled lanes within the enclosure. The site is assumed to have been a civilian settlement, but more recent aerial photographs show the lines of a substantial building with square corners lying under (and thus predating) the enclosure, and on a different alignment to the enclosure and the Watling Street, suggesting that a pre-Roman structure may have existed on the same site. Since the Roman name Pennocrucium is a Latinised version of a Celtic name, from pen ‘top, end’, and (as an adjective), ‘chief’, and crug ‘hill, mound, tumulus’, it is possible that the earlier structure is to be associated with native British occupiers dwelling in the place before the Roman arrival. The name may mean ‘the chief mound’ or ‘the top or hill with the mound’, perhaps referring to the Bronze Age burial mound at Rowley Hill Farm, above the west bank of the river Penk half a mile or so north of Watling Street. In the same area, a number of Roman forts have been identified on both sides of Watling Street, and show that the place, which lay at the junction of at least seven Roman roads, was of considerable importance in Roman times. A reference to a tribe with the name Pencersaten (people of the Penk) in an Anglo-Saxon charter suggests that the area continued to have a special importance during the Dark Ages.

At this point it should perhaps be noted that the name Brewood, first found in Domesday Book, is itself a hybrid, from Celtic bre ‘hill’, with Old English wuda ‘wood’, so ‘the wood at the hill called Bre’. The age of the name, and of the settlement at Brewood itself, is not known, but the survival of a Celtic element suggests that the name was coined when Anglo-Saxon settlers moving into the area from the Trent valley came across an enclave of Welsh-speakers in the early part of the seventh century.

The history of the area in the Dark Ages is unknown, but Brewood is heavily linked by tradition to St. Chad, who was bishop of Mercia from 669 and based at Lichfield: the manor of Brewood was held by the church at the time of Domesday, and the parish church is dedicated to St. Mary and St. Chad. Brewood constituted one of the prebends of Lichfield cathedral held by the Dean, and the bishop himself had a residence in Brewood, which is believed to have stood on the east side of the Market Place, near the church. The association with the Deans of Lichfield is commemorated by various place-names in the village, including Dean Street, Dean House, Dean’s Hall Farm, and Deansfield Road.

At the time of Domesday Brewood was a particularly important place: in 1086 the population figure for the village has been estimated at perhaps 280, and in the Domesday Book itself only Stafford and Lichfield are shown with a larger recorded population than Brewood.

It was the early bishops of Lichfield who were responsible for attempts to stimulate trade in Brewood, and who created burgage tenures (landholdings where service to the lord was replaced by monetary rent), which technically meant that Brewood was a Borough, although that status was never formalised by charter. Brewood lies on neither an important highway, nor a major river, and it is not immediately apparent what attracted the bishops to Brewood, but the village lies mid-way between Lichfield and Buildwas abbey on the river Severn, another Cistercian house established by the bishops of Lichfield.

Several early medieval kings are known to have stayed in Brewood during their regular perambulations around the kingdom, probably staying at the Bishop’s residence: in 1278 a serious fire broke out and destroyed several houses while Edward I was in the village. He immediately granted four oaks for the rebuilding of the destroyed properties.

A particular and important attraction for the early kings was the hunting: Brewood lay deep in a Royal forest, a Royal forest generally being a vast area (not necessarily wooded, although the Brewood area is known to have consisted of large tracts of woodland until fairly recent times) which was by law reserved for hunting by the king and was subject to harsh penalties if the strict forest laws were broken. Although the local people enjoyed various rights to use forest land for agriculture and forestry, the forest laws were so onerous that in 1199 the local knights paid for their release from forest jurisdiction. That did not prevent the authorities from continuing to fine villagers for breach of the forest law, but in 1204 Brewood Forest became formally disaforested.

The centuries that followed Domesday were probably the high point in the history of the village, marked by the rebuilding of the parish church in about 1220, its size indicating the importance of Brewood at that time, but the population was badly affected by the Black Death of 1348, and particularly by a subsequent epidemic in the 1360s, and from that point the fortunes of the village gradually declined, with the bishops residence falling in disuse and disrepair by the mid fifteenth century. It was probably pulled down before the end of that century.

Little of particular moment occurred during the medieval period, but a Cistercian nunnery was founded in the mid twelfth century two miles or so to the west of the village, the nuns (and house) known as Blackladies, from their black habits, to distinguish them from the nuns at Whiteladies, a mile or so to the west in Shopshire (but still within Brewood Forest). The nunnery was dissolved in 1539 and has long disappeared, but a substantial ancient brick house stands on the site and may incorporate fragments of the monastic buildings.

Perhaps one of the most memorable events in more recent centuries was the visit of Elizabeth I during her travels around the country in 1575. The Queen had decided to visit some of the more ‘difficult’ parts of her kingdom, for this part of Staffordshire was known to have many Catholic families, at a time when the loyalty of Catholics was uncertain. Travelling from Stafford, the Queen and her retinue stayed one night at Chillington House, the ancient home of the Giffards, who traced their ancestry back to their kinsman Giffard, standard-bearer to William the Conqueror at the battle of Hastings in 1066. The Giffards had come to Chillington (where the family still live) in 1167, and were known as staunch Catholics. Although courteously treated by the Queen during her visit, within days Sir John Giffard was under arrest for failing to comply with the law and attend the parish church, and from that moment the Giffards were at various times for almost a century imprisoned, fined or dispossessed from their properties because of their religious or political beliefs. The outcome of the royal visit of 1575 was so disastrous for the Giffards that an otherwise detailed Victorian history of the village failed to mention the visit for fear of causing offence to the Giffard family, although nearly 300 years had passed since the Queens visit.

It was however a member of the Giffard family and their estate workers who were to play a crucial role in the fortunes of another monarch. In 1649 Charles I was executed by on the orders of Parliament after several years of Civil War. His son, Charles II, had sought sanctuary in France in his childhood, but in 1651, encouraged by prospects of Scottish support, he landed in Scotland to form an army to reclaim the English crown. But after marching with dwindling forces as far south as Worcester, his army was routed at the battle of Worcester on 3rd September 1651. Riding through the night, Charles and several of his officers were guided to Whiteladies House by Charles Giffard, and after his colleagues had continued their flight north, Charles was disguised and led by one of the Pendrell brothers to the river Severn, from where Charles hoped to escape into Wales. However, the river was closely guarded, and Charles was forced to retrace his steps the following night, and was then taken to nearby Boscobel House, a Giffard hunting lodge, where he hid with Colonel Carless (a Brewood man who had fought with the kings forces at Worcester) in the famous Royal Oak, and spent some time in one of the cramped secret hiding places built into the structure of Boscobel House ironically, hiding places created as a result of the persecution of Catholics by earlier monarchs.

From Boscobel, Charles was guided on horseback at night by five of the Pendrell brothers and William Yates to Moseley Old Hall, another Catholic house with built-in hiding places, from where he travelled disguised as a servant to the south coast and eventually escaped by ship to France, returning in triumph at the invitation of the people to take the crown in 1660. Boscobel House is now owned by English Heritage, and draws visitors from all around the world. The Royal Oak itself was soon destroyed by souvenir hunters, but a sapling grown from a Royal Oak acorn is now a mature oak, still called the Royal Oak, though badly damaged by severe storms in October 2000. Colonel Carless, granted a coat of arms as Carlos and various sinecures by Charles II, died in 1689 and is buried in Brewood churchyard.

After the brief excitement of the Civil War and the escape of Charles II, Brewood once more settled into its role as a quiet rural village, and over the following centuries became known for its sand and sandstone quarries, malting, tanning, and from the latter part of the seventeenth century, lockmaking and the manufacture of agricultural machinery, and also for its Elizabethan Grammar School (to which Samuel Johnson unsuccessfully applied for a position as a teacher) and other small private schools. During the eighteenth century a number of dignified red-brick townhouses were built in the village, particularly in Dean Street, but the most remarkable building is unarguably Speedwell Castle, a whimsical Gothick house conspicuously positioned on the corner of Market Place. The tall and narrow house has decorative ogee windows and two bays with a central hooded doorway, and by tradition (though unsupported by historical evidence) was built with the winnings of a racehorse called Speedwell.

In 1834 the Shropshire Union Canal was constructed in a deep cutting on the western edge of the village, linking the village to the major manufacturing towns. In more recent years the canal has brought many tourists into village. Plans to run a rail line to Brewood in the later nineteenth century were abandoned when landowners and others objected, but the failure of the railways to reach Brewood undoubtedly helped to preserve the village from the worst of Victorian development and improvements.

Nowadays Brewood is essentially a dormitory village for nearby towns and cities, but still retains a lively village community, with the village centre itself now protected from inappropriate development by its status as a Conservation Area. It has not only won the Best Kept Village in Staffordshire Award for four years running, but celebrated the Millennium by winning the Best Village of the Midlands Award in a competition sponsored by The Daily Telegraph, an award that reflects not only the visual delights of our ancient villages, but also takes into account the community spirit of the participating communities. The spirit of Brewood is well illustrated at the four-yearly Wake, when the Market Place is closed to traffic, decorated with bunting, and stalls and entertainments set up for the pleasure and entertainment of villagers and visitors alike, a tradition that links the present with the past in what one Victorian writer called the epitome of the old English village.