Holy Cross church, Ilam
Holy Cross church, Ilam

The beautifully situated church of the Holy Cross stands in the grounds of Ilam Hall, a 19th century stately home built for Jesse Watts-Russell in 1821. That 19th-century house replaced a 16th-century hall, the home of the Port family for over 350 years.

Ilam was not recorded in the Domesday Book, though there was, without doubt, a church and settlement here at that time. The earliest written record comes from 1004 when King Aethelred confirmed the gift of Ilam to Burton Abbey in the will of a lord named Wulfric.

The south chapel was added in 1618 by the Meverell family of Throwley Hall, and houses a 13th-century altar tomb locally known as the Shrine of St Bertram.

Who was St Betram?

Betram was a local man, the son of an 8th-century king of Mercia. He travelled to Ireland where he married a princess. The couple were returning home to Mercia when Bertram's wife went into labour while they were passing through a forest.

Betram went in search of a midwife, but when he returned it was to discover that wild wolves had killed and eaten his wife and their newborn child. So stricken was he by the tragedy that Bertram decided to spend the rest of his life as a hermit.

St Bertram's Shrine
St Bertram's Shrine

When he died, a shrine was established at his grave, and became a popular destination for pilgrims. The shrine is now marked by a medieval altar tomb and stands in the south aisle. It is still a site of pilgrimage, and when we visited the shrine was covered with sheets of paper inscribed with prayers. You can also see the site of a holy well associated with Betram in the grounds of Ilam Park, a short distance from the church.

The beautifully carved Norman font appears to illustrate episodes from the life of St Bertram. The first panel shows Betram and his wife newly married, while another panel shows his wife in labour.

Two more panels depict the wolves eating the mother and infant; these panels are very vivid and are not for the faint of heart! Another panel shows Betram alone.

The excellent church guide calls the font Saxon, but on stylistic grounds it probably dates to the 12th century. Near St Bertram's shrine in the south chapel is a beautifully carved and painted tomb to Robert Meverell (d. 1626) and his wife.

Robert Meverell tomb, 1626
Robert Meverell tomb, 1626

Despite these intriguing historic features one the most interesting reasons to visit Holy Cross is the huge north chapel, erected in 1831 by Jesse Watts-Russell to house a memorial to his father-in-law, David Pike Watts (d. 1816), a wealthy London brewer and vintner.

In the centre of the octagonal chapel is a large memorial carving by Sir Francis Chantrey, the foremost sculptor of his day, showing Watts, his daughter Mary, and her three children. It is a superb example of 19th-century funeral sculpture, though unfortunately the wrought-iron gates to the chapel are usually locked, so you have to view the sculpture from a distance.

The combination of the Saxon crosses, Norman font, St Betram's shrine, and the Watts memorial, plus the exceptionally beautiful parkland setting, makes Ilam's church an absolute delight to visit. Do take a few minutes to enjoy the Italianate gardens below Ilam Hall while you are here.

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About Ilam, Holy Cross Church
Address: Ilam, Staffordshire, England, DE6 2AZ
Attraction Type: Historic Church
Location: In the grounds of Ilam House. Usually open daylight hours.
Location map
OS: SK132507
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express


Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low to exceptional) on historic interest

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