Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Curious Things

The Cellarer's Chequer
In Cambridge's Newmarket Road stands the church of St Andrew-The-Less, which is perhaps the least attractive of the city's historic churches, mainly because it is under constant attack from motor car exhaust fumes and vandalism. But a historic church it is (dating from 1190 AD) and an interesting one too in that it was once the church of Barnwell Priory. The Priory was at one time very wealthy and its buildings extensive.

That was until Henry VIII came along and closed it down, along with every similar establishment in the country. The stone from the buildings was re-cycled, re-purposed or stolen for other building projects in the city, including the Chapel of Corpus Christi College. All that remains today, apart from the rather sad church, is the little building above which is known as The Cellarer's Chequer and stands somewhat forlornly amongst more modern housing.

The Cellarer was reckoned to be the most important person in the Priory after the Abbot, for while the latter bothered himself with matters of the soul, the former was concerned with matters of the stomach in that he was in charge of ordering food and drink for the community. His Chequer was his office where he kept records of expenditure.

Cromwell's Head
When Charles II regained the throne of England he was determined to make those who had beheaded his father, Charles I, pay for their deeds. There was one important flaw in the plan: Cromwell and the co-signatories of the death warrant had themselves been dead for some years.

Undeterred by this detail, the new King arranged for the bodies to be dug up so that they could be posthumously beheaded. Cromwell's head was then placed on a twenty foot spike and displayed above Westminster Hall as a warning to others. Here the head stayed for a quarter of a century till it was dislodged by a storm and rolled into the gutter.

It was found by a soldier who may well have had Republican sympathies, he hid it away only to reveal its existence on his death bed. His daughter had no use for the rather battered head and sold it. It was exhibited in a private museum and then passed to other colourful owners. 

The comic actor and alcoholic Samuel Russell owned it for several years and used to pass it around amongst his drinking companions, causing further damage to the features. A man called Cox bought it and then sold it at a profit to three brothers by the name of Hughes. They exhibited it too, but few were interested in paying for the pleasure of becoming acquainted with it.

It passed into the ownership of the Wilkinson family who kept it for many years. Its authenticity was disputed but was eventually declared to be the real thing. The family kept it on the mantelpiece until in 1960 it was decided to give it to Cambridge's Sidney Sussex College, where Cromwell had briefly studied.

The college decided that they should bury it and keep the exact location a secret so that the well-travelled cranium could finally rest in peace.  

Meet Clare...
Clare the Tyrannosaurus Rex was commissioned as the centre-piece for Clare College's May Ball. The six-metre long sculpture by Ian Curran is apparently only a half-size model of the original fearsome beast! It now stands at the entrance of the Sedgwick Museum Of Earth Sciences - either welcoming or scaring off would-be visitors to the museum.

Glory, Glory....
My video of the Old Glory Molly Dancers has just reached the dizzy heights of 1,000 views on YouTube. Not exactly "viral" but still quite contagious for a lot of old chaps prancing about rather stiffly to very unfashionable melodies! For those of you who haven't a clue what I'm talking about here's a brief history of Molly Dancing:

  • back in Medieval England candles were kept burning in front of icons in the churches, one such was the Plow Light which was paid for by the ploughmen of the village.
  • the Sunday after Epiphany was held to be the start of the agricultural year and a special service took place in church to bless the Plow Light.
  • in order to pay for the light the ploughmen went out on the following Monday and danced to raise money. If people refused to pay the ploughmen threatened to plough up the path leading to the home of the non-contributor.
  • come the Reformation the icons were destroyed and the lights were no more.
  • however the ploughmen continued to dance and money was raised to support retired ploughmen and those who had fallen on hard times.
  • any spare money was quickly spent in the nearest pub.
  • in parts of the Fens the celebrations included a man dressed from head to toe in straw who was known as The Straw Bear. No one's quite sure where this tradition came from, though other "straw bears" are known from Europe and so they may have arrived with the Dutch workmen who came to drain the Fens.
  • in time the good works of the ploughmen became less important than the need to consume large quantities of ale and they frankly made such a nuisance of themselves that the authorities sought to ban the custom claiming it was no more than a form of begging.
  • however a few old men remembered some of the dances and tunes, so that when folklorists began to research the subject they were able to piece together a little of the old traditions.
  • one of the last places where Plough Monday was celebrated was the small Cambridgeshire town of Whittlesea. In recent decades the tradition has been very successfully revived as The Straw Bear Festival, an all-day celebration of dancing which takes place throughout the town.
and that's where I took the video which, if you haven't seen it before, you can see here:

Take care


  1. I'm now adding Sedgewick Museum to my list of places to visit. Is the Cellarers Chequer ever open to the public? It would be a shame to think that it never gets visited.

    1. The Cellarer's Chequer is only very occasionally open to the public.

  2. Very interesting...& wow 1000 hits on YouTube... I'm curious about the one woman???

    1. The men disguised themselves by blacking their faces or dressing as women, perhaps Molly comes from this.

  3. Can't say I blame Charles, I'd have dug him up and done worse.

  4. Interesting story about Cromwell's head! And also the Molly Dancers. Good read today!

  5. Is that really true about Cromwell's head? Rather sad, no-one should have to suffer that indignity in death, whatever they did in life. As for the Cellarer's Chequer, just don't ask me to say it after a glass or two of wine.

  6. Your posts are always so interesting John. First of all I have never heard of Molly Dancing.
    Then there is that interesting building - how sad that it keeps getting vandalised - people are often quite mindless.
    As for Oliver Cromwell's head - what a grisly tale. Hadn't heard it before though.

  7. That post just got curiouser and curiouser. I do love the way you tell a story. Poor Cromwell. May he rest in peace, every piece of him.

  8. Goodness me, poor Oliver literally went from pillar to post. I'm glad that his head is now secretly buried as his travelling around had to come to an end one day. Really interesting post.

  9. Well it now has at least 1001 views. Fascinating stories!

  10. make that 1002 views - at least. Never heard of Molly Dancers, but do know Morris dancers -- that's a pretty gay event to watch! Didn't know about Cromwell's head -- Charles was determined, I'll say that for him. Great post - thanks!

  11. I like your history and your photos, I will stay here for a while.

  12. I like those Molly Dancers and Clare is fetching too... ;-)

  13. What a grisly story about Cromwell's head!!! Love the Molly Dancers though and the history preceding them.

  14. Jeepers glad that head finally found a resting place.

  15. What a strange thing to do to Cromwell -behead him posthumously.
    The Molly dancers are a great antidote to the constant barrage of homogenous celebrities we get in the media.

  16. If you are wondering where Cromwell's body might be, it is reputed to lie at Newburgh Priory near us in North Yorkshire. His daughter Mary lived there after marrying its owner Thomas Belasyse, 1st Earl Fauconberg.

  17. What a gruesome story about Cromwell's head! I enjoyed reading about the Molly Dancing.

  18. What an interesting post -- from revenge to merriment. Your description of the skull trading was rather horrifying yet you followed up with dancing the molly dance in the street.Quite a combination but all brought a smile to my face. -- barbara

  19. A very interesting post John, what a sad little building, like the T-Rex, and some skulduggery! Watched your video, prefer Morris dancing.

  20. Very informative post! I do like the occasional history lesson and the dancing looks quite fun!!

  21. The dance looks very nice and interesting.
    I have to take it some day to my dance blog Villit askeleet


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