St Giles' in Cheadle, Staffordshire is an exceptional Catholic church. Built between 1841-46 and financed by John Talbot, the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, A. W. N. Pugin endeavoured to create "a perfect revival of an English parish church of the time of Edward I". Often, Pugin's ambitions had to be scaled down because of the lack of funds, but here at Cheadle, Pugin's patron had seemingly ample resources to match Pugin's imagination and skill. Consequently, the church possesses a soaring 200ft spire, so that the church dominates the town as no other Catholic church in England does, and inside, the polychrome splendour (inspired by the Sainte Chapelle in Paris) is awe-inspiring.
A Catholic church on such a grand scale and decidedly based on medieval antecedents naturally drew architects and churchmen from near and far who came to marvel at Pugin's determined Gothic revival. Cheadle was the gem in Pugin's crown which materialized every ideal he had outlined in his 'Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England' (1843) and 'True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture' (1841), and Lord Shrewsbury intended Cheadle to be "a text book for all good people [that would] improve the taste of young England". As such, the church was intended as a showpiece for how Christian architecture in Victorian England should proceed.
Pugin's ideal church did not come without opposition but he fought strenuously to realize his dream and so he called Cheadle "perfect Cheadle, my consolation in all afflictions". For Pugin, Cheadle was to be "an old English parish church [of the early 14th century] restored with scrupulous detail". This meant that it was furnished for the liturgy of medieval England, notably the Sarum rite. For Pugin expected that the newly-emancipated Catholic church in England would adopt its ancient pre-Reformation rite. Consequently, Pugin introduced such revivals (or 'innovations' at the time!) as a Rood screen, an Easter sepulchre, a separate chapel for the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament and a medieval arrangement for the sedilia. However, in the 1850s the restored Hierarchy of England & Wales voted to retain the 'Tridentine' missal rather than to revert to the Sarum rite.
Pugin promised that the Rood Screen at Cheadle (which was not the first he introduced) would be "the richest yet produced". The introduction of the Rood Screen was controversial in Pugin's time and it was one of the items which excited Gothic revivalists. As Rosemary Hill says: "The passions aroused by liturgical furnishings were, sometimes still are, extreme." Further on, she notes that Nicholas Wiseman (later Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster) was initially opposed to Rood Screens although he later came to accept them. Nonetheless, his opinions and arguments are interesting and have a contemporary ring to them!
Wiseman wrote to Lord Shrewsbury in 1840 saying that "I think it of the utmost importance to throw our ceremonies open to all... In Catholic countries where the people have faith in the divine mysteries, and where they do not care about seeing... it may do to screen [the chancel] off... but here... the effect is one of concealment & separation to which neither catholics nor protestants have been accustomed."
These observations are not remote from our time, for whether we speak of Rood Screens, or the 'Benedictine' altar arrangement today, then, as Hill comments, these "were soon to become the symbol of division, not between priest and people, but between English Catholics and Ultramontanists, those who looked to Rome rather than to history and local tradition for their authority. The issue also divided high and low Anglicans and, more generally, as it still does, those for whom mystery and symbolism are essential elements of faith and those who see inclusiveness and clarity as the way forward for the Church."
Once an essential part of the medieval rites of English Catholicism, the Easter sepulchre was normally found in the north wall of the chancel and was used to 'bury' the Host (and Crucifix) on Good Friday after which the people kept watch before it, and then the Sacrament was raised into the hanging Pyx on Easter Sunday.
As Eamon Duffy says: "The Easter sepulchre and its accompanying ceremonial constitute something of an interpretative crux for any proper understanding of late medieval English religion. The sepulchre was emphatically a central part of the official liturgy of Holy Week, designed to inculcate and give dramatic expression to orthodox teaching, not merely on the saving power of Christ's cross and Passion but on the doctrine of the Eucharist."
Consequently, Pugin provides just such a sepulchre in Cheadle. In this photo, one can also see the brilliant encaustic tiles by Minton on the sanctuary floor. In the 1830s, Minton had experimented and mastered the medieval technique of creating encaustic tiles whereby different coloured clays bonded in the kiln itself so that the design was burned into and thus integral to the tile itself. With Pugin's encouragement, Minton's tiles became ubiquitous in Victorian buildings. As Hill says, "practical, hygienic and authentically Gothic, encaustic flooring [was and remains] the essence of Victorian decoration."
At the time Cheadle was built, the priest customarily sat in the centre of the sedilia and was flanked by deacon and sub-deacon.
However in Cheadle, Pugin once again showed his zeal for the medieval Church and reverted to a medieval arrangement and placed the seats on ascending steps, with the priest on the highest step, followed by deacon and then sub-deacon, and he inscribed the seats with the names of the offices, and symbols of the offices above the seats, so as to avoid any confusion in the future! So, we see the chalice and paten above the priest's seat, then an Evangeliarum for the deacon, and finally cruets for the sub-deacon. The angels in the canopies above the sedilia also bear the same symbols of office.
The ascending steps before the High Altar are also inscribed with the verses of psalm 43: "Introibo ad altare Dei..." and similar inscriptions from the psalms are found throughout the church.
Alive with colour and detail comprising various Eucharistic emblems, it is a "perfect exposition of Catholic Eucharistic theology, and belief in the Real Presence". When John Henry Newman saw it in 1846 he called it the 'Porta Coeli' and indeed he considered St Giles' "the most splendid building I ever saw."
Sadly, Newman was temperamentally quite incompatible with Pugin and he disliked what he considered emotionalism (as opposed to an intellectual reserve) among Gothic revivalists. Eventually Newman would come to consider Pugin as "troublesome" and he seemed to take steps to officially obstruct him although Cardinal Wiseman protected Pugin from such restrictions. Pugin was also among the first to design ample flowing vestments such as the set seen here at Westminster Cathedral and designed for Cardinal Wiseman, but a decade after Pugin's death, the Congregation of Rites appeared to question whether they conformed to the then current liturgical norms.
Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2005 - 2nd ed.)
Fisher, Perfect Cheadle (Stafford: M. J. Fisher, 2004)
Hill, God's Architect (London: Penguin, 2007)