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NOTICE OF AN EARLY CONVENTUAL CEMETERY
By Henry Ecroyd Smith.
(READ 2ND FEBRUARY, 1865.)
HISTORY supplies us with scant information relative to the islands of Hildburgh-eye, a name which has been contracted to Hillebyri, and finally to its usual present designation, Hilbre. Ormerod, for his valuable History of Cheshire, has evidently been able to glean but few particulars of the locality. It appears that, in a Charter granted in 1081 by the Conqueror to the Abbey of St. Ebrulf at Utica in Normandy, allusion is made to the Church on Hilbre, as having previously been given to this convent (together with that of West Kirby) by Robert de Rodelent, in whose favour William had founded, under the Earls of Chester, the extensive Barony of Rhuddlan, in which a large portion of the Hundred of Wirral was included. The church consequently existed in the Saxon period, when these islands were much more closely connected with the main than in more recent times, being probably only insulated at high water of spring tides and forming an elevated promontory running westwardly into Dee-mouth from a point of the shore opposite West Kirby, one of the oldest villages of Wirral. Again, the wear of sea and weather, to which they are peculiarly exposed, must have greatly reduced their size and consequent ability to support a population. The soil of the main island, or Filbre proper, is replete with débris of old buildings, the foundations of which appear to have all been “puddled" with the blue marl of the adjacent shore, in common with those of Ancient Meols (lying nearly a mile to the northward of the present village), one instance of the latter being visible so lately as 1862. The Hilbre buildings will range back from the salt works existent a century ago to the conventual buildings of the tenth to twelfth century.
Leland informs us “There was a celle of monkes of Chestre, and a pilgrimage of our Ladye of Hilbyri.”* A light was maintained here for the same purpose as the present landmarks at a very early period, to which, in the twentieth year of Henry III, John Scott, the then Earl of Chester, contributed ten shillings per annum.t
Returning to the religious settled here, the question naturally arises, when and under what circumstances their allegiance came to be transferred from the Abbot of St. Ebrulf to that of St. Werburgh in Chester ? whose successors, the Dean and Chapter, retained possession of the islands until about 1858, when they passed by purchase into the great Liverpool Dock Estate, and now bound to the westward our unrivalled port, although still remaining attached to the parish of St. Oswald's, Chester. In the absence of any specific record it may safely be surmised that the change was effected not later than the twelfth century, and probably occurred earlier. The Pilgrimage of “Our Ladye of Hilbyri” may have been sustained for centuries, although the mind now with difficulty pictures this isolated and mostly barren spotthis Ultima Thule of our now populous district-as the resort of devotees from all parts of Britain, and even the continent contributing its quota of pious visitors to this sacred islandshrine. In confirmation of the latter supposition and of the prevailing pilgrimage propensities and priestly inflictions of the dark ages, the writer may mention the occurrence upon the neighbouring shore of a “Sign of Our Ladye of Roc St. "Amador," which must have been brought from that once celebrated shrine in the distant and ancient province of Quercy in France.*
• Leland, Iter. v, 54.
* Hone's MSS., Chester Cathedral.
The existence of the church and religious establishment, however small, points necessarily to a burial place in the immediate vicinity; and so convinced was the writer, after the discovery of what may be termed a churchyard cross, or cross connected with the holy rood or sacred enclosure adjacent to the cell or oratory, of the ultimate discovery of sepulchral remains that he only awaited a convenient opportunity for commencing some investigation. The cross has been illustrated both in Ancient Meols and in the Historic Society's Transactions,t and is certainly of Saxon character. It was found by the telegraph keeper, Mr. Thomas Hughes, when breaking into the rubbly surface of the ground for stones wherewith to repair his adjacent roadway from the beach. He was similarly employed, within a few feet of the site of the old cross, when the writer, paying a visit to the island on 21st September last, took the opportunity of examining a little lower and further, when the side of a stone of considerable size was disclosed, and thought at first to be the foundation-stone or basement of the cross.
Further examination, however, proved its sepulchral character, and on clearing the soil from the face of the slab, the ornamentation, though in low relief and rudely executed, was at once apparent. This, as usual, is on the upper end or head of the slab, and consists of a plain cross limbed at the extremities and continued through two concentric circles ; a pellet occupies the centre and others the angles of the cross. The whole is bordered by an outer bead • Vide the writer's account in Ancient Meols, pp. 283-4, pl. xxvii, fig. 6. + Vol. iii, N.S., p. 233.