Sunday, November 05, 2006

Church Paths, Coffin Paths and Corpse Ways

During the Mediæval period, Britain was divided into large administrative parishes who’s religious wellbeing was administered by the main church body known as the Mother Church. This was backed up by various subsidiary churches known as Daughter Churches, which were themselves, assisted by still smaller chapels of ease. Due to an ancient ruling only the Mother Church had the right to inter any of the dead from within its parish. As the population increased so more remote settlement developed, which meant that parishioners where forced to bring their dead, sometime up to tens of miles to reach their Mother church. It was these ‘processional routes of the dead’ known as Church Paths, Coffin Paths, Corpse Ways, and Lyches that have come to be known under the collective term of corpse ways.

The deceased from the centre of the parish, (close to the Mother Church) would probably have used the ordinary, well used routes, but funeral parties from outlying farms or hamlets would have had to travel for at least part of the way over moorland and fields along these corpse roads. Such routes would be regarded as special and would never be ploughed over, standing out clearly in the landscape. Even when the construction of new roads would have made the mourners' burden easier, they were ignored and the old tracks continued to be used. In Bertram Puckle’s book. Funeral Custom: their origin and development, he states ‘that it was considered very unlucky to use any other route and even sacrilege to conduct the dead by any other way than that by which their ancestors had gone before them'

The corpse paths needed to be wide enough to allow the body to be supported by four men, one at each corner carrying it undertaker style with a relief team of four walking behind. At designated points along the routes the first set of men could rest allowing the second set to take over. These points were usually marked by a stone often lozenge-shaped on which the body was rested. Stones known as lych stones also fixed the spot where the family bearers handed the body over to the formal bearers who took it to the church usually at the churchyard entrance, Later these lych stones were replaced by the church lychgate.

As well as stops for resting, these stones were used to make halts for prayers; a custom still practised long afterwards. In his book “The history of Myddle” written by Richard Gough in the 18th century, he comments on a corpse way from Newton on the Hill to Myddle, stating that there was a crossroads called the Setts 'because the people when they went that way with a corpse to be buried, they did there set down the corpse, and kneeling round about it did mumble over some prayers, either for the soul of the deceased, or for themselves'.

Occasionally the corpse way diverted from the direct course to take in a number of crossroads, where the bearers halted, perhaps possibly at wayside crosses and either sang hymns or prayed for the dead. This respect shown for crossroads was why funerals tended to avoid the shortest route to the church, making towards road junctions and other landmarks instead. In Lancashire, this old rite was not lost. The corpse way from Newchurch in Pendle to Whalley was marked by crosses (originally, perhaps, one every mile) where people would pause for prayers. When the crosses had been toppled, leaving only a stump full of rainwater, this was treated as holy water by those in the funeral party and used for crossing themselves. Wayside crosses had been intended for such uses from an early date. In Ewell, Surrey in the 1450’s part of the vicar's duties was to wait at Provest Cross to meet funerals coming along the corpse way from Kingswood, and then conduct them to the church. The cross was named after a local landowner, who may have paid for the cross in the hope that his soul would also be mentioned in the prayers offered there. Similar commemorations took place at the Eleanor Crosses set up by Edward I after the death of his queen in 1290. Twelve crosses were set up between Lincoln and Charing; marking the site that the queen's body lay each night near some large church or abbey where prayers might be said for her soul.

The funeral parties using the Corpse Road were exempt from the ordinary law of property and in parts of Yorkshire no trespass is committed even in passing through a private estate, if in so doing they are taking the coffin by the most direct route to the burial place. This created difficulties for landowners, especially when coupled with the belief that a passing funeral could create a permanent public right of way. To prevent this in Llanddewi Brefi in Cardiganshire, the landlords deliberately ran the corpse way through a piece of marshy ground instead of taking the dry road around it. Jonathan Davies stated in his 1911 book: Folk-Lore of West and Mid Wales 'Those who bore the bier through the bog proceeded with much difficulty and often sank in the mud' The Welsh also believed that a water crossing was supposed to gave remission to the soul of the dead.

Throughout the mediaeval period these archaic rituals had become so ridiculous that many people had begun to rebel against the old practice. Examples of the hardship caused by their use throughout England have been well documented and are detailed below.

• The Lych Way in Devon forced the mourners to toil with the body across the treacherous Dartmoor struggling through moss and mire. As time went by, they took a kind of pride in their grim journey. When the dead were finally carried down the last straight of the old track towards the mother church, it was as if they were coming home.

• The corpse road from Wasdale Head to Eskdale runs over five miles of some of the roughest country in the Lake District. The terrain was so wild that the Cumbrians had to strap the bodies of their dead onto a packhorse for safe transport.

• Villagers from Hindon in Wiltshire refused to take the two miles road to the church at Enford because it was long and ran through woods infested with robbers. By 1405 they had taken things into their own hands and founded a chapel, with land set aside for a cemetery.

• By 1427 people at Highweek in Devon were already conducting the requiem mass at their own chapel, and could not see why they had to follow it with a long and dangerous journey to the parish church.

• The inhabitants of Laneast in Cornwall also complained of the long journey, over hills, and using wet and muddy road to reach their mother church.

• In Revelstoke also in Cornwall the fishermen and labourers proposed to abandon funerals altogether, because of the economic hardship of a forced absence from work as they journeyed along the corpse way

• At Sherborne in Wessex during the 1430’s a compromise to protect the rights of the mother church was agreed. The outlying chapels were given the right to bury slaves of the manor on which that church is founded, who were so poor that their relatives could not afford to have them carried to the Mother church at Christchurch.

Due to the severe landscape and harsh living conditions that the Cumbrian population had to endure it is not surprising that this region has several Corpse roads. Jim Taylor-Page, an expert on the Lake District has researched old routes in and around Cumbria and to date has come up with three possible Corpse Roads.

• Greystoke (NY 434308). The Corpse path possibly follows the footpath north from the church and may have joined at one time to the road now leading to the village of Johnby (NY 432330).
• A rediscovered route between Grasmere (NY 336074) passing over White Moss continuing round to Hunting Stile (NY 334063) were once the Coffin Stone or Resting Stone could be found. From here the route probably linked to Chaplestyle (NY 332055).
• A 25 mile route leading between Ulverston (SD 275785) and St Andrews Church at Coniston (NY 303978) which is on the site of chapel, dating from 1596).

In short, Corpse ways, are not legacies from an ancient time, but came into being during the mediaeval period. They were an unexpected side effect of an old canon law on rights of their parishioners. These principles frequently lead to disputes between the Mother/daughter churches and the parishioners when the rule of central burial was imposed on all communities, regardless of the human cost. In fact the policy of the mother churches was ‘once a parishioner, always a parishioner’ even after death! These routes have all but vanished in the landscape, but by careful searching on old maps and in the field evidence of this ritual can still be found.


• Brown, A. – Popular Piety in Late Mediæval England: the Diocese of Salisbury 1250-1550 – (1995)

• Davies, J. – FolkLore of West and Mid Wales – (Aberystwyth, 1911)

• Deedes, C. – Register or Memorial of Ewell Surrey – (London, 1913)

• Dunstan, G. R. – The Register of Edmund Lacy Bishop of Exeter, 1420-1455 – (Canterbury & York Society, 1963-71)

• Hase, P. H. –The mother churches of Hampshire – (1988)

• Palmer, R.– The folklore of Gloucestershire – (1994)

• Puckle, B. – Funeral Custom: their origin and development – (London, 1926)

• Reeder, P.– The corpse way from Sebden Valley to Whally parish church – (1993)

• Richardson, R.– Death’s Door: thresholds and boundaries in British funeral customs – (Stroud, 1993)

• Rowling, M. –The Folklore of the Lake District – (1976)

• Simpson, J. – The folklore of the Welsh Border – (1976

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