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Monumental Musings: The story behind the ‘Headless Cross’ in Friar Gate, Derby

PUBLISHED: 00:00 28 July 2017

The Headless Cross in Friar Gate, Derby - A Grade II Listed Ancient Monument at the heart of a busy thoroughfare

The Headless Cross in Friar Gate, Derby - A Grade II Listed Ancient Monument at the heart of a busy thoroughfare

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Peter Seddon ponders a medieval curiosity in Derby’s ancient Friar Gate

The top of the Headless Cross on which the shaft once stood, and where it is said the 'vinegar bowl' was placed during times of plague The top of the Headless Cross on which the shaft once stood, and where it is said the 'vinegar bowl' was placed during times of plague

Friar Gate is one of Derby’s most attractive thoroughfares. Tree-lined, unusually wide and redolent of a certain lingering elegance, it has latterly gained deserved renown for its stylish bars and restaurants. But beyond the cocktails and fine dining lies a great deal more.

In 1969 the Friar Gate Conservation Area was created – Derby’s first such designation – a reflection of the neighbourhood’s impressive array of historic architecture, most notably its outstanding collection of Georgian and later town houses.

Those grand residences began to emerge from the eighteenth century, but the humbler origins of Friar Gate are far earlier. As the ancient route into Derby from Ashbourne and Leek the name reflects that antiquity. First recorded in 1332 as Frereyate and then Freregate it derives from French frère for brother or friar and the Scandinavian gata for street. It took its name from the long-lost Dominican Friary founded circa 1238 on its southern side – then ‘out of town’ in mostly open country, about where ‘The Friary’ bar is now.

So it is fitting that a ‘medieval preaching cross’ should be one of Friar Gate’s most intriguing monuments. Unobtrusive, indeed easily missed, it renders itself immediately mysterious for what it lacks. The base lost its cross at least six centuries ago – hence its contradictory title ‘The Headless Cross’.

The Headless Cross in Friar Gate, Derby - A Grade II Listed Ancient Monument at the heart of a busy thoroughfare The Headless Cross in Friar Gate, Derby - A Grade II Listed Ancient Monument at the heart of a busy thoroughfare

The timeline is evidenced by land transfer documents from 1483 calling it the ‘Hedles Cros’ and ‘Broken Cross’ – proof that it had already suffered damage by at least the 15th century. Even so, in his 1610 plan of Derby, map-maker John Speed elected to depict the cross ‘entire’ – thought to be pure artistic licence.

Of what now remains, only the uppermost block of tapered dark stone is the original medieval artefact, its top clearly displaying the recess on which the shaft was once housed. The lower portions and steps are later replacements, but none of the romantic effect is lost, and what remains is an antiquity of such interest that in 1977 the ‘Headless Cross’ was designated Grade II listed.

At that time it stood in Derby Arboretum – moved there from Friar Gate in Victoria’s reign – but it was returned in 1979 to once again command its original position, on the north side of Friar Gate’s western extremity at its junction with Brick Street. A mature chestnut tree enhances the scene and gives focus to the setting – suggesting that this may once have been ‘the centre of things’.

Indeed it was. The streetscape there is distinctly widened to create a triangular open space – a telling clue to the site’s original use as an ancient market place where Derby folk traded livestock and other wares with out-of-town vendors. The ‘Headless Cross’ stood at its heart – hence an alternate name the ‘Market Cross’.

Only when a brand new livestock market was opened in central Derby in 1861 did the Friar Gate market enter terminal decline. Outside the Greyhound pub almost opposite the ‘Headless Cross’ is another curious vestige of that lost era – a cast-iron bull-tethering ring set into the pavement, a tangible relic of the days when the bellow and whiff of livestock filled the air there. The same job is now done with equal ebullience by beer enthusiasts.

Two further names for the ‘Headless Cross’ reveal its most notorious function, one noted on the engraved plaque adorning the capping stone. From at least the seventeenth century it was called the ‘Plague Stone’ or ‘Vinegar Stone’.

In his 1791 History of Derby the respected antiquary William Hutton laid out the explanation, stating that in time of plague traders from the countryside were so fearful of entering the town that Derby’s main market place was forsaken in favour of ‘arms length’ trading at the ‘Headless Cross’ to which strictly sanitised procedures were applied.

Hutton wrote: ‘Hither the visiting market people brought their provisions, stood at a distance from their property, and at a greater from the townspeople with whom they were to traffic. The burgher was suffered not to touch any of the articles before purchase. He took the chosen goods and deposited the money in a vessel filled with vinegar set for that purpose atop the ‘Headless Cross’. Thus a confidence, raised by cruel necessity, took place between buyer and seller.’

This use of vinegar as a crude disinfectant against the horrors of pestilence is documented in other market towns in which the ‘Plague Stone’ or ‘Vinegar Stone’ were once focal points. As such Hutton’s core narrative bears credence. But he muddied the waters by specifically ascribing the practice in Derby to the Great Plague of 1665 which so assailed London and other parts – not least the tragic village of Eyam in Derbyshire.

Hutton’s assertion was engraved onto the original metal plate adorning the ‘Headless Cross’ in the Arboretum – and when this faded today’s replacement perpetuated the link to the 1665 plague. But that presents a conundrum, for parish death records indicate that Derby itself was spared the 1665 outbreak.

In consequence some later scholars lambasted Hutton for his ‘misleadingly incorrect’ account. Established wisdom now largely agrees that Hutton should instead have ascribed the ‘Plague Stone’ story to earlier plague visitations that did affect Derby, most notably the ‘terrible pestilence’ of 1593 which accounted for the deaths of many hundreds of Derby citizens.

So perhaps the current engraved plaque does repeat an error – but the principle remains the same. In fairness to Hutton too – for he was known generally to be an accurate chronicler – the ‘Vinegar Stone’ may well have been used during the 1665 plague merely as a precaution, or even by way of a perverse ‘reverse measure’ in an attempt to stop infection entering the town from outlying country.

While the relative minutiae remain open to debate, the important fundamentals are unequivocal. A great lump of stone from medieval Derby has survived in Friar Gate to this very day to impart the tale. The ‘Headless Cross’ may not display the grandeur of a finely-crafted sculpture of some notable achiever, yet in its organic simplicity it could be argued that ‘less is more’.

The ‘Headless Cross’ has stood sentinel for centuries – silent witness to a community’s rich history, and in its deep-rooted stolidity perhaps more fitting as a monument to Derby’s people than anything the city has.

Grand it certainly isn’t – but surely strangely alluring, an intriguing symbol of another age, yet still in our midst. How many millions of eyes must have looked upon it? Yet how many today are perhaps blind even to its very presence? The more obvious pleasures of Friar Gate will continue to delight – but the ‘Headless Cross’ too is worth sparing a moment for. To touch it is to touch history – neither money nor vinegar required.

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