What’s medieval about the Medieval Quarter?

Finding the medieval in Manchester

Better known as the Cottonopolis of the Industrial Revolution, ‘medieval’ isn’t a term frequently associated with the city of Manchester.

Today’s Manchester Evening News article about the City Council’s plans for the revitalisation of ‘the Medieval Quarter’ poses the questions: since when was it the Medieval Quarter, and what’s medieval about it?

One simple answer is that the area was the locus of the medieval town that existed after Roman Castlefield and before the industrial city – the ‘middle ages’, literally. So although ‘the Medieval Quarter’ is a relatively new name, the area bordered by Chetham’s School of Music and Library, the National Football Museum, Manchester Cathedral and the Corn Exchange has always been the medieval quarter of Manchester.

But the medievalness of the area isn’t immediately obvious (at the moment).

The three easiest places to see medieval Manchester in the Medieval Quarter today are Chetham’s Library, Hanging Bridge, and Manchester Cathedral. All are open to the public, with free admission.

1. Chetham’s Library was founded as a library in 1653 – making it ‘the oldest surviving public library in Britain’ – but the building is even older, dating to 1421.


The beautiful medieval building is also home to an impressive collection of medieval manuscripts. (Manchester can boast a second medieval manuscript collection in John Rylands Library  – which is a great example of neo-gothic medievalist architecture in Manchester; see also the Town Hall!).

2. Hanging Bridge, the remains of which can be found in the lower ground floor of the Cathedral Visitor Centre (underneath Propertea café), was built around 1421. When archaeologists explored the site in the ’90s they found medieval shoes, sword scabbards and leather-working tools and offcuts, suggesting a small leather-working industry in the area. Many of these objects are currently on display at Manchester Museum. You can read about the Bridge’s history here.

3. While the exterior of Manchester Cathedral is Victorian, much of the former medieval church is preserved inside. There is a timeline of its history here.

The medieval quire, a carved wooden structure in the centre of the building dating to c. 1500, is the most impressive of the Cathedral’s surviving medieval features. Yet some of the interior is older, c. 1200-1300s. On display in the nave is a single piece of decorated masonry known as the ‘angel stone’, thought to have survived from an earlier Anglo Saxon church.


Grumpy dog is still my favourite ‘medieval Manchester’ spot, so far.

The date 1421 crops up repeatedly because it’s the year in which Henry V gave permission to Manchester to establish a collegiate church where Manchester Cathedral now stands. Around the major new building of the collegiate church, there was the building of new accommodation for the priests (now Chetham’s Library) and rebuilding of the Hanging Bridge as the main approach into the church – collectively a sort of medieval ‘regeneration’ of the town’s centre.

The 600-year anniversary is coming up in 2021.


Carried off by wild beasts…

In a year that’s seen cinematic re-makes of The Jungle Book (Disney 1967Disney 2016), Tarzan (Disney 1999; WarnerBros 2016) and Pete’s Dragon (Disney 1977; Disney 2016) – and another in the pipeline, in the form of Andy Serkis’s motion-capture Jungle Book due for release in October 2018 – it’s hard to miss the cultural obsession with tales of child-rearing animals.

It’s a motif that folklorists know well, and appears in at least two major forms in Thompson’s index. Relevant entries below.*

The new films have had mixed reviews, but the legends clearly have an enduring currency… And on a recent visit to Chester Zoo I heard many a gleeful shout of ‘King Louise!’ and hushed exclamations of ‘Shere Khan!’, from patrons young and old alike, and I’m counting that as good anecdotal evidence.

A survey of so-called ‘feral children’ veers between the idealistic-fantastical and the horrific, moving from popular stories about heroic children raised by noble animals – whose long inheritance takes you from the Tarzans and Mowglis to the ancient foundation myth of Romulus and Remus – through ‘cases’ of lost children comforted and protected by wild animals, and inevitably to the upsetting stories of child abuse and neglect – that are, in turn, imaginatively re-captured, as in Julia Fullerton-Batten’s photographic series. (There are also, of course, more insidious themes in the Mowgli-Tarzan legends too, in the mythic hierarchy of nature and culture, and in the colonial overtones of western ‘jungle’ stories generally).

By detour, you might come across the apocryphal tales of children briefly stolen away by animals and then ‘rescued’ or returned, and raised by humans. This little motif, arguably more ambivalent in its ethical implications and/or symbolic references than the extended animal-nurse narratives, features in the once-popular medieval romances of Octavian, Eglamour, Torrent of Portyngale, Isumbras and the later Valentine and Orson. These stories were relatively widely circulated in their time – 1300-1500s – and their influence is evident elsewhere in medieval culture. In particular, the animal-stealing-child trope common to this group is incorporated into the ancestral legends of at least two real families, the Stanleys of Lathom (later Earls of Derby) and the Earls of Kildare. (I’m fairly sure that there must be more examples, because animal-and-child imagery appears in the heraldry of other grand families – would love to hear from anyone who knows more!)

There’s lots to say about the various versions of the motif – from its recurrence in medieval romance to its ‘use’ in pseudo family histories – and how the stories could be interpreted in literary and historical contexts. Too much for a single blogpost; but you might want to see here, from Jeffrey Jerome Cohen.

I’d like to post about the ‘eagle and child’ myth at some point, though it’s easily discovered in simple web searches (and if you’ve been to any of the many Eagle and Child pubs in the UK, you’ll probably already know it). Taking this post as a general introduction to the theme, I’d just like to share handful of the lovely visual representations of the medieval animal-stealing-child motif that I’ve gathered along the way. Happy Folklore Thursday!

Eagle and baby: the legend of the eagle and child, aka the Lathom Legend, aka the Stanley Legend.

Own images, Manchester Cathedral misericords and quire stalls, c. 1500

Ape and baby: no known story (and might not relate to a romance at all since the image appears elsewhere e.g. in manuscript marginalia [where apes/monkeys proliferate]) but an ape stealing a child does feature in Octavian. Given the proximity to the eagle-and-child carving, surely an ape-stealing-child story must have crossed the carver’s mind?!

Own image, Manchester Cathedral misericords, c. 1500

Griffin and babySir Eglamour of Artois, Bodleian Library MS Douce 261, c. 1564

Bodleian image, can be seen (and magnified) on their Romance of the Middle Ages site here.

Child and lion (child carried away before his father can save him): the legend of St Eustace (similar to Isumbras) as depicted in the windows of Chartres Cathedral, c. 1200


From Stuart Whatling’s Corpus of Medieval Narrative Art.

Child and wolf (child being rescued by shepherda): the legend of Eustace in the same Chartres window, c.1200


From Stuart Whatling’s Corpus of Medieval Narrative Art.


*Thompson index:
Animal nurse. B535
Animal nourishes abandoned child.
*Frazer Fasti II 369ff., especially 369 n. 3, 375; Dickson Valentine and Orson 36, 103, 107, 112, 169; *Liebrecht Zur Volkskunde 17ff.; *Nutt FLR IV 1ff.; Penzer II 294; *Fb “ulv” III 971 a (Wolf); *BP II 317, III 60ff. Irish myth: Cross; Greek: Fox 22 (doe), 56 (bear), 118, 155 (goat, crow, sow), 280, Frazer Apollodorus I 397, II 47 n. 2, Roscher s.v. “Achilleus”; Roman: Fox 307 (Romulus and Remus) (wolf); Persian: Carnoy 330; Breton: Sibillot Incidents s.v. “chien” (dog); Missouri-French: Carriire; McCartney Papers of Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters IV (1924) 15 42; Wesselski Theorie 19; Icel.: Iuirriks saga I 302 03 (hind), Boberg; English: Wells 118 (Octovian) (lion); Chinese: Ferguson 41. N. A. Indian: Thompson CColl II 387 (Mt. 707), Thompson Tales 316 n. 146b; S. A. Indian (Brazil): Ehrenreich International Congress of Americanists XIV 662. Indonesian: De Vries Volksverhalen I Nos. 22, 89; India: *Thompson-Balys; Africa (Basuto): Jacottet 104 No. 15, 190 No. 28, (Wakweli): Bender 49f.

Stolen child rescued by animal nurse. B543.3
(Cf. +B535.) Irish myth: Cross; India: Thompson-Balys; *Krappe Balor 80ff.

Animal aids abandoned child(ren). S352
(Cf. +B535.) Missouri French: Carriire; India: *Thompson-Balys; S. A. Indian (Sherenti): Lowe BBAE CXLIII (1) 515; West Indies: Flowers 576.

Written in stone


This one of the earliest photographs of Manchester Cathedral in its archives, taken c. 1890. The building is captured at a significant moment in its architectural history, shortly before the Basil Champneys south porch (1891) and south extension (1901) were added, dramatically altering its exterior aspect.

The less obvious intervention, but at least as dramatic, was in the subsequent transformation of the Cathedral’s immediate setting from churchyard to garden.


In the earliest photograph, what at first glance appear to be paving slabs are actually hundreds of ledgerstones. From the website of the Ledgerstone Survey of England & Wales on the nature and value of the stones:

‘Ledgerstones are the flat stones placed over a grave inside a church, usually incised with the name and dates of the deceased. They are often decorated with heraldry and many include interesting inscriptions about the person, their family and their life in the local community. Over 250,000 survive, mainly in parish churches, and most date from the late seventeenth to the late eighteenth centuries. The stones used are often from a local or regional source and the carving of the letters and any decoration is of high quality and a readily visible demonstration of the letter cutter’s art. A family group of ledgerstones may well be their only visible memorial, if their house has disappeared.’

In the years of re-development after the 1890 photograph was taken, over 900 ledgerstones, mostly from the 17th-18th centuries, were destroyed and/or ‘re-purposed’. The 17th-century tomb pictured in the centre of the photograph is long gone. Commonly, ledgerstones would be broken up and used as hardcore for new building work or could be upturned (inscription side down) and used as paving.

(The tomb with railings belongs to eccentric former canon, Cecil Wray (d. 1866), in whose name the Cathedral runs its annual sock appeal. Although less visible now – enveloped by the extension that houses the main cathedral offices – the tomb survives in situ, the only monument to have come through the 19th-century works unscathed).

Since so little of pre-industrial Manchester’s tangible heritage remains in the city centre (the Cathedral and Chetham’s Library being the major exceptions) and because so many of the monuments that do survive (here and elsewhere) tend to memorialise the great and good (and the sometimes-not-so-good), it seems a shame to have lost these memorials to relatively ordinary 17th– and 18th-century Mancunians.

Yet even had the ledgerstones been left, their exposure to centuries of Mancunian rainfall and footfall would probably have obliterated their inscriptions by now; even words written in stone will naturally fade away.

Interior stones have survived, and some were uncovered inside the Cathedral during the excavations for the installation of new underfloor heating in 2013. Others remained at floor level and are thus very well preserved; these can be seen in the Jesus Chapel, typically with kneelers plonked on top, as pictured.


A few can still be found outside, in the relative shelter of the grassy north bank opposite Chetham’s Library.

But you can also spot some of the broken fragments in the paving around the area, where they have been laid inscription-side up:

On Victoria Street, closer to Chetham’s, one of the ledgerstone fragments is embedded in the paving, with the barely legible words, ‘Here lyeth the body […]’. (The right-hand photo – you might have to take my word for it). Outside the Cathedral’s south wall, opposite the Cathedral Visitor Centre, there is another fragment which reads ‘[…]ppleton 1771’. Eventually these tiny bits of local history, almost-already gone, will also disappear; either as the paving is taken up in future redevelopments or as the stone changes with time.

The fortuitous twist in the tale is the presence of a slim, hardbound book in the Cathedral’s archives, and an accompanying plan, describing exactly where each of the external ledgerstones was originally laid, with their inscriptions.


(All of the images from the archives are my own. In case you’re wondering, my job doesn’t usually involve spending time in the muniments room except on special occasions -and then I make the most of it! I was searching for evidence of Canon Cecil Wray’s tomb having been moved in the past, on behalf of one of our project teams. As above, I decided that it hasn’t).

Although the details of typeface and scale are not preserved, the copyist mimics the layout of the inscriptions and occasionally includes very neat depictions of the modest decorations featured on some of the stones, or their form.

IMG_0431           IMG_0432

The heart design, with the initials of the person buried, was presumably much like the decoration here:


The ledgerstones sometimes mention professions, as well as the usual details of age and place, making the record another illuminating resource for the social history of the city, as depicted in the Cathedral’s parish records (possibly the largest in the UK for a single parish, running continuously from 1573 to the present day and encompassing the population boom of the Industrial Revolution – and the Cathedral’s era of ‘mass weddings’).

One of the inscriptions is for Mary, wife of John Beard ‘Parish Clerk’, with the wonderful parting line, ‘Reader – Prepare to meet thy God’. A rather gratuitous memento mori for a gravestone, but not an uncommon choice.

The record was made the City Surveyor in 1895, just five years after the early photograph above was taken, during the Champneys phase of re-development and when the dismantling of the churchyard was imminent. The meticulous written record seems an odd contrast with the destruction of the objects themselves, but indicates the degree of importance attributed to the ledgerstones at the time. What is also clear is that the physical items were not considered as significant as the words they contained – the words are the memorial. They do need a medium, though, and as it turned out, the ink-and-parchment was to outlive what had been set in stone.