Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:47 am
Had I led a better life, perhaps spending more time with saints than sinners, maybe I would have heard of St Cyriac before stumbling ignorantly into his church in Lacock. For the benefit of anyone else who has somehow managed to cope thus far without this knowledge – and I’m sure there’s at least one of you – St Cyriac was (allegedly) a 3-year old boy who lived in the 4th century. His mother, Julitta, was horribly tortured and executed for her Christian faith in Tarsus, in the Roman province of Silicia (modern Turkey). Making the best of various accounts I have seen, little Cyriac was sitting on the governor’s knee and scratched the old chap’s face, whereupon the foul man leapt up and flung the infant to the marble floor with such force that it killed the poor child outright. Other versions have the child boxing the Governor’s ears and being thrown downstairs. The name Cyriac is sometimes rendered as Cyr, Cyriacus, or Quiricus.
There is at least one other St Cyriac, or Cyriacus, a Roman who was beheaded on the orders of the Emperor Maximian in the early 4th century and who had a reputation for being rather good at performing exorcisms – not a skill one comes across that often, so he was evidently a man worth knowing. Stories of saints can easily get terribly mixed up, though – but it is definitely the young lad who is venerated at Lacock. You don’t actually get too many Cyriacs in Britain. Lacock seems to be the only church dedicated to St Cyriac on his own, but I have managed to identify five other churches (so far) dedicated to him and his mother: St Cyriac and St Julitta in Newton St Cyres, Devon and Swaffham Prior, Cambridgeshire; St Quiricus and St Julietta in Tickenham, Somerset; and St Ciricius and St Julitta in Luxulyan and St Veep, both in Cornwall.
Assuming they actually existed, Cyriac and Julitta’s ends are, of course, ghastly and undeserved. But an old agnostic like me finds his credulity being stretched a tad by a religion that turns a 3-year old child into a saint. We can, however, be encouraged that the Holy Church apparently never officially recognised the cult figure of St Guinefort, a 13th century French greyhound who was killed in tragic circumstances. Who said the Reformation was a wholly Bad Thing..?
I’m digressing again. Here is the handsome church of St Cyriac which has served the comfortable community of Lacock since I’m not sure when – and still does. Probably built on the site of an Anglo-Saxon predecessor, the church has a Norman foundation but is largely 14th and 15th century, with a 17th century spire and restoration work dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. In short, and not untypically for an English parish church, it has a little bit of everything. Its large size and relative grandeur are due to the relative wealth of the parish, at one time reliant on a profitable wool trade. In 2013, the church sold its ‘Lacock Cup’, a superb silver drinking goblet dated to around 1429, to the British Museum for £1.3 million; the cash must help with the high costs of maintaining a building like St Cyriac’s.
The church struck me as having a rather higgledy-piggledy appearance, but with some wonderful features, not least its 15th century Lady Chapel and the memorial to Sir William Sharington, who purchased the adjacent Lacock Abbey in 1540 and who only just avoided losing his head for his dodgy dealings. Both his memorial and the Lady Chapel retain traces of what looked to this layman like original paintwork; can you imagine how these things must have looked when they were freshly done? Other memorials to local dignitaries and landowners, like the Talbots, adorn the walls. One that particularly caught my eye declared that, “Near this, enclosed in oak of an English ship of war, is all that remains in this world of the lamented Rear Admiral Charles Fielding”. Fielding (1780-1837) was descended from the Habsburgs – one of Europe’s great dynasties, famed for its extremely close family bonds, fine jaws and, for 300 years, Holy Roman Emperors. He was the second husband of Lady Elizabeth Theresa Fox-Strangways, mother of the photography pioneer, William Henry Fox Talbot; Fox Talbot is buried in the churchyard. There is also a memorial to Charles Edwin Awdry, a cricketer of some repute and I believe first cousin to the Reverend W Awdry, author of ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’.
The church is well-known for its gargoyles – photos of which are conspicuous by their absence from this article – this is my excuse, if one is needed, to return sometime and spend another night at Lacock’s Red Lion. However, I did snap a remarkable carving of a female face in the porch; I think she is simply beautiful – if a little stony-faced.
Our visit to the church of St Cyriac was disturbed by the arrival of about 500 people on some sort of guided tour. The tour leader, who I judged to be of fascist persuasion, suddenly launched in, without any apparent respect for either the building or fellow-visitors, to regale his troops, loudly, with quite the strangest version of the history of the English Reformation I have ever heard. Where do they find these idiots? It irritates me that his captive audience had presumably paid good money to be told a load of codswallop by this blathering, pompous, ass. Mind you, they were an incredibly rude lot themselves, so maybe they deserved it. Battered by bags, pushed into pews and threatened with a 5-foot long camera lens – presumably, psychological compensation for some kind of inadequacy on the part of its owner – I allowed myself to be dragged away, muttering darkly, by the very sensible Mrs Britain. Outside, I waited behind a convenient gravestone until the Il Duce character emerged. Throwing a sack over his silly head, I kidnapped him and left him on a remote rocky outcrop in the middle of the storm-lashed Atlantic, where he couldn’t do British history, or tourism, any further harm.