The Crooked Spire: Kicked Over by the Devil?
Saint Mary and All Saints, an Anglican parish church in Chesterfield, England is better known locally as The Crooked Spire for one very obvious reason: the spire, which was added in about 1362, twists 45 degrees and leans roughly 9 feet (2.9 m) from its true center. While the spiral twist is said to be by design, the inclination of the spire is unintentional and due to a number of factors.
The 228-foot (70m) high structure has an oak frame and is clad with herringbone lead plates weighing 50 tons. Where the top of the stone tower and base of the wooden spire meet, no fixings are visible – the spire merely sits balanced, but unattached on the top. It is remarkable to consider that the craftsmen were medieval tradesman without the tools or machinery and technology of today.
Interior of the spire (Jondaniel / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The church building was dedicated in 1234, although it wasn’t finished until the 1360s. Saint Mary and All Saints is a Grade I listed building, the largest church in Derbyshire, and twice it has come close to burning down.
Two fires, a hundred years apart, nearly destroyed the church
On 11 March, 1861 the church spire was struck by lightning, which snapped the gas-lighting pipes in the tower, starting a fire next to the wooden roof of the chancel. The fire smouldered for hours until it was detected by the Sexton who was on duty. Then having withstood the underground mining industry and surviving two world wars relatively intact, the church’s next brush with near-tragedy occurred on 22 December, 1961, when a fire broke out in the organ loft and nearly destroyed the whole of the east end, including the spire. The fire destroyed many of the interior fittings, but thanks to those who risked the danger of the falling roofs and timbers, they saved as much as they could, including the registers and other valuable books and ornaments which they stacked in the library.
The interior of Saint Mary and All Saints (Photo by Flanagan, J)
Legends are abundant, but the Devil gets most of the blame
As well as realistic theories for the crookedness, there are also other more mythical theories. In common folklore, one well-established legend goes that a virgin once married in the church, and the church was so surprised that the spire turned around to look at the bride, and if another virgin ever marries in the church, the spire will return to its original form again. In a slightly modified version, the spire twisted and bowed in admiration as a maiden of great beauty entered the church and the spire could not resume its normal position.
Several local legends hold that the Devil was responsible. In one, a magician persuaded a local blacksmith to shoe the Devil and the man was so terrified that he drove a nail into the Devil’s foot. The Devil , in great agony, took flight and as he was passing the church he lashed out savagely with his foot leaving a footprint on one of the buttresses and catching the spire. A similar story has the Devil causing mischief, sitting on the spire and wrapping his tail around it. The townsfolk rang the church bells and the Devil, frightened by the commotion, tried to jump away, but his tail was still wound about the spire and as he tried to get free, he pulled it crooked. Another version has the Devil sneezing violently from all the incense used during a midnight Mass. He managed to keep hold with his claws and tail around the Spire; the next morning, however, the damage was there for everyone to see to this day.
Are the Bubonic Plague, green timber or uneven expansion to blame?
As entertaining as the legends are, the leaning of the spire was initially said to be due to the absence of skilled craftsmen since the plague had killed so many people only a decade before the spire’s completion. It was also blamed on insufficient cross bracing, and the use of unseasoned timber. However, it was common practice to use green timber at the time the spire was built. It was easier to work with and the men would have made adjustments as it was seasoning in place. It is now also believed that the twisting of the spire was caused by the lead that covers the spire.
During the day when the sun shines and heats up the lead on the south side of the tower, the lead expands at a greater rate than that of the north side of the tower, resulting in uneven expansion and contraction. This has been compounded by the weight of the lead which the spire’s bracing was not originally designed to bear.
Detail of the herringbone lead cladding ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )
A rest-house once used by the Knights of the Templar
If you do manage to get to Chesterfield to see the Crooked Spire, it’s worth heading down the medieval cobbled alleys called ‘The Shambles’ and visiting The Royal Oak, the oldest pub in the area and one of the oldest in England. It was built in the twelfth century and formally a rest-house for the knights of the Templar through the Holy Crusade. After the medieval period it was used as a butcher shop until it became an inn in 1722.
Top image: St Mary and All Saint, Chesterfield Source: (Photo by author)