On the exterior of St. Oswald’s Church in Winwick, Warrington, are two figures representing St. Oswald and St. Antony. Just to the side of St. Antony’s foot is another little carving, worn with time, which some believe to be a lion, the emblem of a local family, the Gerards. Such is the sensible history.
Others believe that the carving is not a lion at all, but a pig. Why? Well, there are three explanations to choose from. The first says that it is associated with St. Antony, who gave up a life of degeneracy in order to become a Christian. The pig, regarded as a filthy creature, represents the degenerate life which St. Antony trampled underfoot.
The second explanation is that the pig is in memory of the annual ‘tithe pig’ which made regular tours of the village in search of food. The pig wore a little bell around its neck and parishioners, on hearing the bell, would offer up anything they could spare. In due course, the fattened pig would be slaughtered and shared out amongst the poorest families.
The third explanation, though, carries all the hallmarks of a true English folkloric story and is, for that reason, my favourite.
It is said that St. Oswald died here, in battle, in the year 642. When it was decided to build a church in his honour, the chosen location was a little distance away from the small hill on which he had died. Builders and stone-masons were hired, materials were acquired and work on the foundations of the church commenced but, each morning, the stones were found to have been moved to the little hill nearby. Finally, a night-watchman was appointed. When morning came he had a truly remarkable tale to tell, about a huge unearthly pig who had appeared amidst the stones. The pig, he said, had picked up the stones one by one and carried them to the small hill – the precise site of St. Oswald’s death – where he deposited them. Hearing this, the superstitious builders felt they had no choice but to build the church where it now stands and the stonemasons added a carving of the pig so all would remember him.
St. Oswald’s Church is not the only church about which such a tale is told. Time and again we hear legends of supernatural forces influencing the siting of churches, with their foundations being moved night after night until the builders give in and follow these determined instructions. Usually, the spot is chosen by fairies or the Devil. Other influencers are rare but not unknown – in Leyland the culprit was a huge ghostly cat – but the legend of Winwick’s church is, to my knowledge, the only one to mention a pig.
Quite why this story is told so often, in so many villages and towns at great distances from each other, is not a question which can be easily answered. However, it is a fact that many early Christian churches were built on the sites of earlier, pagan, religious buildings. Perhaps, then, the real answer to the mystery of these moving churches is that when the builders chose the wrong spot, local people quietly put them right and blamed supernatural forces which could not be questioned.
As an afterthought, it’s also worth noting that in Winwick, folklore mentions the squealing noise the ghostly pig made, describing it thus; “Wee-wick”. It is said that this how Winwick came by its name. Of course.
Image: Colin Park.