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 so 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 governor’s face, whereupon the latter leapt up and threw the infant to the marble floor with such force that it killed the poor child outright.
There is at least one other St Cyriac, or Cyriacus, who was beheaded on the orders of the Emperor Maximian and who had a reputation for being good at performing exorcisms. The stories seem to get terribly mixed up, but it is the young lad who is traditionally venerated at Lacock. You don’t get too many Cyriacs in Britain – there’s one each in Cambridge, Devon and Cornwall; and this one in Wiltshire.
Now, I would never wish to denigrate these people and their undeserved appalling ends, assuming they actually existed. But you have to question how seriously you should take 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 dog who was also killed in tragic circumstances. Who said the Reformation was a wholly Bad Thing..?
But, anyway, this is the handsome church of St Cyriac which has served the comfortable community of Lacock since I don’t know 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, 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 will help with the high costs of maintaining a building like St Cyriac’s.
The church has some wonderful features, not least the Lady Chapel and the memorial to Sir William Sharington, who purchased the adjacent Lacock Abbey in 1540. Both retain what look like original paintwork; can you imagine what these things must have looked like when they were freshly done? Other memorials adorn the walls, including one to Charles Edwin Awdry, who I was disappointed to discover was nothing to do with the Reverend W Awdry who wrote ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’, but was nonetheless a cricketer of some repute. The church is also famous for its gargoyles.
Our visit was disturbed by the arrival of about 500 people on some sort of guided tour, whose leader started to regale his flock 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 these people presumably paid good money to be told a load of codswallop by this blathering pompous fool. Mind you, they were a rude lot themselves, so maybe they deserved it. Battered by bags, pushed into pews and threatened with 5 foot long camera lenses, it was time to leave. Outside, I waited behind a gravestone until Il Duce passed, threw a sack over his head, kidnapped him and left him on a remote rocky outcrop in the middle of the Atlantic where he couldn’t do any more harm.