Page last updated at 19:01 GMT, Monday, 7 December 2009

Medieval tombstones rise from flames

Local historian Jim Merrington says the slab stones are the "best in the North"

Medieval tombstones uncovered in a fire which devastated a County Durham church have gone on display.

The 12th and 13th Century stones were revealed when flames vaporised the interior of St Brandon's Church in Brancepeth, near Durham City, in 1998.

Local historians believe the tombstones, known as cross slabs, were hidden within the walls in the 17th Century to protect them from vandals.

Twenty stones have now been mounted on the walls of the refurbished church.

Up to 100 cross slabs, decorated with carved images of swords, crosses and emblems relating to figures in the village's history, were uncovered by the fire.

The chruch fire
High temperatures vaporised the interior of the church

Archaeologist Peter Ryder, a cross slab specialist, said: "Every cloud has a silver lining and this is Brancepeth's. The fire was a disaster but out of it has come a major discovery.

"Not only is it the biggest collection of cross slabs in the northern counties but it contains a great variety spanning more than two centuries."

Tombstones were often recycled for use as building materials in churches but local historians believe the cross slabs could have been deliberately hidden by a former Bishop of Durham.

Jim Merrington, of the Brancepeth History and Archive Group, said a ring of cross slabs were discovered high up around the perimeter of the clerestory, which was built in 1638 by Rector John Cosin, who became Bishop of Durham.

He said: "It is possible that Cosin had them gathered up from the churchyard and secreted them away on the very top course of the building safe from vandals and reformists.

"It was obviously quite a task to get them up there for no real structural purpose."

Forty of the tombstones are to be displayed in nearby Brancepeth Castle at a future date and the rest are to remain within the fabric of the church.

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