Last Updated on 10th November 2021 by Mike@bitaboutbritain
There are few things more agreeable than pootling around and about a medieval cathedral. I found Lichfield’s reflected in the Minster Pool, a small reservoir which has been used by the city since the 11th century. You’d think it couldn’t get any better, wouldn’t you? Then you wander up the Cathedral Close, past Erasmus Darwin’s House, and the only 3-spired medieval cathedral in England confronts you, its reddish local sandstone showing off the ‘people of God’ carved on its massive west front. It is quite a statement – as it was undoubtedly intended to be.
The enormous Gothic spires can be seen for miles across the valley of the River Trent and have been known as ‘the Ladies of the Vale’ for longer than anyone knows. But the roots of the place lie much further back, at least 400 years before the Norman Conquest, when Licitfelda, or Lyccidfelth, was in the centre of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia. The King, Wulfhere, needed a replacement bishop and a saintly retired abbot named Chad, brother of Cedd and living quietly minding his own business somewhere remote (Lastingham, in North Yorkshire), got the job. Chad established his episcopal seat at Lichfield – according to legend because it was a sacred site where a thousand Christians had been martyred in Roman times. In this interpretation, ‘Lichfield’ means ‘field of the dead’; but according to my trusty Oxford Dictionary of Place Names, it means “an open field near Letocetum, a Celtic place name meaning ‘grey wood’”. Whatever – Chad arrived in 669AD and set about his mission to spread the Word to the Mercians. Unfortunately, he died shortly afterwards, in 672AD, but was by all accounts an extraordinary man – not least because miracles are said to have occurred soon after his death near his burial place, thought to be in a church on the site of the present cathedral. By 700AD, Lichfield had become a place of pilgrimage and it was possible to talk of ‘a cult of St Chad’. So, if you thought that Chad was a cartoon figure with a large nose looking over a wall, think again.
The Normans replaced the wooden Anglo-Saxon church with a stone building, possibly as early as 1085. But it was a 12th century Bishop, Roger de Clinton, who laid out a more ambitious cathedral – as well as a grid plan for the town and fortifying the cathedral close. The oldest parts of the cathedral visible today actually date from around 1200. I’m intrigued by the snippet that De Clinton died on crusade to the Holy Land – a fighting bishop, possibly. In any event, his cathedral was ultimately replaced by the soaring splendour of the Gothic building we (more or less) see today, which gradually took shape from the end of the 12th century and over the next 150 years.
The English Reformation, often described as the biggest act of vandalism in English history, hit places like Lichfield hard. Beautifully, highly coloured, painted walls were whitewashed over, graven images were smashed, priceless treasures taken away and sold, or simply destroyed. I can’t help thinking they could have achieved the objective without the damage, but history is full of little inconveniences.
A hundred years’ later, during the Civil War, the fortified close became a Royalist stronghold. It was besieged by Parliamentary forces in 1643, captured, recaptured, and besieged again in 1646. Parliamentary cannon fire destroyed the central spire, wrecked the roof and badly damaged other parts of the building. Roundhead troops have a reputation for destruction in churches and it is said they behaved “very destructively” at Lichfield Cathedral, including ransacking the ancient library. In any event, whether the damage was caused by wanton acts of vandalism on the part of troops, or by siege warfare, much of the old medieval cathedral was devastated. This included the loss of most, if not all, of its medieval stained glass.
The long process of repair and renewal began after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, supported by King Charles II himself. His statue, the face horribly eroded into some ghastly pock-marked parody, stands outside to this day – having originally been placed on the west front. Further work was undertaken on the Cathedral in the 18th century, but the most extensive renovation occurred in the 19th century.
Which brings us neatly back to stained glass. In 1803, the Cathedral obtained some 16th century glass from the Cistercian abbey of Herkenrode, in Flanders. It was a bargain, apparently; ironically, the abbey had been suppressed – in other words dissolved – by Napoleon. The stained glass at Lichfield Cathedral is breathtaking. I particularly liked the Hacket Window (early 20th century), which depicts the restoration work undertaken by Bishop Hacket in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.
Lichfield Cathedral also houses the Chad Gospels – sometimes known as the Lichfield or St Teilo Gospels. I have been saving this one up for you. The Chad Gospels are 8th century gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, written on vellum (calf skin) in Latin by one scribe around 1300 years before you were a twinkle in your daddy’s eye. Their provenance is unknown, but they may have come from Northumbria or Iona and have been in the Cathedral since at least the early 11th century. They contain, as notes in the margin, some of the earliest known writing in Welsh. There were originally two volumes – one was lost during the Civil War and the other was hidden. This is usually on display in the 13th century Chapter House – which is a work of art in itself. Even more incredibly, you can actually access and read the Chad Gospels online; congratulations to whoever had the wisdom and generosity to do that.
It doesn’t end there. In 2003, work in the nave uncovered what may be part of the Anglo-Saxon cathedral, including a shrine – possibly to St Chad. Amongst this were fragments of carvings in limestone which may have been part of a shrine chest. Whatever it was, the Lichfield Angel as it is now known, was also on display in the Chapter House when I made my visit. I suggest it is the freshest piece of Anglo-Saxon carving that most of us will ever see; and it is striking.
You may be additionally privaleged to see items from the magnificent Staffordshire Hoard. The Staffordshire Hoard is the largest heap of buried Anglo-Saxon gold and silver treasure ever unearthed in Britain. It consists of more than 3,500 items, mostly martial in nature, discovered in 2009, and in amongst the gold and silver are precious stones – including a ridiculous amount of garnet that may have come from as far away as India or Sri Lanka. The items have been dated to the 7th or 8th centuries – contemporary with St Chad and the founding of Lichfield Cathedral – and are on permanent display there, as well as in nearby Birmingham and Tamworth. Can you imagine finding something like that?
Our all too brief bit about Lichfield Cathedral concludes with the stunning marble sculpture, ‘the Sleeping Children’, by Francis Chantry (1816). It depicts two sisters, Ellen Jane and Marianne Robinson, asleep in each other’s arms. The girls died tragically young and the sculpture was commissioned by their mother – who had also recently lost her husband.
I need to go back to Lichfield. I haven’t mentioned other highlights – such as the astonishing medieval wall paintings that have been revealed, or the exquisitely carved 19th century wooden reredos over the alter in the Lady Chapel – which would possibly not have been out of place in a pre-Reformation cathedral. At the time of my visit, I am delighted to say the Cathedral made no charge for entry – unlike many similar institutions in this country. Accordingly, I was more than happy to make a donation for the privilege of dipping into such a vivid part of our heritage. There’s also a decent shop – reasonably un-tacky and twee-free – plus a regrettably uninspiring cathedral café. If you haven’t visited – go immediately.