Lichfield Cathedral is my favourite building in Staffordshire.
I have always been fascinated with this place and have memories as old as I can remember of visiting on a school trip one summer and of magical, late night Christmas Carol services with my family.
It is the only English cathedral to have three spires and I can remember trying to spot them from nearby routes passing by on many trips through childhood.
As one of the earliest centres of Christian worship in the country, the place and its setting feel enchanted – the mightily impressive frontage, darkened with age stands tall over the beautifully manicured close and proud against the blue sky above. The intricate figures and gargoyles on the building add to its intrigue imbuing a deep sense of 1,300 years of history at the site of this ancient and intriguing place of worship.
The cathedral which stands today took over 150 years to build is a sandstone testament to the sheer wealth, importance and reverence which religion was held in during the vast annuls of history.
Similar to other Cathedral cities which nowadays are fairly small compared to major cities of modern times, the building itself towers above the town and completely dominates the skyline. Looking at it, it feels not only of a completely different time but also of another place – by modern ways of thought its astonishing that this is here in the seventh smallest city in the country but that seems to add to its uniqueness and historical intrigue.
Walking around the hallowed ground the scale of the building has always astonished me. This, combined with the intricacy and craftsmanship which adorns every nook and cranny of the place makes for a spectacular combination – a tour de force of the power of ancient spirituality and medieval stonemasonry.
Lichfield came to prominence in 669 when St Chad, Bishop of Mercia, declared ‘Lyccidfelth’ his bishop’s seat and the area became the focal point of Christianity in the Kingdom of Mercia, more commonly known today as the Midlands.
Despite the bishop’s seat being moved to Chester in the eleventh century in the aftermath of a Viking attack on the Kingdom of Mercia, so impressive was his teaching and so genuine was the way he practised what he preached, that on his death in 672 a Saxon church was erected to house his bones and Lichfield became a place of pilgrimage.
Christmas Day 700 saw the consecration of the first cathedral in Lichfield. This was followed by the construction of a Norman Cathedral in 1085 following the Norman invasion of 1066.
The construction of the Cathedral was overseen by Bishop Roger de Clinton, who ensured that the building and its surrounding area known as Cathedral Close became a stronghold against enemy attack and secured the town with a bank, ditch and entrance gates.
Clinton was also responsible for connecting the small settlements which made up the city with a ladder-like distribution of streets such as Market Street, Bore Street, Dam Street, and Bird Street, which remain in the city today.
In 1195, following the return of the bishop’s seat to Lichfield, work began on an ornate Gothic Cathedral which would take a century and a half to complete. This third incarnation is, for the most part, the same Cathedral which can be seen today.
Among the cathedral’s many treasures, from the time of the Anglo Saxons (probably under King Offa) there is the exquisite 8th century sculpture of the ‘Lichfield Angel’ from the St Chad’s tomb chest, as well as the St Chad Gospels – dating from around 730 meaning they are one of the oldest surviving manuscripts in Britain. It is fascinating to think of the person who transcribed these very words – where were they, what did they look like, what were they thinking and did they ever imagine in their wildest dreams how the next 1,290 years would go.
As a focal point in Lichfield throughout the ages, the Cathedral has had a somewhat tumultuous history.
During the Reformation and Henry VIII’s break with the Church in Rome, the act of worship changed dramatically.
For Lichfield Cathedral this meant that the shrine to St Chad was removed, altars and adornment of any kind were destroyed or removed and the Cathedral became a solemn, sombre place and without income from the pilgrimages to St Chad’s shrine. The nearby Franciscan Friary was also dissolved and torn down.
The onset of the ‘Black Death’ in 1593 (which consumed over a third of the population) and Mary I’s cleansing of supposed heretics meant that Lichfield was not a fun place to be in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Interestingly, Edward Wightman, the last person to be burnt at the stake in public in England, was put to death in Lichfield’s Market Place on 11 April 1612.
The Cathedral and its surroundings still bear the scars of the Civil war.
Initially, the Cathedral was under Royalist occupation before being taken over by the Parliamentarians in 1643. Having briefly recaptured the Cathedral, the Royalists lost it once again to the Parliamentarians in 1646. During the battle to take control, the Cathedral was badly damaged and its central spire destroyed. However, Parliamentarian occupation saw even further damage to the Cathedral. Monuments were destroyed, statues were defaced and used to sharpen swords and parts of the Cathedral were used as pens for pigs and other animals. Careful restoration of the Cathedral began during the Reformation, but it would be many years before the building would be restored to its former glory.
An interesting local tale is that of Lord Robert Brooke, the Parliamentarian leader who was in charge of the assault on the Cathedral in 1643. Having stopped in the doorway of a building in Dam Street to assess the battle, the purple colour of Brooke’s uniform – signifying his officer status – was spotted by a lookout atop the Cathedral’s central spire named John ‘Dumb’ Dyott – so called because he was both deaf and dumb. Sensing that he had an important enemy in his sights, Dyott took aim and fatally shot Brooke in the left eye.
Brooke’s death was considered a good omen by the Royalists holding the Cathedral as the shooting took place on 2 March, which was also St Chad’s Day. A memorial plaque can still be found in the doorway of the building on Dam Street, now known as Brooke House.
The windows of the Lady Chapel at the far end of the building contain some of the finest medieval Flemish Painted Glass in existence. The glass has recently been reinstalled to the Cathedral in early 2015.
It contains seven Renaissance Herkenrode glass windows represent the greatest collection of unrestored 16th Century Flemish glass anywhere in the world dating from the 1530s. They were bought by the Cathedral to replace medieval stained glass lost during the Civil War, and brought to England in 1803.
The glass came from the Abbey of Herkenrode (now in Belgium) in 1801 having been purchased by Brooke Boothby when that abbey was dissolved during the Napoleonic Wars.
For a city with such rich local history, there are also numerous ghost stories attached to Lichfield. One such story in the aftermath of the Civil War is the supposed haunting of Cathedral Close by Roundhead soldiers. It has been said that on many a quiet evening in the city the hooves of the soldier’s horses can be heard galloping through the Close.
The Cathedral was spared during World War 2 by the Luftwaffe, who used its three spires as a navigational aid. If the enemy airmen reached the cathedral, built in 1195, they knew they were at the point of no return in terms of fuel limit.