Elegy Written in a Lichfield Churchyard

Many churches dedicated to St Michael are found on hills. Lichfield’s St Michael’s of course is at Greenhill, on a sandstone ridge 104 metres above sea level.   It’s thought a church has been on the site since 1190, but that the surrounding churchyard is older. There are hints as to this earlier history of this site, but as far as I can see things are still very much at the questions, rather than answers stage. Many people believe the position of the church on a hill, and its dedication to St Michael may indicate a previous pagan site.   I hadn’t realised until reading that the crypt was liable to flooding, that there are natural springs on the hill. Is this relevant to the story, and if so, how?

The answers we do have were, of course, mostly provided by archaeology. Evidence suggests there may have been activity here in the mesolithic era. In 1978, an excavation in the South East corner of the churchyard discovered five flints (albeit not in a primary context).

Four years earlier, the building of a new vestry at the church gave archaeologists the opportunity to open a trench. Unsurprisingly for a churchyard they discovered human remains – forty nin complete or partial skeletons. Of these, all but two were buried in the customary Christian manner, with their head to the west. However the head of ‘Skeleton 21’, was to the east. Apparently, this can sometimes suggest that the remains of a Christian priest have been uncovered. By being buried with their feet to the west they were ready to rise and face their flock on judgement day, as they had done in life. However, the archaeologist noted the absence of a chalice and patten, objects that priests were often buried with (as was the case with the remains of the priest near the old leper hospital in Freeford).  ‘Skeleton 58’ also differed from the others being buried with his/her knees tucked under the chin. This crouched burial style is apparently more associated with Pre-Norman conquest burials, although I’m still doing some background reading to try and shed more light on what exactly this kind of burial is thought to signify in this context.

The archaeology report also mentions skeletons 2 and 8,  those of an adult, and a baby placed on the adult’s shoulder, and speculates this may be a woman who died in childbirth. It’s discoveries like this, I think, that remind you that these were real people with real lives (that were all too short in many cases).

By the mid 16th century, church records are kept (I’ve used those transcribed by Harwood), and begin to tell us a much more detailed story of the churchyard,  enabling us to gives names and identities to those laid to rest here. For example, this is the entry for 1560

– Recevyd for the ffyrst grasse of the Churche Yarde
– for the later Grasse of the Churche Yarde
– of gatherynge in Easter Wyke
– for light at the buryall of Jamys Bywater’s Wyffe and her Chylde
– for light at the monthe mynde of Roberte Walker
– for light at the monthe mynde of Roger Walker
– for light at the buryall of a Chylde of the Walle
– for light at the mynnynge of Mr Swynfen
– for light at the buryall of Roberte Cowper’s Wyffe

The church records also records costs for ‘killing molldiwarps’ in 1597, bestowing ‘on the workmen at several tymes in beare and ale’ in 1602, and money ‘payd for catching urchins’ in 1612 (urchins meant hedgehogs. I hope!).

While some things never change – a footnote tells how a person named Hollingbury was tried at Lichfield in 1612 for stealing lead from the church, others thankfully have – ‘William Key of Bliffeld and Nicholas Hatherton of Lichfield two prisoners condemned according to the Laws of this land and executed here at this Cittie were both buryed in one grave the 17th day of October 1592’.

There are still those buried at a later date whose names are not specifically recorded. An entry in the register says that for ‘From April 14 1642 to Feb 19 1645 were buried twenty five soldiers’, and I’ve either read or been told that victims of the plagues that struck Lichfield (51 per cent of Lichfield’s population died of plague in 1593-4, and 32 per cent, in 1645-6) were buried in pits here.

The majority of headstones seem to date from the 18th century onwards, although there may be earlier memorials here. I have seen examples of gravestones dating back to the early 1600s in other churchyards, such as this one at Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire.

Examples older gravestones at Southwell Minster

Of course, some people, presumably those wealthy citizens of the city, even erected monuments like this well known one belonging to Chancellor Law, which used to have a clock in the centre.

As with many places, we might never get definitive answers about the origins of St Michael’s churchyard, but who knows? As we’ve seen before, one discovery can change everything. And in the meantime, it’s a fascinating part of the city to keep asking questions about!


Gould, Dorothy & Gould, J 1974-5 `St Michael’s churchyard, Lichfield, Staffs’ Trans S Staffordshire Archaeol Hist Soc 16 58-61 

The history and antiquities of the church and city of Lichfield by Thomas Harwood


5 thoughts on “Elegy Written in a Lichfield Churchyard

  1. I`ve been exploring St Michaels for a while, it`s a fascinating area. It has significant religious importance as one of five ancient burial grounds of the kings of Mercia.
    As i`ve mentioned on the christ church thread, churches tended to be built on former pagan sites-what better way is there than to claim a site and so guarantee the locals will still visit that `sacred `place?.
    “whilst you`re here visiting this heathen well, perhaps i could interest you in this new bible?” Saint Augustine might of said when he consecrated the site..

    Mesolithic flint remains (10.000-4,000BC) were found during an archaeological dig, so the area has been important for a long time.

    St Michael is primary associated with the legend of fighting a dragon on top of a hill. Most churches on hills are usually dedicated him.
    He doesn`t kill the dragon, it`s implied that he is controlling the negative influence of the dragon. This could be an analogy for the christian taming of the pagan old ways.
    He`s also associated with healing the sick and particularly at wells and sacred waters and many wells are dedicated to him.

    I wonder if theres a natural spring there? ( possibly the reason the crypts keep flooding?). So It`s probable the site has had religious importance long before it was christianised.

    The Bower (Greenbough?) used to leave from St Michaels hill, perhaps harking back to pre-christian days when people met for `feast-ivals` and celebrations there?.

    There`s some very old large boulders in the graveyard, one has been carved with a cross but i think they may be much older. It was common to un-pagan a sacred stone either from a circle or a well by carving crosses into them.

    So all in all, St Michaels is an interesting part of our history, and there`s alot more to discover i hope!


    • It is such an interesting part Pat, and it seems that the only way they get to discover a little more about the history is when they make some changes! I have seen an archaeology report which confirms there are natural springs, so as you say, that could also add to the idea this was a pre-Christian site.I knew about St Michael’s churches being on top of hills but wasn’t exactly sure why and I also didn’t know he had an association with wells. I did read one theory that other have discounted that place St Chad’s oratory on the site of St Michael’s! I would also love to know more about the origins of the bower – not the Court of Arraye part, but the other parts. And thank you for telling me about the boulders I had no idea about them and once the snow clears I will be going to take a look. Thanks so much for your comment.


  2. Pingback: Signs of Spring | Lichfield Lore

  3. On the subject of lead, Dr plot in his Natural History of Staffs (1686) tells that in the year 1682 the leaden coffin of one of the members of the Skeffington family of Fisherwick, laid in the vault of St Michael’s Church of Lichfield, swam so cleverly, in 9 inches of water, that one may thrust it to and fro with a walking stick…this being looked upon by the vulgar as little less than a miracle.

    He goes on to explain the rules of “Hydroflaticks”.

    Regards Peter


  4. Pingback: Bones of Contention | Lichfield Lore

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