Pilgrims' Progress

In trying to find out more about the ferry that may have taken pilgrims across the water to the Cathedral, I came across an interesting description of what they may have found there on their arrival.

A document described as an ‘indenture chirograph’ (1), two feet five inches long and eleven inches wide, lists the goods found in the sacristy in 1345. A transcript of the original Latin is included in the ‘Collections for a History of Staffordshire 1886, Part II, Vol VI’, edited by the William Salt Society. Thankfully, there is also a translation alongside, so that I don’t have to fumble my way through using google translate! (2)

A tile and a simple portrait mark the place where Chad’s shrine once stood.

The first part of the inventory lists the various relics owned by the Cathedral, including of course those of Saint Chad. Chad died in 672AD and around 700AD his bones were moved to a new church, on or near to the site of the present Cathedral. It’s thought that the Lichfield Angel, discovered in 2003 whilst work was being carried out on the nave, may have been part of the original shrine, and that it may have been destroyed by Vikings. By the time the inventory was made in 1345, the holy bones seem to have been kept in several different places within the Cathedral. Chad’s skull was kept in the thirteenth century Saint Chad’s Head Chapel ‘in a painted wooden case’. The Cathedral website describes how initially pilgrims would ascend a staircase in the wall, walk around the head, and then exit down a second stairway which still exists today.

Staircase which pilgrims may have used to exit St Chad’s Head Chapel

An old photograph of St Chad’s Chapel

Eventually, due to the volume of traffic, one of the staircases was closed and the relic was shown to pilgrims from the balcony outside the chapel.  There is also mention of an arm of Blessed Chad, and other bones in a portable shrine, as well as the great shrine of St Chad. The latter was described as being decorated with statues and adorned with precious gifts and jewels and stood in the Lady Chapel of the Cathedral until the reformation. It’s believed that some of the Saint’s bones are now kept in the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St Chad’s in Birmingham, enshrined on 21 June 1841, the day that the Cathedral was consecrated. (3)

An old photo of the Lady Chapel

It wasn’t just the relics of Saint Chad that were owned by the Cathedral. Other items recorded in 1345 include:

Some of Mount Calvary and Golgotha, a piece of the rock standing upon which Jesus wept bitterly and wept over Jerusalem, some of the bones of the Eleven Thousand Virgins, part of the finger and cowl of St William, some of the bread of St Godric and some of the wood of the cross of St Peter

There were also said to be some of St Lawrence’s bones, part of his tomb and a piece of the gridiron he was executed on. (4) Interestingly, it’s said that at number 23, The Close, different coloured bricks have been used on the south wall to depict this this symbol of St Lawrence’s martyrdom. Since I read about this, I have a look every time I walk past, but as of yet, have not managed to spot it!

Statue of St Lawrence at the church named after him in Walton on Trent, which sits on the border between Staffordshire and Derbyshire

Saint Chad’s skull may be long gone but the pilgrims still come, and on certain occasions have their feet washed at the pedilavium, a medieval feature thought to be unique to Lichfield. There are also plenty of other heads to be found at Lichfield Cathedral. Some are scarred and defaced, whilst others have been restored. They are a reminder of the medieval craftsmen who created the church, those who tried to destroy it and those whose skills and labour restored Lichfield Cathedral to the mirabilis edificii that it is today (ok, I admit I used google translate for that one!).

The medieval pedilavium where pilgrims still sit to have their feet washed.

Notes:

1) I believe this refers to a document that would have been written in duplicate on the same piece of parchment, and then divided into two with a serrated edge, so that when both parts were brought back together and compared, you could be sure that each was genuine and not a forgery.

(2) A footnote says ‘This transcript and translation were originally undertaken for ‘The Journal of the Derbyshire Archaeological Society’, and are now reprinted after careful revision and correction. It was the joint work of W H St John Hope, FSA and the compiler of this catalogue’. Thanks very much folks!

(3) The relics of St Chad were apparently smuggled out of Lichfield after the reformation and eventually ended up in Birmingham, a journey of thirty miles that took 300 years! You can read more about that journey here. I don’t think anyone knows what happened to the other relics.

(4) In a nutshell the legend of St Lawrence is that he was a Deacon of Rome, and when asked by the Prefect of Rome to assemble the treasures of the church  for him,  he brought him the poor and suffering, stating it was they who were the true treasures of the church. The legend says he was executed by being roasted over a gridiron (but some say he was most likely beheaded).

Sources: 

Collections for a History of Staffordshire 1886, Part II, Vol VI’, edited by the William Salt Society

Lichfield Cathedral Website – http://www.lichfield-cathedral.org/History/the-gothic-cathedral.html

Lichfield: The cathedral close’, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield (1990), pp. 57-67

Potholes

After visiting the Christian Fields Local Nature Reserve, it seemed a good time to revisit the story that gave a name to the immediate area, and according to some, to the wider city as well.

Legend has it that in around 300AD, one thousand (or 999 depending on which version you read) Christians were massacred by a Roman army and their bodies left unburied in a place that would become known as the ‘Field of Corpses’ aka Lichfield (from the OE lic – body/corpse).   From 1548, versions of this story were depicted on the city seal, examples of which can still be seen in several places across the city, including the Martyrs Plaque at Beacon Park, 19thc police badges on display in the City Gaol, and in the main hall at the Guildhall.

Version of the City Seal from 1688, Main Hall, Guildhall

Several fairly obvious locations in the city have been mooted as possibilities for the specific location of the massacre, including Borrowcop Hill, St Michael’s Churchyard and the site of the Cathedral. However, what was it about this parcel of land, a mile north of the Cathedral that convinced people to such an extent, that it was given the name ‘Christian Fields’?

The image below is an aerial view of the area from 1971. Christian Fields is south of Eastern Avenue, between Dimbles Lane and Curborough Rd.  (Shortly afterwards, a new housing estate was built on the field. Perhaps as a nod to the site’s legendary history, the streets were named after saints. Funnily enough, one of these new houses was my husband’s childhood home – I must ask my in-laws if they ever found anything of interest in the garden!)

An aerial view of Christian Fields, 1971. Reproduced with thanks to Gareth Thomas, Lichfield District Council

Lichfield District Council’s information on the site says,

In the 17th-century the antiquarian Robert Plot declared that the area, now known as Christian Fields, had been the site of the martyrdom and it has born the name ever since. Needless to say Robert Plot’s claim has never been substantiated and no archaeological evidence has ever been presented in its support.

Looking at John Speed’s 1610 map of the city, I wonder whether the idea that the massacre took place at Christian Fields actually pre-dates Robert Plot? At the end of a road leading north from the Cathedral (possibly Dimbles Lane?), in the vicinity of Christian Fields, is an illustration depicting a scene that looks like a representation of the legend, similar to that found on the city seal.

John Speed’s 1610 map of Lichfield

In the early 1800s, local historians wrote about a series of discoveries near to the site, that persuaded them that the legend was true. The pastscape record has the following description, taken from a history book of the time,

In a meadow adjoining CHRISTIAN FIELDS, known by the name of the TOAD’S HOLE PIECE, have been recently found a considerable quantity of human bones, various pieces  of earthenware, some of which are Roman, a stone bowl or dish perhaps used for grinding corn, a stone ball, fragments of weapons including the head of a pike or halberd and several horseshoes  pierced for nails at the top as well as the sides. The objects  were discovered nearly four feet below the surface in a peaty soil, amongst and covered by great quantities of roots and decaying branches.

I found the book (1) on googlebooks and found it contained illustrations of the objects.

 

A letter to the Gentleman’s Magazine in November 1817 gave a little more information,

The articles of which I have sent you drawings were found near some land known by the singular names of Hic Filius and Christian’s field so called, according to tradition, from having been the place where the early converts to Christianity had used to assemble  and where the massacre from which Lichfield derives its name took place.

The letter goes on to describe what I think are these drawings from the Staffordshire Past Track site. – “a stone dish one foot diameter used perhaps for grinding was placed in the earth as a cover for a smooth red earthenware broken by the eagerness of the workmen to examine the contents (proved earth only). The black spots arc metallic. Also, the head of a weapon in preservation the wooden staff was broken off near the head, the iron is 21 inches in length.  There are also weapons found in 1817 in the foundation of one of the canons houses on the North side of the Close with some bones and broken armour”.

I’m not suggesting that the objects are proof of the legend, which along with the ‘Field of the Dead’ explanation of the place name of Lichfield is generally accepted to be untrue (the current favoured explanation of the name is ‘the common pasture in or beside the the grey wood).  However, and I may be reading into things too much here, I do think it’s a little curious that these items seem to almost be a tick list of props for the martyrs’ story…. Bones? Check. Horses & weapons? Check. A link to the Romans? Check.  The question I’m finding it hard to find an answer to is, if it’s agreed that these objects aren’t part of the story of the Christian Martyrs, in some way, shape or form, then whose story or stories are they part of?

Edit 6/10/2012

A further reference from the same book says the following,

About three quarters of a mile from (St Chad’s Well) are Hic filiius and Christians Fields where the converts of Ampbibalus are said to have been massacred; a considerable quantity of human bones have been found in the adjoining fields a few feet beneath the surface.

It has been the custom of civilized nations to collect and burn or bury the bodies of those slain in battle here fragments of bones are found scattered through a space exceeding half a mile and in one place only have they been met with under the appearance of having been buried which was in a field near Pones mill on the east side of the brook these had probably been dug up and thrown into an excavation as were several cart loads found in the field adjoining to that in which the earthen ware before noticed was discovered which were thrown into a marl pit near the spot. Tradition says the bodies of the massacred christians were left unburied a prey to the birds and beasts of the forest.

On maps from the later 1800s, there is a marl pit in the corner of the field marked as ‘Christian Fields’.

Sources

(1) A Short Account of the City and Close of Lichfield by Lomax, Woodhouse & Newling (1819)

(2) Derbyshire Record Office Online Catalogue

(3) Holinshed’s Chronicles ofEngland, Scotland & Ireland

http://www.english.ox.ac.uk/holinshed/index.php

http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=42340#s1

 

Appeal of Bells

If you heard the bells of St Michael’s ringing out late yesterday afternoon, you were listening to the launch of a restoration fund for the bells, which are in need of essential maintenance work.

According to the churchwardens accounts, the bells have been rung in the past to mark important national occasions, and in the bell tower there are plaques commemorating some of these and more locally significant events.

The blue plaque commemorates the ringing of bells for the marriage of Charles & Diana; the brown one commemorates a farewell peal for the retirement of Prebendary P Howard in 1947

Bell Tower steps

After negotiating the narrow and windy staircase back down into the church, I had a look around the rest of this lovely building. According to the listed building description, although the church is thought to be 13th century in origin (with a 14thc tower), much of the building dates back to the restoration of 1842/3 by Thomas Johnson. However, the church history booklet (a snip at £1.50!) suggests that whilst the church had undoubtedly needed some restoration work at this time, much of this work was  unnecessary and things of historic interest may have been lost. The booklet goes on to say that some of the restoration work was undone at the end of the 19thc.

Royal coat of arms(1711) above the chancel

The royal arms, as seen above the chancel, are from 1711, and replaced an earlier version. I’ve read that after the reformation, anglican churches were encouraged to display the royal coat of arms somewhere prominent, reminding people that the monarch was also head of the Church of England. The custom of displaying the royal arms continued until Victorian times, but these days can be found in only around 15% of churches. You can read more about the Churches Conservation Trust’s guide to Royal Arms in English churches here.

Having previously read that the Marquis of Donegal had erected a spacious family mausoleum near the chancel, I have to confess I was a little disappointed to find no trace at all of the ostentatious Chichesters of Fisherwick Hall. However, the church booklet explained that the rabbit infested mausoleum had been replaced by a stokehold in the 1842/3 restoration, and the bones buried elsewhere. Seems like none of Donegal’s buildings were destined to last long….

The chap below fared a little better than Donegal. Whilst his bones also ended up elsewhere, his effigy survived the ‘restoration’ and is behind a bench in the chancel. It’s thought to be William de Walton who endowed the church with land and died around 1344. I particularly like the inclusion of the faithful dog watching over his master in death.

One man & his dog – William de Walton’s effigy

The church has several other monuments, including most famously, that of Samuel Johnson’s mother, father and brother.

Back outside in the churchyard,  a woman approached me and asked ‘Are you thinking the same as me?’. Actually I wasn’t, because whilst I was thinking about missing bones, the woman was thinking about missing apples. Apparently in previous years, rich windfall pickings were to be had from the trees growing alongside the footpath. This year it was hard to spot a single fruit.

Peals but no peel

One thing I read in the history booklet, which I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on,  is that around the year 2000, a pump was installed to keep the crypt from flooding. I read in an archaeology report that ‘St Michael’s is a low hill with natural springs’. Could this have anything to do with the flooding?  I’ll explore this ancient burial ground in a post of its own. In the meantime, perhaps we could get the University of Leicester involved in a hunt for William de Walton and the Marquis of Donegal. They seem quite good at that sort of thing…..

Part of the 9 acres making up St Michael’s churchyard

Sources:

St Michael’s Church. Lichfield – A Short History by Rev Carpenter 1947

A short account of the city and close of Lichfield – Thomas George Lomax, John Chappel Woodhouse & William Newling

Archaeological Desktop Survey OSA Report No. OSAO6DTO2 (Onsite Archaeology January 2006)