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!

Sources

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

 

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