Bones of Contention

Last week, together with other members of the Lichfield Discovered group, I enjoyed a Gruesome and Ghostly tour around the city lead by one of Lichfield’s Green Badge Guides. Some tales were familiar (although it’s always fascinating to hear someone else’s version of a story you know), others were complete revelations. I was particularly intrigued by the story of an ancient adult male skeleton, apparently discovered with the remains of a tiny baby in his arms when an access road was being built behind Bakers Lane. (1) Obviously when listening to stories in these circumstances, you’re never quite sure where truth ends and anecdote, myth and legend creep in, and I was interested to know whether there was any substance to this story. As of yet I haven’t been able to find anything on this particularly, but as you might expect, searching for skeletons in Lichfield turns up all sorts of intriguing information….

In 1925, the Tamworth Herald got very excited when it heard that workers digging a trench in the grounds of St John’s Hospital in Lichfield had discovered human remains, announcing that the skeletons discovered were ‘probably over 700 years old’ and that they may be ‘priors and their bretheren’. The Rev John Ernest Auden, chaplain at the hospital, wrote to the Lichfield Mercury to set the record straight – yes, ten bodies had been discovered but it was unlikely that they were seven hundred years old, or even half that. It was also unlikely that they were priors as such burials were usually discovered alongside an article of their service, often a chalice and patten, as had been discovered in 1917 at the former leper’s hospital at Freeford (2).  It was much more likely that they were old residents of the hospital. Archaeological evidence in the form of tiles and pottery found alongside the bodies suggested that they had been there for around two hundred years. Rev Auden also recalled how, when he was curate of St Mary’s in 1886 to 1889, he could remember funerals taking place at St Johns and several older people he had known, including former resident of the hospital Henry Cartmale and City Coroner Charles Simpson, could recollect burials taking place in the grounds. Rev Auden also pointed out that there were three fairly modern gravestones under the Yew Tree supporting this.

Part of the courtyard at St John’s Hospital

Apparently one woman had protested at ‘the hideous sacrilege and desecration in using ground solemnly consecrated and dedicated as God’s acre for ever, for a bed for sewers’, and so Rev Auden took the opportunity to reassure her, and anyone else that was concerned about the work that was being carried out, that the bones had been collected and reburied together and that the Hospital Quadrangle would soon resume its peaceful aspect, plus the manholes.

Although they did make assumptions in this particular instance, to be fair to the Tamworth Herald, evidence for much older burials, in and around the hospital, was discovered in 1967, when according to the County History, a medieval burial was found during alterations to the almshouses. In June last year, Annette Rubery and local newspapers reported that further remains were found just one metre below the pavement outside the hospital, when workers were repairing a gas pipe, although I don’t think the date of this burial was ever confirmed?

In another post, I’ll look at ‘Councillor Moseley’s Graveyard’, the nickname given to the site of the Friary after Thomas Moseley secured permission to excavate the site in the 1930s, uncovering several skeletons and other archaeological remains, and also the area in and around Lichfield’s Cathedral Close, where amongst other discoveries, a very unusual burial was reportedly found within the walls of one of the buildings in the early eighteenth century. They don’t call this the Field of the Dead for nothing you know (4).

Notes:

(1) One of the reasons I find this particularly interesting is that it seems unusual that it’s a male skeleton with a young child. Over in St Michael’s churchyard, the remains of an adult with a child were discovered, but this was thought to be a mother who had died in childbirth (and was of course in consecrated ground). For more information on that see here. Also, it makes you think about past uses of land and what discoveries like this can tell us. Edit: I’ve just re-read the report and the actual wording is ‘an adult and tiny baby found buried together…it is possible they represent a mother and child who died at childbirth’, so I should make it clear.

(2) For more information on the human remains discovered at Freeford, and thought to be related to the fomer lepers hospital there, see here

(3) Mr Charles Simpson b. April 9th 1800. Solicitor, Town Clerk and Coroner for the City of Lichfield, and Clerk of the Peace for Staffordshire 1825.  d. April 22nd 1890Details from the Shrewsbury School Register 1734 – 1908, edited by….Rev J E Auden!

(4) As I’m sure everyone knows by now, Lichfield doesn’t really mean Field of the Dead, it’s just an old myth that’s most likely stuck because it’s more evocative than the real meaning of the the name which is thought to be something like ‘common pasture in or beside the grey wood’. For more on the place name and yet more Lichfield bones see here 

Sources:

:Lichfield Mercury Archive

Tamworth Herald Archive

www.annetterubery.co.uk

Hospitals: Lichfield, St John the Baptist’, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 3(1970), pp. 279-289

Shrewsbury School Register 1734 – 1908, edited by Rev J E Auden

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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