The City of Lichfield
by Ben Johnson
The city of Lichfield is located 18 miles north of Birmingham, in the county of Staffordshire. Steeped in history, evidence of a Prehistoric settlement has been found throughout the city and over 230 historic buildings have been carefully preserved, making the city a traditional haven amongst the more modern, urban landscape of the surrounding towns in the West Midlands.
Today we associate the term city with large conurbations such as Birmingham or London. So how did Lichfield, an area less of less than 6 square miles with a fairly modest population of approximately 31,000 become a city?
In 1907, King Edward VII and the home office decided that city status could only be granted for an area with ‘a population of 300,000 plus, a “local metropolitan character” which was distinct to the area and a good record of local government’. However, in the sixteenth century when Lichfield became a city the head of the Church of England, Henry VIII, introduced the concept of dioceses (a number of parishes supervised by a bishop) and city status was awarded to the six English towns which housed diocesan cathedrals, of which Lichfield was one.
It was not until 1889, when Birmingham lobbied for and was granted city status on the basis of its population growth and local government achievements that the diocese connection was no longer required.
However Lichfield’s history pre-dates Henry VIII by a fair distance and there have been several theories as to the origin of the city’s name. The most gruesome suggestion – ‘field of the dead’ – dates back to 300 AD and the reign of Diocletian, when 1000 Christians were supposed to have been murdered in the area. The first part of the name certainly has similarities with the Dutch and German words lijk and leiche, meaning corpse, although historians have found no concrete evidence to support this myth.
Perhaps the most likely theory is that the name is taken from a nearby Roman settlement called Letocetum, established in the first century AD and located two miles south of Lichfield at the junction of the main Roman roads Ryknild and Watling Street. A thriving staging post during the second century, Letocetum had all but disappeared by the time the Romans eventually left our shores in the fifth century, its remnants to become the small village of Wall which still exists today. It has been suggested that Lichfield was settled by the former populace of Letocetum and their Celtic descendants who had remained in the local area.
Lichfield came to prominence two centuries later in 666AD 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, Lichfield remained a place of pilgrimage for many years following Chad’s death in 672AD. A Saxon church was erected as a resting place for his remains and this was followed by the construction of a Norman Cathedral in 1085.
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 150 years to complete. This third incarnation is, for the most part, the same Lichfield Cathedral which can be seen today.
A focal point in Lichfield throughout the ages, the Cathedral has had a 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. 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 Civil War
The English Civil War skirmishes during 1642-1651 brought further hardships for Lichfield. The city was split between allegiances to King Charles I and his Royalists and the Parliamentarians or ‘Roundheads’, with the authorities on the side of the King and the townspeople in support of Parliament.
As an important staging post, both sides were keen to take control of the city. 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.
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. Definitely one to listen out for if you find yourself alone in the Cathedral one dark night…!
Despite the damage wreaked by the Civil War, Lichfield prospered as a rest stop for travellers between London and Chester and Birmingham and the North East in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The wealthiest town in Staffordshire at the time, Lichfield was equipped with such modern conveniences as an underground sewerage system, paved streets and gas powered street lighting.
In addition to its architectural history, Lichfield has also produced a number of celebrated sons (and daughters!). Perhaps the most famous of these is Dr Samuel Johnson, the writer and scholar whose work has had arguably the most impact on the English language to date. While his love of London is encapsulated by his often quoted statement ‘when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’, Johnson held his home town in high regard and returned to Lichfield many times during his lifetime.
Johnson’s student David Garrick – who went on to become an acclaimed Shakespearean actor – was also raised in Lichfield and is remembered through the city’s eponymously named Lichfield Garrick Theatre. Erasmus Darwin, grandfather to Charles and noted physician, philosopher and industrialist and Anne Seward one of the foremost female Romantic poets were also native to Lichfield.
Unfortunately the introduction of the railways in the nineteenth century meant that coach travel became a thing of the past and Lichfield was bypassed by industrial centres such as Birmingham and Wolverhampton. However, the absence of heavy industry in the area meant that Lichfield was left fairly unscathed by the impact of World War II in comparison to nearby industrial towns like Coventry, which were badly bombed. As a consequence, much of the city’s impressive Georgian architecture is still intact today. Indeed between the 1950s and late 1980s the population of Lichfield has tripled as many have flocked to the area in search of a more traditional setting in the modern Midlands.
Even today, Lichfield and the surrounding areas continue to provide us with a link to the past. When restoration work was undertaken in the Cathedral in 2003, the remains of an early Saxon statue of what is believed to be Archangel Gabriel were discovered. Historians believe this to be part of the coffin which contained the bones of St Chad, whose followers saved him from the Viking attack which disseminated Mercia in the nine century and the violence of the Reformation seven hundred years later.
On 5 July 2009, a local man named Terry Herbert also stumbled across the most significant hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork to date in a field in the nearby village of Hammerwich. It has been suggested that the hoard is the remains of a tribute to King Offa from his subjects in the South. Sent to his stronghold at Lichfield, it is thought that the hoard was intercepted by outlaws who, on realising the significance of their loot and the trouble they would no doubt be in, buried it for retrieval at a later date. Much later as it turned out! Whilst artefacts have been displayed at the British Museum in London and across the pond in the National Geographic Museum, the hoard will be returned to the local area for permanent display in the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery and other local Mercian sites, including Lichfield Cathedral.
View our interactive map of Museums in Britain for details of local galleries and museums.
Try our interactive map of Anglo-Saxon Sites in Britain for details of nearby sites.
Lichfield is easily accessible by both road and rail, please try our UK Travel Guide for further information.