Lichfield Cathedral

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Lichfield Cathedral

Cathedral Church of St Mary
and St Chad, Lichfield

Lichfield, Staffordshire

Status: Cathedral
LichCathedral5.jpg
The West Front of Lichfield Cathedral
Church of England
Diocese of Lichfield
Location
Grid reference: SK115097
Location: 52°41’8"N, 1°49’50"W
History
Built c. 1195–1340
Gothic
Information
Website: www.lichfield-cathedral.org

The Cathedral Church of St Mary and St Chad, Lichfield,[1] commonly called Lichfield Cathedral, stands in the heart of the City of Lichfield in Staffordshire, and serves as the seat of the Bishop of Lichfield and his Diocese of Lichfield, which covers Staffordshire and the northern half of Shropshire.

The cathedral is a distinctive building: the only mediæval British cathedral with three spires.

Overview

Ground Plan of the Cathedral

The cathedral is dedicated to St Chad and St Mary. Its internal length is 370 feet, and the breadth of the nave 68 feet. Of the three spires the highest is the central spire, which climbs to 252 feet, while the western spires are about 190 feet.

The stone is sandstone and came from a quarry on the south side of Lichfield. The walls of the nave lean outwards slightly, due to the weight of stone used in the ceiling vaulting; some 200–300 tons of which was removed during renovation work to prevent the walls leaning further.

Lichfield suffered severe damage during the Civil War in which all of the stained glass was destroyed. In spite of this the windows of the Lady Chapel contain some of the finest mediæval Flemish painted glass in existence. Dating from the 1530s it came from the Abbey of Herkenrode in Belgium, in 1801, having been purchased by Brooke Boothby when that abbey was dissolved during the Napoleonic Wars. It was sold on to the cathedral for the same price. There are also some fine later windows by Betton and Evans (1819), and many fine late 19th century windows, particularly those by Charles Eamer Kempe.

The Lichfield Gospels, also known as the Book of Chad, are the gospels of Matthew and Mark, and the early part of Luke, written in Latin and dating from around 730. There were originally two volumes but one went missing around the time of the Civil War. It is closely related in style to the Lindisfarne Gospels. The manuscript is on display in the Chapter House from Easter to Christmas.

The Close is one of the most complete in the country and includes a mediæval courtyard which once housed the men of the choir. The three spires are often referred to as 'the Ladies of the Vale'.

History of the cathedral

Early history and elevation to Archbishopric

The cathedral choir
The nave, towards the communion table

When Chad was made Bishop of Mercia in 669 he moved his See from Repton to Lichfield,[2] possibly because this was already a holy site, as the scene of martyrdoms during the Roman period, and closer to the royal capital.

The first cathedral to be built on the present site was in 700, when Bishop Hedda built a new church to house the bones of St Chad; the site of his body had become a sacred shrine to many pilgrims when he died in 672. In the next century Offa, King of the Mercians, seemed to resent his own bishops' paying allegiance to the Archbishop of Canterbury in Kent. Whilst Kent was at that time under Offa's indirect control, it was not of his own kingdom of Mercia. Offa therefore created his own archbishopric in Lichfield in 786, who presided over all the bishops from the Humber to the Thames. This arrangement was confirmed by some complex politics involving the Bishop of Rome, Pope Adrian I, whose representatives confirmed agreement to the change at the Council of Chelsea in 787, against the strong opposition of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Jaenbert. Higbert was duly installed as Archbishop of Lichfield and King Offa promised to send an annual shipment of gold to the pope for alms and supplying the lights in St Peter's church in Rome. However 16 years later King Offa died, the political wheels changed, and the Archbishopric of Lichfield was abolished.

Starting in 1085 and continuing through the twelfth century the original wooden Saxon church was replaced by a Norman cathedral made from stone, and this was in turn replaced by the present Gothic cathedral begun in 1195. It was completed by the building of the Lady Chapel in the 1330s. The Choir dates from 1200, the Transepts from 1220 to 1240 and the Nave was started in 1260. The octagonal Chapter House, which was completed in 1249 and is one of the most beautiful parts of the Cathedral with some charming stone carvings, houses an exhibition of the cathedral's greatest treasure, the Lichfield Gospels, an 8th-century illuminated manuscript.

Devastation of the Civil War

There were three great sieges of Lichfield during the period 1643–1646 as the cathedral was surrounded by a ditch and defensive walls it made a natural fortress. The cathedral authorities with a certain following were for the king, but the townsfolk generally sided with the parliament, and this led to the fortification of the close in 1643. Robert Greville, 2nd Baron Brooke, led an assault against it, but was killed by a deflected bullet from John Dyott (known as 'dumb' because he was a deaf mute) who along with his brother Richard Dyott had taken up a position on the battlements of the central cathedral spire on 2 March 1643. Brooke's deputy Sir John Gell, took over the siege. Although the Royalist garrison surrendered to Gell two days later, the close yielded and was retaken by Prince Rupert of the Rhine on 20 April of the same year.

Rupert's engineers detonated what is said to have been the first mine to be used in Britainin the Modern Period, to breach the defences. Unable to defend the breach, the parliamentarians surrendered to Rupert the following day. The cathedral suffered extensive damage: the central spire was demolished, the roofs ruined and all the stained glass smashed.

Bishop Hacket began the restoration of the cathedral in the 1660s, aided by substantial funds donated by the restored monarch, but it was not until the 19th century that the damage caused by the Civil War was fully repaired. Up until the 19th century, on top of an ornamented gable, between the two spires, stood a colossal figure of Charles II, by Sir William Wilson. Today it stands just outside the south doors.

Victorian restoration

The Cathedral Close

Although the 18th century was a golden age for the City of Lichfield, it was a period of decay for the cathedral. The 15th-century library, on the north side of the nave, was pulled down and the books moved to their present location above the Chapter House. Most of the statues on the west front were removed and the stonework covered with Roman cement. At the end of the century James Wyatt organised some major structural work, removing the High Altar to make one worship area of Choir and Lady Chapel and adding a massive stone screen at the entrance to the Choir. Francis Eginton painted the east window and was commissioned by the chapter to do other work in the cathedral.

The ornate west front was extensively renovated in the Victorian era by Sir George Gilbert Scott. It includes a remarkable number of ornate carved figures of kings, queens and saints, working with original materials where possible and creating fine new imitations and additions when the originals were not available. Wyatt's choir-screen had utilised mediæval stone-work which Scott in turn used to create the clergy's seats in the sanctuary. The new metal screen by Francis Skidmore and John Birnie Philip to designs by Scott himself is a triumph of High Victorian art, as are the fine Minton tiles in the choir, inspired by the mediæval ones found in the Choir foundations and still seen in the Library.

Lichfield Angel

The Lichfield Angel carving

In February 2003, an eighth century sculpted panel of the Archangel Gabriel was discovered under the nave of the cathedral. The two-foot tall panel is carved from limestone, and originally was part of a stone chest, which is thought to have contained the relics of St Chad.[3] The panel was broken into three parts but was still otherwise intact and had traces of red pigment from the period. The pigments on the Lichfield Angel correspond closely to those of the Lichfield Gospels which have been dated to around 730. The Angel was first unveiled to the public in 2006, when visitor numbers to the cathedral trebled. After being taken to Birmingham for eighteen months for examination, it is now exhibited in the cathedral.

Outside links

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References

  1. Lichfield Cathedral - Information for Prospective Lay Vicars
  2. Bede: The Ecclesiastical History of the English People
  3. Wilcox, Peter (2011). The Gold, the Angel and the Gospel Book. Lichfield Cathedral. pp. 16–17. ISBN 978-0-9558887-7-9.