02 March 2013

With the Saints in Lent (18), Saint Chad of Lichfield, 2 March

Saint Chad … a modern icon in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Chad, who died on 2 March 672, was a prominent seventh century Anglo-Saxon church leader, who became abbot of several monasteries, Bishop of the Northumbrians and subsequently Bishop of the Mercians or Lichfield. Saint Chad is a saint in the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, who all celebrate his feast day today [2 March]. He features strongly in the work of Venerable Bede and is credited, alongside his brother Saint Cedd, with introducing Christianity to the Mercian kingdom.

Much of what we know about Saint Chad comes from the writings of the Venerable Bede, who garnered his information about Saint Chad and Saint Cedd from the monks of Lastingham, where both were abbots.

Saint Chad was one of four brothers, all active in the Anglo-Saxon church. The others were Cedd, Cynibil and Caelin. Chad seems to have been younger than Cedd and the four brothers seem to have been from a family of Northumbrian nobility or ruling class. However, the name Chad is Celtic, rather than Anglo-Saxon in origin and is found in the personal names of many Welsh princes and nobles.

Bede tells us that in his early life Saint Chad was a student of Saint Aidan in his monastery in Lindisfarne, along his own brother, Cedd. Chad later travelled to Ireland as a monk, before he was ordained as a priest.

Bede says Saint Chad and his companion Egbert travelled together to in Ireland while Finan and Colmán were Bishops at Lindisfarne, which indicates they went to Ireland later than the death of Aidan, in 651. Egbert later recalled that he and Saint Chad “followed the monastic life together very strictly – in prayers, in continence and in meditation on Holy Scripture.”

Saint Chad’s time in Ireland fits into period 651-664, for in 664 he was back in Northumbria to take over from his brother Cedd, who was stricken by the plague.

During this lifetime, there was continuing conflict between Northumbria and Mercia. Penda, the pagan king of Mercia, continually campaigned against Northumbrian rulers, usually with the support of the Christian Welsh princes. In 641, Penda inflicted a crushing defeat on the Northumbrians, killing King Oswald. Northumbria was not fully reunited by Oswald’s successor, Oswiu, until 651. Oswiu then defeated and killed Penda in 655, causing the decline of Mercia for a more than a decade, and allowing the Northumbrian rulers to intervene in Mercian affairs.

Bede does not conceal the fact that Saint Chad departed from Roman practices in vital ways – before and after the Synod of Whitby. But the course of Saint Chad’s life between his time in Ireland and his emergence as a Church leader is unknown, and fresh details emerge again only with Bede’s account of Cedd’s career and the founding of their monastery at Lastingham.

The Saint Chad Gospel (top left) and the Staffordshire Hoard, found in a field near Lichfield, show the intimate links between the Celtic world and the Anglo-Saxon world of Northumbria and Mercia

Saint Cedd became a prominent figure in the Church in Northumbria while Saint Chad was in Ireland. In 653, he was sent by Oswiu on a difficult mission to the Middle Angles or Mercia. He was recalled after a year, was sent on a similar mission to the East Saxons, and was consecrated bishop soon after. Later, Saint Cedd became Abbot of Lastingham.

Saint Chad reappears on the Church scene in 664, shortly after the Synod of Whitby (663-664), when many Church leaders had died of the plague. When Cedd died, Saint Chad succeeded him as the Abbot at Lastingham.

When Saint Colmán, Bishop of the Northumbrians, left for Scotland after the Synod of Whitby decided against him, he was succeeded by Tuda, who lived for only a short time after.

Saint Chad is consecrated a bishop … an illustration in the tiles in the chancel of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Later, Saint Chad was invited to become Bishop of the Northumbrians by King Oswiu. Saint Chad travelled first to Canterbury for his consecration, but found that Archbishop Deusdedit had died and not been replaced. From Canterbury, he then travelled to Wessex, where he was consecrated by Bishop Wini of the West Saxons and two Welsh bishops.

Bede tells us that as a bishop, Saint Chad visited continually the towns, countryside, cottages, villages and houses in order to preach the Gospel.

In 666, Bishop Wilfrid returned to his diocese to find he had been replaced as bishop by Saint Chad and asserted his episcopal authority by going into Mercia and as far as Kent to ordain priests.

In 669, a new Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore of Tarsus, arrived in England. He instructed Chad to step down in favour of Wilfrid. But Theodore was so impressed by Chad’s show of humility that he confirmed his episcopal consecration at the same time. Saint Chad then retired gracefully and resumed his post as Abbot of Lastingham.

Saint Chad (centre) on the West Front of Lichfield Cathedral, between King Richard II of England and King Penda of Mercia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Later that same year, King Wulfhere of Mercia, the Christian son of Penda, requested a bishop for Mercia. Archbishop Theodore called Saint Chad out of his retirement in Lastingham.

Saint Chad is placed on horse by Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury ... an illustration in the tiles in the chancel of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Archbishop Theodore was greatly impressed by Chad’s humility and holiness, including his refusal to use a horse, walking everywhere instead. However, despite his regard for Saint Chad, Theodore ordered him to ride on long journeys and on one occasion even lifted him into the saddle.

Lichfield Cathedral lit up at night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Chad now became the fifth bishop of the Mercians, with a territory centred on the middle Trent and lower Tame – the area around Lichfield, Tamworth, and Repton. Because Wulfhere donated land in Lichfield for Saint Chad to build a monastery, the centre of the Diocese of Mercia became settled on Lichfield. Lichfield was beside the old Roman road of Watling Street, the main route across Mercia, and a short distance from Mercia’s main royal centre in Tamworth. But the Diocese of Mercia was expansive, stretching across England, from coast to coast.

Saint Chad’s monastic house in Lichfield may have been similar to the monastery in Lastingham, and was partly staffed by monks from Lastingham. Indeed, Saint Chad remained Abbot of Lastingham for the rest of his life.

When he became bishop, Saint Chad set out to initiate much missionary and pastoral work in Mercia, and, according to Bede, he governed the diocese “in the manner of the ancient fathers and in great perfection of life.” He built a small house at Lichfield, a short distance from the church, large enough for his eight disciples.

However, Saint Chad only worked in Mercia for 2½ years before he too died of the plague on 2 March 672. He was buried at the Church of Saint Mary, which later became part of Lichfield Cathedral.

Many years later, his friend Egbert told a visitor that someone in Ireland had seen the heavenly company coming for Saint Chad’s soul and returning with it to heaven. However the story is also told of Saint Owini the hermit of Lichfield (4 March)

The Chapel of Saint Chad’s Head in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

According to Bede, Saint Chad was venerated as a saint immediately after his death, and his relics were translated to a new shrine. There he was revered throughout the Middle Ages. His tomb was in the apse, directly behind the high altar of the cathedral while his skull was kept in a special chapel, above the south aisle.

At the dissolution of the shrine at the same time as the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538, Canon Arthur Dudley of Lichfield Cathedral removed and retained some relics. They passed from him to his nieces, Bridget and Katherine Dudley, of Russells Hall. In 1651, they were found again in the home of a dying farmer, Henry Hodgetts, who gave them to the Jesuit priest who heard his last confession. They were later moved to the Seminary at St Omer, in France.

In the early 19th century, the relics came into the possession of Sir Thomas Fitzherbert-Brockholes of Aston Hall, near Stone, Staffordshire. After his death, they were presented to Bishop Thomas Walsh, the Roman Catholic Vicar Apostolic of the Midlands in 1837 and were enshrined in Saint Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham, in a new shrine designed by Augustus Pugin.

The Chapel of Saint Chad’s Head in Lichfield Cathedral recalls that the saint’s skull was kept here until the Reformation. The site of his medieval shrine is also marked in the cathedral.

Saint Chad is being celebrated in Lichfield Cathedral today at Morning Prayer in the Shrine Chapel (8.45 a.m.), the Eucharist (12.30) and Solemn Evensong (5.30 p.m.). But the Patronal Eucharist is being celebrated in the cathedral tomorrow (Sunday 3 March) at 10.30 a.m., when the preacher is the Very Revd Robert Willis, Dean of Canterbury, and the setting is Palestrina’s Missa Brevis.

Saint Chad’s Well, where Saint Chad is said to have baptised his converts, is in the churchyard at Saint Chad’s Church close to Lichfield Cathedral.

Saint Chad’s Well at Saint Chad’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Lent in Lichfield Cathedral

When Saint Chad died in 672 pilgrims began to visit his shrine. In 700, Bishop Hedda built a new church to house the saint’s bones. From 1085 into the 12th century, the Saxon church was replaced by a Norman cathedral, and then by the Gothic cathedral begun in 1195.

Pilgrimages to the shrine of Saint Chad continued for many years. The cathedral was expanded by the addition of a Lady Chapel, and by 1500 there were as many as 20 altars around the Cathedral.

All this changed at the Reformation, and the cathedral was severely damaged during the Civil War, coming under siege three times in the mid-17th century.

Bishop Hacket restored the cathedral in the 1660s, and William Wyatt made substantial changes in the 18th century. From 1855-1878, the cathedral architect Sir George Gilbert Scott was responsible for its successful restoration to its mediaeval splendour.

Today, Lichfield Cathedral still stands at the heart of Lichfield Diocese and is a focus for the regular worship of God, the life of a thriving community, the work of God in the wider world, and for pilgrimage.

This year, throughout Lent, Lichfield Cathedral is hosting a Stations of the Cross Exhibition by Ghislaine Howard. This is a unique sequence of paintings and drawings and is on display throughout Lent and Easter until 8 April.

These 14 large monochrome paintings, completed in 2000, are the culmination of 10 years sustained exploration by the artist, charting Christ’s journey along the Via Dolorosa to Calvary.

Lichfield Cathedral is also hosting a Lent Lecture Series this year. The next lecture is on Thursday next (7 March) when Paul Spicer, the composer and conductor, speaks on “The Musical tradition of the Passion.”

The present bishop of Lichfield, the Right Revd Jonathan Gledhill, is the 98th Bishop of Lichfield.

A statue of Saint Chad at Saint Chad’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Collect:

Almighty God,
from the fruits of the English nation who turned to Christ,
you called your servant Chad
to be an evangelist and bishop of his people:
give us grace so to follow his peaceable nature,
humble spirit and prayerful life,
that we may truly commend to others
the faith which we ourselves profess;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.


Ecclesiasticus 3: 17-24; Psalm 84; I Timothy 6: 11b-17; Luke 14: 7-11.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Holy Father,
who gathered us here around the table of your Son
to share this meal with the whole household of God:
in that new world where you reveal
the fullness of your peace,
gather people of every race and language
to share with Chad and all your saints
in the eternal banquet of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Inside Saint Chad’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Tomorrow (3 March): John and Charles Wesley and the Third Sunday in Lent.

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