25 June 2015
The Bishop’s Lodging has survived until
now … but can it continue to survive?
I am staying this week on Swan Road in Lichfield, close to the Friary, the Library and the site of the former Franciscan Friary.
The Franciscans were founded by Saint Francis of Assisi in 1209, and within a generation, they had founded a Friary in Lichfield in 1237. Alexander de Stavenby (1224-1238), Bishop of Lichfield, made the foundation of the Friary possible when he granted the friars “certain free burgages in the town for them to set their house on.”
The Friary was destroyed in a large fire that raged through Lichfield in 1291. But it was quickly rebuilt thanks to the generosity of the people of Lichfield. In time, the Franciscans were known as the Grey Friars because of the colour of their habits.
When John Comberford of Comberford died in 1414, his bequests included 10 shillings for masses to the Franciscan mendicant friary in Lichfield. With generous bequests and increasing wealth, the simple timber structures in the Friary in Lichfield were replaced by large sandstone buildings standing on a site of over 12 acres. The nave of the large church measured 110 ft x 60 ft, the chancel 95 ft x 28 ft and the cloister 80 ft square.
At the dissolution of the monastic houses in 1538, most the Friary buildings, including the church, cloisters, refectory and most of the domestic buildings, were demolished, and the site was cleared and sold for £68 to George Stonyng, Master of the Guild of Saint Mary and Saint John, which had been the effective civic government of Lichfield.
Apart from some of the walls, the only buildings to survive were the Dormitory on the west range and a house known as ‘Bishop’s Lodging’ in the south-west corner of the 10.5 acre estate of the former site.
In 1545, Stonyng remodelled the remaining Friary buildings for his own domestic use, and built a brick house on part of the site of the mediaeval friary.
Over the next four centuries, the buildings were bought and sold to different people. Gregory Stonyng was one of the first two bailiffs of the new Lichfield corporation in 1548-1549.The Friary estate was inherited by his son Edward, who died in 1611. But Edward’s son Henry sold the estate to Thomas Clayton, and then passed through the Hill and Johnson families.
Tenants in the 18th century included Michael Rawlins, a former town clerk, and Thomas Cobb, political agent for Lord Anson and Lord Gower. Mrs Cobb and her niece, friends of Samuel Johnson, who often visited them. William Inge of Thorpe Constantine, a magistrate for both Lichfield and Staffordshire, lived here later in the 18th century and carried out many improvements.
In 1891, the trustees of Richard Johnson’s charity sold the 11½ acre estate to the tenant John Godfrey-Fausett. When he died, it was sold to Harry Tichborne Hinckes of Tettenhall, and it was then sold in turn to Colonel Henry Williams and Sir Richard Ashmole Cooper, MP for Walsall.
The Cooper family business is noted for the invention of insecticides related to veterinary products and the Sheep Dip. Sir Richard's son, Sir William Cooper, once boasted: “Our family solved Australia’s economy overnight.”
In 1920, Cooper gave the 11 acre estate to the city for the purpose of developing the area and laying out a new road. Bird Street and Bore Street had become congested with traffic and the west side of Lichfield was still under-developed.
The new Friary Girls’ School was built in 1921, and incorporated the building known as the Bishop’s Lodging on the south west of the building. The school was designed around the existing buildings in 1921-1928 by GC Lowbridge, the Staffordshire County Architect.
In 1928 the road named The Friary was built across the former Friary site. The new road called for the relocation of the clock tower, the demolition of buildings on the south side of Saint John Street and the demolition of much of the west range of the remaining buildings from the original Friary.
The former church site of the Friary was threatened with development in 1933. However, Councillor Thomas Moseley secured permission to carry out an archaeological excavation. The dig revealed the extent and layout of the ruins of the Friary. The site was eventually designated a Scheduled Ancient Monument, stopping any danger of development.
The site is now a public garden and slabs set in the grassy ground show the layout of the walls of the cloister, as well as parts of the north wall of the nave. A classical style portico was erected in 1937 to frame the entrance to the excavated ruins. The portico came from Sir Richard Cooper’s home at Shenstone Court.
The Friary School moved to the north side of Lichfield in 1975, and the former school building now serves as Lichfield Library.
At the present library, a window to the right of the entrance has an ex-situ gravestone found in 1746 but dating from the 14th century or earlier with a Calvary cross fleury and a worn inscription to Richard the Merchant.
The entrance hall of the Library also has a ceramic mosaic panel depicting a bull’s head – this was rebuilt on a smaller scale, and was originally a stall riser in a butcher’s shop in Tamworth Street.
A surviving stone fireplace from the Tudor buildings can be seen in the children’s library. This elaborate fireplace, ornamented with Gregory Stonyng’s name, is decorated with blue and white 17th or 18th century Dutch tiles. The tiles, which are somewhat battered, show street and working scenes, mainly centred on a single figure.
The Bishop’s Lodging is the only remaining part of the original Friary to survive since the dissolution. This red sandstone Grade II listed building one of the oldest buildings in the heart of Lichfield and is a Grade II listed building.
The house is presumably “the inn called le Bishop’s Lodging or le Great Chamber,” which was used by the friars as a guest house and included in the sale to Gregory Stonynge in 1544.
The Bishop’s Lodging is built of sandstone, probably in the early 16th century. The house, together with the south end of the west range of the Library, is L-shaped with a wing on the west.
However, local historians and local community groups are concerned that the integrity of the Bishop’s Lodging can survive the development known as the Chapter House, which was announced in Lichfield some months ago [19 March 2015].
This development of apartments in the grounds of the former friary, surrounded by landscaped gardens, is being developed by Pegasus Life as retirement housing for people approaching or enjoying retirement.
The development work on the site has already started. The developers promise to preserve some of Lichfield’s important historical heritage and say Chapter House will include 38 apartments in a new building with a design inspired by the Franciscan friary.
They say Monks’ Walk Garden – adjacent to the site – will also be protected as part of the plans. The green space, which includes nature areas and provides a teaching facility for local schools, will be preserved as a community area open to all. They also plan to restore the Bishop’s Lodging and to convert it into further apartments.
Whether the Bishop’s Lodging can be conserved and converted remains to be seen.