26 March 2020

A ‘virtual tour’ of
more than a dozen
churches in Lichfield

The three spires of Lichfield Cathedral seen from Erasmus Darwin’s Gardens, soaring above the backs of the houses facing onto the Cathedral Close (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

On Monday evening, I invited readers to join my on a virtual tour or pub crawl of 12 pubs in Lichfield that have been closed due to the Coronavirus or Covid-19 pandemic, in the hope that these pubs would reopen when the present crisis is over.

Then, on Wednesday evening, I invited readers to join me on a virtual tour or pub crawl of 12 pubs in Lichfield that have been closed for years.

But the cathedral and the churches of Lichfield are also closed at present, and the clergy are prohibited from entering the buildings.

So, this evening, I invite you to join me on a church crawl, visiting the cathedral and a dozen or so churches in Lichfield and nearby.

As well as the cathedral, Lichfield has three historic city churches dating from mediaeval times: Saint Chad’s at Stowe, Saint Michael’s at Greenhill, and Saint Mary’s in the Market Place. However, Lichfield was unique among English cathedral cities in its parochial arrangements. The three city churches had no parishes, but were part of the parochia of the cathedral, with the churches effectively chapels of ease that were served by cathedral clergy.

1, Lichfield Cathedral:

The West Front of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The cathedral, dedicated to Saint Chad and Saint Mary, dates back to 669 when it became the episcopal seat of the new bishop, Saint Chad. A later tradition says a church was built here in 656 or 657 by King Oswiu. Saint Chad’s cathedral and the funerary church built in 700 stood on or near the site of the present cathedral.

The Cathedral Close, with the mediaeval Vicars’ Close, is one of the most complete in England.

Candles light up the choir in Lichfield Cathedral at Choral Evensong (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The ornate west front was extensively renovated in the Victorian era by Sir George Gilbert Scott and includes a remarkable number of ornate carved figures of kings, queens and saints.

These are complemented by figures of the seven Fathers of Church above the south door: Augustine of Hippo, Jerome, Ambrose of Milan, Gregory the Great, John Chrysostom, Athanasius and Basil.

The three spires of the cathedral are known affectionately as the ‘Ladies of the Vale.’

2, Saint Chad’s Church, Stowe:

Saint Chad’s Well and Saint Chad’s Church at Stowe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Chad’s Church at the far end of Stowe Pool, half a mile north-east of the cathedral, sits in a slight hollow. The name Stowe indicates a holy place or church. It is said that when Saint Chad first moved to Lichfield in 669, he built his oratory on the site of Saint Chad’s Church now stands.

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

Stowe Well at Saint Chad’s is traditionally associated with Saint Chad’s prayer life, and he is said to have died here.

Saint Chad’s became a separate parish with its own rector in 1867.

3, Saint Michael’s Church, Greenhill:

Saint Michael’s Church, Greenhill … stands on an earlier burial site (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Michael’s Church, with its large graveyard, sits on the top of the hill at the west end of Lichfield. Its spire dominates the surrounding area along with the three spires of the cathedral on the opposite hill.

The site may have been an early Christian burial ground, perhaps the site of a Mercian burial site or a much earlier pagan sanctuary. Local lore has identified this site with the burial place of 1,000 early Christians – the legendary Saint Amphibalus and his 999 companions – said to have martyred during the reign of Diocletian in the year 300. Other legends identify the place of martyrdom with Christian Fields.

Inside Saint Michael’s Church, Greenhill (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The first church at Saint Michael’s is not recorded until 1190, and the oldest remaining parts of the present church date from the 13th century. But much of the present church dates from rebuilding projects in the 1840s.

Saint Michael’s was associated with the family of Lichfield’s most famous writer, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). After he visited Lichfield for the last time in 1784, he returned to London and composed an inscription for a floor slab in the centre of the nave to commemorate his father Michael Johnson, mother Sarah Johnson and his brother Nathaniel Johnson who are buried in the middle aisle.

A family mausoleum was erected in the church the late 18th century in the angle of the chancel and the south aisle by the Earl of Donegall (later the Marquess of Donegall). He lived at Fisherwick and also owned Comberford Hall, and gave his name to Donegal House on Bore Street, Lichfield. The mausoleum was destroyed during rebuilding and restoration works in 1842-1843.

The graves in the churchyard include an unusual ‘saddle-back’ tomb and the graves of members of the family of the poet Philip Larkin. John Brown, who sounded the trumpet for the Charge of the Light Brigade, is also buried here.

4, Saint Mary’s Church, Market Square:

Saint Mary’s Church, Market Square … now The Hub at Saint Mary’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Mary’s Church in the Market Square is in third mediaeval city church in Lichfield. Today, Saint Mary’s houses Lichfield Library and is The Hub at Saint Mary’s, an arts and culture hub in the centre of Lichfield, providing Lichfield with a welcoming , inclusive and thriving community venue, and offering a diverse programme of high quality arts, music and theatre.

A note dated 1713 in the churchwardens’ accounts says an ancient inscription in the tower stated that the foundation stone had been laid in 856. But Saint Mary’s is not recorded until 1293.

Inside Saint Mary’s Church and The Hub at Saint Mary’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Guild of Saint Mary and Saint John the Baptist, which was attached to Saint Mary’s, was formed in 1387 with the amalgamation of two earlier guilds. The guild had four chaplains by 1466, and they helped with the daily services in the church. The guild became, effectively, the civic government in Lichfield and Saint Mary’s was the guild church and then Lichfield’s civic church, where the bailiffs and the corporation had their own seats.

A vicarage was at Saint Mary’s was established in 1491 with the dean and chapter as patrons, although the boundaries were vague.

The present church dates from the later 19th century, having replaced a church opened in 1721. George Edmund Street was the architect of the tower built in the 1850s and James Fowler was the architect responsible for rebuilding Saint Mary’s in the 1860s. Most of the costs of the Victorian rebuilding were born by the Lonsdale family.

The Dyott Chapel in north side of the chancel was the burial place of the Dyott family of Freeford. Family members were buried in the vault at night following a torchlight procession from Freeford Manor.

5, Christ Church, Leomansley:

Christ Church, Lichfield … a Gothic Revival triumph by the Lichfield architect Thomas Johnson (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Christ Church, Leomansley, is on the south-west side of Lichfield, close to Beacon Park and surrounded by ancient yew trees. The site for the church was donated in 1844 by Richard Hinckley of Beacon House, his wife Ellen Jane, and Hugh Woodhouse, formerly of Beacon House. The cost of building the church was met by Ellen Hinckley, and Richard Hinckley also gave a house in Christchurch Lane as a vicarage.

Ellen Jane Hinckley was the daughter of John Chappel Woodhouse (1780-1815), Dean of Lichfield (1807-1833), and a niece of the Lichfield hymn-writer, Frederick Oakeley (1802-1880), best known as the translator of ‘O come, all ye faithful.’

Ellen’s first husband was Canon William Robinson, and they had two daughters, Ellen-Jane and Marianne, who died in their childhood in 1813 and 1814. These two children are the subject of the memorial in Lichfield Cathedral carved by Sir Francis Chantry and known as ‘The Sleeping Children.’

Inside Christ Church, Leomansley (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Christ Church was consecrated in 1847, and the parochial area was formed in 1848 out of Saint Michael’s and Saint Chad’s parishes. The church is built of red sandstone and was designed in a Decorated style by Thomas Johnson of Lichfield.

The interior decorations and fittings include an alabaster reredos designed by the Gothic revival architect George Frederick Bodley, a pupil of Sir George Gilbert Scott and the architect of All Saints’ Church on Jesus Lane, Cambridge; windows by Hardman and Kempe; and unique Pre-Raphaelite canvas panels on the ceiling of the chancel painted by John Dickson Batten (1860-1932), commissioned to mark the 50th anniversary of the church.

6, The Chapel in Saint John’s Hospital, Saint John Street:

The Chapel at Saint John’s Hospital, Saint John Street … my spiritual home since my experiences there one summer afternoon in 1971 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Each time I return to Lichfield, I spend some time in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital. These are times for prayer, times of pilgrimage and times for giving thanks, and I am sorely missing a return visit I had planned for these three days (26 to 28 March 2020).

Saint John’s has remained my spiritual home since my experiences there one summer afternoon in 1971. Going on from there to Choral Evensong in Lichfield Cathedral was a combined experience that marks the beginning of my adult faith and a pilgrimage that would lead eventually to my ordination and priesthood.

I have been privileged to preach here twice: Canon Roger Williams when he was the Master of Saint John’s, invited me to preach at the mid-week Eucharist on 12 August 2009, and on the feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist, 24 June 2015, I was invited by the 49th Master, Canon Andrew Gorham, to preach at the Festal Eucharist in the Chapel.

Earlier in 2015, the local historian Dave Moore who makes films on local people and their memories of local history, filmed five interviews with me in this chapel, asking me about faith and ministry, my family connections with Lichfield, my move from journalism to the ordained priesthood, my grandfather’s part in World War I, and my views on war and nationalism.

The story of the Hospital of Saint John Baptist Without the Barrs of the City of Lichfield – its formal title – is the story of the important place Lichfield had as a centre of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages.

Pilgrims who arrived late in the day found their entry was barred, and they were left outside for the night without shelter. To meet their needs, Roger de Clinton, Bishop of Lichfield (1129-1148), built an Augustinian priory just outside the Culstrubbe Gate, where the road from London arrived at the south side of Lichfield. For 300 years or more, Saint John’s provided hospitality for travellers and pilgrims, while local people used the chapel as a place of worship.

When William Smyth became Bishop of Lichfield, he re-founded the priory in 1495 as a hospital for 13 ‘honest poor men … of old age and poverty,’ as a free grammar school. The new statutes provided for a Master who was a priest.

Inside the Chapel at Saint John’s Hospital, Saint John Street … a tradition rooted in hospitality for pilgrims (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A north aisle was added to the chapel in 1829, and a new three-bay arcade was built. In another major restoration in 1870-1871, the Master of Saint John’s, Philip Hayman Dod (1810-1883), repaired and renovated the chapel, raising the walls of the nave, building a new roof, and adding buttresses outside and a stone bell-cote and bell.

John Piper’s magnificent stained-glass window depicting ‘Christ in Majesty’, executed by Patrick Reyntiens, was placed in the east window of the chapel in 1984. The chapel also has windows by the Victorian stained-glass designer and manufacturer Charles Eamer Kempe (1837-1907).

In recent years, 18 new apartments have been built at Saint John’s without the Barrs. The project was delayed when 50 mediaeval skeletal remains – adults and children alike – were found in shallow graves. Their remains may help archaeologists learn more about the lives, times and habits of mediaeval pilgrims.

7, The Chapel of Dr Milley’s Hospital, Beacon Street:

Dr Milley’s Hospital on Beacon Street … dates back to 1424 and was re-founded in 1505 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Alongside the Cathedral and Saint John’s Hospital, Dr Milley’s Hospital on Beacon Street is one of the oldest surviving buildings in Lichfield. The original almshouse was founded almost 600 years ago by the Bishop of Lichfield, William Heyworth, in 1424, and was refounded and endowed by Canon Thomas Milley over 500 years ago in 1505.

The pedimented tablet above the entrance says:

This hospital for fifteen women was founded by Thomas Milley, DD, Canon Residentiary of the Cathedral Church of Lichfield AD 1504.

The front range, facing onto Beacon Street, contains a central stone porch giving access to a wide entrance hall flanked by rooms for the matron and almswomen. It is possible that the large beam in the entrance hall below the chapel dates back to the building of 1504, and I had to stoop my head several times when I visited with a group organised by local historian Kate Gomez and the local history group Lichfield Discovered.

Inside the chapel … in the oldest part of Dr Milley’s Hospital (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The hospital is a two-storey, red-brick building, with a stone plinth and stone dressings. Originally the building was L-shaped in plan: from the southern end of the front range, a long rear wing extended back along the southern boundary of the property.

The chapel is in the oldest part of the building, and is in a separate space on the first floor, above the porch and hallway and facing east.

8, Wade Street Church:

Wade Street Church represents a tradition dating back to the 1670s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When I was speaking six months ago [17 September 2019] in Lichfield on the Comberford family of Comberford Hall and the Moat House, Tamworth, at the invitation of Lichfield Civic Society, the venue was the Wade Street Church Community Hall on Frog Lane, and I was given a personal guided tour of Wade Street Church.

Wade Street Church represents the continuity of a religious tradition that dates back to 1672, when five houses in Lichfield were licensed for Presbyterian worship. The Congregationalists or Independents who met in Tunstall’s Yard in 1790, grew into the United Reformed Church in Wade Street, and the church has been both a United Reformed and a Baptist church since 1997.

Salem Chapel on Wade Street was registered for public worship in 1811, the church was officially opened in 1812, and the Revd William Salt was ordained as its first full-time minister.

To meet the needs of a growing congregation, the rear gallery was opened on Christmas Day 1815, and the side galleries added by 1824. One of these side galleries still has the original numbered box pews that continued to be rented until the early 20th century.

The interior of Wade Street Church, Lichfield, seen from the gallery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A new hall was built on Frog Lane in 1932, but in the decades that followed, the congregation grew and declined, following national trends. The Congregationalist churches in Britain united with the Presbyterian Church in 1972 to form the United Reformed Church, and Wade Street Church was part of this new union.

An attempt was made to sell the church in 1980s. But Lichfield District Council listed the building, it was refurbished, a new floor was provided, the pews were ‘dipped’ and cleaned, new carpets were laid, and the old tortoise stove was removed. The congregation grew steadily in the 1990s, and the church became an ecumenical partnership with the Baptists.

A £500,000 project was launched to redevelop the premises, and new multipurpose facilities opened in 2005, ahead of target and under budget.

9, Methodist Church, Tamworth Street:

The Methodist Church on Tamworth Street … looking out on the city, and inviting the city in (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Methodist church at the city end of Tamworth Street, at the junction with Lombard Street, has undergone extensive redevelopment in recent years, with the addition of schoolrooms and meeting rooms.

Although John Wesley visited Lichfield three times in 1755, 1756 and 1777, he never preached here, and the first Methodist chapel in Lichfield was not registered until 1811. The present church on Tamworth Street was designed by Thomas Guest of Birmingham and opened in 1892. This is the home church of the Lichfield Circuit, which includes the Methodist churches in Shenstone and Alrewas.

The glass doors at the main entrance of the church mean that on a Sunday morning the church is looking out onto Lichfield, and Lichfield is looking into the church at worship … an architecturally perfect way to express the mission of the Church.

10, Holy Cross Church, Upper Saint John Street:

Holy Cross Church, Upper John Street, Lichfield … the door is reflected in AWN Pugin’s designs for Saint Michael’s Church, Gorey, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Father John Kirk bought the site for a Roman Catholic church in Upper Saint John Street in 1802 and within a year had built a house and a chapel that was originally dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

When the chapel was enlarged and rebuilt by the Lichfield-born architect Joseph Potter (1756-1842) in 1834, the dedication was changed to the Church of the Holy Cross. Potter was also the architect for Newton’s College in the Cathedral Close and the Causeway Bridge at Bird Street.

Holy Cross Church is a brick building in a Gothic style with an entrance front and turret of Tixall stone in a mixed Romanesque and Gothic style.

Inside Holy Cross Church … Pugin’s screen and other furnishings have long disappeared (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

While Potter was working on Holy Cross Church in 1834, the great Gothic revival architect, AWN Pugin, first visited Staffordshire and stayed in Lichfield during an architectural tour of the Midlands and the West Country ‘in search of the picturesque and the beautiful.’

Pugin’s stay in Lichfield was memorable for two reasons. First of all, he arrived late at night, and in the dark he crept unwittingly into the wrong bedroom. Aware of something soft and warm in the bed, he found it to be ‘the thigh of a female occupant already turned in.’ There were loud screams and shouts. Chambermaids came rushing in with lighted candles. Pugin had some difficulty in convincing everyone that he had made a genuine mistake.

But Pugin was in for another unpleasant shock when he visited Lichfield Cathedral the next day. Taken aback by the refurbishment of the cathedral thirty years earlier by James Wyatt (1746-1813), he declared: ‘Yes – this monster of architectural depravity, this pest of Cathedral architecture, has been here. need I say more.’

Pugin returned to Lichfield in 1837. After staying briefly at Wolseley Park with Sir Charles Wolseley, a recent convert to Roman Catholicism, Pugin returned to Lichfield. By then, Potter had completed Holy Cross Church, and Pugin added a screen and other furnishings in 1841 ... although they have long disappeared.

Lichfield has a second Roman Catholic church, Saint Peter’s and Saint Paul’s Church on Dimbles Hill.

11, Christadelphian Hall, Station Road:

The Christadelphian Hall or ecclesia on Station Road, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

One of the less well-known religious groups in Lichfield may be the Christadelphians, with their small ‘ecclesia’ or church on Station Road, which blends in with the neighbouring redbrick houses and goes almost unnoticed by many despite its proximity to the centre of Lichfield.

The story of Christadelphians in Lichfield dates back a century and a half to 1870, when the recently appointed headmistress of Saint Chad’s School on Beacon Street was forced to resign because of her Christadelphian beliefs.

The former Saint Chad’s School on Beacon Street … the headmistress was forced to resign in 1870 because of her Christadelphian beliefs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A few years later, Thomas Sykes, who had formed a small Christadelphian community at Bourton on the Water in Gloucestershire, moved to Lichfield in 1874. By 1885, eight Christadelphians were meeting in each other’s houses, and in 1890 a meeting room was opened above Thomas Sykes’s shop in Tamworth Street.

Their numbers increased, and from 1903 meetings were held in Saint James’s Hall in Bore Street. After Saint James’s Hall was converted into a cinema in 1912, the Christadelphians built their own hall in Station Road. It opened in 1914 and was extended in 1959.

Christadelphian congregations traditionally use the name ‘ecclesia,’ from the New Testament Greek ekklesia (ἐκκλησία), meaning assembly or church, and they resist using the word ‘church’ because of its association with mainstream Christianity. To this day, the Christadelphian building on Station Road is known as the Christadelphian Hall or ecclesia.

12, The former Franciscan Friary:

The Franciscan Friary was founded around 1229, when the first Franciscans or Greyfriars arrived in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Franciscan Friary once stood in a large estate on the west side of Lichfield. The friary was founded around 1229, when a group of Franciscans or Greyfriars arrived in Lichfield. Henry III gave them oak trees from local forests for building and grants of money, and they were given houses and land by Alexander de Stavenby, Bishop of Lichfield (1228-1238).

When a large fire in Lichfield destroyed the Friary in 1291, the people responded generously and the friary was rebuilt.

The friars had generous benefactors in Lichfield. Henry Champanar granted the friars a free water supply from his springs at Aldershawe. The Crucifix Conduit was built at the gates of the Friary at the corner of Bore Street and Bird Street in 1301, and remained there until the 20th century. When John Comberford died in 1414, he left 10 shillings for masses to the Franciscan mendicant friary in Lichfield.

The friars live a simple life of poverty, chastity and obedience and spent most of their time preaching and caring for the poor and sick of Lichfield. But with the wealth accrued from generous benefactors, the simple timber structures were replaced by large sandstone buildings on a 12-acre site. The large church had a nave measuring 110 ft x 60 ft, and a chancel 95 ft x 28 ft; the cloister was 80 sq ft. The buildings also included a dormitory lodge, a refectory and domestic dwellings.

A gate leading into the former friary gardens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

At the Dissolution of monastic houses, 301 years after the Franciscans had arrived in Lichfield, the Friary was dissolved in 1538. The majority of the buildings, including the church, cloisters, refectory and domestic buildings were demolished, and most of the site was cleared. 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.

The estate and remaining buildings were sold for £68 in 1544 to Gregory Stonyng, the Master of Saint Mary’s Guild, which provided the effective civic government of Lichfield.

The 11 acres of the Friary estate that remained were bought by Sir Richard Ashmole Cooper, MP for Walsall, in 1920. Cooper gave the Friary to the city to develop housing and to lay out new roads and suburbs. In recent years, the former Friary School and library and the Bishop’s Lodging have been converted into modern apartments.

13, A variety of churches:

Cruck House on Stowe Lane … used in recent decades by a variety of religious groups (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In limiting myself to a dozen churches or places of worship this evening, I have omitted many traditions that contribute to the religious mosaic of Lichfield.

At different times, the Cruck House on Stowe Street has been used for worship by a variety of groups, including the Society of Friends or Quakers, who now meet at the Martin Heath Hall in Christchurch Lane; a group of Brethren who formed the Lichfield Christian Centre in 1986 met first in rooms in Bore Street and later in Cruck House; and a Spiritualist church.

A Pentecostalist church met in 1961-1969 in the Frank Halfpenny Hall on George Lane until 1969, when the Emmanuel Pentecostal church opened in Netherstowe. It later became the Emmanuel Christian Centre, and is now known as the Life Church.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have met in Lichfield at least from 1956. Their Kingdom Hall in Lombard Street was once a Wesleyan chapel.

The Mormons or Latter Day Saints have been present in Lichfield since 1861, when they had a meeting room in Sandford Street. The present Mormon church in Purcell Avenue was registered in 1972, and from 1972 to 1977, the Mormons’ English headquarters was in Lichfield.

14, Three extra churches:

Saint John’s Church, Wall, stands above the Roman ruins of Letocetum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

There were Christians, probably with a church, at the Roman settlement at Wall or Letocetum, and it is possible that Christianity persisted in the area after the Romans withdrew in the year 410.

The parish church in Wall was built in 1837 and in 1843 was consecrated as the Parish Church of Saint John. The church is set at the top of a rise and is said to stand on the site of a Roman temple dedicated to the goddess Minerva, and later used for Mithraic worship. But even before the Romans, this may have been the site of Celtic temple dedicated to the god Cernunnos, who was the equivalent of the Roman Pan.

Inside Saint John’s Church, Wall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The site for the church was donated by John Mott of Wall House in 1840, along with an endowment of £700, and a further grant of £500 came from Robert Hill, a previous owner of Wall House.

The church is the work of William Bonython Moffatt (1812-1887) and his partner, the great Victorian architect Sir Gilbert Scott (1811-1878).

The Church of Saint Mary and Saint George in Comberford … closed in 2013 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

And for readers who would like me to move a little further out of Lichfield, I would not be cheating if I added the former Church of Saint Mary and Saint George in Comberford, which was closed to great local disquiet at the end of 2013 – it is, after all, within Lichfield District.

The church was originally donated to a Lichfield Diocesan Trust for the people of Comberford by the Paget family who lived at Elford Hall. The first stone was laid at a special ceremony in 1914 and the building was completed in 1915.

The church is of architectural interest as one of the churches designed by Andrew Capper. A well-known Gothic revival architect, he worked closely with George Edmund Street. He designed, refurbished or contributed to rebuilding other churches in the Diocese of Lichfield, including Saint Leonard’s Church, Dunston, South Staffordshire; Saint Cuthbert’s, Donington, a Grade II Listed Building; and, I think, Saint Mary’s, Dunstall. His work alone makes the village church in Comberford of interest to architectural and heritage groups.

Here are two other churches within Lichfield District, and just a few miles outside the city:

Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Farewell (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Mary’s Church, Weeford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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