29 May 2012

A spell in the cells but not in the stocks

The former prison cells in the Guildhall in Lichfield tell a tragic tale and are now open to the public (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

I was in jail last Saturday. Not that I had committed any crime or was suspected of any wrongdoing. But I was visiting the cells in the Guildhall in Bore Street, Lichfield.

The Guildhall was once at the centre of law enforcement in Lichfield, and has been at the heart of civic government in the cathedral city for over 600 years. In the past, it has been the meeting place of Lichfield Corporation but it has also served at different times as a court, prison, police station, theatre and fire station.

The story of the Guilhall in Bore Street dates back to at least the late 14th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The Guildhall takes its name from the ancient Guild of Saint Mary and Saint John the Baptist, which had a hall on this site from very early times. The first Guildhall may have been built around 1387, when King Richard II confirmed the incorporation of the Guild which had been in existence for many years.

The Guild remained the effective city government of Lichfield from its incorporation by charter in 1387 until 1548, until the incorporation of the city by a charter from King Edward VI in 1548.

Four successive generations of the Comberford were admitted to membership of the guild and one member of the family was Master of the Guild, a position that was equivalent to that of Mayor. William Comberford, as “Will’s Combford,” was admitted to membership of the Guild in 1469. Within a few years, William’s son, John Comberford, as “Joh’s Cumberforde,” was admitted to membership of in 1476.

A third generation of the Comberford family became involved in the governance of the city when Thomas Comberford (ca 1472-1532) of Comberford, as M’r Thomas Cumberforth, was admitted to membership of the Guild in 1495. Humphrey Comberford was the fourth generation of his family to take an active role in the life of the Lichfield Guild. In 1530, as “Humfridus Cumberforde,” he became the Master of the Guild. In the same year, his sister-in-law, “Dame Isabella Cumberforde,” wife of Judge Richard Comberford was admitted to membership of the guild, indicating her strong commercial interests in the city.

A large stained-glass window at the north end of the main hall on the first floor of the Guildhall came originally from the north transept of Lichfield Cathedral in 1891 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The importance of the guild began to fade after 1548, when Lichfield was incorporated as a city under a charter from Edward VI. The lordship and manor of Lichfield, previously held by the Bishop of Lichfield, were leased to the Corporation of Lichfield, and the town’s government was vested in two bailiffs and 24 burgesses. Five years later, in 1553, Queen Mary made Lichfield a county separate from the rest of Staffordshire.

The Guildhall saw major rebuilding in 1707 and again in 1741, when it was said to be so ruinous that it was in danger of falling down. Most of the present ground floor, and the smaller rooms at first and second floor level at the back of the Guildhall date from that period.

A century later, the Guildhall was in a very poor state of repair once more. In 1844, the Conduit Lands Trust granted £2,500 “to put the Guildhall to rights once and for all,” and the Guildhall as we see it today was rebuilt substantially in 1846. During this restoration and remodelling, the gothic-style frontage to Bore Street was added and a magnificent panelled main hall was designed for the first floor.

Major refurbishment, restoration and repair works in recent years has provided improved facilities for civic, public and private functions.

The Main Hall in the Guildhall being arranged for a wedding on Saturday afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The main hall is 26 metres long and 7.5 ft metres wide. With a high-pitched roof and hammer beams, it has a fine mediaeval appearance. At the north end is a large stone tracery stained-glass window, originally in the north transept of Lichfield Cathedral and moved to the Guildhall in 1891.

Other rooms include the Guild Room on the ground floor, the Ashmole Room midway between the first and second floors, the Whytmore Room and the Stonynge Room on the second floor.

In recent years, major refurbishment, restoration and repair works in recent years has provided improved facilities for civic, public and private functions.

The Guildhall is used for Lichfield Council meetings and civic events. The main hall and the smaller rooms are often used for public meetings, weddings, dances and as function rooms, with a seating capacity of 160 to 195. The Lichfield District Arts Association organises a lively programme of arts events and concerts, and on Saturday last there was an exhibition of paintings by local artists in the long Corridor Gallery on the ground floor, leading from the Bore Street entrance to the former prison cells.

The Corridor Gallery in the Guildhall ... often used for exhibitions by local artists and photographers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

At the end of the Corridor Gallery, the old prison for felons and debtors is at the back of the building and dates from 1553. From there, condemned convicts were taken to be publicly hanged at the gallows.

The cells tell the haunting tales of prisoners in the 18th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The cells were recently refurbished and were reopened by Lichfield City Council last month [11 April 2012] to mark the 400th anniversary of the execution of Edward Wightman. One of the best-known occupants of a Guildhall cell, he was the last man to be burned at the stake for heresy in England in 1612 and was brought to from his cell in the Guildhall to his death in the Market Square.

Now, once again, visitors can inspect the cells where prisoners were kept before being sentenced to public humiliations like flogging, or being sentenced to prison, to transportation or even to being executed or burned at the stake in the Market Square.

The Scold’s Bridle ... among the exhibits in the cells in Lichfield Guildhall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Two cells tell the separate but equally haunting tales of a woman and a man who were imprisoned in the Guildhall. In another cell the former uniforms of town criers are on display. Panels tell of the squalid conditions that were condemned after a prison by the penal reformer John Howard, and Scold’s Bridle is among the instruments of torture in the exhibition.

An annotated list of former crimes and criminals shows the severe punishments meted out to the poor and the lowly for petty crimes.

In a more light-hearted vein, the Guildhall continues to be used for the ancient Court of Arraye and Saint George’s Court.

The uniforms of former town criers on display in the former cells (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The Court of Arraye is a humorous assembly of men at arms and the traditional start of the Bower Festival. It starts at 10.30 on Spring Bank Holiday Monday – this year’s court takes place next Monday next [4 June 2012] at 10.30.

The origins of the Court of Arraye or View of Men at Arms are unknown, but people in Lichfield say the custom dates back to the 12th century. The statues of Arraye (1285) were repealed in the reign of James I but the court has continued to assemble, but in a light-hearted manner, when an assembly of men in mediaeval amour is inspected by the Mayor, Sheriff and City Officials who then hear the reports of the Dozeners on the state and preparedness of the defences of their area of the city. The Mayor, Sheriff and High Constables of Lichfield then join the Bower Procession through Lichfield.

The Court Baron and View of Frankpledge, or Saint George’s Court, is a light-hearted revival of the ancient manorial court, and takes place each year on Saint George’s Day [23 April]. The manorial rights of the Barony of Lichfield were transferred by a Charter from King Edward VI in 1548 to the Bailiffs, Burgesses and Commonalty of the City, which in today’s terms means the Mayor, councillors and citizens.

The Court still appoints the ancient officers of the manor: two High Constables, seven Dozeners (or petty constables), two Pinners and two Ale Tasters. The High Constables report on their work over the past year, and a jury is empanelled to impose fines on anyone who has rejected the summons to attend, after first hearing their amusing excuses.

The cells remain open on Saturdays until the end of September (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The cells and the displays in the Guildhall are open from 10am to 4pm every Saturday until the end of September. To find out more about the cells telephone 01543 264972 or email sjmuseum@lichfield.gov.uk . To find out more about hiring the Guildhall telephone 01543 309850 or email sarah.wallace@lichfield.gov.uk .

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