18 January 2015

Visiting an ancient burial ground and
church at Saint Michael’s in Lichfield

Saint Michael’s Churchyard is one of the largest and one of the oldest burial grounds in England (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

Before I left Lichfield yesterday, I visited Saint Michael’s parish church on Greenhill and one of the oldest and one of the largest burial grounds in England.

Although much of the present church on a sandstone ridge on the east side of Lichfield dates from rebuilding projects in the 1840s, there has been a church on this high ground since at least 1190.

The nine-acre site surrounding the parish church is the site of one of the earliest settlements in Lichfield, and was a significant burial ground from an early date.

There is a legend that this was the burial place of 999 early Christian martyrs who were the followers of the legendry Saint Amphibalus, who had converted Saint Alban to Christianity in the third or fourth century. There is no evidence to support the legend of those martyrs in the year 300 during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian. But the legend became so popular that it was often said that the name Lichfield actually means “field of the dead.”

This tradition develops a mediaeval story created by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and was exaggerated from the 12th century on after Lichfield became an important stopping place on pilgrim routes.

The legend was largely forgotten by the 1500s, but it was revived later that century when Lichfield was incorporated as a borough in 1548. The new civic council needed an image for its seal but wanted to break with the pre-Reformation image of Saint Chad. The corporation decided to use the story of the 999 martyrs on its seal, and so gave new life to a dead and unfounded story.

It may be that this legend led to George Fox, the founding Quaker, to declare: “Woe unto the bloody City of Lichfield.”

After his release from prison in Derby, Fox walked to Lichfield. When he was about a mile outside Lichfield, he felt a command from God to take off his shoes and to walk into the city. There in the Market Square, he stood barefoot in the snow as he cried out again and again: “Woe unto the bloody City of Lichfield.”

Fox later said he a vision of a channel of blood running through the streets of Lichfield and that the market place was a pool of blood, and explained later that God wanted him to preserve the memory of the thousand Christians martyrs from the reign of Diocletian.

A few decades later, the Staffordshire historian Robert Plot declared that the nearby area now known as Christian Fields was the site of their martyrdom and it has born the name ever since. Of course, no archaeological evidence was ever found to support these stories from Geoffrey of Monmouth and Robert Plot. Today, Christian Fields is a nature reserve south of Eastern Avenue, between Dimbles Lane and Curborough Road.

Inside Saint Michael’s Church … the interior has been altered radically in the last two centuries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Despite the false foundations for this legend and the religious impulses it has inspired, Saint Michael’s and its churchyard were still worth visiting once again yesterday afternoon.

There may have been a church on this site at Greenhill from an early date, and once again local legend says the first church on the site was consecrated by Saint Augustine. Other accounts say it was because the site was so well known that Saint Chad was attracted to Lichfield, making it the centre of his new diocese in Mercia.

The tomb of William de Walton in the north wall of the chancel in Saint Michael’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

There is evidence on the site of crouched burials from before the Norman Conquest. However, the first church at Saint Michael’s is not recorded until 1190.

The oldest remaining parts of the present church date from the 13th century. In a recess in the north wall of the chancel under the pointed arch is the tomb of William de Walton, who in 1344 was the first recorded benefactor of Saint Michael’s. At his feet is a friendly looking dog, indicating he died in peace in his sleep rather violently or at war.

The church register dates from 1574. The font dates from 1669 and is octagonal with stylised fleur-de-lis and Tudor roses.

From the late 17th century, Saint Michael’s was associated with the family of Lichfield’s most famous writer, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784).

Johnson visited Lichfield for the last time in the autumn of 1784. He returned to London on 16 November, and composed an inscription for a floor slab in the centre of the nave to commemorate his immediate family.

On 2 December, he wrote two letters to Lichfield giving explicit directions for epitaphs to be placed over the middle aisle of Saint Michael’s Church where his father Michael Johnson (died 1731), his mother, Sarah Johnson (died 1759), and his brother, Nathaniel Johnson (died 1737), were buried.

A plaque in Market Street remembers Samuel Johnson’s cousin, Richard Greene (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

He wrote to his cousin, the apothecary Richard Greene (1716-1793), who was the Senior Bailiff of Lichfield and lived in Market Street, saying:

“I have enclosed the epitaph for my Father, Mother, and Brother, to be all engraved on the large size, and laid in the middle aisle in St. Michael’s church, which I request the clergyman and church-wardens to facilitate.

“The first care must be taken to find the exact place of interment, that the stone might protect the bodies. Then let the stone be deep, massy and hard; and do not let the difference of ten pounds, or more, defeat your purpose.

“I have enclosed ten pounds, and Mrs Porter will pay you ten more, which I gave her for the same purpose. What more is wanted shall be sent; and I beg that all possible haste be made, for I wish to have it done while I am yet alive. Let me know, dear Sir, that you receive this. I am, Sir, your most humble servant, Sam Johnson.”

On the same day, he wrote to Lucy Porter: “I am very ill, and desire your prayers. I have sent Mr Green the epitaph and a power to call on you for ten pounds.”

Within a fortnight, Johnson died quietly on 13 December 1784. He was buried in Westminster Abbey on 20 December.

The Johnson family memorial, with the inscription commissioned by Samuel Johnson commemorating his father, mother and brother (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The original stone Johnson commissioned was removed when Saint Michael’s was repaved in the late 1790s, and much of the mediaeval fabric of the church was lost when the church was restored in the 1840s by a local architect Thomas Johnson and the London-born architect Sydney Smirke.

Johnson’s stone, with the same inscription, was replaced in 1884 to mark the centenary of Samuel Johnson’s death. The church we see today includes further architectural renovations designed in the 1890s by John Oldrid Scott.

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 17th Lancers at the Charge of the Light Brigade, is also buried here.

A saddleback tomb in Saint Michael’s churchyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Here too is the gravestone of the last victims of a public hanging in Lichfield. John Neve, William Wightman and James Jackson men were found guilty of forgery and were hanged at the gallows at the junction of Tamworth Road and London Road on 1 June 1810. Their gravestone, which was restored recently, only gives the initials of the three men and the date of their execution.

I missed the mausoleum of Canon James Thomas Law (1790-1876), a Grade II Listed Building on the northern edge of the churchyard. Law was a prebendary of Lichfield Cathedral and chancellor of the Diocese of Lichfield, a key figure in the foundation of Lichfield Theological College, and Master of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (1821-1836), where I was being interviewed and filmed by Dave Moore the day before.

Law had the mausoleum designed like a canopied mediaeval tomb as a memorial to his wife who died in 1864. Originally, it was surmounted by a clock with two dials that were illuminated at night by gas. Built on the side of the Trent Valley Road it was a reminder of the time to travellers on their way to the railway station. But the clock is now missing and the mausoleum is overgrown.

Lichfield Methodist Church … the city looks into the church, and the church looks out to the city (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

From Saint Michael’s and Rotten Row, we walked back down through Greenhill into Tamworth Street, where we had coffee earlier in the afternoon in The Spark.

Across the street from the Spark, the Methodist Church has placed glass doors at the main entrance. It means 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 of expressing the mission of the Church.

A winter walk along Cross in Hand Lane on Saturday morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Earlier in the day, we had attended the mid-day Eucharist in Lichfield Cathedral, after a nmid-day walk by Minster Pool. In the morning, after breakfast, I had a walk in the countryside along Cross in Hand Lane. The fields were covered in a crisp morning frost, and there was a ridge of light snow down through the middle of the lane.

But by late afternoon this stay in Lichfield was coming to an end. We walked back up Beacon Street to the Hedgehog for a late lunch before catching the train to the airport. Outside the Hedgehog, the sun was setting in the fields to the west.

I was reminded of the canticle ‘Hail Gladdening Light,’ which had been sung at Choral Evensong on Thursday:

Now we are come to the Sun’s hour of rest;
The lights of evening round us shine;
We hymn the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit divine!

Worthiest art thou at all times to be sung
With undefiled tongue,
Son of our God, giver of life, alone:
Therefore in all the world thy glories, Lord, they own. Amen.

‘Now we are come to the Sun’s hour of rest’ … sunset at Cross in Hand Lane in Lichfield on Saturday evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

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