24 October 2015

Following the path of mediaeval
pilgrims in Saint John’s, Lichfield

The building site at Saint John’s, Lichfield, where about 50 skeletons have been found … they may be the bodies of mediaeval pilgrims (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

Every visit to Lichfield includes a pilgrim visit to the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, with time for prayer and giving thanks for the all the blessings I have received in life, especially since I first visited this chapel as a 19-year-old back in 1971.

After breakfast this morning, I called into the chapel again, and went for a walk in the grounds, which are like an oasis in the heart of Lichfield.

I was invited back to preach in the Chapel at the Festal Eucharist earlier this summer [24 June 2015]. Since then, the skeletal remains of about 50 mediaeval people were found in shallow graves near this pilgrim site.

The human remains, which have been exhumed in recent weeks, may help archaeologists learn more about the mediaeval era, according to Archaeology Warwickshire. The archaeology and excavation company is studying each skeleton to determine the gender and age at death of each person, and looking for evidence of injuries or diseases preserved in their bones.

Stuart Palmer, the business manager of Archaeology Warwickshire, said the teeth will give a lot of information about their diet and may offer the potential for more in-depth study

Archaeologists found the shallow graves during a building project two or three months ago [August 2015]. The graves are relatively shallow, about 0.5 meters (1.6 ft) below ground.

Just before a planned expansion to the accommodation on the site at Saint John’s Hospital, including 18 new apartments, Archaeology Warwickshire surveyed the grounds around the mediaeval almshouse. The archaeologists expected to find some graves but “we weren’t really expecting the volume and quantity that we got,” says Stuart Palmer.

The grounds of Saint John’s Hospital are an oasis of peace and calm in the heart of Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

“Although mediaeval burial sites are not uncommon in the UK, those associated with known sites of pilgrimage are not so common and this work presents a rare opportunity to study such a particular assemblage,” Stuart Palmer said.

The remains were taken to the group’s offices at Montague Road, Warwick, where the bones have being cleaned, aged and sexed and examined for signs of injury, disease, dietary deficiency and other pathologies.

Mr Palmer said: "These tests can often reveal fascinating aspects of life, medical practice and life expectancy in mediaeval populations. This could provide us with a truly fascinating window into the past.”

Saint John’s Hospital was established in 1135 and provided hospitality for mediaeval pilgrims (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

In mediaeval times, pilgrims travelled from far and wide to Lichfield to visit the cathedral and the tomb of Saint Chad. When the city gates of Lichfield were closed at about 9 p.m. every night, pilgrims who arrived later had to stay at the Hospital of Saint John Baptist without the Barrs – the barrs being the city gates

Saint Chad, who had a large following, founded his monastery at Lichfield, where he was abbot and bishop and where he is credited with converting the Kingdom of Mercia to Christianity. When he died in AD 672, he was proclaimed a saint, and people reported miracles at his tomb in Lichfield.

Saint John’s Hospital was established in 1135 adjacent to the Culstrubbe Gate, one of the four gates erected on the perimeter of Lichfield by Bishop Roger de Clinton (1129-1148). The Culstrubbe Gate crossed what is now Saint John Street.

The Culstrubbe Gate was closed at night, barring entrance to Lichfield until the morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Saint John’s provided overnight accommodation for pilgrims for several hundred years while it was a house of the Augustinian Friars.

Many of the pilgrims came to be healed and some may well have died during their journey. The 50 or so people — adults and children alike — whose graves have been found at Saint John’s may have died there during their pilgrimage. Most of the bodies were laid flat on their backs, arranged in rows, and covered with dirt. Many of the skeletons are not in good shape, however, because they were buried in acidic soil, which is typical of dirt in the area.

If the bones are in good condition, the archaeologists may analyse their DNA and isotopes, which can tell researchers where the pilgrims lived previously. After that, the skeletons may go to a museum.

Shortly after the discovery, the Bursar of Saint John’s, Juanita Sangha, told the Lichfield Mercury: “This is a very interesting find and provides a window into the mediaeval history of Lichfield. However, St John’s is treating the human remains with the greatest of respect and the site will be filled in and restored as soon as possible.”

Archaeologists from Archaeology Warwickshire are working on the site alongside Paragon Construction to ensure that work continues and excavation research is carried out.

Work started on the new apartments around July. The trustees of Saint John’s commissioned the Worcester-based Architects KKE to design a building “which resonated with the Tudor building,” using innovative 21st century building techniques.

The new buildings, forming a second quad at Saint John’s, are to be built using Passivhaus technology, providing “a high level of occupant comfort while using very little energy for heating and cooling.” The grounds are also being landscaped to complement the accommodation.

After visiting Saint John’s this morning, I returned to Lichfield Cathedral for the mid-day Eucharist, continuing this pilgrims spiritual journey through Lichfield.

Inside the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

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