01 November 2015

For all the saints ... who give
their names to places in Lichfield

All Saints … remembered in street signs in All Saints’ Estate, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

Today is All Saints’ Day [1 November], one of the great festivals in the Calendar of the Church, and so important that it should be celebrated today and take precedence over the numbering of the Sundays before Advent.

Last weekend [23-24 October 2015], during a return visit to Lichfield, after exploring a series of streets named after famous composers, including Purcell, Elgar, Oakeley, Handel, Verdi, Gilbert and Sullivan, I found myself wandering through two neighbouring estates named after saints.

The first area was named after five women saints: Catherine, Margaret, Helen, Mary and Anne. The second estate is All Saints’ Estate, and has a more intricate naming system that embraces a wide variety of saints from different periods in Church history.

You would expect any cathedral city to have a number of streets named after saints, and of course Lichfield has Saint Chad’s Road, Saint John Street and Saint Michael’s Road. Indeed, Lichfield has one housing estate off Eastern Avenue in north-east Lichfield where the streets names recall almost a dozen other cathedrals throughout England: Canterbury, Chester, Gloucester, Lincoln, Norwich, Salisbury, Southwark, Truro, Winchester, Worcester and York.

All Saints … remembered in street signs in All Saints’ Estate, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Nearby, a little further west, there is a concentrations of saints’ names in two housing estates in the northern suburbs of Lichfield, close to Dimbles Lane and Curborough Road. In all, 17 saints are recalled in the street names in this part of Lichfield.

The names were chosen for these streets because the houses are built on the area known as Christian Fields. Local myth and legend says that during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian (284-305), 999 or 1,000 people who had been converted to Christianity by Saint Amphibalus were martyred by the Romans and their bodies were left unburied in a place that became known as the ‘Field of Corpses,’ giving its name to Lichfield, for the Old English lic means body or corpse.

Etymologists agree that the name Lichfield is derived from Anglo-Saxon meaning ‘the common pasture in or beside the grey wood.’ But the story of the early martyrs first gained currency in the Middle Ages when it was referred to by Matthew Paris in the 13th century.

But it seems the story was not taken seriously in mediaeval Lichfield, and there is no surviving contemporary record of a cult of the martyrs in the cathedral chronicles prior to the Reformation.

The Martyrs’ Plaque, removed from the Guildhall in the 19th century, was restored in Beacon Park in 2010 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

In 1549, however, the new corporation adapted this story to the design of a new city seal, and there are examples of this in several places throughout Lichfield, including the Martyrs’ Plaque in Beacon Park, and the heraldic designs on the railway bridge at Upper Saint John Street.

In 1639, Archbishop Usher dismissed the story of Saint Amphibalus as a fabrication. But the story of the Lichfield Martyrs seems to explain why George Fox to trudge barefoot through the snow-covered streets of Lichfield in 1651, crying out: ‘Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield.’

As the legend developed, various places were said to be the location of the massacre, including Borrowcop Hill, Saint Michael’s Churchyard and the site of the Lichfield Cathedral, as well as Christian Fields. But from the 1680s the area known as Christian Fields, then in Elmhurst, were identified as the site of the mass martyrdom. The story was given wider currency when the antiquarian Robert Plot identified Christian Fields as the site of the massacre.

A carving representing the martyrs’ story decorated the front of the Guildhall in the 18th and early 19th century, but was removed during the Victorian restorations and relocated to the Museum Gardens. The plaque was recently put back together and remounted on a wall in Beacon Park.

But if the martyred saints of Christian Fields are no more than a popular and pious myth, the names of the streets on the site recall real saints.

Five women saints remembered in street names off Curborough Road in Lichfield (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

In a quiet corner at the north-west end of Curborough Road, five women saints are recalled (without apostrophes) in the names of Saint Marys Road, Saint Annes Road, Saint Helens Road, Saint Catherines Road and Saint Margarets Road.

Saints on the streets ... street names in the All Saints’ Estate off Curborough Road and Dimbles Lane in Lichfield (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

A little further to the west, in All Saints’ Estate, two saints are remembered, without the prefix ‘Saint,’ in the names of Giles Road and Francis Road, and nine more west of Dimbles Lane in the names (once again, without apostrophes) of Matthews Walk, Marks Walk, Judes Walk, Peters Walk, Pauls Walk, Lukes Walk, Christopher Walk, Stephens Walk, Augustines Walk.

Two further saints, Thomas and James, figures in the names of the greenways linking the houses – Thomas Greenway and James Greenway.

Among these 13 saints, there are three evangelists (Matthew, Mark and Luke, John was already spoke for in Saint John Street), the four epistle writers (Paul, Peter, James and Jude), one other apostle (Thomas), and the first martyr (Stephen).

Saint Francis and Saint Augustine are linked to the two great mediaeval monastic sites in Lichfield: the Friary which was established by the Franciscans, and Saint John’s Hospital, an Augustinian foundation.

The two other saints represent the mediaeval church: Saint Christopher became the patron saint of travellers, and Saint Giles was a popular saint in the mediaeval church who gave his name to Saint Giles Church in Whittington, south of Lichfield, and so to Saint Giles Hospice. Bu there is no Saint Amphibalus.

To complement the theme, a little further west two cardinals are recalled in the names of Wolsey Road and Heenan Grove, recalling Thomas Wolsey (1473-1530), Archbishop of York in the reign of Henry VIII, and John Carmel Heenan (1905-1975), who was Archbishop of Westminster while this estate was being built, from 1963 until his death.

Two cardinals add to the theme (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

One of the great hymns celebrating this day is ‘For all the saints, who from their labours rest’ (New English Hymnal, 197; Irish Church Hymnal, 459), which was written by Bishop William Walsham How (1823-1897) as a processional hymn for All Saints’ Day.

When he wrote this hymn, Walsh How was Rector of Whittington, Shropshire. At the time, this was part of the Diocese of St Asaph, but following the disestablishment of the Church in Wales in 1920, the parish was transferred to the Diocese of Lichfield in the Church of England.

He became a canon St Asaph Cathedral, and spent time in Rome as chaplain of the Anglican Church before returning to England.

While he was Bishop of Bedford, Walsham How became known as ‘the poor man’s bishop.’ He became the first Bishop of Wakefield, and died in Leenane, Co Mayo, in 1897 while he was on holiday in Dulough.

The hymn vibrates with images from the Book of Revelation. The saints recalled by ‘the poor man’s bishop’ in this hymn are ordinary people who, in spite of their weaknesses and their failings, are able to respond in faith to Christ’s call to service and love, and who have endured the battle against the powers of evil and darkness.

In its original form, this hymn had 11 verses, although three are omitted from most versions: the verses extolling ‘the glorious company of the Apostles,’ ‘the godly fellowship of the prophets’ and ‘the noble army of martyrs’ were inspired by the 1662 Book of Common Prayer version of the canticle Te Deum.

But the heart of the hymn is in the stanza in which we sing about the unity of the Church in heaven and on earth, ‘knit together in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of ... Christ our Lord.’ Despite our ‘feeble struggles’ we are united in Christ and with one another in one ‘blest communion’ and ‘fellowship divine’.

The tune ‘Sine Nomine’ (‘Without Name,’ referring to the great multitude of unknown saints) was written for this hymn by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) while he was editing the English Hymnal (1906).

Vaughan Williams was a direct descendant of Erasmus Darwin, who lived in the 18th century in Darwin House on Beacon Street, Lichfield, close to Lichfield Cathedral.

From All Saints’ Estate, there are views through the trees back down towards Lichfield Cathedral. The ordinary people of Lichfield who live in the houses on these streets off Curborough Road and Dimbles Lane are among the people to suffer most severely from George Osborne’s recent decision on tax rebates. But they too are surely counted too among the saints celebrated by Bishop Walsham How in the hymn that is being sung in many churches and cathedrals today, ‘For all the saints, who from their labours rest.’

The spires of Lichfield Cathedral can be seen in the distance from All Saints' Estate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

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