Thursday, January 14, 2016

Anglo Saxons Treasures at Lichfield Cathedral

By Richard Denning

One of the perhaps lesser known cathedrals in England is the one at Lichfield. Nowadays Lichfield is an attractive but small city dwarfed by the nearby West Midlands conurbation of Birmingham-Coventry-Wolverhampton-Black Country. Yet in the early to mid Saxon period it was one of the more important cities.  Indeed it was the see of the Bishop of Mercia which at one time was a powerful kingdom that stretched from Wales to the North Sea. At the peak of its power under the 8th century King Offa, Lichfield was even briefly the seat of an Archbishop. Offa was so powerful that he was able to persuade the Pope to create an Archbishopric in Lichfield who would hold sway over the midlands. On Offa's death the position was annulled but Lichfield maintained its position as an important Cathedral for many centuries.


The Cathedral is dedicated to St Chad and St Mary. Although there had been missionary work going on in Mercia previously the kings of Mercia had been pagan. In 669 one of the first Christian kings of Mercia, Wulfere,  requested a bishop and Chad was sent to take up the post. He established his see at Lichfield possibly because land had been donated for the establishment of a monastery there and it was close to the Mercian capital at Tamworth. The modern structure is the third Cathedral to stand on this site. The first - Saxon - building was built around AD 700 and was built of wood. It survived almost 4 centuries before - in  1085 - it was replaced by a Norman cathedral made from stone. That second structure did not last that long being in turn replaced by the present cathedral from 1195 onwards.


 The front (west side) of the cathedral has a magnificent collection of statues that themselves are worthy of note. This facing was renovated in Victorian times and portrays an amazing array of Kings and Queens. These include the Norman and subsequent monarchs right across the front. What I love about this building is the Saxon era is not ignored. The archways over the side doors (not the central one) contain statues of the important kings of first Northumbria (who held sway over much of Mercia) and later Mercia. So we can see little effigies of Aethelfrith, Edwin, Oswald, Oswy, Penda, Wulfere and others. We also have statues of the churchmen who had an impact on the early and later Saxon Era - Pope Gregory, Augustine, Paulinius, Chad and so on.


 The octagonal shaped Chapter House, which was completed in 1249 is possibly the most beautiful part of the Cathedral. It houses a permanent  exhibition of the cathedral's greatest treasures: the Lichfield Gospels,  parts of the Staffordshire hoard and the Lichfield Angel.

The Lichfield or St Chad's Gospels. The Lichfield Gospel or bible is one of the oldest in Britain. It was created in the early 8th century and perhaps dates to around 730 - slightly younger than the Lindisfarne Gospels with which it shares similarities in style.  It consists of the gospels of Matthew and Mark and the start of Luke. It used to also contain the rest of Luke and John but at some stage in the 17th century that part was lost. This was probably during the Civil War period. It is still used in services twice a year - making it the oldest bible used in services in the UK. On the day I visited it was open to the story of the wise men. I can't read Latin but the curator pointed out to me the verse speaking of the gifts. The clarity of the letters is extraordinary. The Gospels also contain marginal notes in Old Welsh. These notes represent the oldest surviving Welsh Words anywhere. It is believed the bible was actually made in Wales and came to Lichfield early in its life.

The Lichfield Angel


In February 2003 work was being done on the nave of the Cathedral. As the builders worked they came across an eighth century sculpted panel of the Archangel Gabriel. It was thought  to be part of a stone chest, which contained the relics of St Chad.  Red pigment found on the angel was dated to the 8th century. It is now exhibited in the cathedral.

The Staffordshire Hoard
Hammerwhich in Staffordshire, where the Staffordshire Hoard was found, is just a few miles from Lichfield.  There in 2009 the greatest collection of metal and gold artefacts from the 7th or 8th centuries was found. Over 3500 objects comprise the findings - some of remarkable quality. The Hoard is housed in a number of locations. A small amount is kept at Lichfield.

 I can recommend a visit to Lichfield Cathedral . The actual building is surrounded by a very attractive Cathedral Close which houses several Tea shops. It is only  yards from the small but pleasant city centre which also hosts the Dr Johnstone Birthplace Museum and the Erasmus Darwin museum.



Richard Denning is a historical fiction author whose main period of interest is the Early Anglo-Saxon Era. His Northern Crown series explores the late 6th and early 7th centuries through the eyes of a young Saxon lord.
Explore the darkest years of the dark ages with Cerdic.



  1. Fascinating stuff! The more I learn about Mercia the more I'm intrigued:)

  2. Is it still a Roman Catholic Cathedral?
    thank you for posting.

    1. No, Church of England. The nearest Catholic Cathedral would be St Chads at Birmingham.

  3. Very interesting article combining then and now, thank you.

  4. Great background information, and I already had Lichfield on my To Do list as Elias Ashmole was born in Breadmarket Street, Lichfield. He attended Lichfield Grammar School, and became a chorister at Lichfield Cathedral. He left Lichfield in 1633 aged 16. And went on to help found the Royal Society and change the world we live in. One question ... I understand the Parliamentary troops damaged the Cathedral during the Civil War (probably by using it as a horse stable). Any sign of those repairs or damage visible?

  5. The civil war is certainly referenced in some signs and pictures around the city as well as in the town hall which has a museum of the city including a history of the city in tapestries IIRC.

    The Cathedral is Anglican as Chris says.


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