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Bristol , United Kingdom
I'm co-director of the Leaping Word Poetry Consultancy, which provides advice for poets on writing, editing and publishing, as well as qualified counselling support for those exploring personal issues in their work - https://theleapingword.com. My fifth poetry collection, Learning Finity, is now available from Indigo Dreams or directly from me.

Thursday 7 September 2023

Angels and feathers in Lichfield

Son the Elder needed to be in Wolverhampton for another roboteering event, almost two  years to the day after I'd last dropped him there. Then I'd revisited one of my favourite Arts and Crafts houses, Wightwick Manor, where, within two minutes of my arrival, I'd found (my first) jay feather; this time I headed in the opposite direction, destination Lichfield, because, as my friend Cherry, who lives in Cannock Chase, rather drily remarked, 'I hear there's a lovely cathedral'. 

And there is. A proper monolithic mediaeval Cathedral, dedicated to St Mary and St Chad. 

First, a wander around the outside ... 

... where I saw this statue of Charles II, which was set up after the Restoration ...

... an outside effigy of a man who is thought to have been an early 14th century priest ... 

... and a statue of St Chad, which dates from 2021. (More about him later.)

And this ... my dear friend Cathy's gravestone! Though as I said when I messaged her the photo, it could be worse, at least you're in the precinct of Lichfield Cathedral. 

Inside, the spaces are impressive. 

This is the nave, from which  most of the mediaeval stone vaulting had to be replaced in the 18th century with plaster painted to look like stone, as the walls were in danger of collapsing. 

The choir with its Victorian crossing screen ... 

... and Bishop's throne.

The high altar

Like most cathedrals, Lichfield suffered damage during the Reformation and especially the Civil Wars - in fact, more during that second period than any other Cathedral in the country. It's that vandalised mediaeval stuff that interests me, rather than the later Georgian and Victorian stuff ...  unless the latter has connections to the Arts and Crafts Movement. 

One major treasure lost during the Civil Wars - a treasury, in fact - was the Cathedral library, which was stripped of its books and fittings. It's now housed in a room above the Chapter House and didn't appear to be open when I was there. 

Although it lacks the atmosphere of other Chapter Houses I have known and loved - this one feels like an exhibition space - some remarkable books have made their way downstairs.

Clockwise from top left: 'The Decretals of Pope Gregory IX' (1300, 1370 & 1440); The St Chad Gospels (730 AD); 'Summa Predicantiem' by John Bromyard (died 1352), printed by Johann Amerbach

It also houses the skilfully carved Lichfield Angel, which dates from the late 7th century, and was only discovered beneath the nave in 2003. It's believed it could have been stashed there as early as 870AD, for fear of Viking raids. Which makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Also, what else has been hidden and is yet to be found?

Above the door to the Chapter House is this wall painting, which dates from the 1240s and shows the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. A second large mediaeval wall painting, believed to have been painted around 1400 and depicting the Holy Trinity, can be seen in the south aisle behind the tomb of Bishop Walter Langton, who died in 1321. 

This effigy itself became separated from its chest tomb and Gothic canopy at some point, maybe when this memento mori was similarly vandalised. It formed part of the tomb of Thomas Heywode (or Heywood), the Dean of Lichfield until his death in 1492, and an 18th century engraving copied from a record of monuments made in 1640-41 shows it originally had an upper tier, presumably destroyed during the Civil Wars. 

Other tombs also attracted the wrath of the Roundheads, such as the tomb of Bishop Hugh de Pateshull, who died in 1241 ...

... and the heavily mutilated Stanley effigy, which has foxed historians for centuries. First, there's the question of identification - which Stanley is he? (Answer: We just don't know, though recent investigators have concluded he was George Stanley, High Sheriff of Staffordshire, who died in 1509)

Secondly, why is he depicted in a state of penitence, ie bare-headed and bare-chested?  There is a folk story about one 'Captain Stanley' who's said to have challenged any man to fight with him, not excepting the king, for which insolence the king commanded him to be stripped naked from the waist upwards until he repented. Upon being told he could wear clothes again, 'Captain Stanley' is said to have refused and to have gone shirtless for the rest of his days, even appearing in that state on his tomb. But who this Captain was, and how true the story is, remains unclear. 

Finally, since I said they don't interest me, here's two Georgian monuments.

The first is Samuel Johnson, famous local lad and arch-Tory in Roman garb, whom I've included because DICTIONARY. Thank you, Dr Johnson.

The second is the 1816 memorial to the Robinson sisters - aka The Sleeping Children - because it's a tragic story, and the sculpture is very well executed, even though I can't help worrying that the younger girl, Marianne, is going to get pins and needles in her left arm if her sister keeps lying on it.

And whilst I particularly dislike effigy tombs of Victorian bishops, since they don't even have the excuse of a mediaeval or early modern mindset - though come to think of it, I suppose the relatively recent practice of gluing framed photos to headstones is roughly the same thing - I've included the tomb of Bishop George Selwyn, who died in 1878, because of the involvement in its decoration of Arts and Crafts potter, William de Morgan. (That said, the panel of tiles referring to Selwyn's missionary past looks horribly paternalistic.)

Unsurprisingly, only a fraction of the Cathedral's mediaeval glass survived the Civil Wars. 

Nevertheless, it has an impressive display of 16th century Flemish glass in its Lady Chapel, which was removed from Herkenrode Abbey in Belgium prior to its dissolution during the Napoleonic Wars, sold to an English Baronet and installed in Lichfield in 1803.

The reredos in the Lady Chapel was designed by Charles E Kempe, a friend of William Morris. He also designed many of the later windows in the Cathedral, most notably the East window  .... 

... the memorial window to Bishop John Hackett (1592 - 1670), who oversaw the restoration of the Cathedral in the post-Civil Wars era ... 

... and my favourites, the Arts and Crafts windows by the stairs leading up to ... and also inside ... St Chad's Head Chapel. (Why Head Chapel? Because that's where they used to keep it, before his shrine was dismantled in 1538 on the orders of Henry VIII.)

My photos aren't very good, but look closely and you'll spot Kempe's trademark angels with peacock feathers.

The renewal of artefacts damaged or destroyed in the Cathedral during our earlier cultural revolutions continues to this day. Just last year the Shrine of St Chad was reinstated, and a relic (not his head) was returned from Birmingham's Catholic Cathedral, where it had been kept since the 1840s, following a complicated series of safe-keepings and rediscoveries over centuries. 

What I like about these enterprises in Lichfield is that where the damage has been made good, there's been no attempt to deceive. Here, in the north aisle, the middle head is a Victorian replacement, flanked on either side by defaced originals. Even in the trefoil arches, some figures are restored, others left to tell their story. 

Back outside, as I wandered around the outside of the building again, I knew I should have been concentrating on the mighty restoration efforts of George Gilbert Scott in the 19th century that filled the empty niches with statues of kings, queens and saints, the west front doors with their ornate stone- and metalwork ... 

... and the historic buildings in the cathedral close ...

... but something about the pigeon and corvid feathers I'd spotted earlier, scattered at the base of the walls, made me wonder if, tucked away in some dark corner, I might discover something even more beautiful, the feathers of an angel of death ... 

... and I did: peregrine falcon feathers, perhaps the most beautiful treasures of all. 

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