Lichfield Cathedral: Swords, Hoards and Overlords – Anglo-Saxon England and its Neighbours in the Age of Bede

Statues of St Chad and the kings of Mercia on the west front of Lichfield Cathedral

All of us who went on the trip to Lichfield Cathedral thoroughly enjoyed the tour we were given; in fact I would personally go as far as saying it was the most interesting, enlightening and ultimately best tour I have ever been on. Many thanks have to go to the history department for giving us the funding to have this opportunity, and also to the Rev. Dr. Moore, who took us around the cathedral and the sites associated with it.

The parish church of St Chad, Lichfield

We started the tour by going over to what is nowadays a small church, and is also thought to be the place where St Chad had his humble abode back then and also where he baptised lots of people in the nearby spring. It was incredible to think we were standing on a spot where this may have taken place around 1400 years ago.

The stream running by St Chad's Lichfield, source of the holy well there

Ornamental carving around the pilgrim's entrance to Lichfield Cathedral

We were told about St Chad’s deeds and the way that he, as a Northumbrian in the “enemy” territory of the kingdom of Mercia (modern-day West Midlands) managed to convert people through his calm and humble nature. So as to enlighten us about Lichfield’s history, Dr. Moore also told us about the cathedral’s role during the Civil War and that it is the only ever cathedral to have had a moat: the city of Lichfield held for parliament during the war, while the cathedral supported the king !

We were then taken to the cathedral itself, which is a magnificent spectacle both on the outside and the inside. It was here where we were shown the Lichfield Angel, the so-called “St Chad Gospels”, parts of the Staffordshire Hoard and some beads from the burial of an Anglo-Saxon woman found in the cathedral’s precinct. Dr. Rev. Moore even opened up the case with the Gospels in them and showed us some of the brilliant detail it contains, alongside the first known piece of written Welsh.

(Of the following pictures, top left and right and bottom left taken by Jonathan Jarrett and used by kind permission of the Canons and Chapter of Lichfield Cathedral; all rights reserved.)
The Lichfield Angel The Rev. Dr Anthony Moore with the St Chad Gospels
Carpet pages at the opening of the Gospel according to St Mark in the St Chad Gospels Two intertwined gold snakes from the Staffordshire Hoard

We were all united in our awe at having seen these things and our sense that this is really what brings history to life; it is one thing reading about things in textbooks, but being able to see things with your own eyes and have experts tell you the stories behind the objects is something quite unique and special.

The Welsh memorandum recording the donation of the St Chad Gospels to the church of Llandeilo Fawr, the oldest preserved written Welsh

Afterwards we were taken around the cathedral and were shown the places within it associated with St Chad and Anglo-Saxon England; these included St Chad’s probable earliest resting place and a list of the bishops of Lichfield, St Chad being the fifth of these. We were then shown the place where St Chad’s gold-laden skull would have been presented by the bishop of Lichfield to pilgrims, thereby demonstrating its importance as an ecclesiastical centre during Anglo-Saxon times.

The shrine to St Chad set up inside Lichfield Cathedral

Finally, we were taken up to the cathedral’s library (normally closed to the public), where we saw a number of old books; each being fascinating in their own right. We saw a Hebrew book which Catherine of Aragon was supposed to have owned, and a medieval book with genuine gold leaf inside; we all felt privileged to have seen these amongst many other similarly noteworthy books.

Gold leaf ornamentation in a fourteenth-century copy of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

I think it says a lot that when I returned from the trip and told my housemates about it, that they were genuinely fascinated. Normally when I even mention the Anglo-Saxons, they all roll their eyes and think “Here he goes again.” However this time when I told them what we had seen and heard, they said “Wow, that’s really cool, I’d love to be a history student.” I suppose this highlights the importance of field trips and people’s perception of history; it is not just about books, it is about seeing, understanding and being inspired by those things left to us. Long may such trips continue! Thank you very much to University of Birmingham’s history department for giving us this opportunity! And thank you very much to Rev. Dr. Moore, who conducted a most splendid tour and was a perfect host!

Visitors in front of the altar screen in Lichfield Cathedral

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