St Michael’s church, Lichfield – Landscape, Topography and Archaeology

Introduction

The historical importance of St. Michael’s church in Lichfield has been made clear in other articles and posts on this site – see here and here. Now. in the near future new church rooms will be built behind the church, and no doubt archaeological work will be required to investigate the site of the new build. I thus thought it would be appropriate to gather together historical and archaeological material concerning St Michael’s, to inform both those involved in the coming work and the congregation of St. Michael’s in general (of which, it will become apparent, I am a member). Thus in what follows I will present the results of a number of investigations by various authors – the first that considers St. Michael’s in the context of the early church in Lichfield; the second which considers the local topography around the church and churchyard; and the third which considers the results of previous archaeological digs.  I won’t present any information on the development of the ecclesiastical parish, building or churchyard, except in passing. These are well enough covered in the guidebooks that are available in the church,  the Victoria County History (1990) and in the work of Trevor James (1998). 

A Romano-British diocese?

Bassett (1992) considers a number of ancient churches in the Midlands, and discusses how they might have evolved over the period of late antiquity after the departure of the Roman armies. Amongst those he discusses is St Michael’s. Based on material from a very wide range of sources, he comes to the conclusion that a good case could be made for St Michael’s being the centre of a British ecclesiastical diocese that predates the Augustinian mission in 596AD. His reconstruction of the possible extent of this diocese is shown in Figure 1 below. It can be seen to be very extensive indeed, occupying land in the area between the Tame and the Trent. Indeed an argument can be made that it also extended east of the Tame, as the townships of Haselour and Statfold have historical links with St. Michael’s. James (1998) has arrived at a similar conclusion as regards the size of the ancient parish of St. Michaels, although he doesn’t speculate on its episcopal nature. Basset’s arguments are complex and in places compelling, but I must admit to not being entirely convinced by them. Many of the points he makes would be just as applicable to a large secular land unit as to an ecclesiastical unit. There is also a basic assumption that St. Michael’s has been a parochial church for much of its existence, whereas the historical record, for example as outlined in Victoria County History (1990), suggest that the parochial system was only formalised within the last few centuries with much of the earlier pastoral work being focussed on the cathedral prebends. But the thought that St. Michael’s was an episcopal see is an attractive one to a member of the current congregation. In particular I like the implicit suggestion in Basset that the Cathedral, St. Mary’s and St Chad’s parishes were all created out of the much larger St. Michael’s parish – and thus later arrivals on the Lichfield ecclesiastical scene. 

Figure 1. The Romano-British diocese of St. Michael’s as reconstructed by Basset   

(This is a simplified version of the map in Basset (1992) and shows 19thcentury townships and parishes. The parish of Lichfield St Chad includes the Cathedral and Lichfield St. Mary. The parish of Lichfield St Michael includes the townships of Streethay, Fulfen and Freeford.)

Lichfield topography

In an earlier paper Basset (1981) discusses the development of the city of Lichfield and its environs. In an extremely detailed topographical study of the area he studied the relationship between field boundaries and roads and trackways shown on tithe maps. He was able to show that some trackways conformed to the field boundaries, and were thus presumably in place before the field system was laid out, whereas some roads cut across the field boundaries and thus can be conjectured to post-date the establishment of the field system. The point of most significance to emerge from this map is that Ryknield Street cut across a number of pre-existing field boundaries, which thus implies that the field system was set out in very early Roman times, or more probably because of its extent, in the Bronze and Iron Age periods. Figure 2 shows the major trackways and roads that were identified as conforming with field boundaries, and which can thus be taken as of pre-Roman origin. The modern day names of these roads are given in the key to help with identification. It can be seen that Lichfield was far from being an underdeveloped area at the start of the Roman era, with a number of trackways converging on the area. 

Whilst the map of figure 2 is interesting in a general sense to all who know the area, of particular relevance in the current context are those in the vicinity of St. Michael’s church. Note that the church is shown in purple to reflect its potential episcopal nature! Road B on the map follows the current lines of Darnford Lane, Boley Cottage Lane and Frenchman’s Walk. Within Boley Park its course has been built over, but the general line has been preserved between the end of Boley Cottage Lane and Frenchman’s Walk by Broadlands Rise, a connecting jennel, and Oakhurst.  Road C follows the lines of Cappers Lane and Burton Old Road. Around St. Michael’s its course is no longer directly visible – this will be seen to be of relevance in what follows. Note that Sturgeon’s Hill / Rotten Row does not appear on the map – this clearly cuts across field boundaries and postdates the laying out of the field network. 

Figure 2. Ancient roads and trackways in Lichfield (from Basset, 1981)

A – Walsall Road, Christchurch Lane, Gaia Lane; B – Darnford Lane, Boley Cottage Lane, Frenchman’s Walk; C – Cappers Lane, Burton Old Road; D – Valley Lane, Wissage Road, Curborough Road / Nethrstowe; E – Grange Lane; F – Cross in Hand Lane, Beacon Street; G – Fosseway Lane, Fosseway, Shortbutts Lane, Tamworth Road 

Figure 3. Roads in the vicinity of St. Michael’s

(Road identifiers the same as in figure 2. H – Sturgeon’s Hill / Rotten Row, S – Stowe Gate, T – Tamworth Gate. The edge of the burgh is given by the brown line)

Basset also looked in detail at the development of the city. In short, the city was a planned development, laid out by Bishop Roger de Clinton around 1125 to 1150 Figure 3a shows the roads around St Michael’s around 1050AD, with the same identification letters as in figure 2. Figure 2b shows the road layout inferred by Basset in 1150AD after the Burgh was laid out. It can be seen that a new road has developed from Road C (Burton Old Road) and heads to the Tamworth Gate (denoted by T). The old road continues to the Stowe Gate (S). By 1250AD the situation has changed somewhat. The old road to the Stowe Gate no longer exists (although it can even now still be traced by the lines of back gardens along part of its course. Road H (Sturgeons Hill / Rotten Row) has appeared and converges on the Tamworth gate and the diverted road C. At the gate there was an open area that was used as a market, and which ultimately became the cattle market. The diverted section of road C was eventually to become part of Trent Valley Road / Church St. at the bottom of St. Michael’s graveyard. The important point to appreciate is that over the course of this development, the area around St. Michael’s graveyard became increasingly constrained, both by Road H and by the diversion of Road C and the market area. It is quite possible that the size of the graveyard was actually reduced by these constraints. 

Archaeology

There have been two archaeological excavations at St Michael’s in recent decades. The first was by Gould and Gould (1976) who cut a trench in he bank between the old and the new churchyard to see if there was any evidence of a churchyard enclosure, as is often found around ancient churches. There wasn’t. You win some and you lose some.

The second excavation was carried out in 1978 on the site of the new choir vestry (Wilson, 1981).  A sketch of the excavation is given in figure 4. This was rather more profitable in terms of the archaeology as follows. 

  • A single post pit, filled with sandstone fragments in the bottom layer.
  • 49 complete or partial skeletons, mostly buried in the Christian manner with head to the west (so they would face their maker at the resurrection). There were two exceptions. Skeleton 21 was buried with its feet to the west, in a manner that would be suggestive of a priestly burial (so he would face his flock at the resurrection). The expected chalice and paten were not found, possibly because this skeleton was at the edge of the excavated area and it head was outside the area. Murphy’s law and all that. Alternatively Wilson suggests he simply could have been buried the wrong way round. Skeleton 58 was a crouched burial. Such burials are known from Palaeolithic times. In a Christian context they are most often dated from the Anglo-Saxon period. No independent carbon dating was possible. In addition skeletons 2 and 8 were of a woman and a small child – who possibly died during childbirth.
  • Five flint flakes from the Mesolithic period but in a secondary context; large quantities of building material from earlier churches, including 300 fragments of glazed medieval roof tiles; a range of different types of decorated floor tile; a sherd of Roman pottery; a halfpenny from the reign of George III and a silver penny from the reign of Richard II. 

There thus seems to be some evidence of very early use of the Greenhill site, but precise dating was not possible.

Figure 4. The 1978 excavation

(There of excavation covers the area of the current choir vestry. Brown lines indicate burials with skull to the west. Red lines indicate specific skeletons discussed in the text. Green indicates the posthole.) 

A personal postscript

There is a further quasi-archaeological point of personal interest. In 1822 one John Baker and his wife Anne (nee Woodfield) were buried in the churchyard at the location shown in figure 5. They were my great-great-great grandparents. I can find out little about them other than that they were very prolific in producing children (11 can be traced). They were one of the few of my ancestors to be able to afford a gravestone. St. Michael’s monumental inscriptions records the inscription as 

2022 John Baker 17/9/1822 also Ann Baker

So it was probably not a terribly large gravestone. It has of course been moved as the churchyard has been tidied over the recent decades and I don’t know its location. If anyone comes across it at any stage please let me know! Further fascinating details of my family tree, the members of which were almost exclusively miners, ironworkers or agricultural labourers, can be found here.

Figure 5. Location of John and Ann Baker’s grave

References

Basset S (1981) “Medieval Lichfield: A topographical Review”, Transactions of the South Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society, XXII, 93-121

Basset S (1992) “Church and diocese in the West Midlands; the transition from British to Anglo-Saxon control”, Pastoral Care Before the Parish p. 13-40

Gould D, Gould J (1976) “St Michael’s churchyard, Lichfield, Staffs”, Transactions of the South Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society

James T (1998) “The development of the parish of St-Michael-on-Greenhill over 1500 years”, St Michael’s papers number 1, PCC of St Michael’s, Lichfield

Victoria County History (1990) ‘Lichfield: Churches’, in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14, Lichfield, ed. M W Greenslade (London, 1990), 134-155. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/staffs/vol14/pp134-155

Wilson P (1981) “Investigations in St Michael’s and St Mary’s churches, Lichfield”, Transactions of the South Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society, XXII, 

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