The seventeenth century graves of St Michael’s churchyard

The churchyard

The surviving grave monuments in St. Michael’s churchyard in Lichfield are mainly from the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with only a very few from the seventeenth century still in existence. In the main this is simply the result of natural decay – the lifetime of stone inscriptions in the graveyard seems to be of the order of 250 years. And over the course of the churchyard’s 1500 year existence, graves must have been dug over existing graves on many occasions. But there are a few graves that probably date from the seventeenth century and we will we will discuss these in this post.

Figure 1 Grave locations

The locations of the graves are shown on the map in figure 1 which shows the old churchyard, closed to new burials, and the new churchyard to the east that is still in use (although filling up rapidly). It can be seen that the graves we are considering are all, unsurprisingly, in the old churchyard and located quite close to the church. A study of the dates of all the graves in the old churchyard, suggest that most burials up to 1800 were in the area to the immediate north, west and south of the church, and the large areas to the east began to be used from around 1800. The churchwarden’s accounts indicate that the churchyard was let out for grazing and for taking a hay crop through to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, so this was presumably the main function of the eastern area before it was used for burials.

The Saddleback and Finney graves

Figure 2 The Saddleback grave

Returning to the graves, let us first let us consider those at the front (north) of the church. The first of this pair (A) is the unusual saddleback grave shown in figure 2 above. The inscription is very worn and the dedication of the monument can’t be read. This grave features in a nineteenth century drawing that is in the William Salt library and can be accessed from clicking the button above. That drawing gives the date of the grave as 1674, and with a little imagination this can be made out on the tomb itself. Apart from the date, it is the style of the grave that makes it so distinctive. It is a shame that the dedication is illegible.

Figure 3. The Finney grave

The dedication of the other grave to the north of the church (B) can however be distinguished (figure 3). This reads

Here lieth the body of Edward Finney the elder of this City Gente, who departed this life 1st May 1640 and the bodies of Michael, Thomas, John and Joyce, four of his children.

Pleasingly the historical records tell us a little more about Edward Finney. He was one of the bailiffs of the City of Lichfield in the 1620s and 1630s and was active in civic life. After his death he established a “bread dole” at St. Mary’s endowed with 1s. a month which still existed, as the Edward Finney Charity in 1715.

The Clarke grave

The third of the graves that we consider here has a particularly interesting history. This is the monument to William Clarke and his son, another William, two longed lived parish clerks. The Morning Chronicle of October 8th 1822 reports as follows.

In St. Michael’s churchyard at Lichfield an ancient tomb stone was lately discovered which had been buried in the earth a great number of years.  Upon it are deeply cut the following inscriptions.

Here lyes the body of WILLIAM CLARKE who was clarke of this church 51 years and buried March 5th 1525 aged 96. Here lies the body of William Clarke clarke of this church 71 years who died September 26th 1562 aged 86″.

The dates and longevity of those interred are remarkable. The Morning Chronicle notes that the elder William would have lived through the reigns of six monarchs, and the younger through the reigns of seven. The latter would have experienced the tumult of the Reformation and counter-Reformation that seems to have had a considerable effect on the fabric of St. Michaels. The inscriptions were still readable in the 1960s and 1980s when surveys of the churchyard monuments were carried out. It was also recorded in these surveys that the stone was “restored” in 1870. At the time of the earlier survey the monument was to the south of the church (C on the map) but was moved, probably more than once, in the churchyard re-ordering of the 1970s. Unfortunately it’s current location is unknown. There are one or two possibilities with very well worn inscriptions, and if I can make a positive identification I will edit this post and include a photo.

That is however not the end of the story. References to William Clarke can be found in the historical sources. In Harwood we read of a William Clarke who in 1662 gave Elias Ashmole information on monuments in the church that had been destroyed in the civil war and is described as having been  clerk to the parish for 65 years and his father had been clerk before him for 52 years. In the churchwarden’s accounts we read of a William Clarke (presumably the elder) being paid 8s for his year’s wages in 1580, and another William (presumably the younger) bring the custodian of church property in 1657. On the basis of these records, it thus seems to me likely that the death dates recorded in the Morning Chronicle, and “restored” in the 1870s were misreadings and were a century too early. If that were the case, the lives of the two William’s would have been even more interesting than supposed, with the elder being a small child in the initial iconoclasm of the Reformation, and living through the Counter Reformation, when the churchwarden’s accounts give a good description of the very catholic vestments and eucharistic tableware used in St. Michael’s. William the younger would have experienced the terrors of the Civil War, Commonwealth and Restoration.

The Miesson grave

Figure 4. The Miesson grave

It must be admitted that the final grave we consider here (at D on figure 1) can’t be shown to belong to the seventeenth century, but it certainly has the look of something that old, and as we will see if of some interest (figure 4). Up till recently, this was the fairly simple chest tomb of Elizabeth Miesson and William Miesson . Recently the tomb has collapsed, and the inscribed end pieces placed on top of the remains, with the broken lid to one side. These are not particularly easy to read, but do confirm the names. A web search on Ancestry reveals there were several folk with these names in Lichfield around 1650 to 1750. The memorial to Elizabeth indicates contains the name of the city, rather inelegantly spread over two lines, as LICH and FIELD i.e. with a spelling mistake. The tomb could well have been a source of some embarrassment!

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