Lichfield – a pre-conversion pagan cultic centre?


It has been noted by a number of authors in the past that in the vicinity of Lichfield, the ecclesiastical centre of the Mercian kingdom, there are a number of place names with pagan religious associations, and puzzlement has been expressed that such names were allowed to survive by the ecclesiastical authorities (Horowitz, 2005, p32). In this article, we consider these names further and identify a small number of other sites in the locality that may also have pagan religious connections. In so doing we are led to the tentative conclusion that Lichfield may have been a centre for pagan religious activity in the pre-Christian era, and the echoes of this activity, remain in place names and church dedications in the area. This suggestion goes some way to explain the rather odd comment recorded in an early life of St Wilfred, that he gave Lichfield to Chad for the site of his cathedral in 669, as it was suitable place for an episcopal see – in that it was already an ancient cultic site (Colrave, 1927). We begin in the next section by briefly considering the work of North (North, 1997), who investigated in particular the deity known as “Ing-Freyr”, for reasons that will become obvious in what follows. We then move on to a consideration of place names and church dedications in the Lichfield area. An attempt is then made to synthesise the findings, and to draw out their implications. Finally, further possible indications of cultic activity in the Lichfield area in the Roman / British era and before are briefly mentioned.


Ing-Freyr by Hugo Hamilton

Through a detailed examination of the work of the Roman Historian Tacitus who described the worship of the Angles in southern Denmark in the first century AD; the much more recent Scandinavian myths recorded in Iceland around 12thand 13thcenturies; king lists from the early English kingdoms and a range of Old English literature from the Anglo-Saxon period, North arrives at the conclusion that the worship of the deity “Ing-Freyr” can be detected in England before the conversion. He argues that the cult of Ing-Freyr directly descends from that of Nerthus, who seems to have had the attributes of a sky god, in the early Roman era by the Angles in southern Denmark. Tacitus describes this  as centring on a oxen hauled wagon procession of the god, either represented by an idol of by a nominee, around the tribal region, with the celebration of a marriage to the earth goddess Terra Mater, symbolised by copulation with local women or with a nominated female. This rite had obvious fertility aspects, and also seems to have involved the “death” of the God (either through the symbolic interring of the idol, or perhaps through human sacrifice) after the wagon tour, and his resurrection in the following spring. The suffix “Ing” can be found in a number of early Anglian king lists, indicating the persistence of the cult into the Anglo-Saxon era and can be traced through various Old English texts. Freyr simply means “Lord” and in the Nordic myths was the son of Njoror (the equivalent of Nerthus) and the brother of Freyja, who were all members of the Vanir, the old gods who were the losers of a cult war with the Aesir headed by Odin. The name Freyja simply means “Lady” and is widely regarded as a fertility deity, and also as a “psychopomp” who attended to the souls of the dead. In some myths she is identified with Frigg, the wife of Odin The concept of a dying and rising God has of course resonances with Christianity, and North, somewhat mischievously, writes

…the Angles, in particular, offered no resistance to Christianity and indeed failed to perceive the difference between the new religion and their own…. (North, 1997, 305)

However, whilst the cult of Ing-Freyr could clearly have played a part in the conversion of the Angles, ultimately for the Church there was the possibility of much confusion with the orthodox faith that was potentially very damaging. There is some evidence that the Church thus came to equate Ing-Freyr with the devil (North, 1997, 56-57, 325), and the cult was firmly suppressed. This was partly achieved through his replacement in king lists and names by Odin, an ambiguous figure, both a deity and a real or semi-mythical Swedish ancestor, but who was clearly not regarded as a threat to the church in the same way as Ing-Freyr[vi].  One of the attributes of Odin himself was that of the psychopomp.

Whilst the arguments of North are based on widely diverse sources, both in terms of content and date of composition, they are nonetheless cogently argued and present a convincing case that, in the pre-conversion era, the cult of Ing-Freyr could be found amongst the Anglian peoples of Britain. The implications of this for the Lichfield area will become clear in the following sections.

Place names and Church Dedications

The name of Lichfield itself remains something of a mystery (Horowitz, 2005, p16). The early (medieval) understanding, based on the writings of Matthew Parris, a monk of St Albans, was that it carried the meaning “Field of the dead” and was the site of the martyrdom of Christians during the persecution of Diocletian from 284 to 305, with “Lich” being derived from the Old English word for body or corpse. Early spellings of the name however suggest that such an interpretation is at best debatable, and the accepted wisdom is that the name derives, through a complex system of intermediate forms, from the Celtic word that evolved into Letocetum (Wall) in the Roman era, and means the open place by the grey wood (Horowitz, 2005, p17). What the grey wood might be has however not been explained, although of itself it to some degree numinous, with perhaps some symbolic meaning and content relating to the dead or the supernatural.

If the name of Lichfield cannot be fully explained, other names in the vicinity are less ambiguous. There are two “Woden / Odin” names to the west – at Wednesfield (Horowitz, 2005, p566) and at Wednesbury (Horowitz, 2005, p565), with names that mean the open land dedicated to Woden, and Woden’s fortification respectively. A little way to the east, on Watling Street, we find Weeford – the ford of the idol or shrine (Horowitz, 2005, p29). Less certainly, in between Weeford and Lichfield, we find Freeford (Horowitz, 2005, p32) (Horowitz, 2005, 30), . Whilst this might simply mean free, or unrestricted, ford, a possible variant is Freyja’s ford, which, in view of the theories of North set out above, may well be of some significance. Weeford and Freeford were two of the five original (and quite possible pre-Domesday) prebends of Lichfield Cathedral, the others being Longdon and Handsacre to the west, and Stotfold or Statfold to the east. 

Freja (1905) by John Bauer 

However there are a small number of other sites that may have connections with pagan worship in the area. The first is the last of the five prebends just mentioned. Stotfold (Horowitz, 2005, p510) carried the meaning of (horse or oxen) stud fold. The horse itself had ritual significance in the Anglo-Saxon period, but it is the possible association with oxen that is clearly of significance to the current discussion.  Also, just to the south of Freeford we find Ingle Hill (Horowitz, 2005, p336). Horowicz is not certain on the derivation of this, offering a rather tenuous connection with the Inge family who were apparently in the Lichfield area in the 18thcentury. The root however is exactly the same as Ingham in Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Suffolk (all regions of Anglian migration), which does seem to be connected to the deity Ing (Mill, 1991). We thus have the names Weeford, Freeford, Stotfold, and Ingle Hill all in close proximity, and whilst the derivations of all but the first are arguable, their geographical coincidence strongly suggests a connection with pagan ritual. All these places are also part of a large land unit that was eventually to become the Domesday manor of Lichfield, and then the large parish of St Michael’s Church on Greenville (James, 1998). Basset (1992) argues that this was actually a pre-Augustinian British Diocese, and whilst this may be possible, it may be simply a land unit that arose for different reasons. Finally, there is the possibility that one of the members of the Domesday Lichfield land unit, Tymmore (whose meaning has not been addressed by place name scholars) could refer to the god Tyr, the moor in question perhaps being Whittington Heath to the east of Lichfield (Morris, 1976). Place names thus suggest an unusual level of pagan activity or memory in the Lichfield area in the period from which the settlement names derive

Memorial plaque to Michael Lowe of Tymore in St Michael’s church, Lichfield

Within Lichfield, there are three parish churches and the cathedral. Bede tells us that the latter was originally dedicated to St Peter and St Mary (Kettle andJohnson, 1970), but at least by Domesday, the dedication was to St Chad and St Mary. Thus the dedication was to the “Lady” of the Christians and to the chief apostle, and latterly to the major local holy man. The three churches are dedicated to St Mary, St Chad and St Michael. The first was a medieval creation for the planned town of Bishop Roger de Clinton in the 12thcentury. Of the latter two, the land unit evidence discussed by Basset suggests that St Michael’s is the older, and that St Chad’s parish was originally included within it (as were the parishes of St Mary’s and the Cathedral Close). In St Michael we have both the angel who threw the devil to earth from heaven, as well as the Christian psychopomp. The huge size of St Michael’s graveyard has frequently been pointed out, and whilst this size may be purely functional, it might nonetheless indicate early association of the area with the concerns of the dead (James, 1998). 

Of the three prebends of Lichfield discussed above, Freeford and Stotfold have no chapels of their own and seem to have always looked to St Michael’s as the mother church. The church at Weeford is again dedicated to Mary. Away from Lichfield, there does not seem to have been an ancient church at Wednesfield, but at Wednesbury the hilltop church is dedicated to St Batholomew. Interestingly there are two other Bartholomew dedications in the vicinity – at Hints on Watling Street near Weeford to the east of Lichfield, and at Farewell to the west. Bartholomew is one of the lesser known of the disciples in biblical terms, but one of his traditions relates that he was martyred by being skinned alive. He is regarded as the patron saint of tanners, which is perhaps a tenuous connections with the ox wagon procession that is identified herein. He is also identified with Heracles, perhaps through a similarity of iconography, with Heracles holding the skin of the Nemean lion in a similar manner to Bartholomew holding his flayed skin (Crane and Lazzarotti, 2014),  and through Heracles / Hercules to Balder, the dying / rising God of  Norse myth, which is shown by North to be identified with Ing (North, 1997, 143).

Finally the church at Shenstone to the south of Lichfield, is dedicated to St John the Baptist, whose feast day is on midsummer eve. There is a long and proven European tradition of midsummer bonfires on hilltop sites (possibly where bones were burnt) that goes back to Roman times (Hutton, 1996), and the dedication to St John suggests that these occurred at Shenstone, and might go some way towards explaining the rather curious name (Horowitz, 2005, 488), which means “Shining Stone”. There are no obvious stones to which this could apply in the vicinity, but the name could conceivably apply to an idol illuminated by a bonfire.


At this point it would be easy to fall into wild speculation concerning the implications of all the above, and perhaps particularly on the route that might have been taken by an ox drawn idol bearing wagon. We resist that here and simply emphasise two major points. The first is that place name evidence strongly suggest that the region around Lichfield was the centre of a cult of Ing-Freyr, and perhaps Freyja, with some indications that the ancient wagon procession cult was at least remembered if not wholly practiced – the names of Freeford (Freyja’s ford), Ingle Hill (Ing- Hill), Weeford (Idol ford), Stotfold (Oxen or horse fold) and perhaps Shenstone (Shining Stone).  This implies the early existence of both a fertility cult, with an annually dying and rising deity, and with a cult of the dead.  The second point is that this cult seems to have been supressed in exactly the way that Pope Gregory recommended to St Augustine – to use and hallow the pagan shrines for Christian worship. The three pagan sites of Weeford, Freeford (which includes Ingle Hill) and Stotfold were eventually to become prebends of Lichfield Cathedral; the worship of the Lord Ing-Freyr and the Lady Freyja was replaced by the worship of Christ as mediated through the chief apostle Peter and the local holy man Chad, and “Our Lady”, the Virgin Mary. The pagan psychopomp Freyja was replaced by the Christian version, the Archangel Michael, who from the summit of Greenhill would proclaim the Christian victory over the Lord and Lady of the Vanir. Away from Lichfield itself, the fires at Shenstone, that perhaps used to illumine the travelling idol, became dedicated to St John, and whatever occurred at Wednesfield, Wednesbury, Hints and Farewell was neutered using the ambiguous name of Woden / Odin, and the rather dramatically martyred St Bartholomew. But the suppression was not wholly complete. Some of the names in the vicinity were too deeply ingrained in the local consciousness to be eliminated completely, and the association of Lichfield with both the cult of the dead and with fertility was to endure, through the long history of the graveyard at St Michaels, and through the Greenhill Bower respectively.  Interestingly, and perhaps amusingly, as late as the 14thcentury the incumbents of the (once pagan) prebends of Freeford, Weeford and Stotfold still appointed chaplains to the three (Christian) city churches of St Mary, St Chad and St Michael (Greenslade, 1990).

In the above no attempt has been made to give chronological depth to the above suggestions and give suggested dates other than the firm one of 669 for the beginning of Chad’s episcopate. Place names and church dedications simply do not allow a precise chronology of the interaction between pagan and Christian worship to be developed. So we have simply set out the evidence that suggests that, in the pre-conversion period, there was a significant and identifiable pagan activity in the Lichfield area, that had both fertility and mortuary aspects, and was ultimately supressed, albeit far from effectively, by the Christian church.

Earlier possibilities

We have concentrated above on the interface between Anglian pagan worship and Christian worship, potentially in the sixth and seventh centuries. However there’re a number of indications that the Lichfield area might have cultic past that goes back further than that. James (1999), based on the work of Morris (1989), argues that the church dedication to St Michael on Greenhill could have displaced an earlier cult of Mercury, who has many of the same attributes, including that of psychopomp. In turn this could be related to the cult of the Celtic / British deity Lugos, who again had the same attributes. Also, as noted above, Bassett (1992) argued that St Michael’s could have been the centre of a late Roman ecclesiastical diocese. How the various competing cultic sites of the Roman / British and Anglo-Saxon periods might have related to each other is not at all clear.

Going back still further, it is quite possible that Lichfield itself is part of a major solar alignment, with the Cathedral, St Chad’s Well, and the Bronze age site at Catholme all being on a midwinter sunset / midsummer sunrise alignment. The cultic implications of this are the subject of speculation is a related blog post.


Basset S (1992) “Church and diocese in the West Midlands; the transition from British to Anglo-Saxon control”, in Pastoral Care before the Parish, ed. J. Blair and R. Sharpe (Leicester University Press), pp13–40.

Colrave B (ed) (1927) “The Life of Bishop Wilfred by Eddius Stephanus”

Greenslade M W (1990) “Lichfield: Churches”, in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14, Lichfield, pp. 134-155

Crane T F, Lazzarotti M (2014), Ed. Tales From Italy: When Christianity Met Italy, M&J ISBN 9791195174942 p5

Horowitz D (2005) “The Place Names of Staffordshire”, published by D Horovitz, Berwood

Hutton R (1996) “The Stations of the Sun – a History of the Ritual Year in Britain”, Oxford University Press, 311-321

James T (1998) “The development of the parish of St Michael-on-Greenhll over 1500 years”, St Michael’s Papers; number 1, St. Michael’s PCC

James T (1999) “St Michael’s dedication, associations and imagery”, St Michael’s Papers; number 2, St. Michael’s PCC

Kettle A J, Johnson D A (1970) “A History of Lichfield Cathedral”, Victoria County History of Staffordshire, Volume III

Mill AD (1991) “Dictionary of English Place Names”, Oxford University Press, p187

Morris J (1976) Staffordshire Domesday, Phillimore, Chester

Morris R (1989) “Churches in the Landscape”, pp 54-55, Phoenix Giant

North R (1997) “Heathen Gods in Old English Literature”, Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England 22, Cambridge University Press