St. Michael on Greenhill, Lichfield – a history. Part 1. From the Romans to the Reformation – Lichfield and St. Michael’s to 1535

From well before the Romans arrived in Britain, there is evidence that the Lichfield area was a place of some significance, with many roads converging on the shallow valley in which it lies. It was also a place of possible ritual activity, with Greenhill (on which the church dedicated to St. Michael would eventually stand) being on a mid-winter solar alignment from the Bronze Age ritual site at Catholme in the north east to the hilltop at Castlebank in the south west. The first record of Christianity in the area comes from the Roman site at Wall to the south where a bronze bowl inscribed with the chi-rho motif was found. It seems, however, that the religious situation was quite complex in the late Roman and early Anglo-Saxon period. There is a possibility that Greenhill itself may have been associated with the cult of Mercury, one of whose roles was as a psychopomp, the gatherer of the souls of the dead. In Christina iconography, this role is taken by the Archangel Michael, and this possibly led to the eventual displacement of the cult of Mercury with the church dedication to St. Michael, the Christian psychopomp.  There is also evidence from a later Welsh poem of a Christian Bishop in the area, possibly at Wall. On the other hand place name evidence suggest that the area was a centre of worship of the Germanic / Nordic pantheon of gods- Ing-Freyr at Ingle Hill to the south of Freeford manor and in the name of Freeford (Freyr – ford) itself; the worship of idols at Weeford; the ritual significance of horses at Statfold (horse field) to the east; Tyr at Tymore near Whttington;  and the cult of Woden at Wednesbury, who also had the attributes of a pscychopomp. The names of Freyr (meaning simply Lord), one of the Vanir, is associated with sacral kingship and virility.

It was in this complex religious landscape that St Chad established his cathedral in 669AD.  The burial site on Greenhill was probably established around this time. According to popular tradition it is one of the five ancient burial sites that were consecrated by St. Augustine in the seventh century (the others being Glastonbury, Canterbury, Lindisfarne and York) and a place of solitude for St Chad when he was Bishop of Lichfield. Unfortunately, there is not a shred of hard historical evidence for either of assertions, but they are tales worth telling.  Nonetheless it was certainly used in Anglo-Saxon times and a crouched burial, probably of that period or earlier, was found in the 1970s. Throughout the middle ages it was used by local farmers to graze their sheep and cattle and could have been a place where stock was over-wintered before moving out to far flung summer pastures.

The development of St. Michael’s parish was quite complex. Up to around 1500 the ecclesiastical organization in Lichfield was based on the estates of the Cathedral canons or Prebends, which were originally coherent estates but tended to become broken up with time, so they overlapped with each other. The area that was to become St. Michael’s parish seems to have originally been part of Freeford and Statfold prebendary estates, extending from Greenhill a long way to the east; and part of Weeford prebend to the west of Lichfield. Certainly, when the parish first achieves definition in around the 16th century, it stretches from Hammerwich in the west, to Fisherwick, Statfold and Haselour in the east, as well as the area around Greenhill. The figure below shows the extent of the parish in the early 19th century, when it still retained many of the outlying hamlets.

19th century parish boundaries – St Michael’s parish is shown in green

St. Michael’s church itself is first mentioned in the historical record in the twelfth century. At that time, it was much smaller than it is now, consisting of only the nave and a much shorter chancel, of the same height as the current chancel. Over the next two or three centuries, the north and south aisles and tower were added, the chancel extended to its current length, and the whole church increased to its present height. The worship offered in the church would have been very different from today’s worship and would have centred on the daily saying of the Mass by one of the chaplains of the Cathedral prebends based at St. Mary’s. At most services there would have been little by way of a congregation, other than on Sundays and festivals. These masses would have been supplemented by chantry masses said on behalf of the dead, with the priest paid for from a bequest. The pastoral offices of baptism, marriage, penance, unction and burial would have been provided for all parishioners. The main congregational involvement would have been in the various processions that marked the church year – at Candlemas, Palm Sunday and Corpus Christie and perhaps other times, which would have involved elaborate ceremony and ritual. It is probably in ceremonies such as these that we should look for the origin of the Greenhill Bower at Whitsun.

It is in the context of the Chantry masses, that we are first able to put at least a name to those who worshipped at St. Michael’s. In the church “restoration” of the nineteenth century, an effigy was uncovered of a figure dressed as a medieval lawyer.  This has been taken to be William de Walton, who, in 1344, left the church money for masses to pray for himself and his wife Margaret, Master Adam Walton, and Isabel de Rokeby. However, it could equally be Robert de Hulton who founded a chantry in1273 to pray for his soul, that of his wife Hawisse. Or indeed it could be someone else entirely. 

Effigy in St. Michael’s chancel