St. Michael on Greenhill, Lichfield – a history. Part 2. Reformation, Restoration and Enlightenment – St. Michael’s from 1535 to 1800

The time between the beginning of the Reformation in the 1530s and the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 was a time of turmoil in England, both in terms of church and politics. Lichfield shared in this turmoil, with the dissolution of the Friary, the dissolution of all guilds and chantries and, in the civil war, the destruction of the cathedral itself. How St Michael’s fared in this period is not recorded, but there were two major incidents of damage quite possibly caused by lack of maintenance and repair of the fabric. In 1593, the spire was blown down, together with spire at St Mary’s, by a “great tempest of wind”. And towards the end of the Commonwealth period in 1658 we read that on the night of January 13th, the roof over the main aisle fell in.

Lichfield itself seems to have recovered from this traumatic period within a decade or so of the Restoration. The cathedral was restored by Bishop Hackett, and In 1697, Celia Fiennes thought that the town had good houses and that its streets were neat and handsome. It’s position on the road to Chester made it a natural stopping point for travelers, and over the course of the century it developed a reputation as an intellectual and literary centre, through the likes of Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) and Anna Seward (1742-1809). At St. Michael’s in the century after the Restoration, we read of a steady stream of building improvements at St. Michael’s – the large Coat of Arms hanging above the chancel arch in 1711, a new peal of six bells (the current ones) in 1722 and a gallery for singers at the west end of the church in 1780. In 1765 John Deakin left a legacy in rent income for “beautifying” St. Michael’s, and in 1798 this was used to install a three-tier pulpit and reading desk in the south east of the church. The main door to the church was moved from the centre of the south aisle to the end of the aisle opposite the north door.  In 1790 the Donegal family of Fisherwick Hall (in the parish) built a family mausoleum in the south east corner of the church at the site of the present vestry.

In 1781 John Snape produced the first detailed map of Lichfield, and it is shown in the figure below. There is much that could be said about the map, but for this book the area around St. Michael’s church is of particular interest. Basically, it can be seen that the church is very much outside the city. There is a cluster of houses in Greenhill around the junction of Rotten Row and Church Street but otherwise the area is essentially rural, with fields and market gardens in the area around the church.  The avenue from the north gate to the church can be clearly seen. It can thus be appreciated that most of the population at this time would have lived in the city itself, or on the road to Stowe, and thus mainly in the parishes of St Mary and St Chad.

In this period, there were developing tensions with the hamlets in the outlying part of St Michael’s parish, mainly over the levying of the church rate for maintenance of the parish church, perhaps at the expense of the local chapels. Matters came to a head in the late eighteenth century when Fisherwick, Haselour and Statfold refused to pay the rate and legal action was at least considered by the Vestry at St. Michael’s.

Figure 1. The 1781 Snape map of Lichfield

That nature of the worship in St. Michael’s changed radically during this period, with the celebration of the mass and the medieval processions being replaced by services from, firstly, the 1549 prayer book of Edward VI and the, from 1660, services from the Book of Common Prayer. These would have been mainly read services of mattins and evensong, with occasional, perhaps monthly, services of holy communion. The church was at the time under the authority of the Vicar of St. Mary’s who appointed a series of curates to lead the service, and to baptize, marry and bury the parishioners. Sermons would have been few and far between and, were generally provided by the chaplains of the Cathedral prebendaries. Relations between the prebendaries and St Michael’s were not always harmonious. In 1720 they requested permission to drive a carriage to the door of the church in wet weather. This was refused by the churchwardens. In retaliation, the prebendaries then resorted to sending one of their vicars with a book of homilies to read from. Eventually the matter was settled by the bishop and the carriage was allowed.

The church registers, which begin in 1574, also give insights into the life of the parish and the city at the time. Apart from recording the burials of parishioners at all levels in society including a number of entries for such prominent Lichfield families as the Floyers, the Ashmoles and the Dyotts, we also find records to the burial of itinerants, executed prisoners, long standing servants of the church and suicides. These centuries were also the time when a large number of funerary monuments were placed in the church. A few of these still survive, but many seem to have been swept away in either the civil war or the restoration of the 1840s. For example, on the north side of the chancel was an alabaster stone, upon which was the figure of a man between his two wives. Under the feet of the wife on the right hand were the figures of fifteen sons and six daughters, and under that on the left were three sons and three daughters. One suspects there is a story to be told there!. Of the monuments that did survive two of particular note are those to John Newton (d 1724) one of whose son’s went on to be Dean of St Paul’s, whilst the other founded Newton’s College in the Close for widows and unmarried daughters of clergy; and to Richard and Felicia Hammond and their daughter Mary Cobb, all friends of Samuel Johnson.  Perhaps the most famous of the inscriptions within the church is a floor slab with a Latin memorial on the grave of Samuel Johnson’s father. This was composed by Johnson himself who wrote “Rasselas or the Prince of Abysinnia” and sold it to publishers for £100 in order to pay the cost of the memorial.

Memorial slab to Michael Johnson

Towards the close of this period, the ministers of the church become more than just names. Curates of St. Mary’s were appointed up to 1740, and after that Perpetual Curates (our equivalent of vicars) were appointed. These included three from the Remington family – Daniel William Remington, and his sons William Remington (1782-1805) and Edward Remington (1805 – 1831). William is said to have been the first to institute a Sunday School in Lichfield, and there is a monument to him and to his father in the Cathedral.