Visit historic Lichfield
Julian Humphrys visits one of England’s smallest cathedral cities, which was once a cultural powerhouse and home to such luminaries as Erasmus Darwin and Samuel Johnson.
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Lichfield grew up as the seat of a Mercian bishopric in the late seventh century. The present cathedral was begun in 1195 and developed into a popular destination for pilgrims wishing to visit the shrine of St Chad. In the mid-12th century, Bishop Clinton expanded the city and the grid street pattern he established remains to this day. He also fortified the cathedral close, creating a moat which still survives in the form of Minster Pool to the south of the cathedral. In the early 14th century, Bishop Walter de Langton made the close defences even stronger, adding a stone wall, of which little now remains.
The Reformation saw the destruction of St Chad’s shrine but the cathedral suffered even greater damage a century later during the English Civil War when its elevated position and walled close made it an obvious military strong point. It was occupied by both sides, underwent three sieges and suffered enormous devastation, not just to the fabric of the building but also to its interior where many of its memorials, glass and statues fell victim to the iconoclastic attentions of the Parliamentarian soldiery. Nearly all of the 100 plus figures adorning the west front of the cathedral are Victorian replacements.
In the 18th century, Lichfield, prospering from its central location on a number of coaching routes, developed into one of the leading social and cultural centres of the Midlands. “We are a city of philosophers,” declared Samuel Johnson, writer, critic, lexicographer and Lichfield’s most famous son. Daniel Defoe called it “a place of conversation and good company”. The intellectual figures who were born or lived there included Erasmus Darwin, whose ideas anticipated those of his celebrated grandson, the actor David Garrick, and ‘the Swan of Lichfield’ – poet and letter-writer Anna Seward.
In the 19th century, the development of the railway meant that Lichfield lost its position as a key staging post and with it much of its vitality. While nearby towns like Birmingham saw huge increases in population, Lichfield remained relatively unchanged in character. Today it’s one of the smallest cathedral cities in England, the many Georgian buildings in its centre an attractive reminder of its 18th-century heyday.
This is the third cathedral on the site – the first was built at the end of the seventh century and housed the shrine of St Chad, who did much to convert Mercia to Christianity. Construction of a Norman cathedral began in 1085 but the Gothic cathedral we see today dates from the end of the 12th century. Lichfield is the only medieval cathedral in England to have three spires, although the central spire was later rebuilt following its destruction during the Civil War. The lady chapel, with its 16th-century Flemish glass brought here in 1803, is currently being restored. The chapter house contains two important Saxon relics: the stone Lichfield angel, believed to be part of St Chad’s original shrine and, from Easter to Christmas, the eighth-century St Chad gospels.
2. Erasmus Darwin House
This is the home of Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802), grandfather of Charles and a leading 18th‑century doctor, scientist, philosopher and botanist. He was one of the founder members of the Lunar Society, which met for dinner and discussion when the Moon was full. Other members included Joseph Priestley, James Watt and Josiah Wedgewood. The house features period furnishings and an 18th-century herb garden at the rear.
3. Samuel Johnson Birthplace
The famous Doctor Johnson was born here in 1709, spent the first 27 years of his life here, and frequently returned until his death in 1784. The house was completed in 1708 by Johnson’s father, Michael, to be a family home and an outlet for his bookselling business. Five floors of exhibits tell the story of Johnson’s life and work while the first room, fittingly, houses a second-hand bookshop.
4. Lichfield Heritage Centre
This is housed in the 19th-century St Mary’s church and features exhibits relating to: the history of Lichfield; embroidery; city, church and regimental silver; and two AV presentations telling the story of the city and the dramatic events of the Civil War in Lichfield. The 40-metre spire viewing platform offers some superb views of the city.
5. Market Place
The market place features two statues – one of Samuel Johnson, and one of his friend and biographer James Boswell. It was here in April 1612 that Edward Wightman became the last person to be burned at the stake for heresy in England.
6. St John's Hospital
One of the finest 15th-century brick buildings in the country, the hospital was originally founded in the 12th century to provide accommodation for pilgrims and travellers who arrived at Lichfield after the city gates had been closed at night. It was refounded at the end of the 15th century as a free grammar school and a home for aged men, a role it still performs today.
Lichfield Tourist Information:
Tel 01543 412112
Tel 01543 306100
Places to visit nearby:
Wall Roman Site, Watling Street, Wall, WS14 0AW (3 miles SW of centre)
Staffordshire Regiment Museum, Whittington Barracks, WS14 9PY (3 miles SE of centre)