On Maundy Thursday we left Fox Cottage in Bretforton and drove to Lichfield. The plan was to see Lichfield Cathedral in the morning and Shugborough Estate, home of the Earl of Lichfield in the afternoon. The best laid plans…
We usually confine ourselves to one big “viewing” per day, but the two locations were fairly close together, both about 1 1/2 hours from where we were staying. It seemed best to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak, though we knew we would be fully saturated by days’ end.
We made it to the Cathedral in good time and were greeted warmly by the attendant. Somewhat to our surprise, the place was packed, jam-packed. We had unwittingly chosen to visit the during a significant service in the church calendar, The Blessing of the Oils.
The service was about to begin. Snapping photos was clearly out; it would have been intrusive and extremely rude. So we put our cameras back in their bags and looked around for a place to perch until the service was over. It was standing room only, but the attendant bustled around and found us two seats very near the altar. Clad in Barbours, jeans and walking shoes, we were not appropriately attired for church attendance, particularly seated right up at the front, so endeavoured to be inconspicuous and tried to melt into the background.
To make it worse, it gradually dawned on us as we looked around that every second person seemed to be a member of the clergy. The service was being conducted by Michael Upgrade, the 99th and current Bishop of Lichfield. I counted seven bishops sitting nearby, and wondered exactly what was going on. Reading the order of service and checking websites later, we discovered that:
“Clergy and lay ministers come together for the Maundy Thursday service, where they will process through the Cathedral. They will then renew their vows of ministry. Everyone is welcome to attend this special service.
The service, called the Chrism Eucharist, includes the blessing of holy oils used in well-known church ceremonies. These are: Chrism Oil, which is used at ordination and confirmation services; Catechumens Oil, used at baptisms and Oil of Healing, which is used when ministering to the sick and dying. The clergy will take the blessed oils back to their parishes for use throughout the next year.
The name ‘Maundy’ comes from the Latin ‘mandatum’ meaning ‘commandment’. Christians remember Jesus giving his disciples the command to love one another just as he loved them, at the Last Supper. It is for this reason that this day is chosen for clergy and lay ministers to renew their vows.”
Oh well! Sloppy dress or not, we settled in and soaked up the festive atmosphere.
We were surrounded by an incredible feeling of welcome and community. Watching all the members of the clergy greet each other with enthusiasm and warmth, it was quite like old home week. We enjoyed the service immensely, and felt privileged to be included.
This floor plan is a screen shot from the Wikipedia Lichfield Cathedral page. We were sitting just inside the North Transept for the service. The pulpit and screen you see in the photo above are at the base of the Choir.
Once the service was over, the crowds gradually dispersed, and we began to take photos. The chairs are portable, not fixed pews, and needed to be rearranged for the evening service. Apparently the further back in the nave you go, the more portable the chairs get! This is a view from just inside the west doors looking through the nave towards the choir and the high altar.
This is looking across the central part of the nave. I love the cross-stitched kneeler cushions, a fixture in British Cathedrals.
Looking toward the screen at the entrance to the Choir.
The icon on the altar between the North and South transepts, you can see the stairs leading up to the pulpit in the background.
There has been a place of worship on the site since 700 AD. The current gothic Cathedral was begun in 1195, the Choir in 1200, the Transepts between 1220 to 1240 and the Nave was started in 1260. Last to be built was the Lady Chapel in the 1330s. The ornate metal choir screen is relatively modern, from the Victorian period.
Unfortunately, the Cathedral did not live happily ever after. During the English Civil War, it sustained three sieges, from 1643 to 1646. By and large, the church authorities were Royalists, on the side of Charles I, but the townsfolk generally sided with Parliament. I’ve always loved the description by Sellar and Yeatman in 1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England, who describe the Royalists as “Wrong but Wromantic” and the Parliamentarians as “Right but Repulsive”. That about sums it up.
The cathedral suffered extensive damage. The central spire was demolished, the roofs were ruined and all the stained glass was smashed. Ugh. With typical British pragmatism, however, they swept up and restoration of the cathedral began in the 1660s. The restored monarch contributed significant funds, but full repair waited until the 19th century; the Victorians were very big on restoring cathedrals in the “Decorated” style of architecture which existed between 1260 and 1360. It is estimated that approximately 80% of all Church of England churches were affected in some way by this enthusiasm, running the gamut from tinkering to total demolition and rebuild. This movement was heartily embraced by the Church of England as a means of reversing declining church attendance.
Stepping behind the screen into the Choir, this is the view. The Lady Chapel is at the back, with the three panels of stained glass. Isn’t the floor gorgeous? (One of our readers, Beatrice, filled me in that these tiles are Minton). The lighting in this particular cathedral was amazing. The photos practically took themselves.
The High Altar at the back of the Choir is very ornate. But the floors kept drawing my attention, again and again. Love the tile.
Ok – back to the altar. Note the intricate carving.
Here the light was a little more tricky, so some of the shots are a bit blurry – apologies…
Up close details where we could get them:
Behind the High Altar, looking into the Lady Chapel.
In the face of all the wholesale destruction during the English Civil war, it’s heartening to learn that the windows of the Lady Chapel contain some of the finest medieval Flemish painted glass in existence, though not original to Lichfield. The windows date from the 1530s and hail from the Abbey of Herkenrode in Belgium. When that abbey was dissolved during the Napoleonic Wars, the windows were acquired by Lichfield.
Looking back through the Choir toward the West Door.
There are lots of beautifully carved figures throughout the Cathedral.
The ceiling height is breathtaking. You can see the pipe organ tucked in near the top.
The angels won my heart.
This stunning and very moving marble sculpture from 1817 is by Francis Chantrey. Entitled The Sleeping Children, it depicts Ellen-Jane and Marianne Robinson asleep in each other’s arms on a bed. The tragic story began in 1812 when the father of the girls, clergyman Reverend William Robinson, who had recently become a prebendary of Lichfield Cathedral, contracted tuberculosis and died. In his thirties at the time of his death, he left his wife with their two daughters.
The statue was commissioned by the mother of the two children, also named Ellen-Jane Robinson, whose daughters died in 1813 and 1814. She lost her entire family in a two year period, all from different causes, and wanted to commemorate her daughters as she most vividly remembered them, curled up with each other, asleep.
Lichfield Cathedral is also famous for its Angel, though it’s a thousand years older and in more perilous condition.
It was discovered under the nave of the cathedral very recently, in February of 2003. It’s an eighth century sculpted panel of the Archangel Gabriel, carved from limestone, and thought to be part of a stone chest containing the relics of St Chad. He does an excellent rendition of the Hairy Eyeball, don’t you think?
Most of the stained glass is from the 19th century, by Charles Eamer Kempe and by Betton and Evans.
One feels about 6″ tall, standing by the massive columns and gazing up into the ribbed roof.
Incredible detail to take in wherever one looks.
It’s hard to convey the scale.
One of the tombs in the side aisles. This one is clearly a bishop, judging from the mitre, though I don’t know which bishop.
A closeup of the top of the Choir Screen.
Another tomb in the cathedral. A cleric of some sort, though not a bishop.
Our last stop before going outside was the octagonal Chapter House, which was completed in 1249 and usually houses an exhibition of the cathedral’s greatest treasure, the Lichfield Gospels, an 8th-century illuminated manuscript. It was not to be, however…
The second floor was closed – under construction. We got these few snaps of the lower floor, but they were awkward and difficult to achieve. You get the idea, though. Very small seats for a long perch. Quite uncomfortable, I would think.
Lovely mural in one of the ceiling arches.
Looking back out the door into the Chapter House, you can see Glenn lining up his shot of…
… this gentleman. Unknown to us, but striking.
The Cathedral also houses what is believed to be the oldest copy of the Wycliffe New Testament.
A lovely statue of St. Christopher.
Back outside into the sunshine, we got some more pictures of the exterior of the Cathedral. The Western Front was extensively restored in the Victorian Period by George Gilbert Scott, The staggering number of ornate carved figures of kings, queens and saints were replaced, from original materials where possible, and using new materials where originals were not available.
You can see the famous third spire here.
Lichfield is the only Medieval Cathedral in the UK with three spires. It looks kind of puny from a distance, but when you get closer – wow – there is a lot going on. Update: A very kind reader directed me to the name by which these three spires are known, “The Ladies of the Vale”. Isn’t that charming? Another cathedral enthusiast writes a blog called “A Bit About Britain” and his blog on Lichfield Cathedral is here. It’s got some wonderful detail on the ancient history of the Cathedral and its connection to the saintly retired abbot Chad. Well worth a read!
The ornate carving covers the entire west front of the Cathedral.
This is one of the corner spires on the front. Even more going on here.
You can see the heavy flying buttresses supporting the walls of the nave. Despite their majestic presence, the walls of the Cathedral lean outward, and several tons of material was removed from the roof during a recent restoration in an effort to halt the leaning.
You have to wonder what material was removed…
One of the flanking side doors on the Western Front.
And the main Western Door.
This lady is nestled right in the middle. Layers and layers of detail to absorb. It would take months to take it all in.
We abandoned any idea of heading to Shugborough; another trip perhaps. One can only do so much! Repeat after me, ONE site a day…
Back to the car and off to find a late (very late) lunch. I had noticed Erasmus Darwin’s house on the way up, but hadn’t stopped to pay much notice (eager as I was to get closer to those beckoning spires). Erasmus was Charles Darwin’s grandfather; apparently controversial theories ran in the family! Very interesting man. Next time! More and more for next time!
Goodbye, Lichfield Cathedral. Thanks for a wonderful visit, and especially for making us feel so welcome!
I’m sharing this post with Between Naps on the Porch.