By indexer
164 days ago

The history and architecture of Lichfield Cathedral

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Lichfield Cathedral’s claim to fame is that it is the only cathedral in Britain to have three spires (“The Ladies of the Vale”), two at the west end and the third, and tallest at 252 feet, at the crossing. It is unfortunate in that it has suffered from considerable damage over the centuries, and the various efforts at restoration have not always been sympathetic to the original design.

The history of the cathedral

The cathedral began as a shrine to St Chad, an English bishop who died at Lichfield (in south Staffordshire) in 672. There were originally three wooden chapels on the site, dedicated to St Mary, St Peter and St Chad, but these were replaced by a cathedral that was begun in 1085. However, this was in turn replaced by the cathedral that is seen today and which was begun in 1195 and completed in the 1330s, thus offering a variety of styles of English Gothic.

The oldest part of the cathedral that has survived is the western end of the choir, which demonstrates some late Norman features as well as the typical pointed arches of Early English.

Lichfield Cathedral was built using local sandstone that is notable for its variations in colour, these being more clearly seen on the inside where weathering has not been a factor.

The west front, with the two spires, contains niches for more than a hundred statues. When first built, these represented a mixture of saints, kings and the supposed ancestors of Christ, but nearly all of them were pulled down and smashed by Cromwell’s troops during the Civil War in the 17th century. The replacements that are seen today are Victorian copies that Alec Clifton-Taylor has described as “passable advertisements for the local hairdresser, every little wisp of hair having been carefully ‘set’ in a fussy little curl”.

The Civil War was a bad time for Lichfield Cathedral, which was a battleground on three separate occasions between the forces of King Charles and those of Parliament. The damage included the destruction of the central spire and the removal of the roof, plus the smashing of all the stained glass. Repairs started soon after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 but took until the 19th century to be completed. For example, some of the stained glass seen today (in the Lady Chapel) is of 16th century origin but was bought from an abbey in Belgium in 1802.

Lichfield Cathedral also fell victim to the misguided degradations of James Wyatt in the 1790s, but the more sympathetic work of George Gilbert Scott in the 1850s and 1870s helped to undo some of the damage, despite the awful west front statues.

Features of Lichfield Cathedral

Probably the best feature of the cathedral’s interior is the aisled nave, which is 14th century. The proportions are excellent, being reminiscent of those of Westminster Abbey, of similar date, although the nave is not as lofty. There is a pleasing symmetry in the design, with geometrical patterning in the clerestory windows, the tribune arches and between the nave arcades that traces a progression of three lobes in each pattern at the top, four in the middle and five lower down. This is an excellent example of the “Geometrical Decorated” style of English Gothic.

An unusual feature of the decoration is the stone carving on the capitals of the arcade and springing-points of the vault. This has been done to represent purely natural objects such as oak leaves and acorns, which adds a pleasing touch and does something, purely coincidentally, to counteract the fact that the vault is only of wood and plaster and not the original stone.

The chapter house is of interest, being an elongated octagon vaulted from a central pier and dating from 1249. It is situated on the north side of the choir and approached via a vestibule in which is a medieval pedilavium, or a place where bishops (and sometimes kings) would wash the feet of poor people on Maundy Thursday.

It is possible to stand at the west end of the cathedral and see right through to the east end, as there are no screens or other obstructions in the way. At the east end is the Lady Chapel, which forms an extension of the choir and is built to the same height, but without aisles. One can just make out the slight bend in alignment of the Lady Chapel, caused by the need to fit the foundations to the lie of the sandstone bedrock of the site.

Lichfield Cathedral is by no means the greatest of English cathedrals but it is certainly well worth a visit, not least to view some of the treasures it contains such as the Chad Gospels, an illuminated manuscript dating from around 730.

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soncee Wonderful catedral beautiful architecture
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fortune The architecture is stunning 😉
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Justin Very interesting 👍👍👍
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RasmaSandra A fascinating story.l I love reading about historic places and old churches.
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