A detailed investigation of
The Origins of Lichfield
C C Taylor FSA
First published in 1968/69 (in volume X of the Society's transactions)
Note that this article is presented in its original pagination, complete with footnotes.
Edited by Julian Ward-Davies, BA Hons
May 2018, revised January 2019
Topographical and documentary evidence is examined which suggests that Lichfield is not an ancient urban foundation but a medieval 'new' town of about 1150. Following from this, a reassessment of the area's earlier history indicates that the eleventh-century manor of the Bishops of Lichfield was probably at least part of the territorium of the near-by Roman settlement of Letocetum.
URBAN HISTORIANS have long been familiar with the problems of the so-called medieval 'new' or planned towns. Well over one hundred of these are now known to have been established by royal, lay and ecclesiastical lords alike in England between the late eleventh and late fourteenth centuries1. In our own county of Staffordshire, two of these 'new' towns are well known. Newcastle-under-Lyme is one, established soon after 1154 by Henry II. The other is Newborough, now a village in Needwood Forest, which was established as a borough in 1100-39 by Henry de Ferrers, but whose existence appears to have been shortlived.
Lichfield has of course never been looked on as one of these planned towns and is normally accepted as an 'organic' town which slowly grew up under the shadow of its ancient cathedral. However this view is, in the writer's opinion, due to a lack of critical examination of the history of the town. He feels that the time is now ripe for a reassessment of the possible origin of Lichfield. The ideas put forward here may not be acceptable to all, but at least they attempt to solve some of the historical and topographical problems associated with the town, which up to now seem never to have been recognized.
Some seventy years ago, in her pioneer work on the Laws of Breteuil2, Miss M. Bateson suggested, on purely documentary evidence, that Lichfield was deliberately established in the early twelfth century, i.e. a planned town. Subsequent students of Lichfield history have ignored this work, and even Dr. H. Thorpe in his article on the growth of Lichfield3 did not mention it. Dr. Thorpe made the point that the street-plan of Lichfield provides 'a good example of medieval town planning', but did not make any definite suggestion that the town was a deliberate creation. More recent workers on medieval new towns have also failed to note certain features of the history and topography of Lichfield4, with the result that Lichfield is still regarded as a normal 'organic' town. The present writer would like to enlarge on the points made by Miss Bateson and Dr. Thorpe and to add to them various other pieces of evidence in the hope that the place of Lichfield as a planned town of the twelfth century may be accepted.
1. M. W. Beresford, New Towns of the Middle Ages (1967).
2. E.H.R., xv (1900), pp. 73-8, 302-18, etc; xvi (1901), pp. 92-110, etc.
3. S.H.C., for 1950/1 (1954), pp. 139-211.
4. Beresford, op. cit.
Miss Bateson pointed out that in 1225 Lichfield successfully pleaded that, by the Laws of Breteuil, the Assize of Mortis Antecessors could not be held in the city. This, she thought, indicated that the privileges of the town had been based on those of Breteuil in Normandy, and she suggested that Lichfield, together with sixteen other towns in England, Wales and Ireland, whose privileges were also apparently based on those of Breteuil, were all deliberate post-Conquest urban creations.
Miss Bateson's work came in for a certain amount of criticism5 and, although it is now clear that she was wrong in assuming that evidence of privileges of Breteuil alone was indicative of a new town, recent work has shown that the liberties of many planned, as well as organic towns, were directly or indirectly based on those of Breteuil6. Nevertheless Miss Bateson's suggestion that Lichfield is a planned town cannot be accepted without further proof on its own. As Professor Beresford has said of this type of town, 'A single symptom is no more than ground for suspicion. It is by a conjunction of symptoms that we move towards evidence'7. It is hoped that the points put forward below will provide these symptoms.
5. For example, E.H.R., xxx (1915), pp. 646-58: C. Stephenson, Borough and Town (1933), pp. 120 ff.
6. Beresford, op. cit., p. 199.
7. Beresford, op. cit., p. 380.
Any student of urban topography must be puzzled, as the writer has been for many years, by certain features of the position and layout of the city (fig. 1). In terms of position it is difficult to understand why the town is where it is. It lies, or lay before relatively recent alterations, on the south side of a wide, marshy and partly water-filled valley, on relatively low lying ground, surrounded by higher, drier places. If a town were to develop naturally, surely it would have grown up on the north side of the valley on the sandstone area around the cathedral. As it stands, it is a very unusual feature for a medieval cathedral to be separated so completely from its associated town. Most English cathedral cities are in close physical contact with their cathedral churches, for example, Worcester, Exeter, Norwich, etc. More important, it is difficult to see how a town could develop naturally on a site which posed such serious difficulties for communications.
Today we take for granted that the town is a focal point for routes that have always existed. But until c. 1296, when Bishop Langton built the causeway across the valley linking Bird Street and Beacon Street, there was no way for travellers to cross the valley except to go via Stowe Street, St. Chad's Church and Gaia Lane. In addition one must remove from the map all the other more recent alterations and changes to the existing road pattern. This involves not only the Friary Road and the by-passes of this century, but also the major alterations of the nineteenth century such as the present roads to Burton (Trent Valley Road) and Tamworth (Tamworth Road), both constructed in 1835, and the whole of the road to Walsall (Queen Street and Walsall Road) made in 1833. In terms of long distance travel, the two Roman roads in the area, the Watling Street and the Ryknield Street, neither of which pass close to the city, are far better routes, and the Roman town of Wall (Letocetum) is much more suitably sited at least from the point of view of communications.
Particularly important here is the way the old roads leading into the town meet its main streets. Thus, though roads from the north-east converge and enter the town via Greenhill in a normal way, the continuations of these roads south-westwards leave the town in a curious manner. The road to Walsall (Sandford Street) leaves the town at a very odd place in Bird Street and has no sensible relationship with the main town plan at all, while the Birmingham Road meets St. John Street at a place quite unrelated to the town. Both these junctions have produced serious traffic problems in this century which have been partly solved by massive new-road construction. In effect then, the main inner street-plan of the town fits somewhat unconformably with some of the roads leading into it and suggests to the writer that the streetplan itself is not an early feature of the area.
This street-plan is worthy of special attention (fig. 2). It is remarkably rectangular and consists of four almost parallel streets, Market Street, Bore Street, Wade Street and Frog Lane, with streets at right angles to these, Bird Street and Lower St. John Street at the southwest end and Dam Street, Conduit Street and Baker's Lane at the north-east. This produces a pattern consisting of four large rectangular 'chequers' between 700 feet and 840 feet long and from 145 feet to 230 feet wide, and three more irregular chequers to the north-east. At the north-east end of the northernmost of the large chequers is the market-place, in which stands St. Mary's, the parish church of the town.
The market-place was clearly once much larger than it is now, apparently almost square with sides about 230 feet long but encroachments on the south side have much reduced its area. There seems to be little doubt that some element of deliberate planning is involved in the production of such a pattern. The width of building plots within this rectangular layout is perhaps also relevant in this context. Naturally too much must not be made of this kind of evidence because alteration (contd...)
and amalgamation has gone on and is still going on in the town. Nevertheless, on the O.S. 1:500 scale plan of the town of 1884, which is the earliest accurate large-scale plan of Lichfield that the writer has found, there is a distinct tendency for the building plots in the centre of the town to be 40 feet wide plus or minus one or two feet, except at street corners and where obvious alterations have taken place. This again seems to indicate an element of planning in the town's lay-out. One further piece of topographical information is afforded by the pattern of the parish boundaries in and around the town (fig. 3). The town centre, that is the rectangular part of the town and including Tamworth Street, Sandford Street and the Friary, is in St. Mary's parish.
To the north, north-east and north-west lies the parish of St. Chad, while to the south and east lies the parish of St. Michael. The pattern produced by these boundaries looks extremely odd and rouses the suspicion that St. Mary's parish has been cut out of St. Michael's. Unfortunately this cannot be proved since the early history of all these churches is obscure, but again it is a point to be noted, for it is a feature that is common to many planned towns8. Indeed this feature might well explain why there is only one medieval church within the old town in contrast to many organic towns which often have more than one. St. Mary's church may well have been the church set up within the new town for the use of its (contd...)
8. Beresford, op. cit., pp. 133-4, 401, 531, fig. 41.
new inhabitants. It certainly never had a churchyard and the dead of the parish were always buried at St. Michael's church outside the town. The large area of land south-west of the town centre and within St. Mary's parish, which was largely empty of building until the present century is also noteworthy. It was apparently waste ground until 1229 when a House of Grey Friars was established there and yet it was part of the town. It is conceivable that this area was included within the new town in the hope that it would be eventually built up and thus was an over-optimistic view of the potential size of the medieval town. A similar feature occurs in the better known planned town of Salisbury in Wiltshire. Moving on now from purely topographical considerations to historical sources, there are a number of pieces of evidence which must be noted. Though the first cathedral was built on the present site in c. A.D. 700, there is no evidence that this resulted in the growth of a town. Indeed there is no evidence anywhere in the country for large scale urban development before the ninth century9, but in the case of Lichfield there is no evidence for a town until (contd...)
9. O.S. Map of Dark Age Britain, 2nd ed. (1966), text p. 15.
very much later. The first detailed picture of Lichfield is given in Domesday Book, and while it shows that as part of the Bishop of Chester's manor it was a thriving agricultural community, there is no indication of any town there10. The removal of the seat of the Bishop, first to Chester in 1076 and later to Coventry in 1102, was undoubtedly the result of Archbishop Lanfranc's decree of 1075 that episcopal sees should be in major urban centres. This also suggests that Lichfield was an insignificant place at this time11.
Even later, William of Malmesbury, writing of the early twelfth century, described Lichfield as 'a small place, far from the busy life of towns in the midst of a wooded district'12, which again suggests that there was no urban centre there. By 1151 however we can be sure that a town was in existence. In that year Bishop Durdent was granted permission to coin money in his town and in 1153 King Stephen granted a market there13. From here on there is no doubt about the town's existence and its subsequent history is well known. Therefore we can assume that Lichfield as a town was created in the first half of the twelfth century and from the evidence of Bishop Durdent probably sometime around 1150.
The only person who could have created Lichfield at this time was Durdent's predecessor Roger de Clinton, Bishop from 1129 to 1149. Roger de Clinton carried out a great deal of work at Lichfield. He certainly rebuilt or more likely completed the rebuilding of the cathedral, though nothing of his work now remains. He also reformed the College of Canons, added a number of prebendaries to it14, and constructed a moat round the cathedral, most of which can still be traced. But in a rather vaguely worded document it is also recorded that he built a ditch around the town15. This is the first mention of any kind of urban centre at Lichfield. The line of this ditch is well known. It encircled the present town almost along the boundary of St. Mary's parish and is shown in detail on Snape's Map of Lichfield of 1781 (figs. 1 & 2).
In spite of this somewhat vague mention of the town for the first time, when taken with all the other evidence, there can be little doubt that it was Roger de Clinton who created Lichfield. One other point may be noted however. Because of the evidence that Bishop Durdent established a mint and a market in the town during his term of office it may be that, though the town was planned by de Clinton, Durdent actually completed the work. Roger de Clinton died in 1149 on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and this may have resulted in de Clinton's new town being left unfinished.
These then are the 'symptoms' which suggest to the writer that Lichfield is a twelfth-century planned town. He believes that they are sufficient to indicate that the town we see today is basically that laid out by Bishop de Clinton, probably in the late 1140s. We may therefore see Roger de Clinton not just as a great benefactor to the cathedral, a fact which is already well known, but also as the true founder of the city of Lichfield. However, it must be noted that this was done, not from any pious goodness by de Clinton, but from commercial acumen. As H. W. C. Davies has written of this type of town, 'they were in the nature of a commercial speculation... the design of the founders was to people them with traders and that, while privileges were heaped upon individual burgesses, the right of self-government was sedulously (contd...)
10. V.C.H., Staffs., iv (1958), pp. 42-3.
11. Ibid., p. 27.
12. Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, Rolls Series, lii (1870), p. 307.
13. S.H.C., for 1924 (1926), Nos. 167 and 461.
14. Arch. J., cxx (1963), pp. 293-4.
15. H. Wharton, Anglia Sacra, i (1691), p. 434.
withheld from the community'16. This is especially important with regard to Lichfield. The new town was set up by the Bishop for his and his successors' profit, and it long remained so. It was to be many years before the burgesses of Lichfield threw off the shackles of episcopal government which de Clinton put on his new town. Indeed one of the most interesting aspects of the late medieval political history of Lichfield is the long struggle between the Bishops and the burgesses of Lichfield over the control of the town, in which the burgesses were ultimately successful.
If the above argument that Lichfield is basically a planned town of the mid-twelfth century is accepted there are still problems with regard to the siting of the earlier 'village' of Lichfield. Here the writer can offer no reasonable proof such as, he hopes, he has given above. Nevertheless, perhaps some speculation is permissible for it may help to solve the problem of the relationship between Lichfield and its Roman predecessor Letocetum (Wall). The first problem is to decide if we are looking for one Lichfield or more than one. There are in fact indications of at least three settlements in the area, which may have been known collectively as Lichfield before any town was established.
As noted earlier, the obvious place for a settlement on purely geographical grounds is on the dry sandstone land on the north side of the valley around the cathedral. Indeed, it is unlikely that when the cathedral was founded it was built on truly virgin soil; more probably it was sited near an existing settlement. It seems to the writer probable that there was some settlement in this area perhaps along the valley side route-way, now represented by Gaia Lane and Shaw Lane. However, there is at least another possible centre of early settlement in the area. This is the present Greenhill, which lay outside the later town on the crest of a high sandstone bluff. It takes its name from a triangular green which still survives. Here, at least in the later medieval period, lay the main settlement of St. Michael's parish whose church stands to the east of the 'green'.
It was here in St. Michael's graveyard, one of the largest in the country covering some seven acres, that the dead from St. Mary's parish in the town were buried. The third possible area of early settlement is the present Lower Sandford Street. This is perhaps the least convincing of the three but is worth consideration. Until the nineteenth century, the main way into the town from Walsall and Wolverhampton was along Christ Church Lane into Lower Sandford Street, across the Trunkfield Brook and into Sandford Street. It is possible that there was an early settlement at the 'sand ford' across the brook. Thus when Roger de Clinton came to lay out his new town he chose an area of open flat land across the valley from his cathedral and its village and lying between two other small settlements all of which were called Lichfield.
The possibility of there being before the mid-twelfth century, at least three small settlements collectively called Lichfield raises the question of the relationship of Lichfield to its Roman predecessor Letocetum. The name Lichfield is vital in this context. It is not a habitative place-name at all, but is usually accepted as meaning 'the open land in or of the grey wood'17. This as it stands is important. It means that the name is not a specific place but an area of land. There is however a different interpretation. The 'grey wood' part of the name is the Lich- element. This is a contraction of the Celtic word Letoceton (c.f. Welsh - llwyd and coed) the name given to the Roman town at Wall. Thus the name Lichfield may not mean 'the open land in the grey wood' but the 'open land of Letocetum'. That is, it is likely to be (contd...)
16. Quarterly Review, ccviii (1908), p. 54.
17. E. Ekwall, Dictionary of English Place-names.
the name given to the land belonging to or administered by Letocetum, in fact the territorium of the town. Therefore the three hamlets or villages which the writer has suggested as having been in existence before the twelfth century and collectively called Lichfield could have lain within this territory. It is also of some interest that the ending -field often occurs in forested areas and is applied to more than one settlement18. It would therefore be of great value to try to define the land or territorium of Letocetum in order to see the relationship to it of Lichfield. The only unit of land which might show this relationship in any way at all, though admittedly widely separated in time, is that of the Bishop of Chester's manor of Lichfield recorded in Domesday Book19. In 1086 the Bishop of Chester held a large manor and area of land called Lichfield. This land must have included a large number of settlements but, because of the way Domesday Book was compiled, only twenty-three of them are actually recorded. Of these, three are lost and cannot now be (contd...)
18 For example, Wiltshire Archaeological Magazine, lxii (1967), pp. 74-102.
19 V.C.H., Staffs., iv (1958), pp. 42-3.
identified and another three Harborne, Sraethwick and Tipton have perhaps no relevance here. However, the remainder have an interesting distribution (fig. 4). They are spread somewhat unevenly across a broad area, bounded on the west by the high land of Cannock Chase, on the east by the River Tame and extending just to the north of the River Trent and a little beyond the Watling Street to the south. Letocetum thus lies not in the centre of this area but near its southern edge. It is not of course suggested that the seventeen named places were the only ones in existence in 1086. It has already been noted that near Lichfield itself there were perhaps three settlements and there must have been many more in this area whose existence is submerged under a tenurial organization not fully described in Domesday Book. Nor is it suggested that all this land belonged to the Bishop of Chester in 1086. It clearly did not.
Three manors in the area Hopwas, Alrewas and Kings Bromley belonged to the King and others such as the Ridwares were held by other lords. It is suggested however that this general area, which in the main belonged to the Bishop of Chester and had probably belonged to the See of Lichfield for many centuries, may have had some relationship to the civitas of Letocetum. After all there is no doubt that this area was known as Lichfield in 1086. Perhaps originally it was exactly what its name appears to mean, the land of Letocetum. The case for the existence in the later Roman Empire of a Civitas Letocetensium, separated from the Civitas Cornoviorum (or Civitas Coritanorum), has been stated by A. L. F. Rivet20. How the relationship was maintained between the last known occupation of Letocetum in the late fourth century and the Bishop's estate of 1086 is unknown. It is possible that some sub-Roman or Celtic organization or administrative unit remained intact long after the formal end of the Roman period, a situation not unknown elsewhere21.
During the troubled times that followed, the administrative centre may well have moved from the exposed position of Letocetum on the Watling Street to the remoter marshy valley two miles to the north-east. There are some slight indications that the land of Letocetum could have become the Bishop of Lichfield's estate from various pieces of evidence. One such is that relating to St. Chad. Chad was trained as a priest at Lindisfarne by Scottish teachers in the Celtic tradition of the early church22 and there is evidence to suggest that he spent some time as a missionary in the west and north-west Midlands before A.D. 664 or 665. It was the custom of the Celtic church to name their churches after their founders and of the thirty-odd ancient dedications to St. Chad still extant almost all are in the west and north-west Midlands. This suggests that Chad was preaching to the Saxons of this area and while doing this he was based on a pre-existing Celtic Christian community around Lichfield in the old land of Letocetum. Indeed it was to this area that Chad returned in A.D. 669 as Bishop of Mercia and fixed his See at Lichfield. The existence of a Celtic Christian community at Lichfield is shown in the seventh-century Welsh poem 'Elegy for Cynddylan' which records a massacre of such a community by Welsh raiders at that time23. There can be no doubt that the place referred to in the poem is Lichfield (contd...)
20. J. S. Wacher (Ed.), The Civitas Capitals of Roman Britain (1966), pp. 108-10; see also, I. LI. Foster and L. Alcock (Eds.), Culture and Environment (Essays in Honour of Sir Cyril Fox), (1963), ix 'The Cornovii', p. 254.
21. Antiquity, xvii (1944), pp. 133 ff; Med. Arch., iii for 1959 (1960), pp. 79-85.
22. Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica, iii (1896 ed.), p. 28.
23. Trans., v for 1963/4 (1964), pp. 51-4.
and not Letocetum. This is the real period and setting for the old tradition of a Christian massacre at Lichfield recorded by the older antiquaries24. It was probably the combination of the existence of such a Celtic community once centred at Letocetum, the religious association of the locality as a place of Christian martyrdom as well as the work of St. Chad that led to the establishment and continued existence of the cathedral at Lichfield. Here then at an obscure village or hamlet near the centre of the land of a Roman settlement which had apparently been abandoned 300 years before, a cathedral arose which was to lead to the establishment of a new town some 450 years later.
The writer would like to thank Messrs. J. Gould and A. L. F. Rivet for valuable criticism and advice on a number of points in this paper.
24. For example, T. Harwood, History and Antiquities of Lichfield (1806), p. 515; T. G. Lomas, Lichfield, City and Close (1818), p. 2.
The following abbreviations [may] have been used in the text and figures for references, etc.
C.B.A. - Council for British Archaeology
C.S. - Cartularum Saxonicum, ed. W. de G. Birch (1885-93)
Drag. - Dragendorff, 'Terra Sigillata', Bonner Jahrbucher, xcvi (1895), xcvii (1896)
E.H.D. - English Historical Documents, i, ed. D. Whitelock (1955)
E.H.R. - English Historical Review
Ex. N. - Excavation North
Gillam - J. P. Gillam, Types of Coarse Pottery Vessels in Northern Britain (1968)
Hazelwood 1962 - S. O. Kay, 'The Romano-British Pottery Kilns at Hazelwood and Holbrook, Derbyshire', Derbyshire Archaeological Journal, lxxxii for 1962 (1963), pp. 21-42.
Jewry Wall - K. M. Kenyon, Excavations at the Jewry Wall Site, Leicester, Report No. 15 of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London (1948)
Med. Arch. - Medieval Archaeology
N.G.R. -. National Grid Reference
O.D. - Ordnance Datum
O.S. - Ordnance Survey
P.P.S. - Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society
S.H.C. -. Staffordshire Historical Collections, published by William Salt Archaeological Society, now Staffordshire Record Society
T.B.A.S. - Transactions of Birmingham Archaeological Society
Trans. - Transactions of Lichfield and South Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society
Tr.N. - True North
V.C.H. - Victoria County History
Wall 1961/3 - J. Gould, 'Excavations at Wall, Staffs. 1961-3', Trans., v for 1963/4 (1964)
Wall 1964/6 - J. Gould, 'Excavations at Wall, Staffs., 1964-6', Trans., viii for 1966-7 (1968)
W.S.L. - William Salt Library, Stafford
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