A History of Lichfield

By Tim Lambert

Saxon Lichfield

Lichfield began as an Anglo-Saxon village. The name Lichfield may be a corruption of Letocetum meaning grey wood. Or it may be a corruption of Lece feld meaning a small stream (lece) by the open land (feld).

In the year 669, the Bishop of Mercia (roughly the Midlands of England) chose to make his seat at Lichfield. After his death, the Bishop was canonized (declared a saint) and his remains were kept in Lichfield. Many pilgrims came to see them. (In those days many people went on long journeys, which were called pilgrimages to visit things like the shrines of saints). However, in 1075 the reigning bishop moved his seat to Chester.

Lichfield in the Middle Ages

The Bishops of Chester owned the village of Lichfield. Bishop Clinton (1129-48) decided to create a new town there. The bishop laid out some new streets. On one side of the town was a street where John Street and Bird Street now stand. On the other side was a street where Dam Street, Conduit Street, and Bakers Lane are today. Linking the two were Frog Lane, Wade Street, Bore Street, and Market Street.

Medieval Lichfield did not have stone walls but it did have a ditch and an earth embankment probably with a wooden stockade on top. By the 13th century, little ‘suburbs’ had grown up outside the ditch.

In 1291 Lichfield was severely damaged by a fire, which destroyed many buildings. Fire was a constant threat in the Middle Ages because most buildings were of wood with thatched roofs. On the other hand, if they did burn they could easily be replaced.

Medieval Lichfield prospered. It had a mint and in 1228 the bishop moved back from Chester. By 1208 there was a ‘hospital’ outside the town opposite the end of St John Street.

From about 1237 there were Franciscan friars on the site of the street called The Friary. (Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world they went out to preach).

The population of Lichfield at that time is not known for certain but it was probably about 1,500. That may seem tiny but towns were very small in those days.

Lichfield had a weekly market. By the late 13th century it also had a fair. In the Middle Ages, a fair was like a market but it was held only once a year for several days. Buyers and sellers came from all over the West Midlands to attend a Lichfield fair. By the early 14th century, there were 4 fairs in Lichfield.

In the Middle Ages, the main industry in Lichfield was making woolen cloth. There was also a leather industry in Lichfield. There were tanners and also men who worked in finished leather such as saddlers and cappers (leather cap makers). In the early 15th century a guildhall was built in Bore Street. In 1424 Milley’s Hospital was built in Beacon Street.

Lichfield in the 16th century

In 1538 Henry VIII closed the friary. He also destroyed St Chad’s shrine. That was a serious blow to Lichfield as it meant no more pilgrims were visiting the town and spending their money. However in 1548, Lichfield was incorporated, that is it was given a corporation and a mayor. In 1553 Queen Mary made Lichfield a county separate from the rest of Staffordshire.

Mary tried to undo the religious changes made by the previous monarchs. In her reign, 3 Protestants were martyred in Lichfield. Furthermore, like other towns in the 16th and 17th centuries, Lichfield suffered outbreaks of the plague. A severe outbreak occurred in 1593.

Lichfield in the 17th century

In 1642 there was a civil war between the king and parliament. A royalist army occupied Lichfield at the beginning of 1643. However, in March a parliamentary army entered the town and the royalists were forced to withdraw into the Cathedral Close. Behind its walls and gates, they held out for several days. The royalists surrendered but they were allowed to escape. In April another royalist army arrived the parliamentarians retreated into the Cathedral Close. After a siege lasting 2 weeks, they surrendered but were allowed to escape. Lichfield was now in the royalist’s hands.

However, by 1646 the king was losing the war. In March the parliamentary army again entered Lichfield and the royalist defenders were left holding the cathedral close. This time they held out for 4 months and surrendered only in July 1646. During the siege parliamentary artillery severely damaged the cathedral. Furthermore, Lichfield suffered a severe outbreak of plague but the town soon recovered.

Work on restoring the Lichfield Cathedral began in 1662 and was completed in 1669. A new Bishop’s Palace was built in 1687.

In the late 17th century brick buildings replaced wooden ones in Lichfield and thatched roofs replaced tiled ones. In 1690 thatched roofs were banned altogether because of the risk of fire.

Lichfield in the 18th century

In the early 18th century the population of Lichfield was about 3,000. By the standards of the time, it was a fair-sized town.

In the 18th century, Lichfield was a sedate, genteel market town. There was little industry. Dr Johnson the famous lexicographer (writer of dictionaries) and literary critic was born in Breadmarket Street in 1709. He said that Lichfield was a city of philosophers and the residents let ‘the boobies of Birmingham’ do all the hard work for them! Nevertheless, a canal was built to Lichfield in 1797.

At the time of the first census in 1801, Lichfield had a population of 4,842. It only grew slowly in the 19th century. By the end of the century, the population of Lichfield was still less than 8,000.

In 1803 a dispensary was opened in Lichfield to give free medicines to the poor.

Then in 1806, a body of men called Improvement Commissioners was formed. They had the power to clean, pave, and light the streets of Lichfield. Oil lamps lit the streets of Lichfield in the 18th century. A gasworks opened in 1833 and Lichfield gained gas streetlights. In the late 19th century a network of sewers was built.

A new guildhall was built in Lichfield in 1848. A corn exchange where grain could be bought and sold was built in 1849. The first public library and museum were built in Bird Street in 1859.

However, Lichfield remained a county in its own right until 1888. Meanwhile, in the later 19th century a brewing industry boomed in Lichfield.

Lichfield in the 20th century

In 1901 Lichfield had a population of 7,900. In the 1920s the first council houses were built in Lichfield. In 1920 Friary estate was given to the council as a gift. Friary Road was built in 1926. Nevertheless, Lichfield grew little in the early 20th century. It only had a population of 8,500 in 1931. Furthermore, Victoria Hospital was built in 1933.

In 1939 large numbers of children from cities were evacuated to Lichfield. (It was anticipated that Lichfield would be safe from German bombing). Some bombs did fall but only 3 people were killed.

After the Second World War Lichfield grew rapidly. Both council and private houses were built and Lichfield expanded to the North and East. In the 1980s Boley Park Estate of private houses was built.

Industrial estates were built to attract new industries to Lichfield. A Western relief Road was built in 1960 and an eastern by-pass was in 1971. Three Spires shopping centre was built in 1996.

The interior of Lichfield Cathedral
Lichfield Cathedral

Lichfield in the 21st century

In the early 21st century Lichfield is a thriving town. Today Lichfield has a population of 32,000.

A Timeline of Lichfield

669 The Bishop of Mercia makes his seat at Lichfield

12th Century The Bishop of Chester founds a new town at Lichfield

1237 Franciscan friars arrive in Lichfield

1291 Lichfield is badly damaged by a fire but it is rebuilt. Lichfield is a small town with a population of about 1,500.

1424 Milleys Hospital is built at Lichfield

1538 Henry VIII closes the friary

1548 Lichfield is given a corporation and a mayor

1593 Plague strikes Lichfield

1612 A heretic is burned at Lichfield, the last burning of a heretic in England

1643 At the beginning of the year a royalist army captures Lichfield. However, in March a parliamentary army drives them out. The royalists then capture Lichfield again.

1646 The Parliamentarians capture Lichfield once again.

1687 A new Bishop’s Palace is built

1690 Thatched roofs are banned in Lichfield

1700 The population of Lichfield is about 3,000

1797 A canal is built to Lichfield

1801 Lichfield has a population of 4,842

1806 A body of men is formed with powers to pave, clean, and light the streets of Lichfield

1833 A gas works opens in Lichfield

1859 A public library and museum opens

1901 Lichfield has a population of 7,900

1933 Victoria Hospital is built

1960 Western Relief Road is built

1971 Eastern by-pass is built

1996  Spires Shopping Centre is built