Lichfield Cathedral in the 15th Century

Many of us have been brought up on a sanitised version of history, probably as a consequence of watching too many historical dramas on the box. Patricia Scaife brought much refreshing realism to Cathedral life in the 15th century when she spoke to a large audience at the Society's May meeting. The smoothly ordered life we had led to believe existed within the hallowed walls of the Cathedral precinct was far from the truth. Yet Lichfield Cathedral was held up to be a shining example of how to run a Cathedral in the 15th century. Absenteeism and corruption were endemic in religious institutions throughout Europe and England was no exception. The sovereign relied on the administrative skills of the clergy to run the state, for they were the most educated of his subjects. Their rewards in his gift were the rich livings generated by Church property. So the King's administration could operate satisfactorily, but only because many senior churchmen who were in the King's service never visited their churches or cathedrals. Thomas Wolsey, Henry VIII's powerful Chancellor was Archbishop of York but never visited - until after Henry deposed him. This was not unusual. Not only were Bishops noticeably absent from their cathedrals but so were the more junior clergy. The responsibility of attending daily services devolved by default from the canons to the vicars choral who essentially ran the services. Even the chantry priests managed to opt out of their responsibilities to pray for the souls of the departed.

Yet Lichfield was held up to be a shining example of how to run a Cathedral. Why? The answer lies in the arrival in the 15th century of two good Bishops and two good Deans; the most notable of which was Thomas Heywood, who was Dean from 1457 to 1492 and spent almost 60 years in total at the Cathedral. Here was a no nonsense clergyman who believed, unusually for the time, that priests at the Cathedral should turn up for services! A wealthy man, he spent a considerable sum of his own money (possibly derived from the wool trade) in providing facilities for the priests. He constructed a library building for the canons, rebuilt Vicars' Close for the vicars choral and funded new wall paintings and stained glass in the Cathedral; all to ensure not only that his priests came and stayed but also to ensure that they had the tools to do their job properly. Radically, for his time, he wanted to make the Church in general and the Cathedral in particular more accessible to all. So he established a small chapel where, after main services in which all but priests were denied participation, all could take part in worship. St Chad's and St Michael's Churches were part of the Cathedral administration, not parish churches. Hence, Lichfield residents had no parish priests. That is not until Dean Heywood funded them himself; thus ensuring that the people of Lichfield were supported in life and death by their own dedicated priests. Lichfield was truly fortunate in having such a progressive - and rich - Dean. Patricia reminded us that his work was being undertaken during a period of great turmoil in English history - for the Wars of the Roses rumbled on for thirty years culminating in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Indeed, the story goes that Henry Tudor, having landed in his native Wales, marched his growing army into the Midlands; pausing them at Tamworth yet spending time himself at Lichfield where, it is surmised, he may have met Lord Stanley - a potential supporter. Perhaps the Dean was their host as discussions on alliances and "deals" progressed! If he was then Lichfield Cathedral's part in English history and its contribution to outcome of the Battle of Bosworth could have been significant.

Patricia's colourful depiction of the Church in 15th century left her listeners wanting more. Their wish will be fulfilled, since she will be making a welcome return next May when we'll learn more about King Richard II. If you can't wait, Patricia is a Cathedral guide. Catch her there!

Roger Hockney
May 2012