Tale of a City

Lichfield Cathedral from Erasmus Darwin’s house

If we define a city as a town with a cathedral, then Lichfield is a city. Its grubby cathedral standing proud in its walled precinct would ‘lose its face’, I was told, if cleaned because the local reddish stone crumbles under jets of water.

Inside there was a buzz of activity. The tall vaulted gothic interior soared over two exhibitions, one on the suffragettes and the other on World War I, including two sculptures by Henry Moore and others by a young sculptor in residence. Tombs of 18th and 19th-century bishops and deacons surround the choir, silent witnesses of the sung evensong taking place.  Somewhat worn, Charles II  has been removed from the façade and now stands under a canopy on the south side of the cathedral surveying modern pilgrims on their way to the cathedral coffee shop. With its three steeples, Lichfield cathedral is a landmark.

There were settlements in the area long before the Romans. After they left in the 5th century AD, the city revived when the local Saint Chad, who died in 672, brought Christianity to this part of Mercia and founded a monastery. Its church later became a cathedral rebuilt by the Normans and again in the 13th century in its current gothic form.

Both the cathedral close and the town, which spread out below, its streets in the form of a ladder, were walled and surrounded by moats. During the mid 16th-century Civil War the Parliamentarians occupied the cathedral close while the Royalists, under the dashing Prince Rupert, laid siege from 8 April until 21 April 1643 when terms were agreed and the Parliamentarians left. The largest of the three spires was damaged and collapsed leaving a huge gap in the nave roof. It was rebuilt in the 19th century.

Around the cathedral close are houses for the clergy and lay professionals such as lawyers and doctors, so it is no surprise that Erasmus Darwin lived in a mansion opposite the cathedral. One of his closest friends was Josiah Wedgewood. They were both members of the Lunar Society which met monthly, travelling in the light of the full moon, to meet at one of the members’ house. Imagine these learned men reading books by candlelight and relishing the long midsummer evenings.

Dr. Samuel Johnson

Time to read. Time to exchange ideas. Time to invent. Erasmus Darwin wrote a long poem and in it sketched out some of the ideas taken up by his famous grandson, Charles, in the Origen of the Species – us. Doctor Darwin also invented the cog wheel for the carriage he used to visit patients too ill to consult him in his home in the cathedral close. The cogwheel made the journeys less bumpy so he could continue to read and write.

Erasmus Darwin would have heard of Elias Ashmole, born in Lichfield 1617 a year after Shakespeare died. He was an antiquarian and compulsive collector. His Cabinet of Curiosities was given to Oxford to start what some believe was the first museum in Europe – the Ashmolean.

Outside the cathedral close below what remains of the moat lies the town square. There a statue of a man sitting on a pile of books and faces his birthplace. Samuel Johnson’s father was a not entirely successful bookseller but appropriately there is still a bookshop on the ground floor of his house, just where he started it early in the 18th century. His family congregated in the dark basement kitchen and that is where Johnson did most of his reading. It can’t have been easy. When three years old Samuel became ill with scrofula – the disease that ‘the king’s touch’ was supposed to cure. He lost the sight in one eye and his hearing was impaired. There in the top storey of his birthplace, he worked on the first dictionary of the English language. Together with his wife he also started a school, but it only attracted three pupils. One of them was David Garrick. After the school had to close, Johnson and Garrick walked to London in search of fortune. Johnson became a journalist and pamphleteer while Garrick became involved in the world of the theatre both as actor and entrepreneur. He organised the first Stratford-on-Avon Shakespeare festival in 1769 and effectively rediscovered the plays of Shakespeare. They had been almost forgotten in the 16th century when the theatres were closed during the Civil War and Thomas Cromwell’s commonwealth that followed it.

An outstanding antiquarian who gave his name to a world-famous museum in Oxford, one of the first English journalists and compiler of an English language dictionary, a famous actor who  founded the first Shakespeare festival at Stratford-on-Avon  in 1769 and a doctor who was the grandfather of world-famous Charles Darwin were all born or worked in Lichfield, a small provincial town on the Roman Watling Street leading to London.


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