Lichfield Cathedral

The problem with pointing out that Lichfield Cathedral is unique because it’s the only medieval cathedral with three spires, is that no one seems to know the answer to the follow up question of WHY.

"3 is a magic number. No more, no less. You don't have to guess..."

“3 is a magic number.”

Perhaps it’s because this is the third church to be built on this site.A Norman church was built on the same site in 1085, replacing the wooden Saxon one and in 1195 construction of the present church began.

But three is also a crowd, and like a crowd, the history of Lichfield Cathedral is full of rabble. There were three significant “rabbles” concerning the cathedral and the state. The first of which happened at the Council of Chelsea in 787 AD, often referred to as the “Contentious Synod” because King Offa of Mercia proposed that the Archbishop of Canterbury share powers with the new Archbishop of Lichfield. The proposal was vehemently opposed and although the king got his wish the Archbishopric of Lichfield was dissolved upon his death, presumably because he couldn’t pay the promised annual shipment of gold to the pope any more.

St. Chad’s bones are interred in the Saxon church beneath the present building, so Lichfield became a site of pilgrimage until the Reformation but it wasn’t until the Civil Wars that there would be another major “rabble” concerning the church. Most of the townsfolk were Parliamentarian, the fortified church was Royalist and during this time (1643-46) there were three great sieges of Lichfield. Robert Grenville, 2nd Baron Brooke, led an assault on the fortress on behalf of the Parliamentarians but was killed by a deflected bullet from John Dyott, who was up on the battlements of the central cathedral spire. It is one of the earliest recorded incident of death from a sniper.

With Brooke down, his loyal deputy Sir John Snell had to step up and take over the siege. If this were a Hollywood movie, this would be the point where the hero’s had enough. There would be a heartbeat of silence as Brooke falls in slow motion, followed by a roar of murderous rage that almost drowns out the sound of fire power exploding everywhere. The camera would focus on Snell’s fierce yet undeniably attractive face. Muscles straining, he runs towards the cathedral to avenge his friend. Somehow, he remains unscathed while ineptly shot bullets whiz past him as he saves the day and gets the girl. And she’ll be a thin girl, too. At some point, Celine Dion starts singing because she ALWAYS sings at the end of a film. No one notices as you leave the theatre and go back to your uneventful life, and you just know you will die alone alone alone.

But wait… the guy is named Snell. No self-respecting hero will be called Snell. And this guy was no hero–he was notorious for his tyranny and arrogance. Plus, he profited from the Ship Money collected under Charles I, and married the widow of some dude he harassed to demand payment. If that’s not bad enough, he also did it while looking like this:

Sir John Snell (1593-1671).

Sir John Snell (1593-1671)

The Royalist forces surrendered two days later, and though it was retaken by Prince Rupert of the Rhine in the same year, the real loser was the cathedral. It suffered extensive damage–all the stained glass windows were smashed, the roof was ruined and the central spire was demolished so it could be used as a metaphor for the collapse of a heretofore unchallenged notion called the “divine right of kings.” The Royalty may have been restored with Charles II, but the “natural order” has changed and power had irrevocably shifted to Parliament.

Following the Restoration, the cathedral began the process of refurbishment, made possible by funds donated by the monarch, but anyone who’s had their house refurbished knows it’s a slow and never ending process. In the 18th century, while Lichfield was going through a “golden age,” the cathedral was in decay. It wasn’t fully repaired until the 19th century, when James Wyatt, the same architect who worked on Westminster Abbey and gained the sobriquet “The Destroyer,” was hired. He arranged for some major structural work to be done, and this prompted a final rabble.

Church Interior

Church Interior

Screen by Wyatt

Screen by Wyatt

Wyatt’s work on the cathedral was heavily criticized, most notably by John Carter in Pursuits of Architectural Innovation. Original features were covered by Roman cement and the 15th century library was pulled down. No one liked it, so eventually it was restored to its former grandeur by George Gilbert Scott who had a more sensitive approach to renovation.

Thanks to Scott, original features from the medieval period (including the tombs of ancient Saxon kings) remain today, and the cathedral looks pretty much the way it did in the days when Anna Seward, Erasmus Darwin and Lichfield’s favorite son, Dr. Samuel Johnson, attended sermons in the cathedral hall when he wasn’t busy working on his famous dictionary. They didn’t know why the cathedral had three spires either, but there have been no major rabbles from the crowd since.