By Oliver Clark
Lichfield Cathedral is today a place of quiet and contemplation, an impressive example of Gothic architectural splendour that dominates the skyline of the city that shares its name. But its sandstone edifice still bears the scars of the three violent sieges it endured during the turbulent years of the English Civil War.
In 1643, a year into the war, the Cathedral became a battleground between the forces of Parliament and King – ironically it was the wall built to defend it during medieval times that made it such a target.
While Lichfield town had sided with Parliament, its cathedral and religious community had remained loyal to King Charles I and the building was occupied by Royalist soldiers under the command of the Earl of Chesterfield.
The first Siege: March 1643
The Cathedral proved to be an ideal place for a garrison. Lichefield was the only “cathedral castle” in the country, thanks to a decision by bishops Lymesey and de Clinton to fortify it with a thick stone wall during the 13th century.
In addition, the cathedral was protected by a moat that today forms part of Minster Pool. Entry to what was in effect a fortified island on which the cathedral stood, was through two gateways, one to the north connected to Beacon Street and one to the south linked to Dam Street.
Lord Brooke, a parliamentary general with a puritanical hatred for all things Popish, set out to Lichfield in 1643 to both evict the Royalist garrison of the Cathedral and wreak some religious vandalism on the holy building he suspected of Devilish influence.
Approaching from Dam Street with his regiment of foot soldiers (known for their purple coats) Lord Brooke had barely begun the task of besieging the cathedral when he was killed by a sniper operating from one of the its spires.
A plaque set up in Dam Street to commemorates the event and reads as follows:
“[On] March 2nd 1643 Lord Brooke a General of the Parliament forces, preparing to
besiege the close of Lichfield, then garrisoned for King Charles the First, received his death wound on the spot beneath this inscription by a shot in the forehead, from Mr Dyott. A gentleman who had placed himself on the battlements of the great steeple to annoy the besiegers”.
Given the inaccuracy and unwieldy nature of muskets of the era, a shot on target from some 180 yards distance was an impressive achievement, but historical records of the time state that the sniper – John Dyott – who was deaf and dumb, was a poacher and therefore likely to have been a good marksman.
The death of Brooke, who it has been speculated could have become the leader of Parliamentary forces rather than Oliver Cromwell had he survived, did not put an end to the siege.
His successor Gell took over command. To demoralise the Royalists Gell ordered his troops to lob grenadoes – a primitive type of hand grenade – over the walls. These proved the final straw for the small band of Royalist defenders who after two days of fighting agreed to evacuate the cathedral and withdraw from Lichfield.
It is at this point that the Cathedral really began to suffer. The Roundheads desecrated the building in an orgy of puritan inspired destruction; burning the holy vestments, opening tombs and trashing the Medieval library and the priceless texts it contained.
Ornate carved likenesses of kings, queens, saints and benefactors of the cathedral that line its inner walls were badly damaged. While many were subsequently repaired, especially during the Victorian era, several of them still bear the slash marks from Roundhead sword blade and pike points.
Detailed medieval wall paintings depicting scenes from the bible were whitewashed with lime. Only recently have some of these been restored on the cathedral’s western wall.
Parliamentary soldiers even baptised a cow in the font, an act of religious disrespect that was so shocking it was seized upon by Royalist propagandists who produced pamphlets depicting the event to vilify their opponents.
The second siege: April 1643
Just a month after the first siege was over the Royalists planned a campaign to retake the Cathedral.
This time it was not the town itself that was important but its strategic location. King Charles was seeking to secure a safe route for Queen Henrietta and a convoy of munitions based at York to reach him at Oxford.
Charles entrusted the job of capturing the Roundhead strongholds along the route in the West Midlands to his nephew Prince Rupert.
The flamboyant Rupert, who was known to ride into battle accompanied by his white hunting poodle Boy, was a skilled and experienced soldier and one of the Royalist’s most successful commanders.
After capturing and looting Birmingham, Rupert turned his attention to Lichfield cathedral, which he besieged in April.
Royalist artillery positions were established around the town to pound the Cathedral’s walls, one such fieldwork is still visible having become the beer garden of the George and Dragon Pub known as “Rupert’s Mound”.
After several attempts to storm the walls of the Cathedral failed, Rupert brought up miners from nearby Cannock Chase to first drain the moat and then tunnel under the walls.
Once these were complete he ordered the tunnels packed with gunpowder which was denoted on 20 April – the first recorded example of an explosive mine being used in a siege in England.
Once the dust settled a large breach had been created in the walls.
At this point the Parliamentary defenders decided to surrender and were allowed to leave honourably with their arms. They also managed to sneak the silver they had plundered from the building past the Royalists.
The third siege: March 1646
Lichfield and its Cathedral experienced a period of three years of relative peace under Royalist control as the war moved it other parts of the country.
It wasn’t until March 1646 when towards the close of the first civil war a parliamentary army led by Sir William Brereton arrived before the Staffordshire city.
So began the longest siege of the Cathedral as the Royalist defenders held on grimly in the vain hope of relief coming from Oxford.
Over the four months of the siege the Parliamentarians erected new cannon positions from which to bombard the Cathedral. One shot hit the central spire, bringing it crashing down along with much of the Cathedral’s roof.
The Royalists continued to resist. As rations began to run low, the 800 soldiers resorted to eating their hoses and any scraps that could be found.
It was only after Charles I handed himself over to Parliament and ordered his troops to surrender that the Royalist garrison at Lichfield finally laid down their arms.
The three sieges left a once grand place of worship completely wrecked shell.
The ruined Lichfield Cathedral remained as a sorry reminder of the destruction of the civil wars throughout the Protectorate until the restoration of the monarch under Charles II in 1660.
Perhaps moved by the staunch defence put up by the Cathedral’s defenders and the damage it had sustained on his father’s behalf during the war, Charles II ordered extensive repairs to be undertaken.
The damaged spire and roof were repaired and Sir Christopher Wren was called on to provide his skills to bring the Cathedral back to its former glory.
A stained glass window on the western wall of the building commemorates this period, showing Wren directing stonemasons and other workers repairing the building.
Following the work, a statue of Charles II was erected at the west front of the Cathedral and despite being quite weather eroded still stands nearby today. A plaque below reads:
“After the ravages of Civil War, Charles II gave money and timber towards the repair of this cathedral”.
During the Victorian era the Cathedral underwent another period of restoration under Sir George Gilbert Scott and his son Oldrid.
Today the Cathedral is once again a well maintained living place of worship and pilgrimage associated with Saint Chad.
Nevertheless the damaged carved heads and overgrown walls remain as a reminder of the Cathedral’s violent past.