THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

13 November 2018

Lichfield: the third archbishopric

For the majority of the Anglo-Saxon period, the English Church had two archbishoprics, one at Canterbury and the other at York, just as it does today. So it might surprise some of you to hear that from 787 to 803 the English Church had a third archbishopric, at Lichfield in Staffordshire!

What's the difference between a bishop and an archbishop? The answer lies partly in an ecclesiastical vestment known as a pallium. This was a woollen band, which had lain for a time on St Peter’s tomb in Rome, before being granted to a bishop by the pope. The possession of a pallium signified the special relationship between bishop and pope, and eventually came to signify the status of an archbishop. In 787 the bishop of Lichfield received such a pallium and rose to the rank of archbishop.

Lichfield Cathedral MS 1  p. 218

Evangelist portrait of Luke in the St Chad Gospels: Lichfield Cathedral MS 1, p. 218

At the turn of the 9th century, Lichfield was located in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, whose heartlands flanked the River Trent. Chad, the first known bishop of Lichfield, was appointed by King Wulfhere of Mercia (d. 675). Earlier in his career, Chad is known to have spent time at the monasteries of Rath Melsigi in Ireland and at Lindisfarne, which had strong Irish connections.

This Irish relationship influenced the community established at Lichfield. It can be detected, for instance, in the St Chad Gospels, which has been kindly loaned to the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition by Lichfield Cathedral. Scholars have noted that the artistic style of this gospel-book resembles the Lindisfarne Gospels, and that its text aligns with a group of mostly Irish manuscripts such as the Book of Kells, Book of Armagh and the MacRegol Gospels. The St Chad Gospels was produced around the middle of the 8th century, and at some stage it even travelled to Wales: some of its marginal notes are among the earliest examples of written Welsh.

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The four evangelist symbols in the St Chad Gospels: Lichfield Cathedral MS 1, p. 219

King Offa of Mercia (d. 796) was an extremely powerful Anglo-Saxon king, who had a friendly rivalry with his continental contemporary, Charlemagne (d. 814). In 781, Charlemagne’s sons were anointed as kings in Rome; in response, Offa also desired that his son, Ecgfrith, be crowned as king. This was not a simple request, as it was relatively unusual for the sons of kings to be anointed while their father was still alive. 

Anointing a king was a task for an archbishop. When the archbishop of Canterbury refused to anoint Ecgfrith, Offa decided to create a new archbishopric in his own kingdom of Mercia. He wrote to Pope Hadrian to request that Hygeberht, bishop of Lichfield, be made an archbishop. The request was granted, and by 787 Hygeberht was signing charters as an archbishop.

Cotton Augustus II 97 witness list

Hygeberht signing as an archbishop, in the third line from the top: British Library, Cotton MS Augustus II 97

Lichfield seems to have prospered during its brief time as an archbishopric. In 2003, excavations at Lichfield Cathedral uncovered a limestone fragment carved in the resemblance of an angel. Although the angel has since faded to white, analysis suggests that it had once been splendidly painted. The angel’s wings in particular were painted in red and yellow, to replicate a ‘red-gold’ appearance that was highly prized among the Anglo-Saxons.

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The Lichfield Angel, courtesy of Lichfield Cathedral

The wings of the Lichfield Angel may have had a similar appearance to gold and silver items produced elsewhere in Anglo-Saxon England. Examples of this style of decoration are found in the Staffordshire Hoard, discovered very near to Lichfield in 2009.

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Items from the Staffordshire Hoard, courtesy of Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent, on behalf of Birmingham City Council and Stoke-on-Trent City Council

Lichfield’s time as an archbishopric was short-lived. Its new-found status created organisational problems in the English Church, leading King Coenwulf of Mercia (796–821) to write to Pope Leo III (795–816), requesting that Lichfield be restored to a bishopric.

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Decree of the church council at Clofesho abolishing the archbishopric of Lichfield: Cotton MS Augustus II 61

Pope Leo granted Coenwulf’s request, and in 803 the English Church met at Clofesho to confirm the downgrading of the archbishopric of Lichfield. The official decree, issued as a result of the meeting, is also on display in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. The list of witnesses begins with two names: Æthelheard of Canterbury, who signed as archbishop, while Ealdwulf, the former archbishop of Lichfield, attested this decree as bishop once more.

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Æthelheard signs as archbishop with Bishop Ealdwulf's name immediately below: Cotton MS Augustus II 61

As a consequence, Mercia once again fell under Canterbury's authority, and the balance of ecclesiastical power in England reverted to Canterbury and York, just as it remains today.

Visitors to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War will be able to see the Lichfield Angel and the St Chad Gospels, kindly loaned by Lichfield Cathedral, as well as items from the Staffordshire Hoard and the British Library manuscripts discussed in this blogpost. Tickets for the exhibition, which runs until 19 February 2019, are available here.

Comments

Is it correct to refer to the Church as ‘English’ in the 8th century? Would not ‘Catholic’ be correct? (As in referring to the 3rd Archbishop. )

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