Lichfield Cathedral was besieged not once, not twice but thrice during the English Civil War.
On the first occasion in March 1643 the Royalists found themselves holed up in the cathedral surrounded by a parliamentarian force. Lord Brooke, Parliamentarian in charge of dislodging them went to take a look at the close and was shot and killed by a sniper firing from the central spire of the cathedral – a remarkable feat of marksmanship by John “Dumb” Dyott – so called because he was deaf and dumb. It was remarkably unlucky for Brooke who had only recently arrived in Lichfield. Depending on your viewpoint Brooke died, shot through the eye, either at the hands of a thoroughly bad lot or expired still spouting hatred with his last breath. The event is recorded on a plaque on Dam Street.
The Parliamentarians were reinforced by Derbyshire men led by Sir John Gell of Hopton Hall near Wirksworth in Derbyshire. In addition artillery arrived and in a decidedly dastardly gesture the Parliamentarians used the relations of the Royalists as a human shield. The first siege came to a close when the royalists negotiated surrender. Their leader the Earl of Chesterfield found himself in the Tower whilst his men, although disarmed, were free to go and find themselves another army.
It was at this point that the Parliamentarians demonstrated their thuggish tendencies by destroying much of the stained glass, defacing the sculpture and destroying much Lichfield Cathedral’s library. Together with the destruction of the third siege in 1646 the only text that remains of the original cathedral library is one volume of the eighth century Lichfield Gospels which was either found or given into the care of Frances, Duchess of Somerset who owned property in the area (her father was Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex and former favourite of Elizabeth I executed for treason in 1601. Her mother was Frances Walsingham daughter of Francis Walsingham.) She returned the gospels along with a further thousand books from her husband’s collection. Today the gospels are on display in the Chapter House together with the Lichfield Angel, a wonderful piece of eighth century carving.
If I had been describing a football match I would describe the lull after the first siege as a half time interval with a change of ends. The Parliamentarians made the most of their time when not breaking glass and sharpening their swords on centuries old grotesques to strengthen their defences and make good some of the holes in cathedral’s medieval close walls.
The match resumed on 7 April 1643 with the arrival of Prince Rupert of the Rhine. The Parliamentarians withdrew from the town of Lichfield to the cathedral and the close. Rupert and his men bounced cannonballs from the cathedral, attempted to scale the walls with ladders and then mined the fortified close. The cannon weren’t really up to the job and it can’t have helped Rupert’s temper when the commander of the Parliamentarians offered to lend him a barrel of powder. Rupert is described as “bellowing at the defenders like a lion” (Gaunt: 138). The prince turned to his mining tactics and the Parliamentarians counter-mined. A tower in the wall collapsed. The defenders ultimately negotiated terms and marched off into the sunset leaving a rather sadly battered Lichfield Cathedral in the hands of the royalists for the next three years.
In March 1646 that all changed. The war wasn’t going well for the royalists who prepared for a siege. The parliamentarians duly arrived along with their artillery and duly blew up the central spire that fell into the nave and the choir. The garrison didn’t surrender until July when they received a letter from the king telling them to make what terms they could.
The Royalists marched out with their heads held high but the cathedral was in, what can only be described as, a right state. The local Roundheads decided that the best use for the building was as a pigpen, a calf was baptised and Parliament decided that the best thing to do was to demolish the cathedral given that it was so badly damaged. It was suggested that if the lead was removed from the roof it wouldn’t take long for the whole structure to collapse (Spraggon: 197). It was the eighteenth century before the cathedral was restored.
Gaunt, Peter. (2014) The English Civil War: A Military History. London: Tauris & Co
Spraggon, Julie. (2003) Puritan Iconoclasm During the English Civil War. Woodbridge: Boydell Press
Double click on the picture below for a new window and a much more detail insight to the three sieges of Lichfield Cathedral as well as the people who were involved with events.