The Joyce Hill Column

March 2021

St Chad

March 2 is the Feast of St Chad, who died in 672 at Lichfield, where he was buried and honoured as a saint. In 2003, when excavations were being undertaken for the construction of a nave-altar platform, a beautiful piece of carving was found, stylistically datable to c. 800, which is thought to have been part of St Chad’s shrine-chest. It is an angel, still bearing traces of the paint that once covered it. Chad was fifth Bishop of the Kingdom of Mercia (the midlands kingdom before England was united) but he was the first to have his seat Lichfield. How this came about is an interesting story.

Chad came from Northumbria, the kingdom lying to the north of Mercia. We don’t know when he was born, but we do know that he was a pupil of the great Celtic missionary St Aidan (died 651), who founded the monastery of Lindisfarne as the power-house of his mission. Chad had three brothers, likewise nurtured in the Celtic tradition. Cedd went to the midlands as a missionary and then to the East Saxons, where he became their bishop: Cynebil and Cælin remained in Northumbria as priests. All were associated with the royal family, who were strong supporters of Aidan’s mission. It was on land donated by the king’s son that Cedd  founded a monastery at Lastingham, on the edge of the North York Moors, which was modelled on Lindisfarne. Sadly, it was here that Cedd died of the plague in 664, when on a return visit from the south. He was buried beside the altar. Chad briefly took over the development of the monastery, but very soon King Oswig appointed him Bishop of the Northumbrians, and so Cynebil took over the work at Lastingham, while Cælin continued with his royal priestly duties.

Oswig, like Chad and his brothers, had been brought up in the Celtic traditions of Christianity. In 664, at the Synod of Whitby, he nevertheless agreed that the kingdom should instead adopt Roman traditions. The powerful spokesperson for Rome at the Synod was Wilfrid, then Abbot of the monastery of Ripon, and later that same year he was appointed as the first (Roman-tradition) Bishop of the Northumbrians. But he needed to go to France for his consecration, and in his absence Oswig quickly appointed Chad in Wilfrid’s place. This looks very much like a counter-move by a king personally rather uneasy about the pro-Roman decision at Whitby. It meant, of course, that when Wilfrid returned he was a bishop without a diocese. He had no animosity towards Chad, however, who was universally regarded (for all his Celtic allegiance) as an exceptionally holy man, so Chad remained in office and Wilfrid ‘retired’ to Ripon. Eventually, in 669, Theodore of Tarsus, the then newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, restored Wilfrid to his see (it had, after all, been uncanonical for Oswig to appoint Chad in his place) and he searched around for ways of making the best use of Chad’s great piety in the still quite new Christian world of England. A bishop was needed for Mercia, and Wilfrid suggested Chad. To ease the situation Wilfrid donated land at Lichfield to be used as the seat of the bishopric — land which the King of Mercia had earlier given to Wilfrid as a potential site for a monastery. So that is how St Chad came to end his days there, and why Lichfield cathedral, originally dedicated to St Mary, is now dedicated to St Mary and St Chad.

 

Joyce Hill