St Chad of Lichfield

We have already spoken elsewhere of the family character of much of Old English Christianity. Another illustration of it is without doubt that of the four brothers, St Cedd, Apostle of Essex, St Chad of Lichfield, St Cynibil and the priest Caelin. Of these four the best known and most loved is certainly St Chad who has thirty-three ancient churches dedicated to him and whose Christian name is still in use as a baptismal name today. Who was he?

Chad came from the North of England and he is linked with St Aidan of Lindisfarne, who sent him to Ireland to learn the monastic life. On his return, he became Abbot of the monastery of Lastingham (in Yorkshire) which his brother St Cedd had founded. In 664 he was chosen against his will by Oswy, King of Northumbria, to be bishop and Chad obediently received consecration as Bishop of York. The Venerable Bede says he was, ‘a holy man, modest in all ways, learned in the Scriptures and careful to practise all that he found in them. When he became bishop, he devoted himself to keeping the truth and purity of the Church, practising humility. After the example of the Apostles he travelled on foot when he preached the Gospel in towns of country, cottages, villages or strongholds’.

In 669 St Theodore of Canterbury appointed Wilfrid, who had at long last returned from Gaul, as Bishop of York and Chad humbly retired to his monastery of Lastingham. When Theodore found Chad’s consecration by a simoniac and two dubious Celtic bishops unsure, Chad merely answered ‘If you find that I have not duly been consecrated, I willingly resign the office, for I never thought myself worthy of it, but though unworthy, in obedience submitted to it’. Given such humility and ‘outstanding holiness’, Chad was not allowed to stay and Lastingham for long and Theodore soon named him Bishop of Mercia. Theodore told Chad that on long journeys he should ride on horseback and since is huge diocese covered seventeen counties from the Severn to the North Sea, this was most practical advice. Bede tells us that Chad administered the diocese ‘in great holiness of life after the example of the early Fathers’.

In Lincolnshire, also part of Chad’s diocese, he founded a monastery at Barrow. He established his See in Lichfield and in a house nearby lived the monastic life ‘with seven or eight brethren for prayer and study as often as he had spare time from the labour and ministry of the Word’. Chad ruled his diocese with great success but unfortunately his rule was not to be long. One day at the end of February 673 we are told that a monk Owen, or Owini, heard ‘sweet and joyful singing coming down from heaven to earth’ over the roof of the church at Lastingham, where Bishop Chad was praying. Chad asked Owen to assemble the brethren to whom he then foretold his death, saying: ‘The welcome guest has come to me today and deigned to call me out of this world’. Chad asked the monks for their prayers and advised all of them to prepare for their deaths ‘with vigils, prayers and good deeds’. When Owen asked about the singing, Chad told him that angelic spirits had come to him and they had promised to return within seven days to take him with them. And so it was that after only two and a half years of governing the diocese, Chad caught the plague and having received communion, on 2 March 672, ‘his holy soul was released from the prison of the body … he regarded death with joy as the Day of the Lord’.

The Venerable Bede lists Chad’s virtues – continence, right preaching, humility, voluntary poverty (non-possession) – and says that Chad was filled with the fear of God. So sensitive was he that even a high wind would remind him of the mortality of man and the judgement to come and he would at once call on God to have mercy on mankind. During a storm he would enter church and pray ardently with psalms until it was over. Such was Chad’s spiritual sensitivity and awareness of the closeness of God and the righteousness of His judgement. Bede later recorded how one monk saw St Cedd, who had died earlier than his brother, come down from heaven with angels to take Chad’s soul back with them. Chad was buried at Lastingham and his relics worked many miracles, including the healing of a madman. Later his relics were translated to Lichfield and the veneration of St Chad continued right until the Reformation – for nearly 900 years. Then his relics were dispersed and many of them lost of destroyed, although some survive and are now kept in the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Birmingham – situated in Chad’s diocese of Mercia. And to this day in the Cathedral library of Lichfield is conserved a very early Gospel called ‘the Gospels of St Chad’; it may perhaps have been used by St Chad himself.

Of the many ancient churches dedicated to the Saint, two are in his first diocese in Yorkshire and Middlesmoor and Saddleworth, but the others are to be found in the Midlands, in Cheshire, Lincolnshire, Shropshire, Derbyshire, Lancashire, Staffordshire and Warwickshire. In Lichfield he is remembered at the Cathedral of St Mary and St Chad and in an ancient parish church. Two villages are also named after him, Chadkirk in Cheshire and Chadwick in Lancashire. It would seem that many of these dedications actually represent churches founded by the Saint himself as he walked or rode from village to village all those years ago, preaching as he went. The number of churches dedicated to him in his all too brief episcopate in both Yorkshire and the Midlands shows just how much he was venerated after his righteous repose. Typically, most of the dedications to the saintly bishop are in quiet country villages, like a Bishop’s Tachbrook in Warwickshire or at Tushingham in Cheshire; and so his quiet and humble spirit even today still takes us from the madding crowd of this present and troubled and noisome world.

Holy Father Chad, pray to God for us!

Orthodox Christianity and the English Tradition, October 1994

July 2021