Who was St. Chad?

St. Chad was a very important figure in the church in the last third of the seventh century. Prior to the year 663, the church in the Kingdom of Northumbria had followed the traditions and customs of Celtic Christianity as taught by St. Columba and St. Aidan. These differed somewhat from those of the Church of Rome. In particular, the two churches calculated the date of Easter differently. A gathering of church leaders, called a Synod – the term is still used in the Church of England today – was called in order to settle these differences and standardise practice; this took place at Whitby in 663/4.

Statue of St. Chad, West Front, Lichfield Cathedral (C) Ian Simpson.

The Synod decided to adopt the Roman practices but shortly afterwards many leaders of the church were wiped out by an outbreak of the plague leading to many younger men being promoted to senior positions. One of these was Chad, who became Abbot of the monastery at Lastingham (in modern North Yorkshire) upon the death of his older brother Cedd. Chad became known for his devotion to prayer and study. He also travelled widely throughout Northumbria, preaching and teaching the Christian faith.

In 669 King Wulfhere of the neighbouring Kingdom of Mercia (England was yet to become a united country) made a request to Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury. Wulfhere and his brothers had become Christians a few years earlier and now the king wanted a bishop to lead the Mercian church. Archbishop Theodore knew Chad and had been impressed by his leadership and holiness, and appointed him to the new position. The seat of the new bishop was to be in Lichfield, at a church founded by King Wulfhere’s predecessor Oswy in 657 on the site of what is now Lichfield Cathedral.

Chad spent the remaining three years of his life looking after the spiritual needs of the Mercians. Indeed St. Bede, writing in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (completed c.731, Bede’s work is our most important primary source relating to the history of the early church in England), cited St. Chad as one of the most important figures in the conversion of Mercia to Christianity.

Chad died on March 2nd, 672, aged around 39 years. The date of his death is kept to this day as St. Chad’s Day, which in agricultural folklore is considered to be the best day to sow broad beans in England. He was buried in Lichfield but his bones were later moved to a purpose-built shrine. In Mediaeval times the bones of saints were believed to have healing properties and the organisation of pilgrimages to shrines became a flourishing industry – the ancestor of today’s package tour operations, you might say – and St. Chad’s shrine was turned into an important tourist attraction.

The Reformation in the 1530s and 1540s put an end to this trade as Protestantism forbade the cult of relics; St. Chad’s shrine was destroyed but at least some of his bones were rescued for safe- keeping. They found a permanent resting place in 1841 when they were installed in an altar at the new St. Chad’s Cathedral in Birmingham.

Why is the church in Kirkby dedicated to St. Chad? Kirkby was part of Mercia in St. Chad’s time and up until the sixteenth century was part of the Diocese of Lichfield of which St. Chad was the first Bishop. There is no evidence that St. Chad ever visited Kirkby, nor that any of the pre-1766 churches there were dedicated to him. It is equally true to say that there is no evidence that the earlier churches were not dedicated to him. We know that by 1733 there was a parcel of land “called Chad-croft adjoining ye north side of ye Chapell yard”14, and that the 1766 chapel was dedicated to St. Chad.

The simplest explanation for the dedication might be the fact that, as someone who combined strong leadership with faith, piety and humility, Chad represented the kind of virtues to which the Christian congregation should aspire in their own lives.