Two novelists, separated by approximately a century, have offered imaginative descriptions of Staffordshire. Arnold Bennett begins his The Old Wives’ Tale (1908) with an impression of the county where his heroines, Sophia and Constance Baines, were born and raised: ‘The county is happy in not exciting remark. It is content that Shropshire should possess that swollen bump, the Wrekin, and that the exaggerated wildness of the Peak should lie over its border. It does not desire to be a pancake like Cheshire. It has everything that England has, including thirty miles of Watling Street; and England can show nothing more beautiful and nothing uglier than the works of nature and the works of man to be seen within the limits of the county. It is England in little, lost in the midst of England, unsung by searchers after the extreme; perhaps occasionally somewhat sore at this neglect, but how proud in the instinctive cognizance of its representative features and traits!’ More recently, Julian Barnes begins his England, England (1998) with the heroine, Martha Cochrane, thinking about her first remembrance: her ‘Counties of England’ jigsaw puzzle, about which she recalls ‘how most of the large, clear counties were round the edge, and when you put them in it left an awkward muddle of smaller, odd-shaped counties in the middle, and you could never remember where Staffordshire went.’
Staffordshire is, at 11,712 square miles, certainly not the smallest of English counties, and its central Midlands location (bordered by Leicestershire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Shropshire, Cheshire, and Derbyshire) certainly puts it ‘in the middle.’ (Following REED practice, the historic, pre-1974 boundaries of the county are used here.) Staffordshire’s central location, rich mineral resources (coal, iron, and clay), and resourceful population have, since the industrial revolution in the eighteenth century, propelled the county’s economic prosperity; the southern industrial district (the Black Country) became the centre of iron and steel manufacturing in all its branches. By the 1901 census Staffordshire ranked fourth among English counties. However, this prosperity came later; the fortunes of Staffordshire were distinctly poorer, and its population more scattered, from the Norman invasion to the end of our period.
The area was invaded in the sixth century by a tribe of Angles who settled around Tamworth, a borough that later became an important royal centre for kings of Mercia. Danish invaders frequently overran the area in the tenth century, before the land of the south Mercians was organized into five shires, including Staffordshire, by Edward the Elder, before 924. Staffordshire, with Shropshire, revolted against the rule of William the Conquerer in 1069 and this was punished with ruthless confiscation – no Englishman retained any estates of importance in Staffordshire after the Conquest. The most important beneficiaries of the Conquest were Henry de Ferrers, who held Tutbury castle, and Robert de Stafford; de Stafford’s descendants long remained influential in the shire’s affairs.
The Domesday survey supplies ways to measure the relatively depopulated and impoverished state of the county. The surveyors found Staffordshire to be 'thinly inhabited, incapable of ordinary taxation, and badly stocked,' Staffordshire was assessed with 540 or 555 hides. In comparison Gloucestershire had 2,388 hides, and only Rutland, Cornwall, and Chester had smaller assessments. Norman Staffordshire was largely waste and uncultivated lands. By the end of the twelfth century, four large royal forests, Brewood, Cannock, Kinver, and New Forest, had been created and covered approximately forty per cent of the shire, and Needwood, a non-royal forest, occupied about another ten per cent), as one can see by looking at a map of the extent of these forests. In 1300–1 writs issued to tenants who held £40 or more in land provide an approximate basis for comparison of the wealth of shires; of 835 writs for England (exclusive of Durham and Chester), Staffordshire furnished seventeen, Shropshire eleven, and Devon (the best showing) seventy-seven. The north Staffordshire moorlands provided excellent pasturage for sheep, and in the fourteenth century Wolverhampton was a staple town for wool. The 1332–3 subsidy returns allow comparisons between the shire’s boroughs: Stafford was assessed at £13 8s, Lichfield at £12, Newcastle under Lyme £10 3s 4d, Burton £8 and Walsall £3 16s. None of these is a large sum. The county continued to be hampered by its geography, which presented difficulties for transport. The Roman road in the south of the county, Watling Street, had fallen into disuse, and the roads in the north and south parts of Staffordshire (where developing industry was centred) remained poor throughout our period. The only river of any note, the Trent, was not navigable within Staffordshire; until the advent of canals (in the 1770s) and later the railways, businesses in Staffordshire were limited to particular locales. In 1637 the county justices described Staffordshire as follows: ‘one-fourth being heath and waste and another fourth being chases and parks; it also abounds with poor people.'
Charters of incorporation were obtained by Newcastle under Lyme in the reign of Henry VIII, followed by Lichfield in 1547, Stafford in 1549, Tamworth in 1560, and Walsall in 1627.At later points in our period it is possible to gain some insight into the comparable economic fortunes of Staffordshire boroughs. In 1573 the shire was described, in the returns of a muster roll, as being ‘too poor to support the expense of training a large number of men.’ This was at the time of our early surviving narrative impression of the economic state of Stafford, contained in the vivid account of the visit by Queen Elizabeth to the town in 1575. In 1635 the Ship Money assessment provides late comparative data: Lichfield, which had by that time clearly become the most prosperous urban centre in Staffordshire, was assessed at £100, Walsall £25, Stafford £20, and Newcastle £16.
As the comparative figures from various dates suggest, the varying fortunes of Staffordshire’s four main boroughs produced no clear leader, in contrast to Norfolk (Norwich), Somerset (Bristol), or Warwickshire (Coventry). The fortunes of the town of Stafford appear to have remained meagre and its population low. Parliamentary representation began regularly in 1552–3, when Lichfield, Newcastle, and Stafford each sent two members, with two members returned for the county. Tamworth returned two members beginning in 1563.
The 'diocese of Coventry and Lichfield' is the name by which this oft-renamed diocese was known through much of the period of this collection of records and beyond (1224–1661). The diocese was founded in 656, with Diuma as its first bishop, as the diocese of Mercia, and it then contained much more territory than it did by the end of our period. The see was moved to Lichfield by Ceadda (St Chad) in 669, when Ceadda built a small church and monastery there and fixed it as his headquarters. It was then renamed as the diocese of Lichfield. Soon after that the diocese underwent its first reduction in size, when the diocese of Worcester was detached, and by 750 the still-immense diocese covered Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Cheshire, and part of Warwickshire. In 1075 following earlier decrees from the councils of Sardica and Laodicea, the council of London decreed that all cathedral seats should be located in cities, resulting in the relocation of Sherborne (to Salisbury), Selsey (to Chichester), and Lichfield (to Chester); consequently the see was moved to Chester and the diocese was renamed as the diocese of Chester and Lichfield. It comprised five archdeaconries: Chester, Coventry, Derby, Salop, and Stafford. In 1102 the see moved once more, to Coventry, this time at the behest of the ambitious bishop, Robert de Limesey. The diocese was shortly after renamed as the diocese of Coventry and Lichfield, and there ensued periodic quarrels between the monastic chapter of Coventry and the secular chapter of Lichfield about which should have primacy of election of successive bishops. This struggle was settled in 1228 by an agreement to alternate and share responsibilities, and the bishop was styled bishop of Coventry and Lichfield until the Reformation. The present cathedral of Lichfield dates from 1200–1350, built within a fortified close with a moat. In 1535, the Valor Ecclesiasticus valued the diocese at £703 5s. 3d. The struggle for primacy between Coventry and Lichfield was finally resolved in 1539 when the Benedictine Cathedral Priory of St Mary in Coventry was dissolved, the see was moved to Lichfield only, and the bishop was thereafter styled the bishop of Lichfield and Coventry. The last administrative change that falls within our period was the creation in 1541 of the diocese of Chester, which entailed the transfer to that diocese of the archdeaconry of Chester.
Within the diocese, Staffordshire formed the archdeaconry of Stafford and included the deaneries of Stafford, Newcastle, Alton and Leek, Tamworth and Tutbury, and Lapley and Trysull. Documentary remains of monastic foundations are generally slight, and there survive no records containing material relevant to this collection. The largest abbey in Staffordshire, Burton Abbey, was reckoned by its monks to be the smallest and poorest Benedictine establishment in the country. It was dissolved in 1539, and by 1546 was owned by the Paget family, whose residency there after 1573 is recounted below.
Attempting to gauge prevailing religious attitudes in Staffordshire is difficult because the surviving records are sparse; however, at the Reformation the county was little disposed to religious change, suggesting that it was not a hotbed of Reforming zeal. Further, the ecclesiastical centre of the county, Lichfield, was targeted particularly harshly because its moated cathedral, fortified and defensible, was a key strategic position, control over which was vital. Hence Lichfield saw some of the fiercest fighting of the wars. The cathedral suffered three sieges between 1643 and 1646; it changed hands from Royalists to Parliamentarians in 1643, after which the Parliamentarians destroyed the library, the glass, statuary, and organs. Retaken by Royalist forces forty-seven days later, the cathedral remained in Royalist hands almost to the end of the Civil War, when it fell a third time in 1646, after a fierce fight that resulted, among other things, in the collapse under bombardment of the central spire; the cathedral remained under Parliamentary control until 1660. During this second occupation, looting by the Parliamentary army resulted in much of the cathedral, now partly ruinous, being further damaged. The contents of the cathedral library were dispersed after the surrender of 1646, and the Civil War has been blamed for the disappearance of the early records of the corporation. As a result there survive only sparse cathedral and diocesan records from our period, and few civic records survive from the city of Lichfield.