English country churches and lychgates seem to go hand in hand. There is something rustic and romantic about them. Perhaps you’ve seen one at the entrance to a church and thought that they were created as handy shelters or been lucky enough to see a bridal couple paying local children to untie the gates and allow them through.
But the picturesque lychgate has a darker side as it’s also the gate through which the happy couple could be entering in a few decades but on a more sombre occasion.
The word lychgate is derived from the old English or Saxon word, lich, which means corpse. The body would have already been carried along footpaths or the local corpse road to the church. Corpse roads can still be seen in the countryside if you know where to look. Coffins were for the wealthy until the 1700’s and so the less well to do deceased would have been wrapped in a shroud and then laid on a bier under the lychgate. The priest would have then come out of the church to the bier to conduct the first part of the funeral service. The pall bearers would have been able to shelter under the gate. Some lychgates have large, flat stones under them on which the shrouded body would be laid. These are known as lich stones.
A lyhgate is roofed porch-like, almost shed-like, over agate and were often built of wood. They were usually made of 4 or 6 upright wooden posts in a rectangular shape. Above are beams to hold up a pitched roof covered either in thatch or wooden or clay tiles.
Although usually plain, they can sometimes have decorative carvings. For example, St Oswald’s in Peover, Cheshire has these words inscribed on its lychgate:
‘Grant O Lord that through the grave and gate of death we may pass to our joyful resurrection.”
A sobering though for all those who passed beneath.
Some lychgates also have recessed seats in either side of the gate and lychgates were often erected in a local person’s memory. In 2000, the Millenium year, several lychgates were erected to commemorate it. Lychgates are thought to date from the 7th century but were more widely popular in the 15th century.
As they were usually made from wood many lychgates have vanished over the centuries or the remains have been incorporated into modern reproductions.
Whilst researching this article I discovered that my local church, St Georges in Beckenham, may have the oldest lychgate in the country as parts of it date from the 13th century. In 9124, it was restored by a local man who lost both of his sons in the 1st World War. There Is an information panel on a roof beam to commemorate this which reads:
“To the glory of God and in proud memory of Hedley and Stanley Thornton who gave their lives for King and Country in the Great War. This ancient Lych Gate was restored by their father. A.D. 1924”
and there is another one which informs the reader of its age and restoration work done on the lychgate:
“This lychgate is probably the oldest remaining in England was erected in the 13th century and repaired in August 1924, when the framework was left untouched. But the decayed ground cills and the bottoms of the side posts were renewed on new foundations and the spurs to thebrackets which had long been absent were restored.”
St Georges is a Victorian church which is built on the site of an earlier church and there are some interesting 18th century tombstones in the churchyard.
However, lychgates aren’t often found in big city churchyards and so have become associated with picturesque, romantic country and small town churchyards.
A lychgate is ultimately the entrance by which all must pass to enter the church. Christenings, weddings, funerals; all the stages of life and death go through the gate. It is one of the most enduring and unique symbols and image of Britain.
©texts and photos Carole Tyrrell