This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 8th December 2003, reproduced by kind permission of the author, the late Desmond Holden.

The “What's in a Name” series was a regular feature in the Advertiser over the period 1993‑2004, taking a refreshing look at the derivation of some typically Derbyshire surnames.

Articles are confined to the origins and meanings of surnames, and do not indicate any particular interest on Desmond's part in the genealogy, descent, or family history of individuals bearing the surnames featured.

Editor's Note: Articles are provided for general interest and background only. They are not intended to provide an exhaustive treatise for any individual family history - investigations of which may yield quite different results. Or, in Desmond's own words:

“In the end it must remain with individual bearers of the names to draw upon family traditions and to seek out such documentary evidence as is available to decide the matter for themselves.”


There is no disputing that the surname Lichfield is derived from the city of that name in Staffordshire. The form Litchfield now prevails in Derbyshire where it is listed as a 'special name', but this variation, although slight, might just shift the origin of some instances of the name elsewhere. ie. Hampshire.

Contrary to a widely-held belief, the name does not mean "the Field of the Dead'. This comes from a misinterpretation of the unit 'Lich-' with the old English term 'lych' which bore the meaning "corpse' (still found in 'Lych-gate' at the entrance to church-yards). It is however recorded that during the Roman governorship of Maximianus Herculeus, a great number of Christians were martyred and buried somewhere in the vicinity and that perhaps knowledge of this event may have influenced the choice for the first episcopal site (at Stowe) by St. Chad (669). Another location for the subsequent cathedral was selected by the Saint's successor but the present buildings are of a later date.

The name 'Lichfield' incorporates what is understood to be the only surviving elements of a pre-Roman place-name, which was 'Leitocaiton'. The first unit (leito) signified 'grey' (c.f Welsh 'llwyd' - hence 'Lloyd' a name meaning 'the grey- haired one'). The second unit (caito) described woodland and survives in Welsh place names as "coed' and Cornish as "cod'). This particular site, now called Wall, is 3 miles south on the A5 road: its archeological name is Letocetum. After the Romans withdrew from Britain (c.430) and, later, for reasons not perfectly understood, the settlement was transferred to a site corresponding with that of the present city. The place-name underwent several modifications but by the time of the Anglo-Saxons was known as Liccid. At much of this period it seems also that it was a great time for Anglo- Saxon colonisation and they expanded into areas where large sections of the great forests, which then flourished over much of the country, were being cleared. These open spaces were called 'Felds' by the Anglo-Saxons and the study of place-names reveals that numerous recognised cleared sites retained their old names but had the unit '-field' tagged on: eg. Chesterfield, Sheffield etc. This development is noted in the Chronicles of the Venerable Bede (673-735) who refers to 'Licidfelth' and by the time of the Normans it had become 'Lichesfeld'.

There is some uncertainty as to the exact meaning of 'Lichfield'. It seems that the element 'leito-' certainly meant grey, but carried a sense more of age than colour. (Note: the term 'Grey Wood' belongs more to cabinet-making and is applicable only to the sycamore and since that tree was first introduced in 1551, this meaning does not apply.

It is submitted that the name Lichfield or Litchfield can be rendered (albeit somewhat periphrastically) as: The area of land in the old forest which has been cleared and now given over to arable farming.

The spelling 'Litchfield' as against "Lichfield' illustrates a development in our language. Expressed very simply and briefly the letter "-c-' was pronounced in old English sometimes as 'ch'. So 'Licid' sounded as 'Liched'. This was to conflict with Norman-French where the same letter sounded as '-sh-'. English scribes put a '-t-' in front of 'ch' to preserve the original sound - hence 'Litchfield'. Note: the sound 'sh' and 'tch' run parallel in words from the same source as in 'chef' and 'chief'.

The place in Hampshire has no connection and will be discussed in a future article.

The city was important and well-known far beyond its immediate vicinity. So its adoption as a surname by migrants was feasible and made sense to their new neighbours. It may very well have been that many workers involved in the Staffordshire coal mines would have made their way over the border and settled in Derbyshire to work in the mines here. This may go some way to account for its being listed as 'special' to our county. Perhaps the lowliness of the occupation precluded many records and in fact these are very few. The earliest is to a Robert Lychfeld (1450) of Oxford. That surname is repeated frequently up till 1720 in connection with the Oxford Press but whether relating to the same family is uncertain.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 8th December 2003.

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