Like the medieval castles, Britain’s cathedrals are astounding sites and an absolute must for any visitor to the island. Here, Professor Allitt explores the major milestones in cathedral architecture, from the Romanesque style of Durham Cathedral to the gothic style of Canterbury. He also takes you to the world-renowned Westminster Abbey.
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Cathedrals stand at the center of dioceses, the administrative districts of the Church of England. Each diocese has a bishop—Canterbury and York, the most senior, have archbishops.
Early Medieval Cathedrals of Britain
The earliest medieval cathedrals were built in the Norman or Romanesque style, with heavy columns supporting great rounded arches. They generate a feeling of dark, massive solemnity.
Durham Cathedral, in North East England, is perhaps the best example of the Norman style in Britain. Inside, along with the nave, its massive stone columns are decorated with strong yet simple designs, of crisscrossing lines and zigzags. Great stained-glass windows tell stories, either Biblical or of the saints, abbots, and warrior chieftains who founded and defended Durham.
Saint Cuthbert was a monk of Lindisfarne who died in 687, already an ancient memory by the time the current cathedral was founded, on the site of an even older church. Durham Cathedral housed his relics and became a pilgrimage site until the Reformation. Durham was a monastic foundation, and a superb set of cloisters adjoins the cathedral. Cloisters are the covered walkways in which the monks would exercise, and are a feature of many of the great cathedrals.
The Gothic Style of Britain’s Cathedrals
In the twelfth century, the Gothic style began to displace Romanesque. Architects accepted the challenge of creating a sense of vertical soaring, with spaces much higher than they were wide, leading the eye up to remote vaulted ceilings and pointed arches.
The most distinctive features of Gothic cathedrals are wide, bright windows with elaborate tracery, brilliantly colored stained glass, flying buttresses, spires, and pinnacles, all of which seem fanciful yet each of which contributes to their structure’s stability and aesthetic completeness. Unfortunately, hardly any of the medieval stained glass remains. Even where it does, as at York, it has faded from its former glory. The best and most brilliant stained glass in English cathedrals today is mainly Victorian, from the mid and late 19th century.
Visiting Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey, right across the road from the Houses of Parliament in London, is probably the most celebrated of all the gothic cathedrals. Every monarch has been crowned there since AD 1066—17 monarchs are buried there and it has been the site of 16 royal weddings.
The tomb of Henry VII itself, centerpiece of the chapel, was carved by an Italian sculptor, Pietro Torrigiano, who was a superb craftsman.
Westminster Abbey is also famous for Poets’ Corner, where many of Britain’s most famous writers have been buried or commemorated. It’s fun to read along the walls there and to single out the names, which include Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, John Dryden, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Robert Browning, Thomas Hardy, and Rudyard Kipling.
The History of Canterbury Cathedral
About 60 miles southeast of London is the cathedral city of Canterbury, the seat of the Archbishop, who is also primate of the worldwide Anglican communion. Another dazzling Gothic structure, Canterbury Cathedral achieved notoriety in the year 1170 when Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered there.
Three years later, Pope Alexander III named Becket a saint, and the scene of his martyrdom became one of the great pilgrimages of Europe. It is best commemorated in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in the late 1300s, a series of stories told by pilgrims as they make their way from London to Canterbury, apparently not in very pious frame of mind.
If we travel to Staffordshire, in England’s West Midlands, we’ll find the lovely Lichfield Cathedral. It’s a distinctive structure—in fact, the only medieval cathedral with three spires.
Only in the 19th century was it fully restored, by confident builders who believed they could improve on the medieval original. The whole thing is immense and impressive, but it’s also full of superb little things, from every generation of its history.
A section of the old south wall still bears a fragment of the fresco painting that once covered all the walls, but was whitewashed over at the Reformation, or vandalized by Parliamentary soldiers in the Civil War.
The Monuments and Statues at Lichfield
Countless statues and monuments give you plenty to admire at Lichfield, as in most of the cathedrals. Probably the best and most touching is The Sleeping Children, an 1816 statue by Francis Chantrey, showing two sisters asleep in each other’s arms.
The man in charge of the Victorian restoration of Lichfield Cathedral was George Gilbert Scott, one of the big names of his era. Under his supervision, a superb wrought-iron rood screen was installed at the entrance to the chancel.
The South Transept contains memorials to three renowned Lichfield natives: Dr. Samuel Johnson, the pioneer lexicographer; Erasmus Darwin, poet and physician; and David Garrick, the most famous actor in 18th-century Britain.
Visiting the City of Wells and its Cathedrals
Moving from Staffordshire to the county of Somerset in South West England, we come to the city of Wells, nestled just below the lovely Mendip Hills. In Wells Cathedral, as in Lichfield, the structure is “Early English,” from the late 12th and early 13th centuries, but many of the details come from each of the subsequent centuries.
Instantly notable at Wells is a great set of four “strainer” or “scissor” arches, installed in the late 1300s because the pillars supporting the crossing were sinking under the weight of the tower above them. An earthquake, very rare for England, had also weakened them, such that a super-strong remedy was needed.
All over Wells Cathedral, as at Lichfield, are grave markers and remembrances of the intervening centuries. A striking black wooden chest in one corner, shaped like a quarter circle, bears an explanatory card: “Cope chest made of local oak about 1120 and still in use.” That’s right: a 900-year-old chest, still in daily use.
Next door to the cathedral is the bishop’s palace, and at Wells you could be forgiven for thinking it was a fortress. It has crenellated walls and a moat, and looks as though it could withstand a siege.
Another beautiful medieval structure, built in the 1100s, Llandaff Cathedral sustained repeated severe damage: first from Owen Glendower’s rebellion in 1400; then from Parliamentary troops in the Civil War, who turned part of it into a tavern and another part into a livestock barn; then from a severe storm in 1703; and then from the German air force in 1941.
After the German air raid, the roof was rebuilt. And Jacob Epstein, a prominent sculptor, was commissioned to make a 16-foot rendering of “Christ in Majesty”, which stands atop a great concrete arch in the middle of the nave. It looks out of place, a defiantly 20th-century addition to an otherwise medieval building.
In the main body of the church is a superb recessed grave of Henry Thomas, a local judge. The sculptor has depicted Solomon, looking very much the Eastern Potentate, judging the famous case of the baby between two women, suggesting it should be cut in half. That’s just the right image for commemorating a good judge.
There was a great religious revival in the Victorian era; there was more money available than ever before; and there was a revival of interest in Britain’s architectural heritage. The cathedrals as we see them today are far more impressive, well-kept, well-floored, and well-decorated than they were in 1800.
Interactive Map of British Cathedrals Mentioned in This Lecture
Suggested Online Reading About British Cathedrals
Britain’s Greatest Cathedrals
Cathedrals in Britain
Visiting cathedrals? Here are England’s Top Ten