Nicholas Orme’s The History of England’s Cathedrals is the first history of the life and activities of all English cathedrals, from Birmingham and Bury St Edmunds to Worcester and York Minster. England’s sixty-two Anglican and Catholic cathedrals are some of our most iconic buildings, attracting millions of worshippers and visitors every year. In this exclusive blogpost, Nicholas Orme takes us through a timeline of their foundation and development over the centuries.
What attracts us about England’s cathedrals? Partly their rarity: there are only 42 Anglican and 19 Catholic ones compared with the thousands of churches. Partly the size: bigger than anything built before modern times, except for castles. Partly the sheer complexity: the layout, the little chapels, the vaulting, stained-glass windows, monuments and effigies. To me, and why I wrote my book, it’s the history: the way you are led back to England’s past. At an old cathedral like Canterbury, the past goes all the way to the Anglo-Saxons. But even a modern one like Coventry or Catholic Liverpool tells you about the twentieth century and about attitudes that are already passing into history.
Christianity reached Britain when it was part of the Roman Empire. The first bishops we hear of, and therefore the first cathedrals, were in the year 314, at London, Lincoln, and York. Going to any of these today brings you closer to the Romans. True, the present cathedrals are not necessarily on the same spot as their Roman ancestors. These perished in the downfall of the Empire in the early 400s, when the Anglo-Saxons came (who were pagans) and the Roman cities fell into decay. But when the Saxons returned to Christianity after 597, most of the new cathedrals that they built were put on Roman sites. Christianity saw itself as a part of Roman civilisation, so the Saxon bishops mostly stationed themselves and their cathedrals where they had been before and also in places like Canterbury, Rochester, Winchester, and Worcester. ‘Chester’ means an ancient Roman city.
It wasn’t a ‘given’, however, that cathedrals would come down the centuries in a neat and simple way, escaping the crises that have juddered England’s history over the last fifteen centuries. England was at least nominally Christian by 700, but then came the Vikings who weren’t. The first recorded Viking raid on England, in 793, was an attack on a cathedral: Lindisfarne. This was not in a Roman city but on an island which must have seemed safe and was, until the Norse ships came. And yet, Vikings were not particularly hostile to cathedrals. Many became Christians when they settled in England. The clergy stayed on Lindisfarne until 875, and York Minster remained in use despite being in a Viking capital city.
After the Vikings came a Saxon revival, and then the Norman Conquest. This also left a mark upon cathedrals. The Normans had to defend themselves in a hostile country, hence all their castles. They rebuilt many of the cathedrals, and gave them a similar fortified shape. Bishops and many cathedral clergy were now Normans and needed to keep themselves safe as well. The Lindisfarne clergy on leaving the island had carried their saint, Cuthbert, with them and eventually settled at Durham. A new cathedral was built, with a castle beside it, in a fortress-like position high above the river, with stocky towers and a nave of stout pillars. Lincoln too was built on a top of a hill, by a castle, and so originally was Salisbury. There castle and cathedral were at first out on the hill-fort of Old Sarum.
By the thirteenth century, Normans and English had blended and a more peaceful era began. This is symbolised by the migration of Salisbury Cathedral from the hill-fort down to a virgin site by the River Avon in 1220. The new building speaks of spiritual power rather than military power. Its spire soars to the skies, the inside offers light and generous space. This was the era when the Church in England was at the height of its prosperity, the cathedral funded with rents from its estates and tithes from its churches.
This prosperity would itself die away. By the sixteenth century the Church was weaker, and the lay powers – the king and aristocracy – stronger. Henry VIII created the Church of England, dissolved the monasteries, and took their property. Cathedrals could have been abolished too, but Henry was quirky. He liked them and their music, and even stirred himself to write in his own hand an act of Parliament to save them. He also created six new ones using former abbeys, including Gloucester and Bristol. Both are worth visiting, and do not underrate Bristol with its unusual fourteenth-century choir and aisles.
Civil War and English Republic
Not everyone approved that cathedrals survived. Many Protestants saw them as relics of Catholicism and upholders of ceremony rather than preaching. Kings and queens stood by the cathedrals, but when Charles I was defeated and dethroned in the Civil War, the cathedrals lost their protection. Parliament abolished them in 1649. Some remained in use but Lichfield lost its roof and Carlisle its nave. Fortunately for the cathedrals, the English republic lasted for only eleven years and the monarchy was restored in 1660. The cathedrals were swept back again in the rebound of loyalty to the king.
Seventeenth – Nineteenth Centuries
The period from 1660 to 1800 was another quiet time. One ancient cathedral disappeared, St Pauls’s, destroyed in the fire of 1666, and this gave England its first in the classical style: Wren’s great masterpiece. Otherwise, cathedrals came into the nineteenth century much as they had been in the seventeenth. Again they ran into trouble. Reform was in the air: Parliament, local government, the penal system. New industrial towns needed churches. Where was the money to come from? The cathedrals were rich, so their estates were taken from them. That is why they depend so much today on fund-raising and visits by tourists.
Still, cathedrals again survived and many more came into being, not only Anglican but Catholic ones as well. Some were former parish churches, others new creations in the Gothic style so popular with the Victorians: Truro and Anglican Liverpool. But cathedrals were not quite safe even now. In 1940 and 1942 several suffered from bombing for the first time in their history. Coventry was destroyed, and Exeter badly damaged.
During the twentieth century Britain became a total democracy. Cathedrals always mirror their age, and they do in this respect. Buildings have become more friendly, apart from admission fees made necessary by costs. Services are closer to the people. Concerts and exhibitions take place. And fashions in architecture have changed. Coventry and Catholic Liverpool are quite unlike their medieval colleagues.
I could go on with their history for ever, but when you visit them, you can look out for it. Because for every century that a cathedral has stood, there is something of that century inside it. And every cathedral is worth visiting. If you haven’t done so, try Pugin’s Gothic masterpiece, Catholic Birmingham; Sheffield, with its huge extension, later abandoned; tiny Oxford; or Guildford, the last Gothic cathedral and, to my mind, one of the most captivating. It will keep you busy for years.
About the author
Nicholas Orme is emeritus professor of history at Exeter University. He has written more than thirty books on the religious and social history of England, including Medieval Children, Tudor Children, and Going to Church in Medieval England, which was shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize.
About the Book
The History of England’s Cathedrals
England’s sixty-two Anglican and Catholic cathedrals are some of our most iconic buildings, attracting millions of worshippers and visitors every year. Yet although much has been written about their architecture, there is no complete history of their life and activities. This is the first such book to provide one, stretching from Roman times to the present day.
The History of England’s Cathedrals explains where and why they were founded, who staffed them, and how their structures evolved. It describes their worship and how this changed over the centuries, their schools and libraries, and their links with the outside world.
The history of these astonishing buildings is the history of England. Reading this book will bring you face to face with the Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans, Reformation, Civil War, Victorian England, World War Two, and finally modern democracy.