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Simon Thurley on England’s cathedrals

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England’s cathedrals are booming writes Simon Thurley. Photography by Anthony Coleman

England’s cathedrals are booming. Last year 12 million people visited them and two, York and Canterbury, were among the nation’s top historic visitor attractions. But their appeal is not just for the day tripper; people still like worshipping in them - a lot. With superbmusic and creative liturgy, cathedrals are full at Christmas and Easter, and are bucking the general decline in churchgoing. On top of all that, in last month’s budget, George Osborne gave them £20 million for repairs.

It’s great for the Church of England to have such a success story and it’s great for the cities that have a cathedral in them. These buildings are the crème de la crème of our architecture and history, encapsulating every known style of building and the work of just about every great architect from the Saxons to the present day. They are also a very particular and unusual type of building in European terms. Driving through France, every town seems to have its cathedral, large austere churches, almost always locked up, and looked after by the French government. Other than Osborne’s unexpected and no doubt verywelcome cheque, English cathedrals receive no money from the government. They are independent self-governing entities reliant on tourism, worshippers and philanthropists to keep going. is is, of course, why they are open 365 days a year, eagerlywelcoming both people who come to gawp and those who come to pray.

Today there are 42 Church of England cathedrals; in France, before 1801, there were several hundred, and even now there are nearly a hundred in use. English medieval cathedrals were at the centre of huge and very rich dioceses. This meant that they were proportionately richer than their French cousins, whose geographical spread was much smaller. Crucially it also meant that the resources for building were correspondingly larger. English cathedrals are simply much bigger than most in France, and quite often much more elaborate. Because of the richness of its carving, a single bay of Lincoln Cathedral, for instance, probably cost twice as much as a bay of its French equivalent.

Lincoln Cathedral

Lincoln Cathedral

But the uniqueness of the English cathedral is not just about economics. At the Reformation there were 17 cathedrals, all of which (apart from St Paul’s, which was rebuilt after the Great Fire of London) survive today. Half were actually monasteries, meaning that the bishop was also an abbot. The rest were run by canons and a dean while the bishop kept an eye on his diocese - which is how our cathedrals are all run today. Henry VIII converted a further fi ve monasteries into cathedrals in the 1530s. This explains why many English cathedrals, unlike those in France for instance, have cloisters and other monastic buildings. It also explains that most delightful and English phenomenon - the cathedral close. English cathedrals are set in a sort of green surrounded by the domestic accommodationof various monastic officials. The whole cathedral has a sense of being an enclave, a haven of peace and calm in the middle of a city. This is quite unlike anything you will find on the continent, where it is usual to turn the corner of a street and suddenly beconfronted by the bulk of a cathedral sprouting out of the townscape. English cathedrals are very rarely in the centre of towns, but in precincts set slightly to one side - as at York, where the Minster is in a corner of the city or at Durham, where it stands on a hill overlooking the main part of the town.

York Minster

York Minster

Another unique feature of English cathedrals is their incredibly long and relatively low naves. The length of English churches was to provide the maximum possible space for subsidiary altars. This is difficult to see today, since the Reformation cleared the naves and aisles of medieval clutter, giving a falseimpression of what a cathedral originally looked like. St Albans Cathedral has a nave 80m long, andWinchester Cathedral is the longest Gothic cathedral in Europe. The lowness of English cathedralceilings or vaults is also really noticeable. Westminster Abbey has the highest nave vault in England at 31m, but even one of the lowest in France, Notre Dame in Paris, is 33.5m tall. What this means is that structurally, continental masons could not build high towers because their buttressing was concentrated on supporting the nave ceilings. In England, architects and masons focused their skills (and their buttresses) on extremely tall towers. On the continent even the largest cathedrals are crowned by little lead-covered timber spikes, whereas Salisbury has a spire 123m high. At Lincoln (another town where the cathedral is set aside on a hill overlooking the town) there is the astonishing triple vision of west-end towers at 61m a piece and the soaring central tower, England’s tallest at 83m. And of course we must not neglect the incredible feat of theoctagon at Ely built in timber in the 1320s. It can be seen for miles around looming out of the fenlands.

Salisbury Cathedral

Salisbury Cathedral

Big, rich, long, low, crowned with soaring towers and spires, and set in immaculate closes, England’s cathedrals stand apart in the history of European architecture. But this is not readily apparent to the ordinary visitor. Even though cathedrals are still used for the purpose for which they were built, it is difficult to understand them as they would have been used in the middle ages. This is because after the Reformation, and for 450 years since, the way these buildings are used has changed. Many architectural features that had specific liturgical functions now seem to be decorative add-ons rather than integral parts of everyday worship.

Most important among these were the west fronts, architectural backdrops to the most important ceremonies of the church held over Easter. Anthony Coleman’s wonderful photographs on the following pages brilliantly record these glorious episcopal gateways. In an age before printed books, let alone television or the internet, these stupendous facades were the interactive, multimedia focus of the church year. Most contained brightly painted sculpture telling the key stories of the Christian church. Many, however, were much more than that. Passages and staircases wind their way into the west fronts of Exeter and Wells, for instance. These were to allow the choir and musicians to stand hidden behind the facade and sing and play music at key moments. I have squeezed my way along the passages behind the facade of Wells and peered through the little openings tucked away in the forest of sculpture (there were 176 enormous statues in niches on the west front originally). Through these holes on the great feast days trumpets blared and angelic voices sang.

Wells Cathedral

Wells Cathedral

The statues would have originally been brightly painted and gilded, their faces incredibly life-like. On Palm Sunday Christ’s entry into Jerusalem was re-enacted and the whole painted facade would have come alive with singing and triumphal trumpet blasts. The great west doors, rarely used in medieval worship (people normally entered at the side) were swung open and processions of huge richness would pass through. Crosses and relics were held aloft, censers swung enveloping everything in incense, candles spluttered while gold-laced damask smothered the priests. This was the most extraordinary spectacle people would see in their lifetimes. And incredibly, with all that colour and sound missing, those west fronts in their denuded state still have the power to move and amaze and still, in my opinion, rank among the greatest architectural achievements of England.

Simon Thurley is chief executive of English Heritage and author of The Building of England (William Collins, 2013)

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Readers' comments (1)

  • There's a rather obvious mistake in this article: ' At Lincoln (another town where the cathedral is set aside on a hill overlooking the town)' - What do you call a settlement with a pre-20th century Cathedral? It's not a town is it? Lincoln is a city and has been for at least 700 years.

    I realise the predominantly London-centric readership of the AJ will most likely not even have heard of Lincoln, nevermind visited it, but I strongly recommend you do.

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