“Mankind was never so happily inspired as when it made a cathedral,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson and driving through England’s pastures green, with spires looming on the horizon, I can see why.
I’ve always been impressed with cathedrals, not because of any particular belief in a greater being, but because they epitomise the absolute power of the church at the time they were constructed. Their legions of anonymous builders laboured for years, even centuries, to thrust these temples into the sky, each one bigger, higher, more spectacular than the last. After the Norman conquest in 1066, King William celebrated by building great cathedrals all over Normandy, with English money. In England he built castles. But as his reign drew to a close, his bishops were keen to put their imprint on the land and banish previous influences. The word cathedral is really an adjective. The cathedra is the bishop’s throne, and a cathedral church has the throne of a bishop inside—we should say: “It is a cathedral church.”
The first cathedral in our tour from our base in Yorkshire is at York, about 90 minutes drive away. The cathedral, correctly York Minster, established in 625, was destroyed, especially by Viking invaders and conquerors, and rebuilt many times. During William’s northern conquest it was badly damaged and his newly appointed bishop set about repairs in 1070. Back came the Vikings and sacked it again. When the Gothic style in cathedrals became popular a new structure to rival Canterbury was started in 1220, and that’s mostly what we can see today. York is the second most important cathedral in the Anglican Church, after Canterbury, and is the second largest Gothic cathedral in Europe. It has beautiful stained glass windows at the eastern end of the sanctuary, recently completely restored, and a stunning tower, 235 feet (72 metres) high. My favourite part of the cathedral is the 15th century Kings’ Screen, which divides the nave from the sanctuary and depicts 15 English kings from William to Henry VI.
Further south, we pass by Sherwood Forest and leaving Nottinghamshire we cross the River Trent at Dunham Bridge, one of the very few toll bridges in the UK, into the flat-as-a-pancake lands of Lincolnshire. Rising before us on a great escarpment is the historic town of Lincoln.
The first great religious building established during William’s reign in 1072 is Lincoln Cathedral, built from the rock on which it stands. For 238 years, from 1311, it was the tallest building in the world, until the spire collapsed in 1548 and was not rebuilt. If York is the second, then Lincoln is the third largest cathedral in Britain, after London’s St. Paul’s. “I have always held … that the cathedral of Lincoln is out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles,” wrote the prolific Victorian art critic John Ruskin. Since the then bishop was one of the signatories to the Magna Carta, for hundreds of years one of only four remaining copies of the original was held in the cathedral, now displayed in Lincoln Castle.
On several visits to Lincoln, we take the cathedral tour in small bites. Once, the nave is filled with the sound of children’s voices raised in glorious song. A friendly verger gives us a quick potted history of the part to which we are restricted. On another visit other parts are closed for filming. It has stood in for Westminster Abbey in The Da Vinci Code and Young Victoria, and on this occasion for the new Netflicks movie The King, coming in 2019 and featuring Henry IV and V. On a more recent visit, this past autumn, we view the tower from the recently restored Wall Walk at the nearby castle. We skip the gruesome Victorian penitentiary, and the unimpressive Magna Carta exhibit, for more time in the majestic cathedral unencumbered by choirs or movie people. Then we’re off to the Magna Carta Pub at the top of the aptly-named Steep Hill for well-earned refreshments.
Driving south to the English Channel for family business earlier this year, we pass Winchester in Hampshire, and I detour to have a look at Winchester Cathedral. This is the next oldest cathedral in England after York, founded in 660, and the third on our tour without a spire. My TomTom GPS (or Sat Nav as they will have it in UK) leads me astray, and I eventually conclude that the cathedral is not approachable by car. The closest I get is a row of very old mediaeval houses, but my route after that is barred. In spite of it being one of the largest cathedrals in Europe, with the longest nave and greatest overall length of any Gothic cathedral, I get nary a glimpse of it. Winchester’s wonders will have to wait on another, and better planned, visit.
I have more luck on our next stop, just 45 minutes away on the south coast, where the second cathedral build by King William was at Chichester, erected from 1075. The spire of Chichester Cathedral, can be seen for many miles across the water meadows of West Sussex and is a landmark for sailors. It’s the only medieval English cathedral which is visible from the sea. It’s also the first of the ancient monuments on my tour to have a spire.
Although the green copper roof of the cathedral is famous and visible from afar, it has caused problems since it was installed after the last war. The copper is corroding and leaking and now a massive program is underway to replace the entire roof with the original lead. There’s no entrance fee, but visitors are encouraged to make a donation to the roof fund and my £5 note goes willingly into the collection box. The building has other features which make it unique among England’s medieval cathedrals: a free-standing medieval bell tower and double aisles. Architecturally the 900-year-old complex shows its Norman roots and later Gothic additions.
If the outside is half-wrapped in scaffolding and plastic as the five-year re-roofing scheme gets under way, the interior is untouched and amazing. There’s a bit of original Roman flooring, a colourful John Piper tapestry at the high altar, a window by Marc Chagall, and a painting by Graham Sutherland. There are ancient tombs galore, including the shrine of St. Richard, whose popular prayer ends: “…know thee more clearly [and] love thee more dearly…”
After a stay in the New Forest and visiting family on the south coast, we head north again, this time passing the ancient city of Salisbury, where Salisbury Cathedral is the third great edifice constructed during William the Conqueror’s reign in 1078. It is home to the only other surviving and best copy of the Magna Carta outside the two at the new British Library in London. It’s also easy to find, set grandly back from neighbouring buildings by great swards of grass in the largest cathedral close in Britain.
I’d visited the cathedral years ago, before I read either Sarum by Edward Rutherfurd or The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. Both use the cathedral either as important plot points or a model for fictional structures. In those days I was sprightly enough to climb up inside the spire and see how it was constructed. Now I can only admire it from afar. Since 1549, it is the tallest church spire in the United Kingdom, at 404 feet (123 metres). The cloister is beautiful and is the largest in Britain, with two majestic cedars growing within. For those who have run out of time, just know it also contains one of the oldest working clocks in the world.