"English Medieval Cathedrals"

English Medieval Cathedrals

My goal is to convey and share the excitement and sense of being somewhere special that I experience on entering any one of the great English Medieval Cathedrals. In my opinion they are among the greatest achievements of English architecture and one of my great passions as a photographer.

The cathedrals that I’m focused on are those that were built (and re-built) between the Norman Conquest in 1066 through to the Dissolution of the monasteries and the Reformation by Henry VIII in 1538-42. Originally they were founded either as secular cathedrals or as an abbey church to a monastery: several of the abbey churches were given cathedral status at the time of the Dissolution (as Henry VIII seized their property) and a second set were elevated to cathedrals in the 19th century as part of a broader reorganization of the Church.

Because of their chequered history of building and rebuilding, they exhibit a wide variety of architectural styles, evolution and implementation – both within one building as well as between them. It’s these elements that I’m attempting to capture in my photographs -- structures that signal strength and purpose, beauty and majesty, elegance and grace, exuberance and awe, intimacy and reflection -– demonstrating such a magnificent variety of form for common functions. When entering, one cannot but be immersed in the architectural grandeur, the drama of the space and structure, interactions between form and function at a human level, and a sense of the faith and divine purpose for which they were created.

Although I’ve now visited most of the medieval cathedrals, some on multiple occasions, there is still much more to explore -- each time I visit one of these buildings, whether for the first time or subsequently, I discover new perspectives and interpretations which, in turn, lead me to want to return to those I’ve already visited in order to further explore these new insights. When photographing in the cathedrals, I capture the situation ‘as is’ at that specific time -- as I only visit the UK infrequently (usually at 18-24 month intervals for family events and celebrations), the timing is random, and I simply use the available light, natural or otherwise, and work with the staff, events and other visitors to minimize my impact. Photographically, I draw my inspiration from the earlier masters who documented these magnificent buildings -- in particular, Frederick Evans, Edwin Smith and Martin Hurlimann.

Specifically included in this volume are the cathedrals at: Canterbury, Carlisle, Chester, Chichester, Durham, Ely, Exeter, Gloucester, Hereford, Lichfield, Lincoln, Norwich, Oxford, Peterborough, Ripon, Rochester, St Albans, Salisbury, Southwell, Wells, Winchester, Worcester and York.

Cathedral Foundations

A cathedral is the seat of a Bishop and has the size, decoration and splendour that goes with that status. The English medieval cathedrals can be grouped into two categories -- ‘secular’ cathedrals, those whose clergy were not members of any relious order; and monastic foundations, cathedral abbeys, whose monks were members of one of the religious orders, Benedictine or Augustine.

Prior to the Dissolution of the monasteries and the Reformation by Henry VIII, there were nine secular English cathedrals -- Chichester, Exeter, Hereford, Lichfield, Lincoln, London, Salisbury, Wells and York. These secular cathedrals, by and large, survived the Reformation largely intact. The other ten pre-Reformation English cathedrals were monastic foundations, cathedral abbeys or priories -- nine of these were Benedictine: Bath, Canterbury, Coventry, Durham, Ely, Norwich, Rochester, Winchester, and Worcester -- Carlisle was the only original Augustine foundation. Additionally, there were several large Cisterican abbeys in England during this time, but they were located in remote country areas and were never destined to become cathedrals, and at the Dissolution most were destroyed, for example, Fountains, Furness and Tintern abbeys.

At the Dissolution in 1538, two of the cathedral abbeys -- Bath and Coventry -- were simply dissolved, since the Bishop of Bath and Wells and the Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield each had a secular cathedral (i.e. Wells and Lichfield). The others were translated into secular cathedrals -- Norwich in 1538 and Canterbury, Carlisle, Durham, Ely, Rochester, Winchester and Worcester in 1541/2.

Henry VIII founded six new secular cathedrals in 1540-2: the former Benedictine abbeys at Chester, Gloucester, Peterborough and Westminster (which was demoted in 1550), which had been dissolved in 1539/40; and the former Augustine abbey at Bristol (dissolved in 1539). In 1546 Christ Church became the cathedral for Oxford. Following this, no new cathedrals were created until 1836: since then several new ones have been created, but only four of these were medieval foundations which, pre-Dissolution, had been abbeys – those at Ripon, St Albans, Southwell and Southwark.

At the Dissolution and Reformation several of the cathedrals suffered damage -- in the case of the monastic foundations this was often severe, and in the case of the remote, rural abbeys often resulted in near total destruction. This continued during Elizabeth’s reign when many of the surviving altars, memorials, etc. were destroyed in an on-going attempt to remove any perceived remnants of Roman Catholicism. During the Civil War almost all the cathedrals suffered severly from desecration and destruction by Cromwell’s troops and, in some, such as Lichfield, their interiors, treasures and archives were almost totally destroyed

At the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, many English cathedrals and abbeys were already richly endowed and at most of them their new Norman masters added rapidly to this wealth by acquiring additional lands from disspossessed Saxon landowners. Wealth also accrued at those foundations where there were shrines with the relics of saints, as these were a major source of pigrimage, and thus of donations, benefices and myriad other sources of funds -- for example, Canterbury, Durham, and Ely benefited significantly from piglrims.

The wealth of the bishop and his see was one of the major determinants of the speed, scale and lavishness of the cathedral building effort. Where ample funds were readily available, building could be extremely fast -- for example, at Winchester Bishop Walkelin’s immense Norman masterpiece, at its time one of the largest buildings in the world, was built almost from scratch in less than 20 years at the end of the 11th century.


English churches and cathedrals are built on a basic cruxiform plan and it was always preferred that worshippers face east. Hence all are usually built on a major west-east axis, with the nave to the west and the presbytery, including quire, sanctuary and altar, to the east; and with transepts on the north-south axis intersecting with the nave/quire at the crossing at the east end of the nave (although in a few instances, such as at Norwich, the quire is to the west of the crossing because of the relatively small size of the space to the east). Structurally, the north-south transepts were required to help support the immense weight of the central towers typically found in English cathedrals. Also at the crossing there was typically a carved stone wall, usually at the east side, with a single, arched doorway, the pulpitum, defining the boundary of the quire and the separation of the people from the clergy. Later, in several cathedrals the pulpitum became a convenient base on which to build the organ (at Exeter, for example). Many of the original buildings also incorporated a crypt under the quire.

Often additional chapels and/or altars were built on the eastern walls of the transepts (so that their supplicants could face east), and similarly lady-chapels were built to extend the east end of the cathedral at the retrochoir (the area immediately behind the altar, to the east). And in some cathedrals additional smaller north-south transepts were added to the east of the crossing (such as at Lincoln and Salisbury). Aisles were built to the north and south of the nave and quire to provide access, with an ambulatory around the east end behind the altar, usually with additional east-facing chapels incorporated into it (later, in rebuilding,the ambulatory was often incorporated into the retrochoir and/or lady chapel). The quire included wooden stalls for the use of the monks and clergy, with beautifully carved canopies and misericords (the stall ‘seats’), many of which still survive today.

English cathedrals are characterized by long naves that today seem bigger than necessary: however, in medieval times they were used for other broader monastic and/or community purposes, including festivals and plays as well as trade and administration. Relative to a parish church, cathedrals have a lot of space to the east of the crossing in the quire to accommodate their large numbers of clergy and/or monks, and in some cathedrals this space is actually as big as the nave. Their lower height (relative to their French counterparts) allowed for the addition of the familiar towers and spires that so characterize their silhouette.

The roofs of the nave, choir and transepts, whether wooden or stone vaults, were usually highly decorated and very beautiful – in particular, the treatment under the central tower at the crossing where, in addition, high windows were often set as a lantern to make the impact especially dramatic. However, even today with good lighting, this beautiful decoration and detail is difficult to fully appreciate as it is typically 70 – 80 feet or more above the floor of the cathedral. In medieval times, when candles or oil-lamps were the only source of artificial lighting, they must have been very indistinct. One of my special interests photographically is to capture these magnificent creations.

Large-scale cathedral building arrived in England with William the Conqueror, the Norman Conquest, and the Norman bishops that he installed (only Worcester managed to keep it’s Anglo-Saxon bishop). The Normans were already major builders at home when they arrived in England and for the next 150 years, through to the end of the 12th century, what’s known as the Norman (or Romanesque) style dominated English cathedral architecture – massive, round piers and three tiers in the nave (arcade, triforium, and clerestory); rounded arches; small windows; flat, wooden ceilings (though the last of the great Norman cathedrals, Durham, had a stone vault from the outset); and usually a relatively small, rounded (apse) east end. During these 150 years the style evolved considerably, becoming ‘lighter’ and stronger in form (usually accompanied by greater height in the nave), with more elegant decoration and finer features, and the great cathedrals at Norwich, Ely, Peterborough and Durham are a magnificent testament to this.

Gothic evolved in England toward the end of the 12th century, both indigenously and with help from France (notably at Canterbury). Gothic became the dominant architectural style in English cathedrals, and over the next 200 years evolved and developed a uniquely English implementation, leading to great experimentation, vigor and drama, producing some of the finest architecture of all time. Formally, Gothic evolved through three phases – Early English (Early Gothic) 1175-1250; Decorated (High Gothic) 1250-1340; and Perpendicular (Late Gothic) from 1340 on – but in practice it was a continuous evolution, made possible by three critically important engineering innovations – pointed arches (both in walls and lancet windows), flying buttresses and ribbed vaults.

The result is buildings characterized by more slender, ‘lighter’ structures; elegant, pointed arches; much larger, finer lancet windows; gorgeous fan-vaulting, both in the nave, choir and transepts, as well as in chapels and cloisters (in fact anywhere needing a roof!); and often with this exuberance most manifest in the expansion and rebuilding of the smaller Norman structures, particularly the east ends, and the addition of magnificent windows (such as at Gloucester).

It’s noticeable that the majority of the most magnificent of the medieval English cathedrals lie to the south and east of the country. This is no accident: the medieval stone masons needed a readily-available supply of high-quality building stone and in the south and east this was provided by various hard, beautiful limestones, from the off-white stone of Portland and the Isle of White through the darker, beige stones of the Cotswolds, Linconshire and Yorkshire (and sometimes from Normandy). And in the Gothic buildings this limestone was almost uniformly graced by the use of dark, almost black, polished Purbeck marble to accent the shafts of the columns. For those cathedrals to the north and west where the local stone was red sandstone (particularly Carlisle, Chester, Lichfield and Worcester), the fabric of their building suffered tremendously from the soft, friable nature of the stone and was continually in need of repair and restoration, especially on the exteriors.