Medieval cathedrals tower through history

Destination England

December 16, 2007|By Ray Moseley | Ray Moseley,Chicago Tribune

England's medieval Anglican cathedrals - the soaring, awe-inspiring skyscrapers of their day - remain among the world's architectural treasures, their history entwined with that of saints and sinners, kings and queens, and ordinary folk.

There are more than 40 of them, and any listing of the most important is bound to be subjective. Thus, the seven cathedrals discussed in this article are simply my favorites.

More than monuments to piety, these churches were built after the conquest of England in 1066 by William of Normandy (William the Conqueror) as a means of consolidating his power. Early cathedrals were in Norman style, another name for Romanesque; then came English Early Gothic, Decorated (classical Gothic) and Perpendicular (late Gothic). After renovations and additions, most cathedrals now represent a melange of styles.

The innovative medieval building techniques didn't always work. Towers fell down and had to be rebuilt or abandoned. Then, after King Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church in the 16th century, the cathedrals were sacked and their treasures scattered. Puritans wreaked more havoc during the civil war a century later. Fires and earthquakes took their toll. Still, the cathedrals survived.

Lincoln Cathedral

My own favorite, Lincoln, was built in 1092 on the ancient Lindum Hill and is visible more than 20 miles away. It was the tallest building in medieval Europe until the spire atop its 271-foot central tower collapsed. The great English art critic John Ruskin described it as "out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles and roughly speaking worth any two other cathedrals we have."

One of just four extant copies of Magna Carta - the compact between King John and his barons in 1215, which laid the basis of modern democracy - was formerly in the cathedral's Chapter House but is now in nearby Lincoln Castle.

What not to miss --The 13th-century Angel Choir, a shrine to its builder, Hugh of Avalon, is one of its chief glories, with its huge expanse of stained glass and a unique form of vaulting. Atop the cathedral is a small statue commemorating a swineherd who gave all his money toward its construction.

Winchester Cathedral

Begun in 1079 in the capital city of King Alfred the Great, King Canute and William the Conqueror, Winchester is steeped in history. William was crowned in the cathedral, and Queen Mary I married Philip of Spain there in 1554.

By the early 20th century, Winchester was on the point of collapse and was found to rest on a layer of peat, with water welling up below to a height of 14 feet. Francis Fox, the engineer who built the London subway system, saved the cathedral, underpinning it with bags of cement beneath the peat in a project that took six years and cost a then-astronomical 120,000 pounds.

What not to miss --The tombs of King Canute and of the novelist Jane Austen, who lodged nearby. The Fishermen's Chapel contains the bones of the writer Izaak Walton, best known for The Compleat Angler.

Durham Cathedral

Durham in northeast England, another of the Norman Cathedrals, was begun 14 years after Winchester and enjoys a spectacular hilltop setting overlooking the River Wear. Flying buttresses, which came to characterize the Gothic style, were invented at Durham, which also boasts some of the earliest rib vaulting in Europe.

The American writer Bill Bryson calls Durham "the best cathedral on planet Earth," and it was voted the nation's best-loved building in a 2001 poll.

What not to miss --Parts of the coffin and pectoral cross of St. Cuthbert, the sixth-century bishop of Lindisfarne on Holy Island off northeast England. The cathedral was built to house the shrine to Cuthbert, and these are all that remain of it; the shrine was largely destroyed in the Reformation. The Venerable Bede (673-735), the first English historian, is buried in the cathedral.

Ely Cathedral

Ely Cathedral stands out boldly above flat marshland in the small eastern city of Ely. Begun about 1110, the cathedral boasts an octagonal central tower that is unique in church architecture and is surmounted by a 200-ton lantern tower, a masterpiece of medieval engineering.

The architectural historian Bernard Scheutz describes the west front as among the most famous works of world architecture.

What not to miss --The beautiful Lady Chapel, largest in Britain, and the magnificent painted Victorian wooden ceiling, telling the story of salvation from the Creation to the Ascension of Christ.

Canterbury Cathedral

In terms of English and church history, no cathedral is more important than Canterbury, mother church of the worldwide Anglican communion. Pope Gregory the Great sent the Benedictine monk Augustine to England in 597 to convert its pagan population, and Augustine's church later became a cathedral with him as its first archbishop; he has had 103 successors. For 350 years it was Europe's greatest pilgrimage site, the travels of the devout chronicled by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales.

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