There are more than 100 cathedrals in England, Scotland and Wales of many different denominations (although I for one had been previously unaware of the Belarus Autocephalous Orthodox Church). But, wisely, Christopher Somerville focuses on those great galleons with which we are most familiar: the cathedrals that first rose up above the plains of England after 1066.
The metaphor which Somerville uses, of these cathedrals as ‘ships of heaven’, runs before the wind throughout this book. If the early cathedrals were blunt old battleships, built as foursquare as castles to show that the conquering Normans were here to stay, later Gothic ones were as elegant as grand and beautiful yachts.
Somerville describes the atmosphere in the cathedral towns as being much like that of a seaport while the giant constructions were built in their midst, with a crowd of attendant prostitutes, merchants and craftsmen. For miles around, the countryside too was changed, as agriculture was intensified to feed and clothe the incomers.
From the finagling and manoeuvring over where they would be built to some truly devious political machinations between bishop, dean and chapter when they were (as seen in modern times in Lincoln), cathedrals have always been contentious. The great thing about an ecclesiastical argument is that it can go on for centuries: the row after the Norman conquest between the sees of Canterbury and York as to which was supreme lasted 300 years. Some stonemasons added mischievous portraits of thieving priests, lascivious monks and over-proud bishops into the buildings themselves, although usually at such a high level that only those on a scaffold would be able to see them.
There are some charming details: the idea, for instance, that masons would carve the reverse side of a stone leaf as assiduously as the front, despite the fact that it would be plastered against a wall, because, in their view, ‘God would see it, even if no one else could’. Nor was the medieval architecture always entirely successful. Many of the more ambitious towers and spires turned out to be distinctly wobbly, and some collapsed altogether.
Most Norman cathedrals were subsumed by later additions, with the exception of Salisbury, which remains a vision of the unified Early English style in its pale dove-grey Chilmark limestone. And it is in the use of local building materials that regional differences became most obvious, from the rich golden hamstone of Exeter to the silvery finish of Norwich and Lincoln, while in the north, the sandstone of Durham gives solidity to its columns.
It was at Durham that the medieval prince-bishops enjoyed wealth and power not far short of that of a king. They had the right to raise an army, imprison or execute, operate their own mint and impose their own levies, while being immune from taxes themselves. In return, they were expected to keep the debatable lands near the border under check.
Durham cathedral was built to house the remains of St Cuthbert, and from the outset enjoyed all the benefits that devout pilgrims brought. After the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, Canterbury would also benefit from its status as a pilgrimage cathedral, and Somerville is at his best when describing how pilgrims flocked there because they wanted ‘a finish, a prayerful end to a journey, or just a place to tell stories of what they had been through in life. A space to express their hopes and dreams and fears.’
There is a current initiative to revive the tradition of British pilgrimage, which was banned by Henry VIII as part of the Reformation and has never recovered since. The king also ordered that all mention of Becket be obliterated. Next year, the 800th anniversary of the creation of Becket’s shrine, will see the revival of the old pilgrimage route from Southampton to Canterbury along the south coast, which it is hoped will become the British equivalent of the hugely popular Camino de Santiago. How much better to arrive at a cathedral after days on foot, with the mind contemplative and fresh, than just to step out of the municipal car park after feeding the meter.
Somerville is one of our finest gazetteers of the British countryside, as his numerous books and articles testify. He must have walked more of these isles than just about any other living writer, and he brings his formidable knowledge to bear on his personal quest to explore the cathedrals — a quest that began when, as a boy, he leaned so far back to admire the facade of Wells cathedral that he fell over and was left gazing at the sky. Across which the heavy galleons of these magnificent medieval creations have now sailed in this entrancing book.