Paul Johnson

Visiting cathedrals? Here are England’s top ten

Recently a friend from abroad, anxious to enrich himself from our past, asked me about the cathedrals. Which must he visit, which should he visit if he had time? These are not easy questions.

Text settings

Recently a friend from abroad, anxious to enrich himself from our past, asked me about the cathedrals. Which must he visit, which should he visit if he had time? These are not easy questions. Many years ago I wrote a book about British cathedrals and was surprised to discover how many of them there are, if you spread the net wide enough. And also how varied they are, much more so than comparable buildings on the Continent. Our individualism turns each of them into something unique. Indeed, one of the oldest and most splendid of them, Westminster Abbey, is actually a ‘royal peculiar’. Founded, renewed and adorned by kings, it has always been a sacring-place of monarchs, where they are crowned, married and buried. In the 1530s Henry VIII took it back directly into his royal hands. He dispersed the monks and set up a dean and chapter, directly answerable to himself, and the Abbey’s London gardens, farms and dairies became the royal parks — St James’s, Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens and so on. So it remains; it has never had a regular diocese, and strictly speaking does not count as a cathedral at all.

Of the rest, I give my top ten. First must come Durham, first because of its situation, majestically commanding the river and town, a powerful cluster of mediaeval buildings including castle and palace. It is very early: still, essentially, a Norman church, its nave soaring on vast pillars, each with incised patterning not to be found anywhere else. Internally it was once, being the shrine of the popular St Cuthbert, the most elaborately adorned of all mediaeval cathedrals. But in the 16th century Puritan deans swept all away, and its bareness now matches its Norman origins. Its bishops were princes, with palatine powers, and round seals like monarchs — not oval ones like ordinary bishops — and were, in their day, in charge of the east marches with Scotland, running a sizeable army and a small fleet.

Next I put Ely, also well positioned in its endless flat meadows so that, on a sunny morning, looming out of the dispersing mist, it seems enormous and magical. In the 14th century its original central tower came crashing down, leaving a vast hole in the centre of the church. The sacrist, Alan of Walsingham, conceived the idea of roofing in the whole with a wooden lantern, covered in lead. He and the king’s carpenter, William Hurley, designed this structure, probably the largest and most complicated piece of carpentry ever made. It gives Ely an unparalleled central space, with a unique system of natural lighting. Turner seized on it in one glance, and proceeded to create perhaps the finest of all watercolours, his masterpiece in the sublime style.

Third I put Lincoln, because it, too, has a magnificent situation overlooking the town, but also because it comes high in all departments of cathedral-building and adornment, so that if I wanted to pick a single example of an English mediaeval cathedral to epitomise the virtues of all, Lincoln would be my choice. It was once much taller, for its three high and massive towers had each a fine steeple, of wood and lead, so that it could be seen in Yorkshire, from the other side of the Wash.

Canterbury is another all-rounder. It has Anglo-Saxon parts and Norman bits, and then in the 1170s they started to rebuild it, from the east, in the new Gothic style, just coming in from France. This is the part of the church which contained the body and shrine of St Thomas, murdered near the high altar. It became the richest pilgrimage centre in Europe, next to St James’s at Compostela in Spain, and Thomas was the most popular name for English boys in the later Middle Ages. So Henry VIII was able to plunder it of 20 cartloads of gold, silver and jewels.

Next I put Salisbury, unique because it was designed and built as a whole, in a single campaign, in a mere 38 years, 1220–1258. It was also on a virgin site, so the architect was not hampered by earlier work. A century later, however, two high storeys were added to the tower, and topped by an immense stone steeple, making it 100 feet higher than any other in England, and the second highest in Europe. Salisbury is thus a magnificent edifice, built of Chilmark stone, which reflects the light, so that it changes colour depending on the weather and time of day, from gold to yellow, to brown, to grey, to blue and to black. It is set in a sea of green, the finest close in England, ringed by superb canons’ houses, and by the water meadows and their trees. So it is a paradise for painters, and both Constable and Turner made the most of it.

I put Exeter as my sixth choice because its interior makes such a contrast with Salisbury, whose magnificence outside is let down by a gaunt, bare and chilly inside. By contrast, Exeter is the masterpiece of what is called the Decorative style. It is warm, balanced, colourful and elegant, with a unique perspective view of the entire church — the longest Gothic perspective in the world. The visitor who enters through the north porch needs to be prepared for an overwhelming vision of beauty.

My seventh choice is Gloucester, originally an abbey but turned into a cathedral in the mid-16th century. As an abbey it had one stroke of fortune. Edward II, an unpopular king, was brutally murdered, and there was a problem about where his body should be buried until the Abbot of Gloucester generously gave it refuge. The public, strangely enough, began to treat the dead king as a martyr and a saint. The tomb became a shrine, the number of pilgrims grew, and their offerings enabled the monks to rebuild the entire church. It became the first example of the new Perpendicular style, and in some ways the finest. Its great east window, built at the time of the English victory over the French at Crécy, is one of the largest ever conceived, and is breathtaking.

Next comes Wells, for three reasons. Its west front contains the largest collection of mediaeval sculpture in England. In the aisles are the so-called strainer arches, a unique and beautiful exercise in mediaeval engineering. Also inside the church is the exceedingly complex Jack Blandifer clock, whose heavenly bodies move round the earth in 24 hours and 30 days, with the outer circles giving the day of the month, the hour and the minute; Jack himself strikes the quarters by kicking the earth, which is a bell in the centre of the revolving circles. As an additional incitement to Wells, there is a fine close and a moat, across which stands the bishop’s palace, a mediaeval jewel in a perfect setting.

York comes ninth not merely because of its size — it is the largest of the mediaeval cathedrals — but because of its stained glass. It was probably the first to have glass of any kind, about ad 670, ‘to prevent the entry of birds and rain’, and it has examples from every period, in greater quantity than any other cathedral: the great west window, a masterpiece of curvilinear tracery; and the even bigger great east window which has over 1,680 square feet of mediaeval glass, signed with the monogram of the artist, John Thornton, in 1408.

Finally we must not forget St Paul’s Cathedral, built in the shortest time, 37 years, and the only one whose designer, Sir Christopher Wren, lived to see it finished. He also went to much trouble over the interior, hiring Grinling Gibbons to carve the stalls, and Jean Tijou, greatest of ironworkers, to do the sanctuary gates, the altar rails and the dean’s staircase in the south-west tower.