Nicholas Orme on The History of England’s Cathedrals

Nicholas Orme

The acclaimed historian gives the lowdown on cathedrals and their importance in England.
Nicholas Orme
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Nicholas Orme, many congratulations on your new book, The History of England’s Cathedrals. How does one define a cathedral?

A cathedral is the church of a bishop and is the chief church of the area that he rules: the diocese. Important ceremonies are held in it, like ordinations of clergy, and its services form a model for the rest of the diocese.

Why are cathedrals where they are?

Cathedrals originated in the cities of the Roman Empire. The earliest ones in England are recorded in 314 at Lincoln, London, and York. These cathedrals disappeared in the 400s, with the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, but when Christianity returned after 597, bishops often established their cathedrals in the ruins of the old Roman towns: Canterbury, Exeter, Rochester, Winchester, Worcester, as well as the three I have mentioned. Other cathedrals were built in places where no Roman towns had existed like Hereford and Wells.

Where they are in modern cities, varies. The ancient cathedrals were usually secluded from city centres for their own protection, often within gateways. This is still so at Norwich and Canterbury. Modern cathedrals are usually based in old parish churches and these can be on main roads in city centres like Sheffield and Truro. Such locations signify that the cathedral wants to be in the centre of everyday life.

How and why have they survived?

Their history has not been straightforward. The Viking invasions led to some cathedrals being ruined or moved. The Normans moved others: Sherborne to Salisbury, Selsey to Chichester, Elmham to Norwich. Henry VIII abolished two cathedrals, Bath and Coventry, but added six others. During the English Civil War the cathedrals supported Charles I. When Charles was executed, his opponents, the Puritans, took their revenge. Cathedrals were abolished in 1649 and some were left unused though none was demolished. When Charles II was restored, the cathedrals came back as well.

But as recently as the 19th century some people thought that cathedrals should be turned into parish churches. In the end they survived, but in 1840 Parliament took most of their property away to fund churches and priests in the new industrial towns. They were left enough income to pay some clergy, but not to maintain the buildings, which is why cathedrals now have to spend so much time raising money and, sometimes, charge for admission.

Even in the 20th century, cathedrals were not immune from harm. Several were bombed in the Second World War. Coventry was destroyed, Exeter badly damaged, and three or four others less so.

Why have they been important?

In many respects. First for their architecture. They were the largest buildings in England up to relatively modern times, except for the biggest castles. The architecture evolved into different styles: Norman, Early English, Decorated, and Perpendicular, as well as the classical style later on. The engineering and design is highly sophisticated. Inside, buildings have been beautified with statuary, painting, stained glass, and monuments.

Then, there is the basic purpose of all cathedrals: daily worship. This has always been more ambitious than in parish churches, with organs and large choirs. Up to 1549, all churches in the North were told to follow York Minster in their worship, and those in the Midlands and South, Salisbury. Cathedrals are also centres of culture. They have impressive archives, manuscripts, and libraries (the Lindisfarne Gospels once belonged to a cathedral). Most have cathedral schools: not only for their choristers but for boys and girls in general.

The amount of art, music, and literature that cathedrals have generated is enormous. They have employed great architects: Wren, Pugin, Scott, Lutyens. They have commissioned music or been presented it with by composers like Vaughan Williams, Britten, and Rutter. They contain modern art by Epstein, Sutherland, and Chagal, and the Canterbury festival has had plays written for it by T. S. Eliot and Dorothy Sayers.

What are they like today?

What modern cathedrals do changed very much during the twentieth century. Cathedrals always reflect the society of the day, and as England has become fully democratic, the cathedrals have done so too. The major services have moved out of the choir into the nave, which holds a bigger congregation and where the altar and the singers can be closer to worshippers. Lay people are more involved in services. In 1991 Salisbury Cathedral admitted girls to its choir, and this has been followed elsewhere. Three years later, the first women priests were ordained in Bristol Cathedral, and there are now women canons, deans, and bishops. All cathedrals now have governing bodies which include not only the cathedral but lay experts from the outside world. Most cathedrals now have shops and restaurants to which anyone is welcome.

Architecture has changed to match what has happened with secular buildings. One result of the Second World War was to lay huge areas of our cities derelict. The new buildings that arose used different materials and architectural styles. When Coventry Cathedral was rebuilt  in the 1950s, it did not follow tradition and its architect, Basil Spence, was not a church architect. The Catholic cathedral in Liverpool is even more unusual in being circular, and two others of the Catholic Church, Clifton and Middlesbrough, are also modern in style.

Finance is a major problem. The cost of maintaining, heating, lighting, and insuring such huge buildings is enormous. The Church of England pays for a dean and two clergy, and sometimes more. The government makes occasional grants for big building projects. But all cathedrals have to raise money from congregations, visitors, special appeals, shops, and restaurants. In turn this requires lay staff: administrators, archivists, librarians, archaeologists, shop and restaurant staff. Admission fees have often become necessary, because visitors only contribute tiny amounts on a voluntary basis.

Which is the best cathedral?

The one you are visiting now. They are all of interest, whether Anglican or Catholic. Each is unique. St Paul’s is the only cathedral built in the classical style, although Birmingham and Derby (former parish churches) are in that style as well. Guildford was the last to be built in the Gothic style, and very good it is: made to look as though it evolved over centuries. Durham’s and Lincoln’s are like fortresses on their steep hills. Oxford’s is the smallest and also a college chapel. Ely’s amazes you: rising out of the fens to a great height, built on what was once ‘Eel Island’. Salisbury has the most beautiful close and gates that shut at night.

And there are a number of ruined or disappeared cathedrals, also worth visiting. Lindisfarne, another on an island. Old Sarum, excavated and laid out in a great hill-fort. Bath and St Germans, both still there but now serving as parish churches.

What do we learn from cathedrals?

The power of Christianity to survive two thousand years, and to generate (and go on generating) an infinite creativity: buildings, worship, art, music, literature, education, and social communities.

Another book?

I would love to do Ireland, where I have visited a dozen cathedrals, three of them ruined, but I think that is a job for someone else.

Nicholas Orme is the author of The History of England’s Cathedrals, published by Yale University Press.