Writing Cathedral History

In a special guest blog, Nicholas Orme, emeritus professor of History at Exeter University and an emeritus lay canon of Truro Cathedral, writes about his new book, The History of England’s Cathedrals. The book is published by Impress Books, in paperback and hardback, and has over 90 maps and illustrations. On sale at £20, our supporters can get a 35% discount by visiting http://www.centralbooks.com and typing in the code FRIENDS.

Every so often, books appear about England’s cathedrals. Their authors follow a well-trodden path. Essentially they write about the buildings: when they date from, the interesting features they have, and what you can see when you go there. They always have beautiful photography. But there is something missing.

 

9781907605932

The book’s cover depicting John Constable’s 1823 version of Salisbury Cathedral.

The standard cathedral book is about beginnings and ends. It explains the cathedral came into being as a building and what it is like now. It does not usually tell you the story in between, or say much about people. What went on in the building in, say, the Middle Ages, or under Elizabeth I, or George III, or Queen Victoria? What would you see if you could go back, and whom would you see as well? Who would be leading the worship? Who would be coming in, and why would they do so? To pray, to listen to music, to look around, or even to steal? All these things have happened in the past.

From Roman Britain to the present day

A couple of years ago I set out to write a history that would cover those kinds of questions. It was only when I finished it that I realised it had never been done before. The reason is, perhaps, that you need to be rather stolid to try to tackle a topic that runs for 1700 years, from Roman Britain to the present day! But having done it, I am glad that I did. It revealed things about cathedrals that you never discover by studying them one by one, or by dealing only with their architecture. Let me show you what I mean by taking you back in time, very briefly, to show what cathedrals have been like at various stages of their history.

It is the early 1400s. We visit what we think of as ‘the church’ or ‘the minster’ or, in London, ‘Paul’s’. We cannot call it the cathedral, for the word does not exist. That is because as well as cathedrals there are great monasteries, which look much the same. All that marks a cathedral is a bishop’s throne and some bishops’ tombs. We enter the church through the nave. In front of us is a great stone screen – the pulpitum – shutting off the choir from view. We can listen to the services inside it but not take part in them.

There are side altars, all screened off, where Masses are said, and images that we can venerate. There are probably two dozen statues of Christ, Mary, and various saints. We can kneel before them, we can walk around, but there is hardly any seating. We experience religion in a spiritual rather than an intellectual way. The services are in Latin. If we say prayers ourselves, they are in Latin too: the Paternoster, the Ave Maria, and the Creed.

JP Norwich 1925 - Copy

The Ethelred Gate. Norwich Cathedral.

Now let us move on 150 years to the 1560s. The Reformation has happened. But the building is still here – amazingly so. All the monasteries have disappeared. Cathedrals might have gone the same way, but Henry VIII liked them. He protected them and their lands, and he added five more to their number. People now think of them as special places. The word ‘cathedral’ comes into use for this reason. Inside, there is still a pulpitum and a choir, but all the images have gone. Some have been removed; others have been smashed and left to warn us against superstition. We can no longer do any private devotions because there is nothing to venerate. There are only morning and evening services in the choir, with sermons on Sundays, all now in English. The building is emptier. It has lost the images, side altars, and chapels. The vacant spaces are being filled with tombs of the nobility and gentry. This shows us that the Church is now under the control of the crown and the powerful laity.

Greece and Rome

Another 150 years or so now pass, and we are in the eighteenth century. This is an age that takes its standards from Greece and Rome: in architecture, art, and literature. The medieval Gothic building seems an anachronism. We would prefer it if our cathedral was like St Paul’s, but there is no money to replace it, so we have made the best of a bad job.

The choir, where services happen, has been made as classical as possible. There are square horse-box stalls to sit in. The holy table is neatly railed in. There is modern painted glass in the windows and sometimes painted curtains on the east wall. An elegant organ case sits on the pulpitum. If you come for a Sunday service, you walk through a cold empty nave. When you reach the choir, you are in the company of well-dressed middle-class people from the cathedral city. Make sure that you bring a shilling, or you will not get a seat. The stalls are locked, and you must tip the verger to open one.

If we leave this time behind and continue another 150 years, we are in the second half of Queen Victoria’s reign. This is an era of change: of industrialisation, rising population, and political reforms. Cathedrals have also been reformed. Since 1840, most of their property has been taken away to fund new churches in the industrial towns and to improve the stipends of the poorer clergy. The cathedral now has only a dean and four full-time canons. We have regained a love of the Middle Ages, and the Georgian furnishings have come to look tawdry and dull. So we have refitted the choir with stalls of a Gothic design. These are still usually occupied by the clergy, the choir, and respectable people, but the vergers are now paid and do not ask for tips

JP Rochester 1906

Rochester Cathedral: rebuilt at the time of the Conquest.

The nave and choir have changed again. The great stone pulpitum has often been replaced by an open-work screen designed by Gilbert Scott. There is seating in the nave for the first time, and the nave is no longer cold and dim because there are gas lights and huge Gurney stoves to give warmth. This allows more people to watch the worship in the choir, and in the evenings there are nave services for the ‘artisan class’ who would not fit well with the Sunday morning and afternoon congregations. Cathedrals are trying to reach out to the population, more than they have done in the past.

The Twentieth century

Another century and half pass, and we are in the present day. If we know about cathedral history, we can see how things have changed in the twentieth century. The choir is still used, but it no longer houses a sung service of matins except perhaps on Sundays. That is because the adult choir members are no longer full-time cathedral employees, and the choristers cannot miss school for the purpose. We have kept sung evensong, however, and this allows the Anglican tradition of prayer and music to be maintained. Otherwise, the main area for services is now the nave, to house a larger congregation. Additional stalls are provided there for the clergy and the choir, and since the 1970’s there has been a nave altar because the main Sunday service is now  celebrating the Eucharist.

JP Wells

The Vicars’ Gate, Wells Cathedral, demonstrating their importance as a property owning group.

Ornaments which were ruled out after the Reformation and were still controversial in Victorian times have come back, and cause no surprise. Candles on altars. Vestments for clergy. Images of saints and even Orthodox icons. The furnishings and services remind us that we live in an age of equality. There are now women deans and canons, and most cathedrals have girl choristers – sharing with the boys, and allowing them to spend more time at school. Lay people take collections, bring up offerings, and read lessons (something hardly imaginable in 1870). Nobody has a personal seat; you sit where you like.

All around us there are signs of how cathedrals are reaching out to society. Chapels are dedicated to social work, the Mothers’ Union, and the armed services. Display boards feature cathedral work, or that of a charity, or an African diocese. And after the main Sunday service, there are refreshments. The congregation mingles more equally than it could ever have done in the past.

Not only buildings but communities

To go back in this way is valuable. It reminds us that cathedrals are not only buildings but communities. They exist, and always have done, because of people: those who run them and those who visit them. Because they are communities, they change as society changes. The religion of the Middle Ages changed drastically at the Reformation, and more gradually in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

Cathedrals have done well in adapting to change. Through studying their history, we can appreciate not only what they are like now, but what they were like in the past; what they once meant to people, and how they were cherished. Our ancestors passed them down to us. It is an awesome inheritance, but history gives us confidence that problems can be overcome, change can be beneficial, and the wonderful legacy we have inherited can be passed on to be precious to those who come after us.

 

 

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