Stairway to Heaven: Building England’s Medieval Cathedrals | History Hit

Stairway to Heaven: Building England’s Medieval Cathedrals

A 1915 illustration of the gothic architecture in St Saviour's Cathedral, Southwark.
Image Credit: Internet Archive Book Images / Public Domain

England has approximately 26 medieval cathedrals still standing: these buildings are a testament to the power of the Catholic Church and religious belief, as well as the craftsmanship and sophistication of tradesmen and artisans at the time.

Witnesses to centuries of history and religious turmoil, England’s cathedrals are as much of interest for their historical significance as their religious importance.

But how and why did these spectacular cathedrals get built? What were they used for? And how did people react to them at the time?

The dominance of Christianity

Christianity arrived in Britain with the Romans. But it was only from 597 AD, when Augustine arrived in England on an evangelical mission, that Christianity really began to take hold. After the unification of England in the late Anglo-Saxon period, the church blossomed further, working in tandem with centralised royal power to wield influence over the newly formed nation.

The arrival of the Normans in 1066 further developed architectural styles and bolstered the wealth of existing churches. Church infrastructure proved useful to the Normans for administrative purposes, and the church also quickly began to accumulate vast swathes of land from dispossessed Englishmen. New taxes on agriculture bolstered ecclesiastical finances, leading to major construction projects.

The veneration of saints, and pilgrimages to the places their relics were kept also became increasingly important in English Christianity. This generated money for the churches on top of the taxes they were already receiving, which in turn generated elaborate building projects so that the relics could be housed in suitably grand settings. The more infrastructure required and the grander a cathedral was, the more visitors and pilgrims it could expect to receive, and so the cycle went on.

During the early hours of February 13 1322, disaster struck at the vast cathedral on the Isle of Ely in Cambridgeshire, known now as the Ship of the Fens. At around three or four in the morning, the building's huge central tower collapsed with a mighty crash, falling where the monks had only recently been celebrating mass. As this year marks the 700th anniversary of the disaster–and it's the reason for the unusual replacement tower seen at Ely today–for this episode, Matt sits down with art and architectural historian Dr James Cameron to find out more about the night disaster struck at one of Britain's best-loved cathedrals.
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Cathedrals, bishops and dioceses

Cathedrals were traditionally the seat of a bishop and the centre of a diocese. As such, they were bigger and more elaborate than ordinary churches. Many cathedrals in the medieval period were built for precisely this purpose, including those at Hereford, Lichfield, Lincoln, Salisbury and Wells.

Others, such as Canterbury, Durham, Ely and Winchester, were monastic cathedrals, where the bishop was also abbot of the monastery. Some which now serve as cathedrals were originally built as abbey churches: these were large and extravagant too, but weren’t originally the seat of a bishop or the centre of a diocese.

Medieval cathedrals would have normally had a literal seat for the bishop – normally a large, elaborate throne near the high altar. They would also have had relics contained in or near the altar, making these centre points of worship even more holy.


Medieval stained glass in Hereford Cathedral.

Image Credit: Jules & Jenny / CC

Building cathedrals in the medieval period took decades. Creating the structure and integrity of such a large building required talented architects and craftsmen, and could take years to complete at huge expense.

Normally laid out in a cruciform style, the cathedrals were built in a variety of architectural styles. Many of the remaining cathedrals have significant Norman influence in their architecture: Norman reconstruction of Saxon churches and cathedrals was the single largest ecclesiastical building programme that took place in medieval Europe.

How worship in the parish church touched everyone’s lives in the Middle Ages.
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As time went on, Gothic architecture began to creep up into architectural styles with pointed arches, rib vaults, flying buttresses, towers and spires coming into fashion. The soaring heights these new buildings reached were phenomenal when the vast majority of buildings in urban centres would have only been a maximum of two or three stories high. They would have struck ordinary people with an immense sense of awe and grandeur – a physical manifestation of the power of the church and of God.

As well as being of vital importance for the reinforcing of the church’s status in the community, these massive construction projects also provided work for hundreds of people, with artisans travelling across the country to work on projects where their skills were most needed. Salisbury Cathedral, for example, took 38 years to build, with additions being made for centuries after it first opened its doors. Cathedrals were rarely ever deemed ‘finished’ in the way buildings are today.

The minstrels’ gallery at Exeter Cathedral. Traces of the original colour can still be seen on it.

Image Credit: DeFacto / CC

Life in the cathedral

Medieval cathedrals would have been very different spaces to the way they look and feel now. They would have been brightly coloured rather than bare stone, and would have been full of life rather than reverentially silent. Pilgrims would have chattered in the aisles or flocked to shrines, and choral music and plainchant would have been heard drifting through the cloisters.

The majority of those worshipping in the cathedrals would not have been able to read or write: the church relied on ‘doom paintings’ or stained glass windows to tell Biblical stories in a way that would have been accessible to ordinary people. These buildings were full of life and the beating heart of religious and secular communities of the time.

Cathedral building in England slowed by the 14th century, although additions were still made to existing building projects and cathedrals: a second wave of abbey churches being transformed into cathedrals followed the dissolution of the monasteries. However, little remains of these original medieval cathedrals today beyond their stonework: widespread iconoclasm and destruction during the English Civil War saw England’s medieval cathedrals ravaged irreversibly.

A trip to Paris wouldn't be the same without taking a moment to gaze up at the great looming towers of the Gothic Notre Dame Cathedral with its watchful gargoyles on every corner. Today, celebrated journalist Simon Jenkins joins Dan to discuss 'humankind's greatest creation'; the cathedral.
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Sarah Roller