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Top 10 Most Beautiful Cathedrals in England

In the very word “Cathedral” there is music and a suggestion of mediaeval colour; and “abbey” and “minster” have for our ears something of the same picturesque quality. No doubt this is largely due to the associations that cluster round such words, and to the pictures they call up of soaring columns and lofty arches losing themselves in the dim vaulting overhead, and of wide shadowy spaces, touched at times to glory by fitful shafts of many-coloured light.

England is home to some of the most magnificent cathedrals in the world. Following are the most beautiful English cathedrals.

Bristol Cathedral

Bristol Cathedral was originally a church of the Regular Canons of the Augustinian Order, who settled at Bristol in 1142.  In 1542, like the Augustinian churches of Carlisle and Oxford, it became a cathedral.

Canterbury Cathedral

The Canterbury Cathedral owes its enthralling interest to its vastness of scale, its wealth of monuments, its treasures of early glass, the great historical scenes that have been enacted within its walls—above all, to that greatest of all historical tragedies to the mind of the mediaeval Englishman, the murder of Thomas Becket.

Carlisle Cathedral

Carlisle Cathedral is of exceptional interest, both archaeologically and artistically. It dates from the early years of the twelfth century. It was originally the church of the Austin or Black Canons, and also the seat of a bishopric. The Augustinian Cathedral was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and it was re-dedicated to the Holy and Undivided Trinity when placed on the New Foundation.

Chester Cathedral

The Cathedral of Chester had originally an establishment of Secular Canons. Its patron saint was St. Werburgh, a kinswoman of St. Ethelreda of Ely. In the eleventh century, it was re-founded as a Benedictine monastery by the great noble Hugh Lupus, Earl of Chester, who ruled the Welsh Marshes. Henry VIII. made it the seat of a bishopric, which, though but a part of the ancient Mercian diocese of Lichfield, extended northwards into Yorkshire and Westmorland.

Durham Cathedral

The bishopric of Durham has a long history, though the cathedral was not in Durham till 1018.  The conversion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, north of the Thames, had been brought about by the missionaries of the Irish and Scottish church. Augustine’s mission in Kent and that of Paulinus in the north both sent from Rome, had for their object, not so much the conversion of England, as to induce the English Christians to transfer their allegiance from the Celtic to the Roman Church. The success of Augustine’s mission had been but short-lived. He landed in England A.D. 597; his death occurred in 605, and in 616 the Kentish kingdom relapsed into paganism. Paulinus landed in 601; proceeded to Northumbria in 625, but left it in 633, when, like Kent, most of Northumbria relapsed into paganism. The real “apostle of the north” was not Paulinus, but Aidan, who was sent at the request of King Oswald from Iona, and in the year 635 became the first bishop of the north of England. In 678, Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury split up the vast Northumbrian diocese into the four bishoprics of York, Lindisfarne, Hexham, and Whitherne in Galloway.

The architectural history of the present cathedral commences with the accession of the second Norman prelate, William of St. Carilef, or St. Calais on the southern border of Maine, who was bishop from 1081 to 1095 and is said to have laid the foundations of the Norman cathedral in 1093 on August 11th.

Ely Cathedral

Ely, like Peterborough, Ramsey, Thorney, and Crowland, and like Glastonbury, the greatest of all the English monasteries, goes back to early Anglo-Saxon days when communities of monks and nuns sought solitude and safety in the recesses of far-spreading marshes and fens. In the beginning, the monastery was founded as a nunnery, in 673, by Ethelreda, who became the first abbess and Ely’s patron saint. From the nuns, it passed to secular canons, and in Dunstan’s time to Benedictine monks. In 1109 the abbot gave way to a bishop, and the Benedictine church became a Benedictine cathedral.

The present cathedral was commenced in 1083 by Abbot Simeon, brother of Bishop Walkelin of Winchester, where Simeon himself had been a monk.

Exeter Cathedral

In the days of the so-called Heptarchy, the divisions of the Church followed those of the State. The diocese of Lichfield was conterminous with the kingdom of Mercia. In the same way the diocese of Winchester was coextensive with the kingdom of Wessex. Thus Devonshire, so far as it had been colonised by Anglo-Saxons before the eighth century, formed part of the diocese of Winchester. But these vast dioceses were too cumbrous to work. They had to be subdivided. So, a western diocese was lopped off from Winchester, and a Bishop of Sherborne was appointed as its head. Then, as the far west grew in population and importance, two more bishoprics were created, those of Crediton and Cornwall. These two, however, were soon amalgamated; and Cornwall has had no bishop of its own from the Conquest till the formation of the Bishopric of Truro.

Just before the Norman Conquest, Bishop Leofric (1042-1072) removed the see from the open town of Crediton to the walled city of Exeter, largely in consequence of attacks of Scandinavian pirates. At Exeter Leofric found a Benedictine monastery dedicated to St. Mary and St. Peter. This conventual church he made his cathedral and was left undisturbed in his bishopric till his death in 1072.

His successor, Bishop Osbern (1072-1103), though a Norman, was English and conservative by training and the venerable Anglo-Saxon church was good enough for him. But William Warelwast (1107—1136) was a great building prelate, and it was he who commenced the existing cathedral.

Gloucester Cathedral

Formally the Cathedral Church of St Peter and the Holy and Indivisible Trinity has gone through many changes. In 681 it was founded as a nunnery and remained so till 767. About 821 it was re-founded for secular priests; who, in the time of Canute, through the influence of Dunstan, were replaced by Benedictine monks. It remained a Benedictine monastery till 1541 when it was placed on the New Foundation, thus reverting to secular priests once more. The abbey-church then became a cathedral, with a diocese carved out of that of Worcester.

Lincoln Cathedral

The history of the cathedral only commences in 1072, when the first Norman bishop, Remi or Remigius, made Lincoln the seat of the see instead of Dorchester on the Thames.

In the seventh century, Lincoln formed part of the vast Mercian diocese of Lichfield, over which St. Chad was called to rule, but in 678 a separate see of Lindsey was formed, the bishop’s seat being at Sidnacester. For two centuries in spite of Danish marauders, the church continued her work, but on the settlement of the Northmen in the “Danelagh”, there was no possibility of continuing it. In 958, however, Leofwin, who had been appointed bishop of Lindsey, uniting the see with that of Leicester moved his seat to Dorchester-on-Thames, at the southern extremity of his diocese, which in those days included ten counties. Cambridgeshire was given to the new see of Ely in 1109, and Henry VIII further reduced the unwieldy area by the creation of bishops of Oxford and Peterborough, but it was not till 1884 that the county and diocese of Lincoln were made coterminous.

The importance of the diocese all through the Middle Ages was naturally immense, and the bishops who ruled it held for the most part important positions in the State. Two, however, stand above all others, not only as embodying the finest spirit of the medieval Church but as the champions of the rights of the subject against the oppression of the king. Hugh of Avalon (1186-1200), the Burgundian monk, alone dared to resist the demands of Henry II, and by his life set an example of simple devotion to his calling which was all too rare in his day. Popular opinion canonized him at his death, and Papal confirmation followed twenty years later. Robert Grosseteste (1235-53), the personal friend of Simon de Montfort and an ardent supporter of the Friars, denounced the interference and corruption of the Pope with a vehemence that made Rome herself tremble and hesitate to oppose so fierce a foe. His administration of the diocese, though perhaps not tempered with the gentle spirit of St. Hugh, was fearlessly just, and anticipated in many particulars the work of the later reformers.

St Paul’s Cathedral

St Paul’s Cathedral may be described as essentially the national cathedral church of England. The building, therefore, is of far more than local interest. It is a monument which commemorates the piety, wealth, skill and all that is noblest and best in the story of past generations of Englishmen.

Roman remains, including a brass or bronze image of Diana, a vast quantity of bones, and certain objects thought to be sacrificial instruments and vessels, have been found on and near the site now occupied by St. Paul’s Cathedral and between it and Blackfriars. These discoveries gave rise to the theory that the Romans had a temple dedicated to Diana somewhere in the immediate precincts of the cathedral if not on the ground now actually occupied by it.  Although this idea was discredited by the more sober antiquaries of the time, it received a sort of confirmation in 1830, when, in the course of excavations for the foundation of Goldsmiths’ Hall in Foster Lane, not far from the cathedral, a stone altar, bearing a carved representation of Diana, was discovered.

As far as the history of a Christian church on this site is concerned, however, the Roman remains discovered on the site may be disregarded. The story of St. Paul’s Cathedral really commences quite at the beginning of the seventh century, when a monastery was endowed and dedicated in honour of St. Paul. What may be regarded as the first, or Saxon, cathedral of London was the church founded by Bishop Mellitus who became bishop in the year 604.  Unfortunately, very little information can be obtained about this church, which stood here for upwards of 480 years and was destroyed in 1087 or 1088 by a fire which devastated London.

Among those who were associated with the Anglo-Saxon Church here was Erkenwald, one of the early Bishops of London. He did much towards enlarging and adorning his cathedral church, and after death he was canonised, and his shrine became one of the most celebrated in St. Paul’s. It was much enriched with plates of gold, etc., and formed the object of many pilgrimages.

Alphege, the Archbishop of Canterbury, killed at Greenwich by a drunken rabble, was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1014. The spot on, or near, which he fell at Greenwich is now marked by the parish church which is dedicated in his honour.

In 1075 the first great ecclesiastical council of the English Church was held in St. Paul’s under the presidency of Archbishop Lanfranc.

The second church here, commonly known, in contradistinction from the existing building, as “Old St. Paul’s,” was a noble and magnificent pile. The work of building was begun in 1087 during the episcopate of Bishop Maurice.  The tombs contained in Old St. Paul’s were important and numerous. The names inscribed upon them comprised those of some of the most conspicuous and eminent men connected with the past history of London.

The existing church differs from all other English cathedrals, except the quite modern examples like Truro, etc., in possessing scarcely a trace of the former edifices which have stood upon the site. The Great Fire of London (1666) did not utterly consume the whole cathedral, but the damage it did was so great that no thing short of an entirely new structure would meet the necessities of the case.

The foundation stone was permitted to be laid by a royal mandate of the 14th May 1675 and the St Paul’s Cathedral seen today was declared officially complete by Parliament on 25th December 1711.

I highly recommend you visit some of these spectacular sites. But if you’re only stopping over in London, make sure you check out at least the Saint Paul’s Cathedral before you leave.

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