A Guide to 10 of Britain’s Grandest Cathedrals

salisbury-cathedral-by-john-constable (Image: John Constable; Salisbury Cathedral painted c. 1825)

Britain is home to some of the grandest cathedrals in the world. The mere names ‘Canterbury’, ‘Westminster Abbey’ and ‘Oxford Cathedral’ are enough to conjure images of grandiose stone buildings, their spires stretching up into the heavens. But there is more to Britain’s cathedrals than just the big names. Here we guide you through 10 of the greatest, most awe-inspiring cathedrals in the whole of Britain, from the world-famous to the slight more obscure.

Durham Cathedral

 

durham-cathedral-in-northern-england (Image: via Wikipedia)

High above the city of Durham, within spitting distance of its famous castle, sits one of the greatest buildings in the whole of Christendom. Built by the victorious Normans between 1093 and 1133 in the Romanesque style, it is one of the few surviving buildings from conquest-era Britain. Largely unchanged by the passing centuries, it stands today little different from how it would have looked in the 12th century; a doorway to our distant past.

That it has survived nearly a millennium of war, strife, Nazi bombardments and natural disasters is staggering, especially when you consider just how cutting-edge the cathedral once was. It contains the earliest surviving large scale stone vault in the world, a landmark in European architecture. Although the vault would go on to be copied across the continent, when it was first built there must have been worries about its longevity. Not long after completion a small section caved in, necessitating a return to the drawing board.

Yet Durham Cathedral didn’t just survive. It thrived. Seen in 2016, as the sun sinks towards the horizon, leaving the majestic building in shadow, it still retains all of its original haunting power.

Salisbury Cathedral

salisbury-cathedral-in-the-uk (Image: Antony McCallum)

The first thing that strikes anyone on seeing Salisbury Cathedral is its magnificent, awe-inspiring spire. Like a needle scratching at the skin of heaven, the spire towers a jaw-dropping 404 ft over the surrounding plain, the highest such spire in England. Yet this icon of Christian worship is in fact a later addition. It was completed in 1330 – some 70 years after the cathedral itself had been finished.

But it’s precisely such additions that make Salisbury Cathedral so fascinating. A clock installed in 1386, over a century after the cathedral was ‘finished’, is now the oldest working clock on Earth. A 1215 copy of the Magna Carta was installed in the building not long after completion. Today it is famous as the best-surviving copy found anywhere in the world.

Taken together, all these little fragments add up to one of the proudest, greatest cathedrals found anywhere. No wonder, then, that John Constable chose to commemorate its famous spire in his beloved painting of c. 1825 (top).

York Minster

york-minster-in-north-yorkshire-england (Image: Dashwortley)

The largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe, York Minster certainly lives up to its promise. Sprawling over a gigantic swathe of land, the building is like some vast castle: imposing, awe-inspiring, even frightening. Such a monumental work of art didn’t appear overnight. The first stone for York Minster was laid in 1220. 250 years later, in 1472, it was finally declared complete.

Not that the people of York were without a cathedral in this time. As York Minster was going up, it was bit-by-bit replacing a Norman cathedral that had previously stood there. It’s fascinating now to imagine what such a construction must have looked like: a smaller, Romanesque building being slowly swallowed by the Gothic behemoth that was to follow it.

At its completion, York Minster was celebrated as the greatest cathedral in the kingdom. It’s a title it could still lay claim to. Looming over the city around it like some guardian angel, York Minster is simply one of the most-powerful works of art in Britain.

Winchester Cathedral

winchester-cathedral (Image: Antony McCallum)

A medieval church that was slowly transformed and added to over many subsequent generations, Winchester Cathedral unfurls out along its grounds like a never-ending snake. No other cathedral in the whole of Europe covers such an enormous length as this monster. To walk along beside it is to pass through layer upon layer of architectural evolution. As a building that was constantly renovated from the 11th to the 16th century, Winchester still holds features from the dominant styles of those times: fossilized ideas, frozen forever inside its stone walls.

While it may not be as imposing as others on our list, Winchester Cathedral still dominates its local landscape, in part because of the lack of high-rise buildings in the city. Elegant, self-assured, picturesque, it brings a wonderful quality to the skyline, one it’s hard to imagine Winchester ever doing without.

St David’s Cathedral

st-davids-cathedral-in-pembrokeshire-wales (Image: Alan Thomas)

Amid the gentle, rolling hills, crashing waves and patchwork fields of coastal Pembrokeshire sits Wales’s greatest cathedral. St David’s is both spectacular and spectacularly out of the way. Over 100 miles from Cardiff, it rises above the smallest city in Britain, with a population of under 2,000. But don’t let distance put you off. St David’s is as imposing and as romantic as they come.

It also has a far longer history than most of our better-known cathedrals. Although the building you see above wasn’t begun until 1181, it stood on the site of a much-older structure that had been venerated for centuries. In 1123, the then-Pope, Calixtus II, even made St David’s a place of pilgrimage, saying it was worth almost as much as a pilgrimage to Rome itself. That didn’t stop ambitious clergy from knocking down the building and constructing a replacement, though. And thank God for that. St David’s today is a quiet, almost perfect building, not too-showy, yet spectacular enough to instill visitors with awe.

Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral

liverpool-metropolitan-cathedral (Image: Chowells)

The only (currently) Roman Catholic cathedral on our list, Liverpool Metropolitan is also the only one designed in a modernist style. Built between 1962 and 1967 – centuries after most of Britain’s cathedrals were finished – it represents a bold vision for what modern worship could be, while sacrificing none of the sublime grandeur of its forebears.

The building is suffused with Christian symbolism. The large, pointed lantern atop the roof represents Jesus’s crown of thorns, while its second function as a light well shows how Christ brought light into the world. Inside, the congregation is arranged in a circle around a lowered altar, emphasizing how the Son of God considered himself equal to his fellow man. For those more interested in aesthetics than theology, the building is no less of a treat. Seen from the inside, as sunlight filters down through the great stained glass windows, Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral can feel like something that has descended from another world.

Wells Cathedral

wells-cathedral-in-somerset (Image: Diliff)

Sometimes called the “most poetic of English cathedrals,” Wells Cathedral in Somerset is undoubtedly a visual feast. Two large towers flank an ornate entrance that draws the eyes inexorably upwards. Inside, large windows send rays of heavenly light arcing downwards onto the wooden pews. Towering high above the surrounding, low-lying town, Wells Cathedral practically hums with spirituality, a true testament to the power of the divine.

Construction was almost absurdly long-lasting. Began in 1175, the cathedral was not completed until 1490, almost 320 years later. When the first stone was laid, the Magna Carta was 40 years away from being signed and the Norman Conquest was almost within living memory. By the time it was finished, the War of the Roses had been and gone, the Black Death had ravaged England, and Henry VIII was just two short decades away from becoming King.

Exeter Cathedral

exeter-cathedral-in-devon (Image: Antony McCallum)

In the heart of England’s beautiful Southwest sits modest Exeter Cathedral, surrounded on all sides by the few old buildings to escape the Exeter Blitz of 1942. One of the smaller cathedrals in the country, it is nonetheless also one of the most picturesque. Home to the longest uninterrupted vaulted ceiling in England, the cathedral is much like the city that surrounds it: small (relatively speaking), but spectacular.

That it is standing at all is something of a miracle. In 1942, Hitler specifically ordered the Luftwaffe to destroy Exeter, in retaliation for Allied bombing of historic German towns. The aim was to leave no great buildings, no beautiful structures standing, and reduce the city to smouldering rubble. In the event, the centre of the city was destroyed, with many old buildings eaten up by the conflagration. Miraculously, the cathedral itself was spared.

Lincoln Cathedral

lincoln-cathedral (Image: Lee Haywood)

For 238 long years, the tallest building in the world couldn’t be found in France, or Germany, or Italy, or even in London. It could be found in Lincoln. Until its fabled spire collapsed in 1549, Lincoln Cathedral had no peers in the architectural world. Yet it’s telling that, even after its most-distinctive feature was destroyed, the cathedral continued to attract universal praise. Today, it remains a highlight of Britain’s grand cathedrals, once called by John Ruskin “the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles.”

Lincoln Cathedral is simply stunning. Standing atop a small hill, overlooking the surrounding city, the building appears both strong and elegant, delicate yet powerful. Its three solid towers could be sentinels guarding the entrance to heaven itself, while the ornate entrance is a masterpiece of medieval design. Inside, its “crazy vault” was so original in its decorative use of ribs that contemporaries considered it the work of a gifted madman.

An icon of the East Midlands, Lincoln Cathedral is architecture reimagined as poetry. During World War Two it also became a poignant landmark for the aircrew of RAF Bomber Command as they departed on raids over occupied Europe. As such, the great cathedral at the heart of ‘Bomber County’ acquired a wartime symbolism as powerful as southern England’s fabled White Cliffs of Dover.

Canterbury Cathedral

canterbury-cathedral-in-kent-southern-england (Image: Antony McCallum)

It’s one of the oldest Christian buildings in the whole of Britain. A UNESCO World Heritage site that has seen generation upon generation of pilgrims tramp through its doors to be stunned into silence by its majestic interior. An enormous behemoth of a building, Canterbury Cathedral is a place of silence and shadows, of echoing whispers and shafts of sunlight illuminating the dusty corners of men’s souls.

Famously the destination of Chaucer’s pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales, the cathedral has been a fundamental part of British life since 1070. It was here that Thomas Beckett was murdered, sending shockwaves through the political establishment. Many centuries later, it was also here that Britain’s first two female bishops were ordained, opening a whole new chapter in Anglican history. Much-admired, often storied and a joy to behold, Canterbury Cathedral may just be the greatest place of worship in the whole of Britain.

Related: 10 Beautiful Abandoned Churches of the World: From Mortuary Chapels to Grand Cathedrals

 
 


 
 
 

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