History of English Cathedrals: A Comprehensive Guide

Britain has an extensive network of Cathedrals, this collection of articles explores the history of some of the most popular churches to visit and explore. Odyssey is an Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983 with small group educational tours for senior couples and mature solo travellers.

10 Oct 22 · 13 mins read

England’s Cathedrals: From Medieval Times to the Modern Era

In over 1400 years since the establishment of the first English cathedral, the Church of England has gained 43 cathedrals and lost about 15, while the Roman Catholic Church has acquired 19 and lost one. What survives is a remarkably varied collection, scattered unevenly around the country, depending on where the Anglo-Saxons placed them, the Vikings disrupted them, and Henry VIII and Victorians rearranged them.

These cathedrals have absorbed and conformed to the values of the world outside them, changing as it changed. Whether Saxon, Norman, late-medieval, Tudor, Stuart, Hanoverian, Victorian, or modern, the character and architecture of the cathedrals have reflected these epochs. Never inviolable fortresses, much of their change has been forced form the outside. Viking attacks, Norman reorganisations, the Reformation, the English Civil War, Victorian reforms, the Second World War, and occasional mob violence have all affected and altered them in major respects. Today they stand in a wide array of architectural styles, from Romanesque to the various Gothic styles, Renaissance, Neoclassical, various revival styles of the late 19th to early 20th centuries, and modern.

This article provides a comprehensive guide to the history of English cathedrals and their architecture as background reading for Odyssey Traveller’s tours to the United Kingdom. We visit several of these cathedrals during our Seven Ages of Britain Small Group Tour and our Medieval England Small Group Tour, both designed for senior and mature travellers. Much of the information used in this article is extracted from Nicholas Orme’s The History of England’s Cathedrals and Simon Jenkin’s England’s Cathedrals,

The Priests view from within St Pauls Cathedral, London

Romans & Anglo-Saxons

Christianity first spread to England under the Roman Empire. In 313 the emperor Constantine gave official approval and toleration of Christianity, and in 391 his successor Theodosius made it the sole allowed religion of the empire. As the religion grew and became more organised, each city of the empire gained a bishop. The bishop led the city’s religious life from his chair in the principal church of the city, which thereby became his cathedral church. The city and its territory formed his ‘diocese’ or area of responsibility.

However, Christianity soon waned in Britain after 400, as Roman rule evaporated, and the pagan Anglo-Saxons invaded. Only in the western parts of Britain, which the Anglo-Saxons did not reach, did Christianity stay strong. Elsewhere, the bishops and their churches disappeared, along with their cities.

A further attempt to recreate a framework of bishops in Britain did not occur until 597. At this point, Pope Gregory the Great sent the Italian monk Augustine with a group of companions to reconvert the English. These missionaries were the so called-black monks of the Benedictine order, whose monasteries were to form the basis of roughly half the medieval cathedrals.

Augustine preaching before King Ethelbert

However, re-establishing bishops and cathedrals would take a long time, even in England. Augustine managed to do so at Kent, where he founded them at Canterbury and Rochester, as well as London in the nearby kingdom of Essex. But the Christian presence in London was tenuous and lapsed for a time, obliging Augustine and his successors to keep to their original base at Canterbury. Only gradually, during the seventh century, was the Church able to fully organise itself in all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

Fresh threats to the Church in England emerged in 793, when Norse raiders sailed to the coast of Northumberland and sacked the cathedral. This began more than two centuries of Viking attacks on much of England. In the north and east they overthrew the local English kingdoms, taking control of large areas of the country and settling there – in the south they raided Canterbury, London, Rochester, and Winchester. During this time, many cathedrals were disrupted or disappeared.

Gradually, the Viking colonisers of England became integrated and Christianised. At the same time the power of the kings of Wessex expanded, initially under King Alfred (891-99), until effectively all of England was united under King Aethelstan (924-39). It now became possible to rebuild the Church organisation.

On the eve of the Norman Conquest in 1066, the English church contained two archbishops, thirteen bishops, and therefore 15 cathedrals. This includes the foundations of 11 of England’s modern cathedrals, which were later built on these sites. Unfortunately, all traces of the original buildings have vanished completely, with only crypts having survived in some cases.


The Norman Conquest of 1066 began a new era for England and its cathedrals. Almost immediately they embarked on what would be the most sustained building programme in medieval history: between 1070 and about 1129, every Saxon cathedral was demolished and began to be rebuilt. By the end of the 12th century, they were all completely in new forms. These were massive structures, larger than anything to have been erected in Christian Europe since the end of the Roman Empire.

There was more than one motive for rebuilding. The Normans had no sentimental attraction to the Anglo-Saxon churches and their historical layout of the buildings. Several cathedrals were at new sites requiring larger amounts of clergy. And there may have also been a wish for security, as Norman cathedrals were substantial in form and occasionally featured in warfare.

The Normans built in the Romanesque style, which they brought with them from Normandy, France. The style was distinguished by its round-headed arches and bold tiers of arcades on the massive columns of the aisles. Design features included apsidal east ends, scalloped capitals, wall paintings, windows filled with coloured glass, and chevron decoration known as ‘zigzag’.

Durham Cathedral, one of the finest examples of surviving Romanesque cathedral architecture

The Norman cathedrals aimed to create a strong visual impression, with their towers making them look like the stone castles that were also rising at the time. Inside there were longer vistas than before. Lengthy naves created an effect of distance in which not everything was meant to be seen at once. Indeed, the building opened up as one proceeded. Height was emphasised by clusters of colonettes rising from the floor past the arcades and galleries to the roof or vaults above the nave and choir. The cathedrals had large choirs for services, usually stretching from under the crossing and halfway up the head of the cross.

At the time there was also a growing obsession with saints and the healing power of relics. The flimsiest evidence of a miracle led to petitions to Rome for sainthood, the candidates being almost always recently deceased bishops of the relevant diocese. Room was thus required in the cathedral for a saint’s burial, and it was becoming more common to place this in a shrine above ground, usually at the east end of the cathedral. Paying pilgrims would be enticed from across the land to honour the saints’ relics, allowing the cathedral chapters to grow rich and further build lavishly to accommodate new pilgrims.

Gothic Period

By the last quarter of the 12th century, architectural styles and ambitions were moving on in England. When, in 1174, Canterbury suffered a serious fire that destroyed the choir, it was rebuilt in the Gothic style of northern France. Here, the architect, William of Sense, introduced pointed arches, leaf capitals, and piers of black ‘Purbeck’ marble, all which would become signatures of the new Gothic style in England.

Gothic architecture, or more precisely the Early English or Geometrical style, soon spread to other cathedrals. The new style brought space and light: the vertical stresses of the pointed arches permitted greater height, while lateral thrusts could be resisted by buttresses, permitting greater width. It was most vigorously put to use in the new cathedral east ends. Here Norman apses, ambulatories, and radiating chapels were gradually replaced by rectangular chambers known as retrochoirs, chiefly to accommodate pilgrims to the shrines of the proliferating saints. The presiding signature of the gothic, though, was the lancet window, filled with stained glass.

Improvement and adaptations to the cathedrals went on throughout the later Middle Ages. Norman naves were rebuilt in Canterbury, Winchester, Worcester, and York. East ends were extended at St Paul’s and York. New towers were raised at Ely, Wells, and York. The Gothic architecture of this period is commonly describes as passing through two phrases: Decorated (1250-1350) and Perpendicular (1350-1530).

In the Decorated style, forms flowed more freely with elaborate ornamentation. Carvers in stone and wood and artists in wall-painting and glass saw the cathedral as their art gallery, to express both religious and secular imagination.

Panorama of Westminster Abbey, London, built in the Decorated style

With the emergence of the Perpendicular style, architects suddenly turned their focus from decoration to space and volume. It saw arches flattened and simplified towards a more rectangular form. Walls became stone frames for expanses of glass. Ceilings became a maze of ribs and liernes, culminating in the fantastic devices of the fan vault.

The Perpendicular was the first Gothic style not influenced by France, with English culture detached form the continent by the Hundred Years War (1337-1453). A new civic and episcopal pride took the outward form of magnificent towers, such as those at Lincoln, Gloucester, Worcester, and Canterbury. Further additions were also made to the cathedrals during this period in the form of Lady Chapels, chantry chapels, chapter houses, and cloisters.

The Reformation

The English Reformation marked the end of the saga of the English medieval cathedral. It began in 1534, when Henry VIII, furious at the pope’s refusal to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, nationalised the hierarchy of the English church. Canons, monks, vicars choral, and chantry priests were all required to sign a personal acknowledgement that Henry VIII was head of the Church of England, now separated from Rome. Then in 1536 and 1538, the king dissolved first the small and then the large monasteries.

Nonetheless, Henry left England’s episcopal geography more or less in place. The existing cathedrals were left in place, re-founded as bodies of secular clergy, and new cathedrals were also created from former monasteries as at Bristol, Chester, Gloucester, Oxford, and Peterborough.

King Henry VIII of England reigned from 1509 to 1547. One of the most famous monarchs of England, he launched of the English Reformation and broke with the Church in Rome, creating the Church of England.

The Reformation accelerated upon Henry’s death, under his precocious teenage son, Edward VI (reigned 1547-53), and his archbishop Thomas Cranner. With the royal injunction of 1547, Venerated shrines, images, paintings, and other memorials were all destroyed, while idolatry, superstition, and hypocrisy were outlawed. Meanwhile, from the late 1530s to the early 1550s, cathedrals and parish churches lost their treasures, including thousands of ounces of gold and silver, jewelled crosses, candlesticks, chalices, incense burners, vestments, and altar cloths.

Edward’s death saw Henry’s Reformation put into reverse. Mary Tudor, who was crowned in 1553 and married to the Catholic Philip II of Spain the following year, immediately began the restoration of Catholicism. The crown gave up its headship of the Church and England submitted once again to the pope’s authority. Mary’s counter-Reformation, however, did not last long. Like so many of her forbearers, she quarrelled with Rome over her choice of archbishop, and within five years she was dead.

With Elizabeth I’s accession to the throne in 1448 came a further round of changes for cathedrals. The Crown regained its supremacy over the Church, bishops returned, and murals were painted over with the ten Commandments.

The retention of cathedrals by Henry and each of his children meant that they survived the Reformation. During their reigns, two ancient ones disappeared, 17 survived, and five were added. However, in contrast to the new Baroque styles in Europe, English cathedrals became frozen in time and this would last for most of the rest of their history. The religious and social context had changed: not only was there no impetus for development but also potential opposition to it. Cathedrals became poorer, with their incomes reduced by taxation and inflation, and even the maintenance of the buildings became a problem.

Civil War, Commonwealth & the Restoration of the Monarchy

During the English Civil War (1642-1651), the Parliamentarians grew hostile against the cathedrals, due to the clergy’s sympathies for Charles I and the support they gave him financially. Cathedrals were desecrated by soldiers, and the smashing of images, effigies and glass resumed.

In 1646, Parliament abolished bishops; and three years later, after Charles I had been executed and a republic declared in early 1649, an ordinance was passed to put an end to cathedrals as organisations. This was enacted the following April, dissolving all titles and posts of deans, churches, tithes, canons, and prebendaries. Their lands, churches, tithes, charters, and records were all confiscated.

Nevertheless, all cathedrals survived as structures during the period of the Commonwealth (1649-60), albeit in a range of conditions. Most continued as places for services of a plain and preaching kind. Cathedral schools and alms-house were generally exempt from confiscation and continued to serve their districts as before. Charity was a further area of cathedral activity. Medieval clergy were expected to offer hospitality to travellers and alms to the poor, and this ethic was particularly strong at cathedrals.

When the interregnum came to an end in 1660, the popular wish to restore the past was so great that most of what had existed before the Civil War reappeared. This of course included the cathedrals. The ordinances and acts of Parliament to which the Crown had not assented lapsed in 1660. These included the acts of 1646 and 1649 abolishing bishops and cathedrals and appropriating their property, so that the new appointees could expect to recover their losses.

Gradually the cathedrals regained all their former possessions. Not only lands and houses but their jurisdictions over their city properties and over the parish churches that they owned. The windfalls of money from entry fines had an obvious use: they helped to make good the serious damage to many cathedrals and to ancillary buildings such as canons’ houses. Altars and screens were also restored, and glass hidden from iconoclasts were brought out of hiding.

With the bishops and their properties now protected by the House of Lords, the bishops were able to wield a virtual veto on reform until the 1830s. The 170 years or so that stretched until then was a period of stagnation, with little building work and only piecemeal restoration. Much of this was due to the Georgian aesthetic and ideological aversion to Gothic, seen as archaic and respecting none of classicism’s laws of proportion and balance. Thus, many cathedrals suffered from neglect, and when they required repair or simply fell down, little was done to restore them.

Victorian Era

The hierarchy of the Church of England resisted reform well into the 19th century. But by then many people believed that England needed a thorough reform of both its Church and State. Of particular concern was the wealth and indolence of cathedral clergy, who kept their buildings ill and did little or nothing in return for large incomes. Discontent was widespread at this time due to economic deprivation and the perceived inequalities of the political system.

This resulted in the drastic Cathedral Act of 1840. The act ended sinecures, slashed patronages, and centralised revenues under the ecclesiastical commissioners. A huge sum of £300,000 a year was transferred from cathedral chapters to parish churches in the poorer parts of the country, notably industrial cities. The reforms entailed the most drastic organisation since the Reformation: new dioceses were created, and bishops appointed.

Catholic emancipation also occurred across Britain in the late 18th and early 19th century, in which many restrictions on Roman Catholics were reduced and removed. In turn, Pope Pius IX establishing a system of Catholic dioceses in England in 1850, followed by 15 new cathedrals.

The most immediate effect of this revival was architectural. England’s cathedrals were pulled back, many at the last minute, from decay and ruin. This was an age of restoration, in which the aim was to recreate a cathedral in an ideal form rather than simply to conserve what survived.

For this, deans and chapters employed a series of architects, such as Augustus Pugin and George Gilbert Scott. These architects were national figures, and so were to a large extent allowed to put their personal stamp on their work. This coincided with a renewed interest in Gothic design, with a battle of styles taking place among the goths. Champions of Early Gothic battled with those of Decorated, while Perpendicular was dismissed, at least initially, as degenerate.

An aerial view of the magnificent Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, UK, restored by George Gilbert Scott (1847–78)

There was also a revival of glass, Medieval glass had been lost through iconoclasm and neglect, and the Georgians had preferred clear windows. Stimulated by the Pre-Raphaelites in the 1850s, arts and craftsmen were kept busy for the remainder of the century.

20th Century Until Now

New cathedrals continued to appear in the 20th century, with Gothic continuing to be the most popular architectural style. The foundations of new Anglican diocese and therefore cathedrals accelerated throughout the first quarter of the 20th century. Twelve of each were created between 1905 and 1927 – more than throughout the 19th century. The Catholic church also erected two cathedrals between 1900 and 1940.

At least six cathedrals suffered damage to their churches or ancillary buildings from aerial assaults during the Second World War – the most serious damage of which was at Coventry. But in the early 1950s, a few years after the end of the war, it became possible once more to create new cathedral buildings. Two parish church cathedrals in the Church of England set out to enlarge themselves, while a totally new cathedral was built to replace the ruins at Coventry.

The Catholic Church was equally active in building during the second half of the century. Its outstanding achievement was the completion of the unfinished Roman Catholic cathedral in Liverpool. Two other new cathedrals were also built – Clifton in Bristol, constructed in 1970-3, and Middlesbrough, 1985-7.

Today, cathedrals continue to have a high profile nationally. In an age of apparently declining religious observance, the Anglican congregations have maintained their numbers and even grown, especially at mid-week services. Over 35,000 people visit for worship each week. The popularity of Anglican cathedrals with tourists also shows no sign of weakening, with around 10 million visiting each year.

Tour of England’s Cathedrals

Morning golden light on the historic old town of York along Museum St. looking towards York Minster Cathedral

Odyssey Traveller visits several of England’s medieval cathedrals during our various small group tours of the country for mature and senior travellers. During our Seven Ages of Britain Tour, you will be amazed by the splendour of Norman cathedrals in Durham, York, Ely, and Norwich, as well as the views of London’s Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral. You can also marvel at some of Europe’s most amazing cathedrals including Wells Cathedral, Ely Cathedral, and Canterbury Cathedral during our Medieval England Tour. Other cathedrals we enjoy visiting on this tour include Salisbury Cathedral, Bristol Cathedral, Hereford Cathedral, Leicester Cathedral, Norwich Cathedral, Winchester Cathedral, and Worcester Cathedral. We also view Liverpool Cathedral, the world’s largest Anglican cathedral, during our Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow Tour.

If you’re more interested in visiting St Paul’s Cathedral, Windsor Castle and St George’s Chapel, or the landscapes of the Cotswolds, don’t click away! Odyssey Traveller offers a number of tours of Great Britain, ranging from basic sightseeing tours ideal for your first trip, to unique experiences that delve deep into Britain’s history and culture.

Odyssey Traveller has been serving global travellers since 1983 with educational tours of the history, culture, and architecture of our destinations designed for mature and senior travellers. We specialise in offering small group tours partnering with a local tour guide at each destination to provide a relaxed and comfortable pace and atmosphere that sets us apart from larger tour groups. Tours consist of small groups of between 6 and 12 people and are cost inclusive of all entrances, tipping and majority of meals. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.

Articles about Britain published by Odyssey Traveller.

For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.

External articles to assist you on your visit to Britain.

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