In 1307, Lincoln Cathedral’s central tower spire was the tallest manmade structure in the world. At a soaring 525 feet, it was higher than the great pyramid at Giza. Unfortunately, a gale brought it down to earth in 1549. But I’m getting ahead of myself. So let’s begin at the beginning.
For that, we go back to Saxon times, when the diocese of Lincoln draped itself across nine counties (and derived income from them, too). The Cathedral at the time was way over in the far western part of the diocese, in Doncaster-on-Thames, safely tucked away from Viking occupation. Shortly after the Norman conquest, William found himself faced with some, er, opposition, shall we say, along the east coast of England and ordered the relocation of the vulnerable dioceses to more easily defended positions, preferably with a nearby castle.
Benedictine monk Remigius was sent hither to build a new non-monastic cathedral on the hill. There was no shortage of resources to underpin the project—Lincoln’s chapter commanded 58 canons with remunerative prebendary estates.
Though solidly built, Remigius’ Cathedral lasted less than a century; in 1185, an earthquake left only a portion of the west front standing. No wonder it survived the catastrophe—it was built like a castle wall. See those rounded arches in the square central section of the photo below? Solid Norman architecture at its best.
But fear not. Help was on the way. By 1186, Lincoln’s most memorable character, the idiosyncratic Hugh of Burgundy, had arrived on the scene. He was a Carthusian monk who understood how the lucrative game of bishops’ power, saints’ relics and pilgrims were played. All 13th-century English saints were former bishops—he was a bishop; ergo, he could also be a saint. He marketed himself accordingly, chewing on a relic of Mary Magdalene’s arm, kissing lepers and eschewing all forms of carnal lust. It clearly impressed the necessary authorities because he was canonized in 1220, a mere 20 years after his death.
Give credit where it’s due, though; Hugh was busy with other things, too, like rebuilding Lincoln Cathedral in the Early Gothic style. As a result, lancets abound—with and without windows.
By the 1230s, the Cathedral was complete (just in time to receive pilgrims to Hugh’s shrine). This lucrative scheme was sufficient to pay for the new Angel Choir in the Decorated East End, begun in 1255 and to which Hugh’s shrine was moved in 1280.
We are now outside of the Angel Choir at the far east end of the Cathedral.
Over to the right is the Chapter House; judging by the massive size of the flying buttresses, it was intended to be much larger. But Lincoln is a non-monastic cathedral, requiring less room to transact the daily business than that of a monastery.
Let’s go inside and start at the east end of the Cathedral for a change. That will allow us to look at the stained glass window in the Angel Choir from the other side. Circles within circles. It looks like a Spirograph from the 60s, doesn’t it?
Stepping back, one can appreciate the highly Decorated interior. Every inch of wall space is crammed with carving. Columns aren’t just touched with Purbeck marble but are made entirely of them.
At first, I thought the elaborate confection below was Saint Hugh’s tomb, but it’s the monument to Christopher Wordsworth, bishop of Lincoln (1969-1995). and nephew of poet William Wordsworth. Victorian, it’s far too modern for Hugh’s monument.
The light streaming through the windows was just magical.
Bishop Hugh’s tomb is more prosaic, but it’s a lot older and suffered significant damage during the English Civil war.
The Lincoln Imp grins down from a column.
I was lucky to walk by just as a guide shone her torch up onto the figure, explaining its significance to her audience. I’d been hunting for the elusive Imp but had not yet spotted him.
He was apparently turned to stone for throwing rocks at the angels you see between the arches in the photo below.
Looking up, the vault seems almost plain beside all the decorations on the columns and arches.
Below is Lincoln Cathedral’s floor plan, courtesy of its website. Isn’t it marvellous? The differently coloured lines depict the periods in which the construction took place. We’re now going to leave the Angel Choir and go down one side aisle into St. Hugh’s Choir.
Here we are, looking back toward where we came, through the canopy over the high altar.
It’s so light and airy despite every surface being covered with carving.
Now, let’s turn around and look towards the West through the Choir itself.
I sneaked into the roped-off stalls and managed to snag a picture of one of the misericords. He reminded me of the Imp.
Leaving the Choir, we move further west along one side aisle and turn round to see the pulpitum or choir screen. It replaces the original, which was destroyed when the central tower collapsed in 1237.
It’s described as a masterpiece of Decorated Gothic. The four niches on each side and the central arch have ogee arches. The interiors of the eight arches and the surface above the central arch are all covered with a diaper pattern of lobed flowers. In his book England’s Cathedrals, Simon Jenkins said, “it’s like nature laid out on a quilt” —an apt description. And I agree with him that the absence of statues is almost a relief.
The detail is astonishing. Now that I look at the pictures again, I wish I’d got a close-up of that panther (?) to the left of the central arch.
Wait! I did. Not a panther, I don’t think (pointy toes), but it’s about to eat something.
Ha – I also got some of the ghoulish faces.
And the inevitable bishops, complete with mitres.
Why does this fellow have his mouth open, do you think?
On either side of the Choir screen, running alongside the Choir, are the North and South Choir Aisles.
Looking into the distance, you can see right down into the Angel Choir to an area called the Gilbert Corner. I noticed someone lighting a candle.
He was utterly absorbed in what he was doing and looked so peaceful.
In the South Choir Aisle, we have the shrine of “Little St. Hugh”, a child falsely said to have been killed by Lincoln Jews. Edward I later exploited the tale in his campaign of persecution of Jews.
The North and South Transepts jut out on either side of the crossing. Let’s look up. Isn’t that fantastic? How on earth did they get all that in alignment, using construction methods and tools from 1192?
This is the South Transept. You can see the choir screen on the left side. It looks tiny in this picture.
This is my favourite window in the entire Cathedral, which surprised me because it’s very modern-looking, though it was initially installed in the early 13th century. It’s called the Bishop’s Eye; It faces south to invite in; it takes care to be saved.
Its counterpart is the Dean’s Eye in the North Transept. They are described in the contemporary Life of St Hugh of Lincoln as “the two eyes of the church”.
As “north represents the devil, and south the Holy Spirit, it is in these directions that the two eyes look.”
The tracery is the distinguishing feature, not the picture the actual glass pieces make.
The window in the North Transept is the Dean’s Eye; its job is to shun; and is on the watch for the darkness of Oblivion.
Let’s head up the North Choir Aisle and down the Slype Corridor toward the Chapter House. We’ve got an exciting stop to make along the way.
Hmm, hmm. Hmm. Turn left…
Ah – here we are!
And the Magna Carta itself. When I took these pictures in 2019, the document was still in the Cathedral. When Glenn, daughter Lauren and I went back in 2021, it had been moved to the adjacent Castle and was practically under armed guard. No photos are allowed anymore. But here you have it, folks. It’s one of four copies of the original Magna Carta, issued in June 1215 (one of the signatories is Lincoln’s own Bishop Hugh). Its importance cannot be understated. It was the first document to put into writing the principle that the king and his government were not above the law. It sought to prevent the king from exploiting his power and placed limits on royal authority by establishing law as a power. Worth the price of admission, no?
All right, enough dilly-dallying. Onto the Chapter house, where Cathedral business was discussed daily. Come on in!
I don’t think those red velvet cushions are part of the original decor.
No expense spared here, either. Look at the beautiful Purbeck marble columns, caped with stiff leaf emblems.
Have you seen enough? Let’s make our way back out. Down the corridor…
And through the door into the cloisters.
It’s a bit chilly out here without the glass that would once have been in the stone tracery.
Looking up, you can see the bosses decorating the ceiling ribs.
It’s time to head back into the Cathedral proper and make our way through the nave. Ah – here we are. We’re in the oldest part of the church now, near the great west doors, looking east down the great nave.
Stepping over to the North Aisle — it goes on forever.
Look waaaay up and see the vault of the nave.
And here we are, looking west toward the Great West doors.
Let’s go outside now and have a good look at the exterior of the Cathedral. Here we are looking at the southernmost of the two towers in the west end.
Below is a depiction of the tortures of the damned, in which serpents feature mightily. Moving from left to right, lust is punished by biting serpents and monsters, a devil pulls the hair of those guilty of sodomy, a nude miser with a purse around his neck is tormented by serpents and devils, serpents bite the genitals of avarice, and the harrowing of hell shows Christ standing on the devil delivering souls from the jaws of hell.
It’s a reproduction sculpted by John Roberts and Alan Mickelthwaite and installed in 2001. The originals had been much damaged by weather and have been moved inside for preservation. To each his own!
Moving along the south side, we come to the central door.
Here’s a shot of the Dean’s Window from the outside.
As we finish up, let’s go back to where we began – with a model of Lincoln as it would have looked with the enormous central spire in place. It’s quite something.
It’s still impressive, even without the spire.
I hope you’ve enjoyed our tour. If you still have the energy, we are going to visit Lincoln Castle, next door. I hope you can join us.