Founded in 604 by Justus, the Bishop of Rochester, St Augustine’s first bishop, Rochester Cathedral had the dubious distinction (along with Carlisle and Chichester) of being an “impoverished see”—making it an unpopular appointment within the church, as it came without land or other revenue to sustain it.
Though no trace of the Saxon buildings remain, the Benedictine Priory of St Andrew was established under Canterbury’s Archbishop Lanfranc after the Norman conquest of 1066, and the current cathedral began to be constructed.
The bishop quickly recognized the military significance of its location and ordered his Chamberlain, Gundulf, to build an adjacent protective castle forthwith.
The North Tower still survives, looking haughtily down on the Cathedral below.
The enclave around the castle is the largest Norman keep in England.
And plus ça change…while we were visiting, two young louts, I mean youths, were apparently conducting a transaction while eyeing us warily and with hostility. No doubt all was above board! Ahem…
in the early 12th century, the cathedral sustained two fires. The first destroyed the wooden roof of the nave which was then rebuilt in Caen stone. The West Facade, a beautiful example of Norman architecture, is from the same period, The Perpendicular window, added several centuries later is so immense that it reduces the Norman work around it to a frame. But imagine how much darker the cathedral must have been inside before it was installed.
Here it is from the inside looking out.
Positioned right above the great west door.
Another visitor was very curious about what I was doing inside the cathedral.
The Nave’s rounded arches are edged with typical dog-tooth carvings, sitting atop sturdy columns. From here we can see the rood screen at the top of the chancel steps, tucked in below the pipes of the organ.
The screen is decorated with carved figures, including Gundulf, the 11th century bishop, architect and engineer.
There seem to be a lot of bishops, so he’s a little hard to pick out. But here he is. He’s the first one on the left, on the right side of the opening to the chancel. Here’s a close up.
I’m not sure who the rest of them are, but apparently are significant in the life of the cathedral.
After the second fire in 1179, work began rebuilding the cathedral’s east end in the Gothic style, starting with the Crypt, which is surprisingly airy—not creepy at all. Good thing, too, as it was used as an air raid shelter throughout both world wars.
Now we step through the door between the carved figures and into the Quire (or choir). You can see the tip of the great west window peeking above the centre of the pipes.
The choir is enclosed by high walls, designed to protect the monks from cold drafts, though that must not have done much for acoustics. The stalls date from the 1220s and are among the oldest to survive in England. Compared with choir stalls from later periods, they are plain.
The walls are painted with emblems of Edward III, who must have passed Rochester frequently on his way to war in France.
There are some beautiful carved figures.
Rochester Cathedral is a bit unusual in that it has two separate sets of North and South Transepts.—one set located between the Nave and the Quire and another between the Quire and the Presbytery. Below is a screen shot of the amazing 3D model on the Rochester Cathedral website. It’s fascinating – you can spend hours on it..
In 1240, the Nave Transepts were built, which you can see jutting above and below #8 on the diagram below, which marks the central tower. The Quire is the section to the right of #8, which in turn leads into the other set of transepts known as the Quire transepts. To the right of those is the Presbytery— the eastern Early Gothic additions to the cathedral (we’ll get to that later).
But wait, how were all those additions paid for? Wasn’t this an “impoverished See”? The Cathedral’s finances took a turn for the better due to a murder, of all things. In 1201 William of Perth, a Scottish baker, was slain by his servant (who the baker had raised since birth) near the Cathedral. A local woman, previously mad, declared herself cured of insanity. Other miracles followed and the cathedral became the site of pilgrimage, a lucrative gig if here ever was one. Though nowhere near the draw of the shrine of Thomas à Becket, enough funds were raised to finance the Quire transepts and the eastern Presbytery.
Speaking of good fortune, this depiction of the Wheel of Fortune is on one of the Cathedral’s walls. As described on the website:
This is one of Rochester Cathedral’s artistic treasures, it is called the Wheel of Fortune and dates from the 1200s. Only half of the painting is visible today, the missing half was destroyed at the Reformation during Tudor times. This portion survived because it was hidden behind a large piece of furniture.
The painting shows a wheel controlled by Queen Fortuna. She turns the wheel clockwise and you can see people gradually climbing upwards. The most fortunate person sits on a comfortable stool at the top of the wheel. Look carefully at his face, he doesn’t look too happy! Perhaps that is because he can see the missing part of the wheel which would have shown people going down and falling off. Queen Fortuna has her back to them.
The Wheel of Fortune was a common symbol in medieval times and shows that money and power can not be relied on, that things can change in the blink of an eye if Fortuna turns her wheel.
The North Nave Transept was designed to admit pilgrims to William of Perth’s Shrine, which suffered a lot of wear and tear over the years. Today, it’s that flat bit of stone beneath a modern fresco of Christ’s baptism in the style of a modern Russian icon by Sergei Fyodorov (2004), shown bottom centre.
The South Transept is the Lady Chapel.
Here are some of the stained glass windows in the Lady Chapel. The two below show St Mary Magdelene and The Presentation at the Temple.
This one shows St Elizabeth and The Adoration of the Magi.
In 1340, Hamo de Hythe, Bishop of Rochester (1317–1352) vaulted the transepts and raised the central tower and spire. You can see the newer construction has pointed arches, a hallmark of Gothic architecture, and a feat of engineering that allowed greater height and more light.
Here we have the North Quire transept.
Beneath the central window you can see the tomb of Walter de Merton, Bishop of Rochester (1274–1277) and founder of Merton College, Oxford. The current tomb has been rebuilt several times, although fragments of its previous forms survive.
The buildings to the east of the Quire Transepts are the Early Gothic Presbytery (also known as a sanctuary. They were built with Purbeck marble shafts soaring to a clerestory and ribbed vault. The lancet windows are divided by pillars frosted with dogtooth mouldings, consistent with the pattern on the edge of the clerestory arches. Thus richly decorated, the Presbytery was reserved for the clergy’s use. Meanwhile the nave, where the humble citizens of Rochester worshipped, received no attention, reflecting the growing contempt of the ecclesiastical officials for their flock. Indeed, the church was often locked to keep out the locals. Relations between the clergy and the townspeople deteriorated to such an extent that a church was built next door for the town to use (and survives to this day).
The tomb of John Sheppley Treasurer of England, and Bishop of Rochester (1352–1360) is on the north side of the Presbytery. It was unearthed from a wall in 1840, and thus retains its original colouring.
The 14th century brought a touch of fame to Rochester with the advent of a monk turned bishop, Hamo de Hythe (the same fellow who vaulted the transepts. He was responsible for the doorway to the chapter house (now library). Built in 1343, The intricate figurative statues dot an ogee arch. Read more in Doorway Dogma.
At the bottom of the left side of the arch is likely bishop Hamo de Hythe himself.
The others are figures of Ecclesia, the Greek word for church…
… and a blindfolded Synagoga, meaning that the Christian church is triumphing over Mosaic, as in Moses or Old Testament law.
Other than the usual ongoing squabbles between the bishops of Rochester, the townspeople and the monks, Saint Andrew’s Priory was managing well. But all that came to a screeching halt with the Dissolution of the Monasteries., Rochester was surrendered to Henry VIII in 1540, quite late in the Dissolution game.
Happily, not much destruction occurred in the handover. The cloistral buildings became a royal residence, and it was in Rochester that Henry VIII first clapped eyes on his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. That marriage lasted less than six months, to the relief of both parties, apparently.
A good deal of the the priory library now resides in the Royal Collection in the British Library. One of the treasures still with the Cathedral is Textus Roffensis, the first code of English law, which was written in 1120, almost a century before the Magna Carta. Take that, Lincoln Cathedral!!
In 1542, the Cathedral was rededicated to Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary, and new foundation of a Dean and a Chapter of six Canons was established.
In 1555 Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of Rochester 1547-1550, was burned at the stake for his support of Lady Jane Grey. But that’s another whole story, for another day.
During the early part of the 19th Century, architect Lewis Nockall Cottingham worked to strengthen and restore the building. Sir George Gilbert Scott carried out major restoration work during the 1870s, a period during which much stained glass was also repaired and added.
The present tower and spire was completed in 1904.
That’s a wrap for Rochester Cathedral.