A former Benedictine Abbey set in a walled Norman city, Chester Cathedral, has the works. Its architecture comprises 11th-century Norman to 18th-century Gothic revival and every style in between.
Chester, a cathedral city (obviously), has some of the best-preserved city walls in the country—you can walk the two miles all the way around. The Romans built the walls nearly 2000 years ago; the Saxons extended them in the 10th century. Now that’s something you don’t get to do every day!
This presented a bit of a dilemma. We had only one night in Chester and two partial days. It was also the last stop on the Family Trip to England and Scotland, where all twelve of us were together. The next day, one of the families of four was leaving for a few days in Paris before heading home. So how to spend what little time we had? All of us were coming from Warwick Castle; the kids and grandkids stopped at Liverpool to do the Beatles thing. Glenn and I also went to Liverpool, but to see the Cathedral (skipped the Beatles). Destination: Chester, with its large pedestrian-only city centre—charming when walking and a nightmare when trying to find the hotel, disgorge luggage and check in.
Thus it was late afternoon when Glenn and I were ready to set out for Chester Cathedral. The light was fair, and I was eager to get there, take the photos and be back in time to greet the kids and make tracks for dinner. My cell phone rang. The sprinklers were going off in the restaurant where we had a reservation that night; sorry…emergency..we are closed. An hour was spent sorting all that out (not the easiest thing to do…twelve people…last minute…Sunday night). Ultimately, the hotel came to our rescue and arranged dinner for us in their daytime-only bistro area adjacent to the bar. Excellent – on our way.
Like the Carlisle, Lichfield and Worcester Cathedrals, Chester is made of red sandstone, friable, easily eroded, and badly affected by pollution. By the 19th century, extensive restorations to the exterior were required. Enter the ubiquitous George Gilbert Scott; he set to with vigour, with more than the usual grumbling from the cheap seats I gather. Rival Liverpudlian architect Samuel Huggins was a proponent of the Classic style. This is all very well, but the Chester Cathedral, neglected and in perilous condition, was originally Norman and then predominantly Gothic. Not a whiff of Classic in sight. Huggins, who had not been hired to work on the Cathedral, objected to Scott’s plans and published a not-so-subtly titled paper, “On so-called restorations of our cathedral and abbey churches“. Cheap seats and cheap shots. The exterior we see today owes a great deal to Scott’s work; practically the entire Cathedral was re-clad in new sandstone, the existing stone being heavily damaged through weather and Industrial Revolution pollution.
Chester had got off relatively lightly during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the mid-16th century, but the Parliamentarians had been very destructive during the Civil War a hundred years later. They’d stripped the lead roof and melted it down, leaving the building vulnerable to the elements. They also did a good deal of direct damage to the interior.
In addition to the restoration of the fabric of the building, Scott moved the precious 14th-century choir stalls back to their original location, which entailed designing a new choir screen. He renewed the wooden vault of the choir (stunning) and added many decorative features to the interior, all of which we will explore when we go inside.
Chester Cathedral’s grounds tuck up against the wall around the city, with generous green space.
We were able to take these shots from our wall walk the morning after we arrived.
But the business end of the Cathedral abuts the pavement of a busy street, jostling Barclay’s bank and directly across from the Town Hall. A stately, elegant approach, it is not.
The venerable wooden great West Doors doors remained closed for years, opening only on state occasions.
But in honour of the late Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee, a new Pilgrim Porch was designed by sculptor Stephen Broadbent. Its cast bronze arch is hung with a pair of large and heavy laminated glass doors, ingeniously set behind the medieval timber doors, which can now remain open, affording a clear view into the heart of the Cathedral.
Note below the wonderful old timber doors now stand open, with the new glass doors behind them.
Through the glass is a clear view down the Nave, and through the elaborate wooden rood screen to the stained glass window in the Lady Chapel at the far east end.
Here is the view looking back toward the new glass doors with the huge Perpendicular stained glass window at the west end.
A mosaic dedicated to Moses is tucked into the north wall of the Nave.
With this stained glass window above it.
Let’s keep walking east and see the 19th-century rood screen with a glimpse of the choir stalls’ canopy beyond.
You can peek at the painted ceiling vault above the choir from here.
The crucified Christ figure with his mother, Mary, and Mary Magdalene is beautifully rendered.
The high altar in the chancel is east of the choir, up near the entrance to the Lady Chapel.
Looking from the choir back towards the west, you can see the colourful tile floors. Looking to the top are arches permitting views from the tower in the crossing.
The choir stalls, with their intricate canopies, are from 1380. The detailed carvings on the end of each pew are called poppyheads (a new word for me while researching this Cathedral).
Unrelated to the poppy flower, the word derives (via Old French) from the Latin word puppis, which translates to poop or figurehead of a ship. In church “furniture”, the carvings most often take the form of stylized fleur-de-lys, as they do here.
Additional carving runs along the base of the stalls, including wheels, flowers and figureheads.
The arms of the stalls with misericords have additional carvings – primarily heads.
We also have angels and other winged creatures (could be gryphons).
And, of course, the misericords—the medieval “mercy seats”, often with irreverent carvings on the bottoms of the upturned seats. Chester Cathedral boasts 48, all but five of which are original. They’re among the finest in the country, according to Nikolaus Pevsner, renowned art and architectural historian best known for his monumental 46-volume series of county-by-county guides.
I’ve discovered a marvellous resource, www.misericords.co.uk, for identifying the misericord carvings and their meaning. I thought this one was a jester, but it’s a wodehouse (the wild man of the forest) sitting on a man; the supporters (the figures to the left and right) are also wodehouse(s). What I thought was a jester’s cap on the fellow to the right is just his wild hair. And yes, now I can see the face of the man upon which the central wodehouse is sitting.
This one is Tristram and Iseult. King Mark looks down at them through the foliage; the left Supporter squire with a sword under his arm; the right supporter waiting-maid with a pet dog in one hand.
Here we have Knight in armour on a galloping horse leaning backwards, dropping behind him a round object; with his left hand, he holds a cub; the left Supporter tigress seizing the mirror; the right Supporter tigress crouching.
And lastly: A winged figure rises from the shell and fights with the dragon; the left supporter is two figures, half-human, half-animal, fighting; the right supporter is a deacon with a stole over their left shoulder, holding a cock.
Some substantial carvings are present on some of the pews’ ends, including this slumbering hunter.
Winged angels are fairly common.
Now we come to the big gun of the choir carvings: the Bishop’s throne, which Scott designed in the 19th century, based on the old choir stalls. It’s hard to believe that 500 years separate the fabrication of the two.
The choir roof vault is made of oak, installed by George Gilbert Scott, and decorated by Clayton and Bell, with the very involved Bishop Howson directing the iconography.
Beyond the choir, at the easternmost end, is the Lady Chapel
The organ is from the mid-19th century and replaces one dating from 1620. It was moved at the time of Scott’s restoration to sit at the edge of the crossing, leading into the “dingy” (as described) North Transept.
It’s difficult to take in all the detail of such an enormous instrument.
I was fascinated by the detail on the angels and the intricately carved wood trim. I got these shots using a powerful zoom lens; it does show how dedicated the artists were, as this detail would have been invisible to the average person at the time the organ was installed.
Inside the North, Transept proper are additional pipes to the organ and, at the base, the tomb of John Pearson, Bishop of Chester (1672-86) and master of Jesus and Trinity Colleges at Cambridge.
The monument, designed by Sir Arthur Blomfield, was created in 1863.
The effigy was sculpted by Matthew Noble; stonework by Nicholas Earp.
Back out of the North Transept, we can see that the North Quire Aisle ends in St Werburgh’s Chapel, dedicated to the 7th-Century shrine and remains of Saint Werburgh, Benedictine and patroness of Chester, Abbess of Weedon, Trentham, Hanbury, Minster in Sheppey, and Ely. Born in Staffordshire in the early 7th century, she died at Trentham on February 3, 699 (or 700).
The “Baby Jesus Window” is one of the many Victorian stained glass windows.
Let’s have a look at the cloisters while we are over here. They were restored in the 20th century and contained some of the oldest parts of the Cathedral complex.
Some 130 saints decorate the windows in the arches of the cloisters.
On the other side of the crossing is the South Transept, which, oddly enough, was the parish church of St. Oswald. It had its own exterior door, with elaborate ironwork hinge, a smaller version of the great West Doors of the Cathedral.
Wait – the south transept was a separate church? How is that possible? Note the floor plan below. The South Transept (marked #10 below) is no small vestibule. Contrast it with the normally-sized north transept (#14). See what I mean? The south transept is practically the same size as the Nave.
You can see the South Transept in the drawing below, with the oval door on its left side—no wonder it could serve as a separate church. But, unfortunately, Scott’s remit did not extend to its restoration.
However, Scott was engaged to build a new church on Parkgate Road, a mile north of the Cathedral, to accommodate St Oswald’s congregation. Work began in 1869, but progress was slow and incomplete when Scott died in 1878. John Oldrid continued the project and completed the Nave. According to gilbertscott.org, “it is a dull lancet hall church with some capitals at the east end still awaiting carving”, which doesn’t make me want to dash back to Chester and investigate it! The congregation finally moved to the new church, dedicated to St. Thomas of Canterbury, in 1880.
Once St. Oswald’s congregation had moved out, the solid screen erected in 1828 to separate the Cathedral from the South Transept also departed. Unfortunately, it was too late for Scott, but his successor, Sir Arthur Blomfield, did the restoration in 1882.
The original architecture is Perpendicular Gothic, exemplified by the flowing tracery in the upper portion of the stained glass window and the thin lancets forming the lower part.
Between the South Transept and the Crossing, we have a 1602 memorial to Thomas Greene, Sheriff of Chester (1551) and mayor (1569), with his two wives, both of whom he outlived. Note the missing hands. Originally clasped in prayer, they were whacked off by parliamentarian iconoclasts. A bit weird, given they usually went for the faces, but apparently, hands clasped in prayer set off this particular group of wreckers.
Before Scott’s renovation, the South Choir Aisle extended as far as the North Choir Aisle and also terminated in a rectangular chapel. The shortening of the South Choir aisle, ending in the apsidal roof of St Erasmus Chapel, was the most controversial of Scott’s decisions by far.
Back in 1868, Scott had (at the invitation of the Bishop) done an intense exploration of the east end of the church. He discovered that the foundations of the Lady Chapel were very shaky and that to shore up the walls of the Lady Chapel, the chapels on either side of it had been installed in the 15th century, which had entailed destroying the 13th-century apsidal ends to the choir aisles. Further exploration revealed the original flying buttresses initially supporting the Lady Chapel. I’m not clear why Scott returned only South Choir Aisle to its original form. Perhaps it was in much worse shape than the North? What is clear is the brouhaha that broke out.
According to www.gilbertscott.org:
The Builder, rarely critical of Scott, said the scheme was based on ‘little more than conjecture’. It denounced the structure as ‘an entire mistake’ and ‘an ugly excrescence’. Scott was forced to explain this apparent vandalism publically. On June 8 1870, he read a paper to the local archaeological society, where he tries to justify his action by claiming that not only had he discovered this ‘architectural curiosity’, but his quarrying in the stonework of the sixteenth-century chapel had revealed details of the Early English Lady Chapel which could now be seen as it was in the days of Edward I.’ Many architectural antiquaries were consulted’ and the apse was reproduced ‘with almost absolute precision and perfectness’.
Personally, I found it charming—much more attractive than the somewhat blocky St Werburgh’s chapel, which terminates the North Choir Aisle.
Further curiosities in the Cathedral include a 17th-century consistory court beneath the southwest tower. Originally a Norman invention, the jurisdiction of a consistory court was broad, covering matters such as defamation, probate, and matrimonial causes. In addition, the court served as a general jurisdiction over clergy and lay people regarding church discipline and morality in general.
Chester Cathedra’s consistory court is unique to survive in England. The last case was heard in the 1930s, that of an attempted suicide of a priest,
Many of the main spaces of the Cathedral are available to rent for events. This is another example of a Cathedral that is moving with the times and diversifying its revenue stream. Further evidence of the size of the South Transept is the pricing of its rental—at £3500, it’s not much less than the Nave at £5000. The Chapter House, Refectory and The Garth (the garden enclosed by the cloisters) all come in well south of £1000.
I’m eager to return to Chester and explore the city and the Cathedral more thoroughly. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to explore the buildings surrounding the cloisters. There is also a tower tour, Chester Cathedral at Height, that affords excellent views over the interior of the Nave.
The city walls of Chester abut Wales, with a bridge spanning the river Dee. Walking over and seeing what is on the other side could be fun!
Thank you for joining me on a tour of Chester Cathedral.