The Norman King William the Conqueror launched the great English medieval Cathedral, and Tudor King Henry VIII wrought its end. Incandescent with rage at the Pope’s refusal to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Henry abrogated Rome’s authority over England’s churches, declaring himself its earthly head in place of the Pope.

At a stroke, monastic orders were crushed, and their wealth seized. Saint’s shrines were demolished. Abbeys and monasteries were destroyed. The lives of 14,000 monks, nuns and friars, and innumerable monastic servants changed overnight; most of the clergy was pensioned off, and about 200 were executed. Over 800 abbeys, friaries and nunneries were destroyed or sold, roofs stripped of protective lead, and buildings pulled down.

Fountains Abbey

The monastic cathedrals were spared; their clergy largely stayed put, assuming new roles as canons in the same way that political party members cross the floor.

Like William before him, Henry VIII left the episcopal geography mainly in place. New cathedrals were created from former monasteries at Bristol, Chester, Gloucester, Oxford and Peterborough; only Coventry and Bath lost their Cathedral status because they overlapped with Lichfield and Wells.

After Henry’s death, his son Edward VI (son of Henry VIII and his third wife, Jane Seymour) and Protestant Archbishop Thomas Cranmer upped the ante. Latin, vestments, images and anything smacking of ‘idolatry, superstition and hypocrisy’ were prohibited. Cathedral chantries were outlawed, their endowments confiscated. The Latin mass ended, and Cranmer’s 1549 revised prayer book was disseminated.

The dust had hardly settled when Edward VI died, and his elder sister, Catholic Mary Tudor (daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife, the very Catholic Catherine of Aragon), was crowned. The entire process slammed into reverse—the counter-Reformation was enough to give whiplash to anyone lucky enough to still have a neck. Monks returned to Westminster Abbey, and it was the Protestants’ turn to be persecuted. Those who refused to renounce their Protestant faith were burned at the stake, including Archbishop Cranmer.

But just when the Catholics thought it was safe to get back in the shower, Bloody Mary, as she was known, died. Her younger sister, Elizabeth I (daughter of Henry VIII and second wife, Anne Boleyn), came to the throne.

Elizabeth I was an entirely different kettle of fish from her siblings—calm, pragmatic and an exemplar of cautious moderation. “I have no desire to make windows into men’s souls,” she declared, leaving her subjects to keep their true religious allegiance to themselves—go through the motions and attend church publicly, but let us have no persecutions. Protestant bishops returned, “popish” display was discontinued.

But our poor cathedrals slid into decline. Stripped of the income from shrine-visiting pilgrims and the sale of indulgences, their income was paltry. As a result, cathedral fabric declined, but worse was yet to come with the English Civil War (1642 to 1652).

The Rump Parliament of 1648 abolished all “deans, chapters, canons, prebends and other offices and titles belonging to any cathedral of collegiate church”. Bishops were ejected from parliament. Any remaining cathedral revenues were confiscated, with exemptions funds directed to schools, almshouses and highways. A proposal was put forth to dismantle the chapter house at Wells Cathedral for the £160 its stone would have fetched—thank heaven it was never put into action.

Chapter House, Wells Cathedral

King Charles I’s execution in January 1649 put the Roundheads firmly in charge. But, unfortunately, the King wasn’t the only one who lost his head; any carved face that could be reached with a club was shattered into oblivion. Oliver Cromwell and his destroyers smashed images, effigies and glass in an orgy of destruction.

Lady Chapel, Ely Cathedral

A reprieve arrived with the Restoration. King Charles II, restored to the throne in 1661, personally oversaw the rebuilding of Lichfield Cathedral, which had suffered horrific damage. A campaign of repair began. Concealed glass and hidden images were brought out of hiding; altars and screens slid into their former positions in the churches.

Bishops returned to the House of Lords, regrettably with all their former officiousness, indolence and laziness. The Roundheads, for all their destructive tendencies, had come to power for a reason. Reform was needed but was stymied well into the 18th century. Parish churches took up the duties the cathedrals should have provided: education and welfare for their flocks.

The Great Fire of London in 1666 finished off St Paul’s Cathedral, which had been in a perilous state for years. A brief debate ensued about whether to rebuild or start from scratch, but Charles II and Sir Christopher Wren agreed on the Baroque masterpiece we see today.

St Paul’s Cathedral

Ironically, the elegant Georgians inflicted the next round of misery. Renowned for their love of classicism, with its proportion and balance, the exuberance of Gothic decor was deemed to have “congestion of heavy, dark, melancholy, monkish piles without just proportion, use of beauty’ as described by John Evelyn, founding fellow of the Royal Society. “Gothic” became a term of derision, and enlightened Classicists sought to supplant it.

This became a real problem when repairs were needed, or in the case of Hereford Cathedral, they collapsed. James Wyatt was a particularly prolific “restorer”, busy at Salisbury, Lichfield and Hereford. After removing hundreds of images and scraping two inches of surface stone from Durham Cathedral, he went so far as to suggest removing the Galilee Chapel, which happily never came to pass.

The Galilee Chapel, Durham Cathedral

If only Salisbury’s medieval glass had been so fortunate. Wyatt had a penchant for clear glass, so out came all the stained glass, which he dumped into a ditch. And we thought the iconoclasts were terrible…

However, reprieve was in sight in the body of one George Gilbert Scott, a young architect and pupil of Regency classicist Robert Smirke. The Victorians to the rescue!