The Social History of the English Medieval Cathedral

By Stollard, Paul | History Today, February 1993 | Go to article overview

The Social History of the English Medieval Cathedral


Stollard, Paul, History Today


What did the English cathedral really look like and mean to the worshipper in the Middle Ages? Paul Stollard and others from Queen's University of Belfast's department of architecture offer some imaginative reconstructions and their cultural context.

The sixteen surviving medieval cathedrals of England conjure up powerful and emotive images of the Middle Ages. Their well documented histories reveal the process of construction and alteration with great clarity, with the identification of the sequence of architectural styles being regarded as critical. What is less frequently considered, however, are the reasons why they were built in the way they were, and how they were intended to be used. An appreciation of the social history of the period is often the essential key to understanding the architectural development.

Before the Norman Conquest the cathedrals of the fifteen dioceses were sited in historic centres associated with Saxon saints. There are few visible remains of these buildings and many were fairly small. This reflects the relatively low significance placed on the cathedral in the tenth-century church. They were places of pilgrimage rather than government, and the site was often of more significance than the building.

In the second half of the eleventh century the gradual change in the theology and structures of the church, led to a reappraisal of the function of the cathedral. Even before the Conquest this had generated new building projects and ideas for church reform. Edward the Confessor was influenced by the fresh ideas in church design already spreading through Normandy, and in 1044 he brought over the Abbot Robert from the pioneering abbey of Jumieges to re-organise the monastery at Westminster, while also beginning to completely rebuild the abbey itself (1050-65).

The Conquest accelerated the process of change within the church, by enabling a radical and effective reorganisation of administrative structures, people, and buildings. The church became an integral part of the state, and an essential part of the pacification programme for the conquered country, the cathedrals became in effect seats of regional government. A series of church councils, the most important at London in 1075, generated a wholesale reorganisation of dioceses. Where necessary this involved moving the cathedrals to centres of population so that they could form a partnership with the civil and military powers. Selsey, Elmham, Dorchester and Sherbourne were all deemed too unimportant for the seat of a bishop, and new cathedrals were founded at Chichester, Norwich, Lincoln, and Sarum to replace them. In 1109 the new diocese of Ely was carved out of the enormous area controlled from Lincoln to help stabilise the troublesome fen country, and in 1133 Carlisle was created from part of Durham to strengthen Henry I's claim to the disputed land of Cumbria.

With the new sites came reforming bishops and almost all of the existing Saxon prelates were removed or encouraged to retire. Many of these new bishops were Benedictine monks keen to introduce reforms, not just in the administration of the church, but also of the clergy who served the cathedrals. The communities at Canterbury, Rochester, and Durham were all refounded under the Benedictine rule.

Each of the dioceses covered a huge area, much larger than that of most Continental cathedrals. The revenue potential was therefore immense and the newly appointed bishops were not slow in exploiting their charges to build what they regarded as worthy cathedrals. A cathedral is technically the seat (cathedra) of a bishop, however they became much more than just the prinicipal churches of a diocese. It was sincerely believed that they had to be grandiose and magnificent to mirror the power of God. As places for worship they needed to reflect the glories of heaven, and enabled the liturgy to be as reverent and as impressive as possible. …

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