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Books and Guides to Cathedrals, Abbeys, Priories and Churches in the UK





cover photo shows Salisbury Cathedral


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Cathedral, The Great English Cathedrals, Jon Cannon

cover photo shows Durham Cathedral


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If you are interested in finding out about the music side of British Cathedrals then a good starting point is the Friends of Cathedral Music website.









Most of the cathedrals in medieval England in the early 1100s were part of large monasteries which had already been in place for hundreds of years (though often with gaps caused by Viking destruction in the last centuries of the first millennium). 


There had been a big clean out by the new Norman Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc (earlier Abbot of Bec) of the old corrupt and incompetent order of Saxon church leaders in the wake of the 1066 Norman conquest and colonization of England (Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester, an early anti slavery campaigner, being almost the only surviving Anglo Saxon Bishop). 


One outcome of this was that the centre of power for the Church in England shifted from York to Canterbury.



Regional maps showing religious houses in England





Saint Albans Cathedral / Abbey,

Watchroom (original) and Shrine of S Alban (reconstruction)



Most of the English cathedrals (whether monastic or secular  -  the ones built specifically as cathedrals by church and town authorities),  and many of the abbeys and large churches,  had a large shrine at their eastern end containing the remains of a saint.  The most famous and visited shrines included those of Saint Cuthbert, 600s Abbot of Landisfarne, in Durham Cathedral and later Saint Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury (murdered in 1170), in Canterbury Cathedral.


Link to photos of Limoges Reliquary Ch‚sses made to contain relics of Thomas Becket


Streams of pilgrims made their way to the shrines and left (often valuable) offerings.    The Abbey (now Cathedral) of Saint Alban still has the early medieval elevated wooden watchroom (left) from which the duty monk surveyed the shrine of Saint Alban (England's "first martyr") to make sure nothing got nicked.  



The old order was all to change dramatically in the wake of Henry VIII's break with Medici Pope Clement VII and the Church of Rome over his desire to marry Anne Boleyn.  In 1534 the Act of Supremacy was passed, making Henry the head of the Church of England.  Nearly all the monasteries (= abbots) and cathedrals (= bishops and deans) went along with the new order of things, and in all probability life would have gone much as before (Henry's English Protestantism was anti the superstition and idolatry of the Church of Rome, but had little in common with the reformist European variety brought by Martin Luther to the Diet of Worms in 1522) but for the much more worldly and important fact that Henry VIII, King of England, was going broke and the abbeys, never a particularly popular section of society in England, owned a huge slice of the country's land assets plus priceless libraries, huge supplies of lead and brass in the form of roofing and bells, and lots of faced stone ashlars. 



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Pilgrimage, The Great Adventure of the Middle Ages, John Ure

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So in 1536 Henry, desperate for cash,  engineered the passing of the Suppression Act which led to the first phase of the "dissolution of the monasteries" - the taking over by the crown of the assets of the 70% of religious houses in England and Wales with revenues below £200 a year, and the eviction of their monks and nuns.  After this was accomplished, larger monasteries, including those which ran cathedrals, were persuaded by Vicar General Thomas Cromwell to follow suit "voluntarily".  Such persuasion included promises (which were kept) of lifetime pensions for the monks and nuns, and usually a seriously large lump sum for the abbot or abbess!


In parallel with monastery and abbey closures, Henry established a Commission for the Destruction of Shrines, which set to with gusto to destroy all the shrines in the country and (more importantly) confiscate their often considerable treasures.  For example, when Henry VIII's boys came to close down  the shrine of Saint Thomas (Becket) in Canterbury Cathedral in 1538, they needed 26 wagons to carry off the loot.  The lucrative pilgrimage trade went into terminal decline, as did pilgrim hospitality and memorabilia businesses.



In March 1540 the surrender of Waltham Abbey (right), which appropriately contained the 500 year old tomb of (bits of) Harold II (maybe), the last Saxon King of England who had been killed and hacked to bits at the battle of Hastings,  brought the dissolution process to its end without the King ever having had legislative authority to move outside of the smaller religious establishments.  


There were no monasteries or nunneries left operating in England, and their treasures, artefacts, libraries, building materials and huge landholdings (well over a quarter of  the land in England), now belonged to the King or those he needed to pay off.     In addition shrines and chantry chapels in all churches were looted and their tombs destroyed.  The lucrative intra-English pilgrim trade disappeared overnight.


Henry's wreckers (and the much more vicious ones of O.Cromwell) left many abbey and priory churches intact (often with denosed statues and broken stained glass), and several of these have survived in the form of parish churches and cathedrals (see below).




Waltham Abbey - beautiful original Norman nave (early 1100s) with Victorian apse, "rose" and Zodiac ceiling










More books about Henry VIII and various Thomases


On the right - portrait of Thomas Cromwell (c1485 - 28 July 1540 (55) (executed)) by Hans Holbein the Younger (c1498 - 1543 (45)), from the stunningly illustrated (and written) book by Prof Susan Foister about the greatest portrait painter working in England between the late 1520s and his death in 1543.




Not your nicest guy, T Cromwell, but family historians owe him a great debt of gratitude because in 1538 he mandated for the first time that all parish churches had to keep records of births (christenings), marriages and deaths (burials).  In 1598 a further law ordered churches to provide their bishop with a transcript of their register information each year ("bishops' transcripts").  Little could anyone have imagined the much much later explosion of interest in parish registers / bishops' transcripts as the dominant source of English family history dates prior to the introduction of a national registration system in 1837 (or indeed the involvement of the Mormon Church in putting millions of  these records on the web). 





The Rector of the hamlet of Starston, Norfolk, who was probably the only writer around, pens the intro to his Parish Register Book nearly 450 years ago in 1558, when things were finally looking up for the C of E.



Parish Register for Cuby with Tregony (Cornwall) - 1683

Paradox's 7 x grt grand-parents marry:

"Richard the son of John Teague

was marryed to Grace

Laurence the 22nd day of October"




Just under 250 years after Cromwell, BMDs become a source of stamp duty revenue in 1783, and the estate of the late Willm Clutterham of Starston, Norfolk, becomes the first in the parish to pay a new threepenny stamp duty.


Parish Registers like these can be viewed  because of the generosity of the Mormon Church and their  "Family Search" Website.



The monastic cathedrals themselves were still needed for Henry's Church of England, and so, after the King's "visitors" had  cleaned everything out and destroyed what they did not like, he refounded them (without land holdings) and appointed Bishops, Deans and Canons (often the previous Abbots, Priors and Monks) to run them along the same lines as the already existing secular cathedrals.  In more than one case the new administrators got into the smashing up act (though their reasoning was "spiritual" rather than monetary)! 


In some cases schools (known as King's Schools - for example the King's Schools at Canterbury, Ely, Gloucester, Worcester etc) were refounded or founded and used some of the old monastic buildings. 


For many cathedral monastic buildings, the really brutal destruction came a hundred years' later at the hands of the followers of that other Cromwell - Ollie (1599-1649-1658 (59)), who also had a penchant for smashing medieval stained glass and denosing statues. 


Over the intervening centuries many of the monastic building structures around the cathedrals have disappeared, but there are notable exceptions such as the cloisters and chapter houses at Canterbury, Worcester and Gloucester, and the almost complete monastic complex, including the magnificent wood beamed dormitory, at Durham, which was the major English pilgrimage centre before the Shrine for murdered (1170) Saint Thomas (Becket) was built by Archbishop Stephen Langton in Canterbury Cathedral in 1220.




English Cathedral Photo Pages - Quick Links



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Medieval Abbeys (monastic foundations) which became Cathedrals (see map)


Canterbury   Winchester   Durham   Ely   Norwich   Worcester   Rochester   Bath Abbey   Carlisle



Medieval Secular foundations (see map)

built specifically as cathedrals by church and town authorities


York Minster   Lincoln   Salisbury   Exeter   Chichester   Lichfield   Wells   Hereford   Saint Paul's London (destroyed in 1666 in the Great Fire of London, rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren)



Henry VIII's New Cathedrals c1540 (not shown on map)

(All previously monastic foundations)


Westminster Abbey (briefly)   Peterborough   Oxford   Gloucester   Bristol   Chester




Canterbury   Winchester   Durham


Ely   Norwich   Worcester


Rochester   Bath Abbey   Carlisle


Canterbury Cathedral



Saint Paul's Cathedral, London - Photo Lawrence Williams





York Minster   Lincoln   Salisbury   Exeter   Chichester   Lichfield   Wells   Hereford   Saint Paul's London (destroyed in 1666 in the Great Fire of London)


By Henry VIII's time around half of medieval England's cathedrals were secular, and had been erected as cathedrals in their own right by cities and the church.  These cathedrals did not have attached monasteries to be closed by Henry (though their shrines and chantry chapels stacked with gear were fair looting game).  The only cathedral in this group which does not exist today is Saint Paul's in London, a large Romanesque structure completed in 1150 on the site of the original 604 cathedral.  It was destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666, and replaced by the present domed masterpiece (left) designed by Sir Christopher Wren and completed around 1710.


Each cathedral had a Dean and three other senior officers - Precentor, Chancellor and Treasurer.  Under them came a body of canons, who drew their income from "prebends" (estates).  The canons were in turn understudied by vicars, who did the hard work!  Most of the secular cathedrals had monastery style chapter houses, where the dean and chapter met, and cloisters.




Westminster Abbey (briefly)   Peterborough   Oxford


Gloucester   Bristol   Chester


Finally, at the same time as orchestrating the biggest redistribution of assets since the Norman conquest of 1066, and dismantling and closing all of the monasteries and convents in England, Henry produced a plan for "mantling" 13 new cathedrals and dioceses, but these ended up being whittled down to 6 - all of which interestingly were medieval monastic foundations. 


The list of 6 included Westminster Abbey (right), and although nowadays it is probably the most famous church in England, it only enjoyed the status of a cathedral for just over a decade until 1556.


Interestingly the list also included the magnificent Italianate Peterborough Abbey, which contains the tomb of Henry's first wife - Catherine of Aragon.

Westminster Abbey


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