Boasting a wealth of ancient buildings and monuments that have borne witness to defining moments in British history, Gloucester is truly a great English cathedral
British ‘Caer Glow’, Roman ‘Glevum’ or Saxon ‘Gloweceastra’; Gloucester has stood proud at the crossroads of history for more than 2000 years. Boasting a wealth of fine, ancient buildings and monuments that have borne witness to countless defining moments in British history, Gloucester can be truly regarded as a Great English city. It offers an increasingly inspiring selection of visitor attractions, festivals, shopping, sport and entertainment on offer to meet the demands of a 21st Century audience.
However, Gloucester’s history runs throughout the city and what better way to capture a sense of its past than by visiting its stunning cathedral. Gloucester Cathedral’s magnificent medieval tower can be seen from miles around: big, bold and beckoning. Yet as you enter the city it mysteriously disappears, apart from occasional tantalising glimpses, until you reach Cathedral Close.
This pleasing jumble of medieval, Tudor and Georgian houses is clustered around a green, lush turf dotted with lime trees. From here the soaring south side of the silvery-grey Cotswolds stone cathedral appears in glorious close up. Stepping inside the highly decorated south porch is like entering a different world, one echoing with the remnants of battles and persecution, steeped in history and religious devotion, now a haven of peace and tranquillity.The most obvious iconic feature of Gloucester Cathedral is its massive Norman nave. Flanked by muscular stone columns, this magnificent approach towards the high altar and the Great East Window is awe-inspiring. When the sun is streaming in and the organ is playing, it is easy to feel transported back into the Middle Ages. It’s a place that evokes a powerful impression of the enduring nature of religious faith from medieval times to the present day.
The immense columns themselves are 900 years old, part of the building since its consecration as a Benedictine abbey in July 1100 AD, and a splendid example of Romanesque architecture. The Great East Window covers the entire east end of the building and was the largest window in the world at the time of its installation in the mid-14th century. Today it has lost none of its grandeur and remains the second largest window in Britain. According to long-time cathedral guide and acknowledged expert in stained glass, Robin Lunn, it is “one of the masterpieces of European stained glass”.
At the head of the nave the high altar and reredos were designed by the versatile Victorian architect George Gilbert Scott, who also created the Albert Memorial and St Pancras Station in London. The cathedral’s eclectic mix of Norman and Perpendicular architecture, with a touch of Victorian, somehow blends harmoniously. “Gloucester is an extraordinary building, made from very different constituents,” declares Pascal Mychalysin, the cathedral’s Master Mason. “It may not be the biggest cathedral, but it is certainly one of the most interesting – historically, architecturally and ascetically it is fascinating in its complexity,” he says.
Ironically, we have William the Conqueror to thank for the cathedral’s early survival. On his invasion in 1066 the original Anglo Saxon foundation was struggling to survive and William summoned Serlo, a devout yet astute monk from Mont St Michel in Normandy, to become Abbot. Serlo transformed the monastery, increasing the number of Benedictine monks from two to more than one hundred, while doubling its wealth and enabling work to begin on a new abbey in the Romanesque style. Visitors today can see Serlo’s statue on the south porch, the main entrance to the cathedral, and Charles Kempe’s late 19th-century stained glass window in the north ambulatory depicts Serlo holding his plan for the new abbey.
However, as Robin Lunn observes, successive kings were less devout than William. “They were a complete set of thugs in those days,” he laughs. The story of William’s eldest son, Robert, for example, is not a happy one. Imprisoned in 1106 by his youngest brother Henry on his return from the Holy Land until his death, he was buried in the cathedral’s chapter house in 1134. His effigy stands in the south ambulatory, dressed as a crusader. About 200 years later, Edward II, having been deposed by his wife Isabella and probably murdered to boot, also rests in the cathedral. His magnificent tomb of Purbeck marble was erected by his son in the north ambulatory. Dark days these may have been, but Edward’s superb shrine testifies to the sublime skill of medieval craftsmen. A more recent example of excellent craftsmanship is located in the Lady Chapel where a series of intricate stained glass windows by Christopher Whall can be found. These pieces, with their rich colours and high-quality painting, are considered to be Whall’s finest work.
As you enter the south transept, look out for the poignant Mason’s Bracket on the east wall that shows an apprentice plunging to his death, watched by a horrified master mason. It’s “very significant,” according to Pascal, “because it is in the shape of a square, a most potent symbol for masons and famously adopted by the Freemasons”. Pascal adds that, surprisingly, accidents of this kind were not common in the Middle Ages. This early 14th-century sculpture was created precisely because such an event was relatively rare.
The Tudor and Stuart eras were particularly perilous times for the cathedral. Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1540 included Benedictine Gloucester and this could have proved fatal, as was the case for nearby monasteries at Hailes and Winchcombe and Tintern in the Wye Valley, which are all now in ruins. According to Robin Lunn, Gloucester was spared because it was Edward II’s burial place, so the abbey became a cathedral with a bishop replacing the abbot. Today the only major remaining features of the monastery are the chapter house and the famous cloister with its glorious fan vaulting, said to be the first recorded usage of this beautiful and delicate stone carving. Here the monks studied and meditated in fine weather and exercised when it was poor.
The years of uncertainty continued when Henry VIII’s daughter, Mary, ascended the throne. “Bloody Mary”. ordered Bishop Hooper, then Bishop of Gloucester, to be burnt at the stake outside St Mary’s Gate, where a statue of this Protestant martyr now stands. Later, when Cromwell came to power, the cathedral was in danger of being demolished, but was saved by the courageous Town Clerk, John Dauney. But during the Civil War Gloucester was besieged by Royalist forces and parliamentarian soldiers and horses occupied the cathedral, vandalising the interior and using the statuary outside for musket practice.
Today, Gloucester can take its place amongst the great English medieval cathedrals such as York, Lincoln and Winchester. It hasn’t become a prisoner of its memorable past, however. New works of art have been commissioned, such as Tom Denny’s contemporary stained glass windows in the South Ambulatory Chapel. Part of the 900th anniversary celebrations of Serlo’s foundation in 1089, these give a modern take on the centuries old triptych. In 2010 the cathedral hosted a spectacular exhibition of contemporary sculpture featuring artists including Antony Gormley and Damien Hirst, whose intense rendering of St Bartholomew was particularly eye catching. The cathedral has also maintained an outstanding reputation for choral music, the highlight being the Three Choirs Festival in conjunction with Hereford and Worcester. And if all of that isn’t contemporary enough, it has also provided a stage for Harry Potter films and television editions of Dr Who.
But, more importantly, the cathedral provides an oasis of calm. Michael Pernham, who was enthroned as the 40th Bishop of Gloucester in May 2004, says “the cathedral is a home to return to” and values “its Benedictine tradition which makes it a place where hospitality and worship are important”. Pascal agrees and is proud that the cathedral “is well loved and looked after”. It had 325,000 visitors last year who come to marvel at its splendour or gain spiritual comfort in a place that resonates welcome and peace.
All images provided by Gloucester Cathedral.