To be a pilgrim: Best British cathedrals

Durham Cathedral in the evening sunshine. Credit: Gannet77/Getty/istock

To mark 2020’s Year of Cathedrals, Year of Pilgrimage, here are some of the most awe-inspiring ecclesiastical buildings that have helped shape Britain

In the Middle Ages, right up to the English Reformation of the 16th century – in which King Henry VIII separated from Rome and the Catholic Church and set up a new Church of England of which he made himself head – the Church wielded more power than the king or queen.

Its leaders were consulted by monarchs of the day, and its cathedrals were places where power struggles were played out, loyalties tested, and enormous wealth put on ostentatious display. The bodies of saints were buried in the crypts, and people were encouraged to make pilgrimages to their shrines in the hope of being cleansed of illness
or absolved of sins.

With this year heralding a number of important anniversaries – from the 800th anniversary of Salisbury Cathedral to the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket – we take an armchair tour around some of the most important cathedrals in Britain to reveal secret stories and proud (and not so proud) pasts.

Salisbury Cathedral

Credit: Adam Burton/Alamy

This year is the 800th anniversary of the laying of Salisbury Cathedral’s first foundation stone, after it moved from an earlier site called Old Sarum. Inside you will see the oldest set of quire stalls in Britain as well as what’s claimed to be the world’s oldest working clock. The cathedral also boasts Britain’s tallest spire, which rises an impressive 55m above the tower – a tower tour allows you to climb to the foot of the spire and look up it from the inside. The cathedral’s pride and joy, however, is the 1215 Magna Carta, the best preserved of the four surviving copies of this historic document, which is on permanent display in the 13th-century Chapter House.

Gloucester Cathedral

Gloucester Cathedral. Credit: Shutterstock

In a tranquil corner of Southwest England, at the heart of pretty Gloucester, this atmospheric cathedral is too often overlooked by visitors. Wandering the cathedral is a lesson in architectural history. Though much of it dates from the Norman period, many of its more jaw-dropping details are Gothic in style, from Early English to Perpendicular. Its fan-vaulted cloisters are beautiful to walk beneath, while its Lady Chapel is home to some of the best-preserved Arts and Crafts stained glass in Britain.

For many, the primary reason for a visit is the shrine of the murdered King Edward II. His is not the only royal connection here – the stained glass in the south aisle depicts the coronation of Henry III, crowned here in 1216.

Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral in the evening sunshine. Credit: Gannet77/Getty/istock

Peering down over the River Wear from its rocky perch, this cathedral forms part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the castle next door, from which the Prince-Bishops of Durham ruled much of Northern England. Built between the 11th and 12th centuries, it is widely considered to be the finest example of Norman architecture in the whole of Britain.

Thick columns in the nave reach towards a spectacular Romanesque rib-vaulted ceiling,
and the monastic buildings are almost wholly intact. Durham Cathedral is home to both the shrine of St Cuthbert (the seventh-century Bishop of Lindisfarne) and the tomb of the Venerable Bede, making the city an important place of pilgrimage for centuries. Six new long-distance Northern Saints Trails leading to Durham Cathedral will help Northeast England reclaim its status as the ‘Christian Crossroads of the British Isles’.

Winchester Cathedral

The Quire in Winchester Cathedral. Credit: Ian Dagnall/Alamy

In 1,000 years, this cathedral has evolved from a small Saxon church into the magnificent building you see today. Like many of Britain’s great cathedrals, Winchester was built shortly after William the Conqueror’s victory at the Battle of Hastings, so it has many 11th-century features, but much of its current architectural grandeur dates from the 14th and 15th centuries.

Highlights include the soaring Perpendicular Gothic nave – at over 160 metres long it’s one of the biggest in the world – and the ornate stone Great Screen that stands behind the high altar, which dates from the mid-15th century.

The cathedral also forms part of The Pilgrims’ Way, which once saw medieval pilgrims arriving in their droves to pray at the shrine of St Swithun; their modern-day counterparts come to pay their respects to one of our most cherished writers, Jane Austen, who is buried here.

Hereford Cathedral

Credit: Glyn Fletcher/Alamy

This year marks the 700th anniversary of the canonisation of Thomas de Cantilupe, Bishop of Hereford, in 1320. Cantilupe was second only to Thomas Becket in terms of the number of miracles attributed to him, and his shrine at Hereford Cathedral has long been popular with pilgrims.

Other reasons to visit include the 14th-century Lady Chapel and the exquisite 17th-century Chained Library (the primary way of preventing book theft was to chain books together). The cathedral’s most precious object is the Mappa Mundi, a map of Europe dating from around 1300 drawn on a single sheet of velum, which shows how scholars of the time viewed the world in both spiritual and geographical terms.

York Minster

Credit: Paul Melling/Alamy

In the centre of the walled medieval city of York, the Minster ranks as one of the most beautiful Gothic buildings in the world. The official seat of the Archbishop of York – the third highest office in the Church of England after HM The Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury – it is suitably fancy.

Though there was a church here as early as the seventh century, several buildings fell into decay or were destroyed before Walter de Gray was made Archbishop in 1215 and set out his vision for transforming what was then a Norman building into a Gothic masterpiece of glass and stone.

If we had to choose one standout feature it would be the Great East Window, finished in 1408, the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the world. At the other end of the nave is the Great West Window, affectionately nicknamed ‘the Heart of Yorkshire’ due to the shape of the stonework at the top. It is said that any couples that kiss beneath it will stay together forever.

Canterbury Cathedral

Credit: Roman Babakin/Shutterstock

In 2020 Canterbury commemorates the 850th anniversary of the death of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was killed following a long-standing disagreement with King Henry II. On hearing the king despair “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”, four knights are believed to have set off to Canterbury, killing Becket in his own cathedral. After his death people started to attribute miracles to Becket, and the cathedral became the final stop on England’s Pilgrim’s Way.

Becket’s story is told in the stained-glass windows, but long before his time the building was connected to St Augustine, who set up the first cathedral here in the sixth century, bringing Christianity to these isles.

St Paul’s Cathedral

The iconic dome of St Paul’s Cathedral – the second largest cathedral dome in the world – is as much a part of London’s skyline as Big Ben. St Paul’s is the magnum opus of Christopher Wren, who rebuilt the cathedral as well as 51 other city churches following the Great Fire of 1666.

Despite being the first British cathedral to be built especially for the Anglican faith, St Paul’s has none of the restraint of typical Anglican churches and instead is a Baroque masterpiece from start to finish. 

Visitors with a head for heights should climb all the way to the Golden Gallery – the highest point you can reach in the dome – for unbeatable London views. Two levels down, a quirk in the construction of the Whispering Gallery means a whisper into the wall on one side can be heard on the other.

Visitors can pay homage to Wren himself at his humble tomb in the crypt. Its Latin epitaph translates as: “Reader, if you seek his memorial – look around you”.