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.

Read the full feature in the July/August 2020 issue of BRITAIN.