England, UK: The dark history behind Britain's grand cathedrals

The scale of the worldwide mourning following the terrible fire that devastated Paris's beloved Notre Dame Cathedral has illustrated, if nothing else, how much we all still treasure ancient religious houses of worship.

But while Europe's most popular historic monument, visited by 13 million people a year, is repaired and rebuilt, there are half a dozen glorious British cathedrals welcoming sightseers just a short Euro ride away. And many of those have often overcome terrible adversity themselves to survive and thrive.

Chief among them is Salisbury Cathedral in England's south-west, close to Stonehenge which, as we now know, counts even Russian spooks among its most ardent admirers. Although two secret service members were charged with the attempted novichok poisoning murder of an ex-Soviet double agent in the neighbourhood, they insisted they were in the UK on much more thrilling business: to see the wonderful city's cathedral, "famous for its 123-metre spire".

Right. It's likely another visitor to the same cathedral, the man who tried to steal the priceless 1215 copy of the Magna Carta in 2018 from its display case, was just as overwhelmed by the cathedral's splendour and then similarly absent-mindedly declined to be delivered from evil.

But it is hard to argue that such current-day misfortune doesn't add a guilty frisson of excitement to Britain's most hallowed halls of righteousness.

Salisbury Cathedral is still one of the greatest ancient places of worship in the whole of Europe, and among its most stunning. Built after the Battle of Hastings, when William the Conqueror snatched control of England and Wales, and finished in local Chilmark stone and limestone in 1218, it's hard not to gaze in awe, however, at its fearsome gothic grandeur and not think of the bloodshed from which it was begat.

Incredible Medieval masonry and craftsmanship, a tall and narrow nave with lofty arches all the way along, angels carved and finished in brightly coloured still-there Medieval paint, and its octagonal chapter house with the Magna Carta … it inspires thrills and chills in equal measure.

For while, like most of Britain's spectacular cathedrals, it can be a quiet place of solemn worship, prayer and meditation, smidgeons of horrible history are often not far away.

So many British cathedrals in the past were stained with the blood of both the devout and their enemies, and were the silent witnesses to much crime and punishment during the Reformation in the 16th century. Then, in the English Civil War of the 17th century, they were often places used to imprison people, sometimes to torture them and occasionally for murder.


Two and a half hours west, Canterbury Cathedral is another magnificent building, and one with an equally deadly past of murder and mayhem. Founded in 597 but rebuilt between 1070 and 1077, it's possibly best known for the killing of its Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170. Pilgrims have been visiting since the Middle Ages to see the place where he was struck down on the orders of King Henry II in the place now hallowed in the cathedral as the "Martyrdom".

And he wasn't even the first Archbishop of Canterbury to meet a terrible end. Before him was Archbishop Aelfheah who was captured by Viking raiders in 1011 and, after refusing to be ransomed, was similarly slaughtered. He was later canonised as a saint and it's said that Becket was praying to him just before his own murder.

The Mother Church of the world's Anglicans is still one of Britain's most glorious buildings, with its great gothic towers, carvings and magnificent stained glass windows. Apart from the murders of its headmen, it's also had to withstand not only the ravages of time, but also a massive fire in 1174, an earthquake in 1382 and those blasted Puritans in 1642 whose "cleansing" of the cathedral included smashing the statue of Christ and the building's wooden gates.

In the north-east of England, wondrous Durham Cathedral, built in 1093 and still one of the best examples of Norman architecture in Europe, also, it's been revealed, had a particularly brutal past. Three years ago, two mass graves next to the cathedral were discovered, and radiocarbon dating analysis has found they were the remains of Scottish soldiers captured by Oliver Cromwell in the Civil War. The cathedral, and the nearby castle, was apparently used as a prison for about 3000 survivors from a bloody battle of the time. Then, in one of Britain's most shocking horror rolls, an estimated 1700 of the vanquished were killed either while incarcerated, or shortly afterwards.

Further north in Scotland is the rather more modest Viking Romanesque St Magnus in the Orkney Islands, off the north mainland coast, the most northerly cathedral in Britain. It has a dark past, too. It was founded in 1137 in the memory of St Magnus who'd been murdered by his Orkney co-ruler and cousin, Hakon, who tricked him in a battle and then ordered his cook to strike him on the head with an axe. Well, you've never been able to choose your family.

He was buried, and the rocky area around the grave mysteriously bloomed into a green field. His followers declared a miracle, but the bishop of Orkney declared that to say so was heresy. The bishop then, mysteriously, went blind only to have his sight restored when he prayed to St Magnus.

Other gruesome features of the cathedral include a hangman's ladder used until the 18th century, and a dungeon down below where a woman accused of witchcraft in the 1600s was kept locked up before her planned burning at the stake. Happily, she was rescued in the nick of time by her lover, and spirited away from the nasty Christians who were about to kill her.

Violence has long been an intrinsic part of the history of many of Britain's cathedrals. The country's most famous cathedral, St Paul's in London, built originally in 604, suffered terribly. Like Notre Dame, it's no stranger to fire either, having been burnt to the ground by Vikings in 962 and, after being painstakingly rebuilt over two centuries, again burnt down, this time by the Great Fire of London in 1666. Its final splendid incarnation was finished by Sir Christopher Wren in 1710, it hosted "the wedding of the century" in 1981 between Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, and, so far – for the cathedral at least – so good.

Fire claimed another victim, this time in the 12th century, when it swept through Lincoln Cathedral, whose wooden roof caught alight and fed the flames. In time, that was replaced by a stone version which was smashed shortly afterwards, not by human hand this time, but by a malevolent force of nature, an earthquake.

The cathedral was once again rebuilt but the central tower collapsed in the 13th century, and 300 years later the wooden spire was destroyed by a ferocious gale. But happily it looks majestic today and, even better, no one has yet conspired to steal its copy of the Magna Carta – or if they have, they certainly haven't succeeded.

Bastardry from the Roundheads was to blame for damage to the massive Winchester Cathedral – one of the biggest cathedrals in Europe with the longest nave – in the 1600s during the Civil War. They smashed one of the precious stained glass which was repaired, but now looks a bit of a patchwork.

Today, a number of its visitors go to gaze on the tomb of writer Jane Austen who died in the city and is buried in the north aisle. Others no doubt think of the 1960s novelty song, Winchester Cathedral (Winchester Cathedral, You're bringing me down, You stood and you watched as My baby left town), later sung by none other than Frank Sinatra.

Another act of savagery befell St Michael's of Coventry. Enemy forces in the World War II smashed it to smithereens when 40,000 bombs and 500 tonnes of explosives were dropped on the city. The ruins were left and another cathedral, much more modern, was built next to it in the 1950s and 1960s so the pair would continue side by side.

Benjamin Britten composed his War Requiem for the cathedral's consecration, a huge tapestry of Christ was designed and hung against one of the walls and, out of all that desolation and misery, the building became celebrated as a shiny symbol of a new, optimistic post-war Britain.

So it seems nearly anything is possible, even miracles. And while we wait for Notre Dame to regain its splendour, we can take heart from the cathedrals across the Channel wishing it bon courage.


Sue Williams travelled at her own expense.





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