Writing the history of the modern cathedrals. Part One

I recently had occasion to think about cathedral histories; and in particular, the clutch of volumes that appeared over the last few years for the major medieval foundations. There is a prevailing model: a large general volume, with multiple authors under the general editorship of a senior scholar, with often some sort of relationship with the cathedral chapter itself. York Minster blazed the trail (Gerald Aylmer and Reginald Cant, 1977) and since then Chichester, Canterbury, St Paul’s, Norwich, Rochester and Winchester have all their own histories. (See the list at the foot of this post if you’re interested; I doubt it is complete.)

It struck me then how very thin the coverage for the more recent foundations is in comparison; and some recent work I’ve been doing on Newcastle cathedral (St Nicholas) has confirmed the impression. Coventry is a unique case, as are the other newly built cathedrals (Guildford and Liverpool). For those medieval parish churches given cathedral status to serve a new diocese, there seems to be almost no scholarly historical writing. None of the cathedrals of Blackburn, Birmingham, Bradford, Chelmsford, Leicester, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield or Southwark  has (as far as I know) its own single-volume history, nor indeed very much in the way of shorter pieces of work. They all, of course, have their guidebooks, which by and large include a potted history, but little more. (I should say that I am primarily interested in these buildings as cathedrals; and so I’m setting aside work done on their previous history as parish churches.)

Why this neglect ? There is, of course, simply less history – a little over a century, if that, as set against 900 or more years for Chichester or Canterbury. But it may be to do with the comparative neglect of modern religious history (as opposed to medieval), and to a sense that the Church of England got the timing wrong, creating a host of new cathedrals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, just as its own significance was beginning to wane and they became less and less relevant. There may also be less of a readership to buy such books (fewer tourists), and they lack a 900-year anniversary on which to hang the publication.

Whatever the reason, there is some very interesting work to be done on these churches, individually and as a group. How did the growing self-confidence of cities such as Manchester or Newcastle shape the formation of new dioceses and their cathedrals ? If they were expanded and/or newly decorated, who paid ? How significant was the presence of an older Roman Catholic cathedral (as in Newcastle or Portsmouth) ? How did cathedral ministry in the urban environment differ from life in Ely or Salisbury ? Were these buildings of local symbolic importance during the Blitz, as St Paul’s was for London ?  I should be delighted to receive any references that bear on these and related questions.

In Part Two:  writing the history of the Roman Catholic cathedrals (Arundel), and of a new building (Guildford).

Recent cathedral histories (additions welcome)

Atherton, I., Fernie, E. Harper-Bill C. and Smith, H. (eds) Norwich Cathedral: Church, City and Diocese, 1096-1996  (London, Hambledon, 1996)
Aylmer, G., Cant, R. (eds) A History of York Minster (Oxford, Clarendon, 1977)
Burns, A., Keene, D., Saint, A. St Paul’s. The Cathedral Church of London, 604-2004   (New Haven, Yale, 2004)
Bussby, Frederick Winchester Cathedral, 1079-1979    (Southampton, Bussby and Cave, 1979, 1987 reprint)
Collinson, P, Ramsey, N., Sparkes, M. (eds) A History of Canterbury Cathedral    (Oxford, OUP, 1995)
Welander, David The History , Art and Architecture of Gloucester Cathedral    (Stroud, Alan Sutton, 1991)
Yates, N.,  Welsby, Paul A. (eds) Faith and Fabric; A History of Rochester Cathedral, 604 – 1994 (Woodbridge, Boydell, 1996)
Mary Hobbs (ed) Chichester Cathedral. An Historical Survey (Chichester, Phillimore,1994)
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One thought on “Writing the history of the modern cathedrals. Part One

  1. Pingback: The English cathedrals and monasteries: new DVD | Webstory: Peter Webster's blog

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