The magnificent Gloucester Cathedral was built in 1100 as a Norman abbey church and survived the Dissolution thanks to its historical connection with the monarchy. It has one of the largest medieval stained glass windows in England and an elegant and impressive interior. It was from this church that William I ordered the Domesday Book, and, in more recent history, the cathedral was graced by the filming of more than one Harry Potter movie.
History of Gloucester Cathedral
The Abbey of St. Peter in Gloucester was founded in 681 AD by the Saxon king Osric. Built over Roman foundations, the abbey was originally made of wood. By the 9th century the wooden structure was replaced by stone, and in 1058 the abbey church was rebuilt on a much grander scale by the Bishop of Worcester.
At Christmas, 1085, it was from St. Peter's Abbey Church that William the Conqueror ordered the famous Domesday Book. The Book noted of the future Gloucester Cathedral that, "This manor was always exempt from tax and from all royal service."
In 1088, this building was destroyed by fire and construction on a new building began with the crypt and main stone structure in 1089. The influences on this structure, much of which still stands today, are both Anglo-Saxon and Norman. The nearby Worcester Cathedral was begun in 1084 on the grand Romanesque style, and it served as the most readily available model.
The new church was consecrated in 1100, but just 22 years later was nearly destroyed by fire. Rebuilding was slow due to lack of funds, but was good enough by 1216 to be the chosen venue for the crowning of the young Henry III. The coronation revitalized royal interest in the Abbey Church.
Another highly significant event for the future of St. Peter's Abbey was the burial of the murdered King Edward II in the church in 1330. The king's gruesome and unjust death made him into an unofficial saint, and his tomb attracted pilgrims from near and far. Many of these pilgrims gave extravagent gifts to the abbey.
This new wealth allowed for an ambitious rebuilding project, which began in 1331 and continued for 20 years. Much of the church was redone in the brand-new Perpendicular Gothic style, beginning in the south transept and reaching the choir six years later.
The remodelling of the choir included the addition of a cage of stonework that was extended upwards to a new clerestory of huge dimenstions. The Great East Window and the choir stalls with misericords were both installed in about 1350. The canopies above the choir stalls are exactly the same style as those depicted above the saints in the East Window.
This style was first used in London in a chapel in Westminster Abbey and the chapter house of Old St. Paul's, but both were destroyed by fire. Thus Gloucester has the earliest and most complete example of Perpendicular Gothic architecture in England.
In addition to bringing in pilgrim money, King Edward's shrine may have saved the great abbey church from destruction at the Dissolution of the Monasteries. In September 1541, King Henry VIII declared St. Peter's Abbey in Gloucester to be a cathedral church in the newly created diocese of Gloucester. He remarked, "considering the site of the late monastery in which the monument of our renowned ancestor the King of England is erected, is a fit and proper place..."
When the Reformation briefly reversed under the Catholic Queen Mary, Bishop Hooper of Gloucester was burned at the stake in 1555. His monument is to the west of the cathedral close by St Mary's Gate.
Gloucester Cathedral sustained minor damage in 1634 during the English Civil War but In 1649, the newly-established Parliament abolished the Dean the Chapter and made plans to tear down the cathedral.
Thankfully, the cathedral was saved when the mayor and burgesses of Gloucester took it over in 1656. In gratitude, the mayor was given a throne across from the bishop's throne in the choir (still there today). In 1660, King Charles II reinstated the Dean and Chapter and cathedral life was finally back to normal.
A major refurbishment was undertaken by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1867-73. Gloucester Cathedral escaped damage during World War II, but precautions were taken: the Great East Window was removed and stored in the crypt. There was no time to write down where all the glass went when it was taken down, so after the war it had to be reassembled based on old postcards.
What to See at Gloucester Cathedral
Reflecting several different periods, Gloucester Cathedral mirrors perfectly the slow growth of ecclesiastical taste and the development of the Perpendicular style. The interior has largely been spared the sterilizing attentions of modern architects and is predominantly Norman with major Perpindicular Gothic enhancements from the transepts eastwards.
Outside, the main feature of interest is the impressive central tower, which rises 225 feet (69m) high and can be seen from miles around. It was built during the abbacy of Thomas Sebrok (1450-57) by Robert Tully, one of the monks. Unlike in most cathedrals, the west front is of little interest. It dates from the renovations of Abbot Morwent in the 1420s (on which see below).
The massive Norman pillars (32 feet high and 6 feet in diameter) and typically Norman zigzag arches of the nave have been left untouched since their completion in the late 11th century.
This was almost not the case: in the 1420s, Abbot Morwent began to rebuild the nave in the Perpendicular style, beginning at the west end. He had replaced the two westerly bays of the nave before he died, when the work abruptly stopped. Evidence of this can be seen not only in the distinctive Perpendicular pillars of the western bays but also in discontinued vaulting in the north aisle by the entrance to the cloister.
The stone vault of the nave replaced the original wooden roof in 1242. It has gilded roof bosses in red and green, some with figurative scenes.
The crypt can be entered from the south transept by asking a cathedral guide to accompany you. It is well worth doing so, as the earliest part of the cathedral is down here, dating from 1087. The crypt soon became waterlogged, and still does regularly today, so it was not used for very long. The central area is designed to host services, with Norman pillars, low vaults and carved capitals.
Most of the crypt capitals are carved with a simple stiff-leaf motif, but there is one figurative capital - a man's face with large eyes and a very long mustache. His identity is unknown, but similar figures can be seen throughout northern Europe. One theory is that he is the old Viking god Odin, carved into the church to hedge bets in case the old gods should turn out to be the true ones. Another notable capital, adjacent to the mustached man, is a Saxon design thought to represent the keys to Valhalla.
In the south ambulatory is a memorial to Robert of Normandy, the oldest son of William the Conqueror and an early benefactor of Gloucester Abbey. His youngest brother, later King Henry I, imprisoned him in 1106 and he died in captivity in Cardiff Castle in 1134. He was buried in the chapter house of the abbey.
Sir Robert's lifelike effigy was carved of Irish bog oak in the 13th century. It was probably made by knights on the Third Crusade as a tribute to this knight of the First Crusade. It reclines on a tomb chest of the 15th century. Opposite the monument are two medieval cope chests, which held the monks' religious vestments.
The far east end of the cathedral is occupied by the Lady Chapel, which dates from the 1470s and reflects the final flowering of the Perpendicular Gothic style at the end of the 15th century. The altar rails were made in 1617 on orders of William Laud, Dean of Gloucester until 1621.
The Norman lead font near the entrance to the chapel dates from c.1130 and has fine figurative carvings. It was given to the cathedral in 1940. It originally came from Lancaut in the Wye Valley.
The delicate walls of the Lady Chapel are filled with stained glass windows, most of which are by Chrisopher Whall in the early 1900s. The east window contains much medieval glass, but it is mostly a jumble of fragments brought here in the early 1800s from elsewhere in the building.
In the north ambulatory near the altar is a monument to Osric, prince of Mercia, who founded the first abbey on this site in 679. The monument dates from 1530 and shows Osric holding a model of his abbey church.
Further down is the effigy of King Edward II, one of the earliest alabaster carvings in England. The tomb of the slain king attracted many pilgrims in the 14th century, whose offerings funded the major expansion and renovation of the east end in 1331-50. It is currently (October 2007) undergoing major restoration work.
The choir dates from the great rebuilding project of 1337-50, although the inner choir stalls and pavement are Victorian restorations. The choir stalls against the wall, which include fine canopies and 46 medieval misericords, are original from 1350 and in excellent condition. There are also 12 Victorian misercords.
The choir vault has a golden angel orchestra surrounding a golden Christ in glory, forming a heavenly canopy over the Great East Window. This window, which depicts Christ, Mary, and numerous apostles, dates from about 1350. It is the size of a tennis court and was the largest in Europe when it was created. Today it vies with the Great Window of York Minster for the title of the largest stained glass window in England. The stained glass was probably imported from the Rouen area of France and is of the highest quality.
Tours of the Whispering Gallery offer a close-up look at the back of the Great East Window with a permanent exhibition about its medieval glass, and tours of the tower(269 steps up) are available in summer.
The 14th-century cloisters are a major highlight of Gloucester Cathedral. The fan-vaulted roof is the finest in Europe, and the cloisters enclose a peaceful garden. This was used in the filming of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone for some Hogwarts School scenes.
The Chapter House, where monks met daily to discuss the business of the monastery, extends off the east walk of the cloisters. It is large and has a rectangular shape, unlike the later octagonal shape of most other chapter houses. Today it is used by the cathedral chapter and as an examination room by the King's School next door.
The King's School, founded by King Henry VIII, occupies the infirmary and other monastic buildings off the northeast corner of the cloisters. This area is off-limits to visitors, but there is a good general view over the gate.
Quick Facts on Gloucester Cathedral
|Names:||Cathedral Church of the Holy and Indivisible Trinity · Gloucester Cathedral|
|Categories:||cathedrals; abbeys; Grade I listed buildings|
|Dedication:||Holy Trinity; formerly St. Peter|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||51.867297° N, 2.246447° W|
Tower: Apr-Oct Wed-Fri 2:30, Sat and national holidays 1:30 and 2:30
Whispering Gallery: Apr-Oct Mon-Fri 10:30-4, Sat 10:30-3.
|Lodging:||View hotels near Gloucester Cathedral|
- Personal visit (October 15, 2007).
- Gloucester Cathedral (color booklet purchased in the shop)
- The Walk-Round Guide to Gloucester Cathedral (large pamphlet purchased in the shop)
- Alec Clifton-Taylor, The Cathedrals of England (Thames & Hudson), 226.
- Fodor's Great Britain 2006.
- Eyewitness Travel Guide to Great Britain.
- Gloucester Cathedral - official website
- Gloucester Cathedral - Gloucester City Council
- Gloucester Cathedral: An Abbey that Survived the Dissolution - Britannia.com
Map of Gloucester Cathedral
Below is a location map and aerial view of Gloucester Cathedral. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.