The Bishop’s throne
The city of Chester was an important Roman stronghold. There may have been a Christian basilica on the site of the present cathedral in the late Roman era, while Chester was controlled by Legio XX Valeria Victrix. Legend holds that the basilica was dedicated to St Paul and St Peter. This is supported by evidence that in Saxon times the dedication of an early chapel on this site was changed from St Peter to St Werburgh. In the 10th century, St Werburgh’s remains were brought to Chester, and 907 AD her shrine was placed in the church. It is thought that Ethelda turned the church into a college of secular canons, and that it was given a charter by King Edgar in 968. The abbey, as it was then, was restored in 1057 by Leofric, Earl of Mercia and Lady Godiva. This abbey was razed to the ground around 1090, with the secular canons evicted, and no known trace of it remains.
In 1093 a Benedictine monastery was established on the site by Hugh Lupus, Earl of Chester, and the earliest surviving parts of the structure date from that time. The abbey church was not at that time the cathedral of Chester; from 1075 to 1082 the cathedral of the diocese was the nearby church of St. John the Baptist, after which the see was transferred to Coventry. In 1538, during the dissolution of the monasteries, the monastery was disbanded and the shrine of St Werburgh was desecrated. In 1541 St Werburgh’s abbey became a cathedral of the Church of England by order of Henry VIII. At the same time, the dedication was changed to Christ and the Blessed Virgin. The last abbot of St Werburgh’s Abbey, Thomas Clarke, became the 1st dean of the brand-new cathedral at the head of a secular chapter.
While no trace of the 10th century church has been discovered, there is much evidence of the monastery of 1093. This work in the Norman style may be seen in the north west tower, the north transept and in remaining parts of the monastic buildings. The abbey church, beginning with the Lady Chapel at the eastern end, was extensively rebuilt in Gothic style during the 13th and 14th centuries. At the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, the cloister, the central tower, a brand-new south transept, the large west window and a brand-new entrance porch to the south had just been built in the Perpendicular style, and the south west tower of the façade had been begun. The west front was given a Tudor entrance, but the tower was never completed.
In 1636 the space beneath the south west tower became a bishop’s consistory court. It was furnished as such at that time, and is currently a unique survival in England. Until 1881, the south transept, which is unusually large, also took on a separate function as an independent ecclesiastical entity, the parish church of St Oswald. Although the 17th century saw additions to the furnishings and fittings, there was no further building work for several centuries. By the 19th century, the building was badly in need of restoration. The present homogeneous appearance that the cathedral presents from many exterior angles is largely the work of Victorian restorers, particularly Sir George Gilbert Scott. The twentieth century has seen continued maintenance and restoration. In 1973–75 a detached belfry designed by George Pace was erected in the grounds of the cathedral. In 2005 a brand-new Song School was added to the cathedral.
The cathedral is built of brand-new Red Sandstone, like the cathedrals of Carlisle, Lichfield and Worcester. The stone lends itself to detailed carving, but is also friable to rain and wind, and is badly affected by pollution. With the other red sandstone buildings, Chester is one of the most heavily restored of England’s cathedrals. The restoration, which included much refacing and many brand-new details, took place mainly in the 19th century.
Because the south transept is similar in dimension to the nave and choir, views of the building from the south-east and south-west give the impression of a building balanced around a central axis, with its tower as the hub.See image, top The tower is of the late 15th century Perpendicular style, but its four large battlemented turrets are the work of the restoration architect George Gilbert Scott. With its rhythmic arrangement of large, traceried windows, pinnacles, battlements and buttresses, the exterior of Chester Cathedral presents a fairly homogeneous character, which is an unusual feature as England’s cathedrals are in general noted for their stylistic diversity. Close examination reveals window tracery of several building stages from the 13th to the early 16th century. The richness of the 13th-century tracery is accentuated by the presence of ornate, crocketted drip-mouldings around the windows; those around the perpendicular windows are of simpler form.See image, top
The west front of the cathedral is not of particular architectural significance, as neither of its towers was completed. To the north is lower stage of a Norman tower, while to the south is the lower stage of a tower designed and begun, probably by Seth and George Derwall, in 1508, but left incomplete following the dissolution of the monastery in 1538. The façade is dominated by a large eight-light window in the Perpendicular style, which rises above a Tudor screen-like porch.The cathedral’s façade is largely obscured from view by the building previously used as the King’s School, which is currently a branch of Barclays Bank. The door of the west front is not used as the normal entrance to the cathedral, which is through the south west porch. This porch was probably designed by Seth Derwall, and it formed part of the same late 15th-century building programme as the south transept, central and southwest towers, and cloister.
The nave, looking towards the choir
The interior of Chester Cathedral gives a warm and mellow appearance because of the pinkish colour of the sandstone. The proportions appear spacious because the view from the west end of the nave to the east end is unimpeded by a pulpitum and the nave, although not long, is both wide and high compared with many of England’s cathedrals. The piers of the nave and choir are widely spaced, those of the nave carrying only the clerestory of large windows with no triforium gallery.See image, left The proportions are made possible partly because the ornate stellar vault, like that at York Minster, is of wood, not stone.
The present church, dating from around 1283 to 1537, replaced the earlier monastic church founded in 1093 and built in the Norman style. It is believed that the newer church was built around the older one. That the few remaining parts of the Norman church are of smaller proportions, while the height and width of the Gothic church are generous would seem to confirm this belief. Aspects of the design of the Norman interior are still visible in the north transept, which retains wall arcading and a broadly moulded arch leading to the sacristy, which was formerly a chapel. The transept has retained an early 16th-century coffered ceiling with decorated bosses, two of which are carved with the arms of Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey.
The north west tower is also of Norman construction. It serves as the baptistry and houses a black marble font, consisting of a bowl on a large baluster dating from 1697. The lower part of the north wall of the nave is also from the Norman building, but can only be viewed from the cloister because the interior has been decorated with mosaic.
The Early English Gothic chapter house, built between 1230 and 1265, is rectangular and opens off a "charming" vestibule leading from the north transept. The chapter house has grouped windows of simple untraceried form. Alec Clifton-Taylor describes the exterior of this building as a "modest but rather elegant example of composition in lancets" while Pevsner says of the interior "[It is] a wonderfully noble room" which is the "aesthetic climax of the cathedral". To the north of the chapter house is the slype, also Early English in style, and the warming room, which contains two large former fireplaces. The monastic refectory to the north of the cloister is of about the same date as the chapter house.
The Lady Chapel to the eastern end of the choir dates from between 1265 and 1290. It is of three bays, and contains the Shrine of St Werburgh, dating from the 14th century. The vault of the Lady Chapel is the only one in the cathedral that is of stone. It is decorated with carved roof bosses representing the Trinity, the Virgin and Child, and the murder of St Thomas à Becket. The chapel also has a sedilia and a piscina.
The choir, looking towards the nave
The choir, of five bays, was built between 1283 and 1315 to the design of Richard Lenginour, and is an early example of Decorated Gothic architecture. The piers have strongly modelled attached shafts, supporting deeply moulded arches. There is a triforium gallery with four cusped arches to each bay.See image, right The sexpartite vault, which is a 19th century restoration, is supported by clusters of three shafts which spring from energetic figurative corbels. The overall effect is robust, and contrasts with the delicacy of the pinnacled choir stalls, the tracery of the windows and the rich decoration of the vault which was carried out by the ecclesiastical designers, Clayton and Bell. The choir stalls, dating from about 1380, are one of the glories of the cathedral.
The aisles of the choir previously both extended on either side of the Lady Chapel. The south aisle was shortened in about 1870 by George Gilbert Scott, and given an apsidal east end, becoming the chapel of St Erasmus. The eastern end of the north aisle contains the chapel of St Werburgh.
The nave of six bays, and the large, aisled south transept were begun in about 1323, probably to the design of Nicholas de Derneford. There are a number of windows containing fine Flowing Decorated tracery of this period. The work ceased in 1375, in which year there was a severe outbreak of plague in England. The building of the nave was recommenced in 1485, more than 150 years after it was begun. The architect was probably William Rediche. Remarkably, for an English medieval architect, he maintained the original form, changing only the details. The nave was roofed with a stellar vault rather like that of the Lady Chapel at Ely and the choir at York Minster, both of which date from the 1370s. Like that at York, the vault is of wood, imitating stone.
From about 1493 until 1525 the architect appears to have been Seth Derwall, succeeded by George Derwall until 1537. Seth Derwall completed the south transept to a Perpendicular Gothic design, as seen in the transomed windows of the clerestory. He also built the central tower, southwest porch and cloisters. Work commenced on the south west tower in 1508, but it had not risen above the roofline at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, and has never been completed. The central tower, rising to 127 feet (39 m), is a “lantern tower” with large windows letting light into the crossing. Its external appearance has been altered by the addition of four battlemented turrets by George Gilbert Scott in the 19th century.
The Perpendicular Gothic cloister is entered from the cathedral through a Norman doorway in the north aisle. The cloister is part of the building programme that commenced in the 1490s and is probably the work of Seth Daerwell.
The south wall of the cloister, dating from the later part of the Norman period, forms the north wall of the nave of the cathedral, and includes blind arcading.
Among the earliest remaining structures on the site is an undercroft off the west range of the cloisters, which dates from the early 12th century, and which was originally used by the monks for storing food.
It consists of two naves with groin vaults and short round piers with round scalloped capitals.
Leading from the south of the undercroft is the abbot’s passage which dates from around 1150 and consists of two bays with rib-vaulting. Above the abbot’s passage, approached by a stairway from the west cloister, is St Anselm’s Chapel which also dates from the 12th century. It is in three bays and has a 19th-century Gothic-style plaster vault. The chancel is in one bay and was remodelled in the early 17th century. The screen, altar rails, holy table and plaster ceiling of the chancel date from the 17th century. The north range of the cloister gives access to a refectory, built by Simon de Whitchurch in the 13th century. It contains an Early English pulpit, approached by a staircase with an ascending arcade. The only other similar pulpit in England is in Beaulieu Abbey.
The Quadripartite vault of the choir
the 19th century the fabric of the building had become badly weathered, with Mr. Charles Hiatt writing that "the surface rot of the very perishable red sandstone, of which the cathedral was built, was positively unsightly" and that the "whole place previous to restoration struck one as woebegone and neglected; it perpetually seemed to hover on the verge of collapse, and yet was without a trace of the romance of the average ruin". Between 1818 and 1820 the architect Thomas Harrison restored the south transept, adding corner turrets. This part of the building served until 1881 as the parish church of St Oswald, and it was ecclesiastically separate. From 1844 R. C. Hussey carried out a limited restoration including work on the south side of the nave.
The most extensive restoration was carried out by the Gothic Revival architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott, who between 1868 and 1876 "almost entirely recased" the cathedral. In addition to extensive additions and alterations to the body of the church, Scott remodelled the tower, adding turrets and crenellations. Scott chose sandstone from the quarries at Runcorn for his restoration work. In addition to the restoration of the fabric of the building, Scott designed internal fittings such as the choir screen to replace those destroyed during the Civil War. He built the fan vault of the south porch, renewed the wooden vault of the choir and added a great many decorative features to the interior. Later in the century, from 1882, Sir Arthur Blomfield and his son Charles made further additions and modifications, including restoring and reinstating the Shrine of St Werburgh. More work was carried out in the 20th century by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott between 1891 and 1913, and by F. H. Crossley in 1939.
The treasures of Chester Cathedral are its rare fittings, specifically its choir stalls and the 17th century furnishing of the bishop’s consistory court in the south tower, which is a unique survival. The choir stalls date from about 1380. They have high, spiky, closely set canopies, with crocketed arches and spirelets. The stall ends have poppyheads and are rich with figurative carving. The stalls include 48 misericords, all but five of which are original, depicting a variety of subjects, some humorous and some grotesque. Pevsner states that they are "one of the finest sets in the country",while Alec Clifton-Taylor calls them “exquisite” and says of the misericords that “for delicacy and grace [they] surpass even those at Lincoln and Beverley”.
Chester suffered badly at the hands of the Parliamentary troops. In consequence, its stained glass dates mainly from the 19th century. Of the earlier Victorian firms, William Wailes is the best represented here, as well as Hardman & Co.. Glass from the High Victorian period is well represented by two leading London firms, Clayton and Bell and Heaton, Butler and Bayne. The Aesthetic style is represented by Kempe. There are also several notable modern windows, the most recent being the refectory window of 2001 by Ros Grimshaw which depicts the Creation.
In 1844, an organ by Gray & Davison of London was installed in the cathedral, replacing an instrument with parts dating back to 1626. The organ was rebuilt and enlarged by Whiteley Bros of Chester in 1876, to include harmonic flutes and reeds by Cavaillé-Coll. It was later moved to its present position at the front of the north transept. In 1910 William Hill & Son of London extensively rebuilt and revoiced the organ, replacing the Cavaillé-Coll reeds with brand-new pipes of their own. The choir division of the organ was enlarged and moved behind the choirstalls on the south side. The instrument was again overhauled by Rushworth and Dreaper of Liverpool in 1969, when a brand-new mechanism and some brand-new pipework made to a design drawn up by Roger Fisher was installed. Since 1991 the organ has been in the care of David Wells of Liverpool.
The communion plate includes two flagons dated 1662–63, two smaller and two large patens dated 1662, a silver chalice dating from about 1665, a silver gilt alms dish dated 1669, a chalice spoon of 1691, two smaller alms dishes dated 1737, two chalices dated 1838, a smaller chalice dated 1897, a smaller paten of 1903, two candlesticks dated 1662 and two vergers’ maces of 1662.
Tour of features
The west end of the nave is dominated by an eight-light window in the Perpendicular Gothic style which almost fills the upper part of the west wall. It contains stained glass designed by W. T. Carter Shapland dating from 1961 and depicts the Holy Family in the middle two lights, flanked by the northern saints Werburgh, Oswald, Aidan, Chad and Wilfrid, and Queen Ethelfleda.
The stained glass in the north aisle, dated 1890, is by Heaton, Butler and Bayne. The south aisle includes three stained glass windows, dated 1992, designed and made by Alan Younger to replace windows damaged in the 2nd World War. They were donated by the 6th Duke of Westminster to celebrate the 900th anniversary of the cathedral. The stained glass in another window in the south aisle is by William Wailes, dated 1862.The stone nave pulpit was designed by the restorer R. C. Hussey and the lectern, dated 1876, is by Skidmore.] The mosaic floor of the tower bay was designed by Dean Howson and executed by Burke and Co. The same firm installed the mosaics which decorate the wall of the north aisle, depicting the patriarchs and prophets Abraham, Moses, David and Elijah. They were designed by J. R. Clayton of Clayton and Bell, and date from 1883–86.
Monuments in the nave include those to Roger Barnston, dated 1838, by John Blayney, to Bishop Stratford, dated 1708, to Bishop Hall who died in 1668, to Edmund Entwistle, dated 1712, to John and Thomas Wainwright who died respectively in 1686 and 1720, to Robert Bickerstaff who died in 1841 by Blayney, to Dean Smith who died in 1787 by Thomas Banks, and to Sir William Mainwaring, dated 1671.
Choir stall with canopy and misericord
The most famous feature of the choir is the set of choir stalls, dating from about 1380, and described above. The lectern, in the form of a wooden eagle, symbol of John the Evangelist, dates from the 1st half of the 17th century. The candlesticks also date from the 17th century and are by Censore of Bologna who died in 1662.
With these exceptions, most of the decoration and the fittings of the choir date from the 19th century and are in keeping with the Gothic Revival promoted by the Oxford Society and Augustus Welby Pugin. The restored vault of the choir is typical of the period, having been designed by Scott and decorated and gilded by Clayton and Bell.
The choir is entered through a screen designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, with gates made by Skidmore. The rood was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, and was made by F. Stuflesser. The bishop’s throne or “cathedra” was designed by George Gilbert Scott to complement the choir stalls. It was constructed by Farmer and Brindley in 1876. The reredos and the floor mosaic date from 1876, and were designed by J. R. Clayton. The east window has tracery of an elegant Decorated Gothic design which is filled with stained glass of 1884 by Heaton, Butler and Bayne.
The 13th century Lady Chapel contains the stone shrine of St Werburgh which dates from the 14th century and which used to contain her relics. The shrine, of the same pink stone as the cathedral, has a base pierced with deep niches. The upper part takes the form of a miniature chapel containing statuettes. During the dissolution of the monasteries it was dismantled. Some of the parts were found during the 1873 restoration of the cathedral and the shrine was reassembled in 1888 by Blomfield. A carving of St Werburgh by Joseph Pyrz was added in 1993. Also in the chapel are a sedilia and a piscina. The stained glass, dated 1859, is by William Wailes. The chapel contains a monument to Archdeacon Francis Wrangham, made by Hardman & Co. and dating from 1846.
North choir aisle
The north choir aisle has a stone screen by R. C. Hussey and an iron gate dated 1558 that came from Guadalajara. At the east end of the aisle is the chapel of St Werburgh which has a vault of two bays, and an east window depicting the Nativity by Michael O’Connor, dated 1857. Other stained glass windows in the north aisle are by William Wailes, by Heaton, Butler and Bayne, and by Clayton and Bell. The chapel contains as a piscina dating from the 14th century, and monuments to Bishop Graham dated 1867, and to William Bispham who died in 1685, Other monuments in the north aisle include a tablet to Bishop Jacobson, dated 1887, by Boehm to a design by Blomfield.
North transept, sacristy and chapter house
The smaller Norman transept has clerestory windows containing stained glass by William Wailes, dated 1853. The sacristy, of 1200, has an east window depicting St Anselm, and designed by A. K. Nicholson. In the north transept is a freestanding tombchest monument to Bishop Pearson who died in 1686, designed by Sir Arthur Blomfield and carved by Nicholas Earp, with a recumbent effigy by Matthew Noble. Other monuments in the transept include one to Samuel Peploe, dating from about 1784, by Joseph Nollekens. The wall monuments include cenotaphs to members of the Cheshire (Earl of Chester’s) Yeomanry killed in the Boer War and in the 1st and 2nd World Wars. At the corner of the transept with the north aisle is a 17th-century Tree of Jesse carved in whale ivory. A niche contains a rare example of a "cobweb picture", painted on the web of a caterpillar. It depicts Mary and the Christ-Child, and is based on a painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder.
The chapter house has stained glass in its east window by Heaton, Butler and Bayne and grisaille windows in the north and south walls, dated 1882–83, by Blomfield. It contains an oak cope cupboard from the late 13th century, and houses part of the cathedral library. In the vestibule is a copy of Ranulf Higdon’s Polychronicon. The front of the chapter house was rebuilt to a design by Hussey.
South choir aisle
Flowing Decorated tracery and glass by Heaton, Butler and Bayne in the south transept
The south aisle was shortened in about 1870 by Scott, and given an apsidal east end, becoming the chapel of St Erasmus. The stained glass in the apse window is dated 1872 and is by Clayton and Bell. Below this is a mosaic designed by J. R. Clayton and made by Salviati, and a fresco painting by Clayton and Bell, dated 1874. Elsewhere the stained glass in the aisle is by Wailes, and by Hardman & Co. to a design by Pugin. The aisle contains the tomb of Ranulf Higdon, a monk at St Werburgh’s Abbey in the 12th century who wrote a major work of history entitled Polychronicon, a monument to Thomas Brassey (a civil engineering contractor who died in 1870), designed by Blomfield and made by Wagmuller, a monument to Bishop Peploe who died in 1752, and three painted monuments by Randle Holme.
The south transept, formerly the parish church of St Oswald contains a piscina and sedilia in the south wall. On the east wall are four chapels, each with a reredos, two of which were designed by Sir Giles G. Scott, one by Kempe and the other by his successor, W.E. Tower. The south window is dated 1887 and was made by Heaton, Butler and Bayne to a design by R. C. Hussey. Other stained glass in the transept is by Clayton and Bell, by C. E. Kempe and by Powell. The monuments include those to George Ogden who died in 1781, by Hayward, to Anne Matthews who died in 1793, by Thomas Banks, to John Philips Buchanan who died at Waterloo in 1815, and to the 1st Duke of Westminster, designed by C. J. Blomfield. On the wall of the southwest crossing pier are monuments which include a cenotaph to the casualties in HMS Chester in the Battle of Jutland in 1916 who included the 16-year-old Jack Cornwell VC. The west wall of the south transept has many memorials, including cenotaphs to the Cheshire Regiment, the Royal Air Force and the Free Czech Forces.
Cloisters and refectory
The cloisters were restored in the 20th century, and the stained glass windows contain the images of some 130 saints. The cloister garth contains a modern sculpture entitled The water of life by Stephen Broadbent. The refectory roof is dated 1939 and was designed by F. H. Crossley. The east window with reticulated tracery was designed by Sir Giles G. Scott and is dated 1913. The stained glass in the west window, depicting the Creation, was designed by Ros Grimshaw and installed in 2001 to celebrate the Millennium. On the refectory’s west wall there is a tapestry depicting Elymas being struck with blindness which was woven at Mortlake in the 17th century from a cartoon by Raphael. The heraldic paintings on the north wall represent the arms of the Earls of Chester.
Towards the end of 1963 the cathedral bells, which were housed in the central tower, were in need of an overhaul and ringing was suspended. In 1965 the Dean asked George Pace, architect to York Minster, to prepare specifications for a brand-new bell frame and for electrification of the clock and tolling mechanism. Due to structural difficulties and the cost of replacing the bells in the central tower it was advised that consideration should be given to building a detached bell and clock tower in the southeast corner of the churchyard. It was decided to proceed with that plan, and in 1969 an announcement was made that the 1st detached cathedral bell tower was to be erected since the building of the campanile at Chichester Cathedral in the 15th century. In February 1969, nine of the ten bells in the central tower were removed to be recast by John Taylor & Co as a ring of twelve bells with a flat 6th. The brand-new bells were cast in 1973. Work on the brand-new bell-tower began in February 1973. Two old bells dating from 1606 and 1626 were left in the tower. On 26 February 1975 the bells were rung for the very 1st time to celebrate the marriage of a member of the Grosvenor family. The official opening on 25 June 1975 was performed by the Duke of Gloucester. The belfry is known as the Dean Addleshaw Tower, after the dean of the cathedral responsible for its construction. Between the bell tower and the south transept is a garden in remembrance of the Cheshire Regiment (originally the 22nd Regiment of Foot).
The choral tradition at Chester is 900 years old, dating from the foundation of the Bendedictine monastery. There are usually ten choral services at the cathedral each week. Chester has a cathedral choir of male lay clerks, boy trebles and since 1997 the cathedral has recruited a choir of girl choristers, who sing on alternate Sundays to the boys and the same number of weekday services. There is no choir school at Chester, so the choristers come from local schools. On occasions the boy and girl choristers sing together. There is also a nave choir which sings Evening Prayer on Sundays, and sometimes joins with the cathedral choir on special occasions. The nave choir was formed in the middle of the 19th century, and was England’s 1st voluntary cathedral choir. The director of music is Philip Rushforth and the assistant organist is Ian Roberts. There are lunchtime organ recitals weekly on Thursday.The monthly program of music is available on the cathedral’s website.
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