I was fortunate enough to be asked with my heritage professional hat on, to undertake some work for the Dean of Gloucester Cathedral recently, and so I took the opportunity on All Souls’ Day (2 November) whilst I was visiting the cathedral to take lots of photos. Gloucester has a very special place in my heart as it the final resting place of Edward II and so I find myself there a lot.
There has been a monastic building on the site since as far back as 679AD, when Osric, ruler of the tiny kingdom of Hwicce gave his patronage. By the late tenth century, the monks were living to the order of St Benedictine, who firmly believed in hospitality. The abbey of St Peter’s quickly grew, and by the time of the eleventh century, had become an important centre for both crown and church. Edward the Confessor regularly held councils there, and the tradition of ‘crown wearing’ on the key festival dates of the year including Easter and Christmas was an established tradition. William I & II both kept up this ceremony after 1066, wearing their crowns at Gloucester at Christmas. The image we have of medieval kings charging around always wearing a bit of head bling, is a false one and no doubt down to those Ladybird books of old.
Under the Normans, St Peter’s Abbey, as Gloucester Cathedral was still known, prospered. A new abbot named Serlo was appointed by the king in 1072, and under his guardianship and direction, the abbey quickly expanded, helped by many land grants and wealthy patrons. As the wealth of the abbey increased, a comprehensive building programme was commissioned, and by c.1100 the old Saxon abbey was demolished and replaced with the Norman one in the Romanesque style – much of the Norman structure can still be seen today; the crypt and enormous stout pillars in the nave being perfect examples.
Gloucester has always retained royal connections. Firstly, following the death of King John on 19 October 1216 during civil war, John’s son, the nine year old Henry III, was crowned at St Peter’s Abbey because Westminster Abbey was under the the control of the invading Dauphin. The ceremony held, 800 years ago last month, was recently recreated in the cathedral who have had a summer selection of events to mark the occasion, including medieval banquets, a lecture series and a reenacted coronation.
The cathedral also houses three royal tombs. Firstly, King Osric who founded the abbey is located in the north ambulatory, his tomb effigy a much later addition. The second burial is that of Robert Curthose, eldest son of William the Conquerer and brother of William II and Henry I. Robert, inherited Normandy from his father, whilst the king gave England to his favourite son and namesake. Robert, eventually captured by his younger brother Henry I in 1106, was imprisoned for twenty-eight long years, where he died in his late eighties in Cardiff Castle in 1134. His tomb effigy now sits on the south ambulatory, but not over his actual burial site in the middle of the presbytery. His colourful wooden effigy, a thirteenth century invention with fifteenth century base, has been painted many times since but still gives a colourful sense of medieval decoration. Tomb effigies in this period were all highly decorated in rich and bright colours, of red, blue, gold and greens. To the modern eye it would look odd, but then we must remember that the walls of the cathedral were also richly painted, eventually being washed over during the Reformation and with age. The clean stone as we see today is not how those in the fourteenth century would have known it.
For me the best of the lot, is the breathtaking tomb and effigy of Edward II, located one arch down from King Osric in the north ambulatory. Edward’s coffin was placed under the floor, and over it a few years later an elaborate, beautifully carved effigy was erected on the orders of his son Edward III. The ornate canopy is made of Cotswold limestone, the base of Purbeck marble, and the delicate effigy made of alabaster sourced from Nottingham. No expense was spared and a London master mason was sent to complete the work. Edward’s tomb is rightfully heralded as the finest of the fourteenth century.
The presence of a royal burial, brought in many pilgrims who flocked from all over Europe to make their devotions to the dead king. His great-grandson, Richard II visited the tomb twice and also sought papal approval to canonise the late king, which in the end came to nothing. The money these pilgrims brought with them, much like modern tourists and pilgrims today, was used then as now on building and maintaining the abbey. In the mid fourteenth century, the east end of the abbey was transformed, developing and using the stunning and very English perpendicular style. This style, ornate and highly decorated gained its own English identity as England broke with the continent during the Hundred Years War, and rather excitingly, was begun at Gloucester. English perpendicular became a central expression of English nationalism at the time. You only have to step into the Cloisters to understand how powerful the effect is; even now 700 years later.
Finally, during the Reformation the Abbey of St Peter’s was suppressed, but given that it housed the body of Edward II, Henry VIII was careful not to see it destroyed. After its surrender, Henry formally made the abbey into a Cathedral, creating the first bishop of Gloucester and installed a Dean and chapter to manage its affairs. Edward II it seemed, could still have potent symbolism three hundred years after his death. After some centuries of wear and tear, the cathedral underwent something of a major restoration and regeneration under the care of the Victorians, who aware of their cultural heritage and the threat imposed by the growing industrialisation of Britain, sought to protect monuments of the past and religious houses as a means of protecting national identity. Gloucester was one such that directly benefitted.
Today Gloucester Cathedral remains at the heart of the city, welcoming pilgrims and tourists of all nationalities and religions across the globe. It has now appointed its first female bishop, The Right Reverend Rachael Treweek. The cathedral is also embarking on new and exciting ways of preserving and protecting the building for generations to come set out in Project Pilgrim, currently installing 500 solar panels onto the roof of the nave, invisible from the ground, but designed of course to create sustainable energy for the future.
If you get the chance to visit, go and take a look around. You will have your breath blown away, just as those medieval masons, abbots and king’s intended.
Gloucester Cathedral: Faith, Art and Architecture: 1000 Years. (London, 2011)
All Author’s collection who exerts strict copyright over them.
3 thoughts on “Gloucester Cathedral – A Heavenly Masterpiece”
I think Gloucester cathedral is one of the most beautiful buildings in England. I remember being completely stunned the first time I saw it.
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Hello Simon. I found Gloucester Cathedral when I was ‘evacuated ‘ during the Second World war. I found it a fascinating and comforting place when I was far from home. A beautiful building much appreciated by a fourteen year old who went on to study History at Exeter – another beautiful cathedral which just missed the bombs
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Hello Sylvia. Really pleased to see you’ve had a look at my website and blog. I must admit to being quite taken with Gloucester Cathedral. So lucky it missed the bombs! S