Project Pilgrim: Behind the Scenes & Heavenly Heights at Gloucester Cathedral

In my career in heritage, I sometimes get very special access to off limits or behind the scene spaces in magnificent medieval buildings. Recently, in my capacity as a lay member, I was given access to Gloucester Cathedral. This magnificent building is currently undergoing a major multi-million pound HLF funded programme of restoration, not to mention the team’s hard work in coming up with new, exciting and innovative ways to tell the cathedral’s rich one thousand three hundred year history. From up scaffolds, to down in the crypt, to scouring ancient books in the library, I have taken the time to capture some of these magic moments to share here today. I hope you enjoy them.

Some of the most significant work currently being undertaken is to the fabric of the Lady Chapel, built between 1465 and the early 1480’s under the watchful eyes of two abbots, Hanley (1457-72) and Farley (1472-98). We know the original medieval building work was complete before 1485, as surviving medieval stained glass features Edward IV’s white rose, so is pre battle of Bosworth, fought in August 1485.(1) The design of the Lady Chapel, unlike the cathedrals of Wells and Ely, does not have a fan vaulted ceiling which was typical of the period, but rather it appears the medieval master mason incorporated the design of the quire roof instead. The results are impressive and breathtaking.

The Fifteenth Century Lady Chapel

Over the following centuries, the Lady Chapel, once a riot of colour and filled with religious statues of saints, lost much of this design at the Reformation. By the turn of the twentieth century, the chapel had become dark, damp and the stone blackened by years of dust and water ingress. One of the key work items of the Project Pilgrim programme was to erect an enormous scaffold, allowing contractors and conservators up to the highest roof spaces to dust down the stonework, mostly achieved with industrial style Henry Hoovers and paintbrushes. The result is spectacular.

Having been given the opportunity to scale the enormous scaffold, I came across an array of magnificent medieval roof bosses. Up close and personal, they are much larger than you would think, but it is striking just how intricate many of them are. Masons of this period certainly did not cut corners despite knowing most people would never see them up close. Their work was their passion, and their individual care in crafting them is perhaps a religious devotion in its own right. Much of the design is floral in feature, with the addition of mythical beasts and aquatic animals including fish for that all important fisherman of biblical fame.

At the top of the scaffold the view was very special. There are so few people who have had the opportunity to be up this high and see such intricate design work over the last five centuries. There are a few minor ad hoc Victorian repair works, but these are localised and so a scaffold of this size may not have been up in the chapel since its construction in the latter part of the fifteenth century.

The medieval stained glass is equally impressive. The East window is very colourful but is not always that coherent when you are looking at it as a pilgrim or a tourist on the ground. This is because the current window design has only been in situ since around 1800.(2) Medieval glass from all over the cathedral, which was either removed in places, collected or held in store, were rounded up and used to infill a major part of the stained glass design. So in essence the glass is mostly medieval, but much of it was not placed there by medieval craftsmen. From those pieces which remained in situ since the 1470s (we know this because of how they are fixed), would suggest that the original design was a focus on the female virgin saints.(3)

The theme of the window impacted on the rest of the Lady Chapel architecture. For in devotion to the Virgin Mary and the virgin saints, the type of songs sung here were far richer and required more people. Plainsong was set aside in favour of ‘Marian antiphons’. This meant a full range of voices from treble, alto to tenor and base. As a consequence two singing galleries were created for the choir to stand and sing from, which can still be accessed on the west and north sides of the chapel.(4) The effect is to raise your spirits and bring the audience closer to the divine.

Even the floor has been undergoing restoration. As part of Project Pilgrim and with a conservation eye on preserving the building for future generations to come, the Lady Chapel, which has suffered from damp, is to have underfloor heating installed. This has become standard heritage practice and is perfectly safe for the historic stonework, but in order to achieve this, the medieval floor tiles need to be lifted. Each tile has been painstakingly removed, catalogued and entered onto a colour chart to ensure that when the time comes to relay them, each tile will go back in exactly the same spot from where it’s medieval craftsman first laid it. This is certainly conservation in action and requires a good deal of concentration and care.

Project Pilgrim also extends into many other areas of the cathedral. The outside range of the cathedral is also under repair. Here the cathedral is fortunate to have in its employ a full team of stonemasons, under the watchful eye of the very talented and internationally respected Master Mason, Pascal Mychalysin who joined the team in 1996. As part of project pilgrim, a project apprentice mason, Oliver, is taking the opportunity to learn his highly skilled craft from the mason family at the cathedral. Here is just a brief but nevertheless impressive look at some of the team’s stone repair work. Spot the new against the old. The new has as much integrity as those pieces first carved and set in situ by the medieval masons many years past.

This team work hard in all weathers to ensure the project runs to time and the building is weather tight once more, reducing the wear and tear on the existing stonework. Here is a video of just what they are up against…on the day of my visit mostly wind. In a few weeks times, the public will be granted permission to go up the scaffold on special tours. I would most certainly recommend it, but check their website here for details before you go.

On my travels around the cathedral I was also invited into the library. I love this space having already conducted research in here during my research for my book, Edward II the Man: A Doomed Inheritance. It has that smell of age, old books and the past. It is a treasure trove of books, manuscripts, maps, archeological artefacts as well as an eighteenth century bust of the musical genius, Handel.


The collection of books and manuscripts is broad in age. There is a magnificent cartulary, where a diligent monk during the end of the fourteenth century copied all the charters that related to the cathedral into one collection. This included Magna Carta as seen in the left hand image below. The copy he was writing from appears to be the one now at Lincoln. There is also a wonderful fifteenth century medieval music sheet, saved by perchance when this piece of velum was used to wrap another book for protection in later centuries. It is the only page to survive. One of the larger of the books is a giant first edition of the King James bible. It is so big and old, that as the velum has changed shape with age and use, it is now strapped closed with a modern trouser belt. Tours to the library for members of the public are also available at certain times of the year so you can have the chance to see some of these wonderful relics.

The crypt of the cathedral is also a special place. Following the Norman Conquest, William the Conqueror appointed Abbot Serlo to the monastery at Gloucester and who reigned there for thirty years. By the time of his appointment the existing abbey was in need of much repair and so instead a new abbey, under Serlo’s direction, was constructed. The crypt today is the one place in the cathedral where you can still clearly glimpse Serlo’s ambition. Built in the Romanesque, or Norman style, the design features a central chamber which is surrounded by an ambulatory from which radiate five chapels; this floor layout is replicated in the two floors above, right up to the triforium. The central chamber is supported by twelve columns, each with a slightly different design. On one is carved a cheeky chap with moustache, possibly Norman, possibly Saxon, but given the attitudes of the time coming so close to the years immediately following the Norman conquest, one imagines the former. In the fourteenth century, as the cathedral was expanded and remodelled following the interment of the body of Edward II in 1327, the columns and arches in the crypt, which had to bear some of the extensive weight from above were strengthened.(5) You can see these interventions in the stonework today.

I also ventured up to the Triforium; the gallery that sits above the quire. The views up here are spectacular and give you the best opportunity to see some of the extensive detail in the Great East Window. When it was completed in the mid fourteenth century it was the tallest glass window in England at 72ft (22 meters) high and 38ft (12 meters) wide.

The Triforium is undergoing a representation as part of Project Pilgrim and whilst currently closed to visitors, will be well worth a visit when it reopens in the future.

Lastly, I cannot write a Gloucester Cathedral post without a mention of Edward II himself. From up in the Triforium you get a very different view of his magnificent tomb and effigy.

Gloucester Cathedral remains a very special place today. It is well worth a visit, whatever your religious or non-religious persuasion its a building of majesty. It is steeped in history and heritage and your visit and donations at the door continues that great work, and more importantly follows in the footsteps of all those pilgrims who have gone before you. Details of what you can discover there is here

Stephen Spinks is author of ‘Edward II the Man: A Doomed Inheritance’, available for pre-order in hardback by clicking here at Waterstones  Amazon and Amberley Publishing



(1) Gloucester Cathedral: Faith, Art and Architecture – 1000 Years. (Scala, 2011), 43

(2) Ibid, 45

(3) Ibid, 45

(4) Ibid, 45

(5) Ibid, 12


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Twitter: @SpinksStephen

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