Wells Cathedral

One of England’s smallest cathedrals (“only” 383 feet long and 82 feet wide–135 in the transepts) but also one of its most perfect, most charming, and most beloved, Wells was the only cathedral where we were able to attend Sunday worship–a fantastic and vibrant service, with a remarkably fine sermon.  We returned Tuesday to photograph it properly.  It was not hard to see why so many cathedral aficionados speak with such reverence of Wells.


Its great claim to fame, of course, are its elegant scissor arches, added to help shore up the collapsing central tower, but fitting in perfectly with the overall design.  There are three of them in total, one on each transept and one at the end of the nave, making the crossing of Wells Cathedral among the most enchanting architectural spaces I have ever been in.













The cosy size of Wells Cathedral makes it much easier to appreciate all at once for the visitor, but poses challenges for photography.  Only in the nave can one get the long wide vistas that makes the English cathedrals so photogenic.



Another of the cathedral’s lovely idiosyncrasies is the “forest of pillars” behind the quire.


Finally, on the outside, Wells Cathedral boasts an arresting and unique west front, sporting fully 300 medieval statues, the largest surviving collection in England.  Although unable to surpass Salisbury for sheer dazzling beauty and elegance, Wells found a special place in my heart as well, as one of England’s warmest, most inviting cathedrals.


And that wraps up this series of posts at last!  We also visited some other amazing examples of church architecture, both perfectly-preserved (King’s College Chapel, Bath Abbey) and ruined (Tintern Abbey, Glastonbury Abbey), but I think six posts is enough for now.


Gloucester Cathedral

Gloucester Cathedral, among the six cathedrals we visited, is the only one that is not, strictly speaking, a medieval cathedral.  The structure is medieval, of course, the result of a four centuries of accretions on a Norman abbey.  But it was not made a cathedral until 1541, being one of three abbeys Henry VIII decided to preserve for the purpose.  Because of this, it is smaller and on the whole less grand than many of England’s great cathedrals, but we were pleasantly surprised by its many charms.  

Among the finest is its postcard-perfect Perpendicular Gothic central tower (225 ft. high), seen above, but it also boasts an excellent example of lierne vaulting in the quire. 


At the east end of the cathedral is what the cathedral boasts is the second-largest medieval stained glass window in England; although the largest (in York) is, I must say, far more impressive.  
















Indeed, so is, I must say, the Victorian stained glass West Window–sometimes, I think, ancientry is overrated.


















The cathedral’s two greatest claims to fame, however, both date from the 1300s.  In 1327 Edward II, the hated homosexual king of England who was overthrown by his wife and murdered by some of his knights, was buried in Gloucester Cathedral (then Abbey), as many other churches refused to take the body.  Oddly enough, his tomb became a major site of pilgrimage, contributing greatly to the abbey’s wealth and status. 



















A few decades later, Gloucester’s cloisters were the site of one of the first experimentations in fan-vaulting, and are the oldest surviving example of this, England’s great contribution to architecture.  In recent years, these hauntingly beautiful passages served as a major film location for the Harry Potter films, standing in for corridors at Hogwarts.

Exeter Cathedral

Although far from England’s finest, Exeter Cathedral (built 1133-1400) does have its claims to fame.  Chiefest, to my mind, is its possession of a fine statue of Richard Hooker toward the north entrance of the Close–the only such statue I am aware of (though I’m sure there must be others somewhere)–and the one that is always used in pictures of Hooker.  

Exeter was of course Richard Hooker’s boyhood home, and so a necessary stop for any would-be Hooker pilgrim.  I paid my respects in decidedly un-Protestant fashion.









Today, Exeter Cathedral has as its Canon Theologian the great Hooker scholar, and author of many fine books about Reformation and Anglican ecclesiology, Dr. Paul Avis.  It can also boast having survived a direct hit from a German bomb in 1942, which destroyed a chunk of the northeastern portion of the church, which has since been completely restored.  Architecturally, though, it is neither particularly long nor particularly high, nor particularly grand, particularly Norman, or particularly Gothic.  Its chief treasure is its vault.

Since Exeter, unusually, has no central tower at the transept crossing, it boasts an uninterrupted ribbed vault from west door to east end, the longest in the world (315 ft.), and it is a wonder to behold, even though partially blocked by that epic organ.  The painted bosses at the rib joints are also justly famous, of which my wife captured this beautiful picture:

Salisbury Cathedral

Can anything rival Salisbury Cathedral for sheer elegant beauty?  The smooth curved lines from end to end fuse together into a perfectly harmonious whole, unlike the confused and crowded jumble of architectural elements and styles that hinders many otherwise great cathedrals.  


This is no coincidence, but the happy result of Salisbury’s extraordinarily rapid construction, which proceeded from start essentially to finish from 1220 to 1258 (while most other cathedrals were built and rebuilt in stages over centuries).  Indeed, Salisbury is something of a miracle, not only for the speed of its construction, but the fact that the builders seem to have stumbled upon (not having any geological knowledge on which to base their decision), the most solid section of bedrock in the whole region–the only ground strong enough to hold the immense weight of the cathedral.  

This weight, of course, is so immense because of the 404-ft. high spire on top of the cathedral, making Salisbury the tallest surviving pre-15th-century church in the world, and the tallest surviving church of any era in England.  (unfortunately, it was hard to get a good outdoor shot on a grey day.)


The sheer weight of the central tower, added in 1315, caused the pillars at the end of the nave to sink seven inches and warp inward, as you might be able to discern in this splendid photo looking west from the Quire.  Additional supports were hastily but tastefully added, and the tower stabilized for the next seven hundred years.









Installed in 2008 to honor the 750th anniversary of the Cathedral, the Infinity Font is the most beautiful baptismal font I have seen, with a never-ending flow of living water, yet smooth as glass to reflect the beautiful building around it.  


The perfect consistency of Salisbury’s architecture never becomes boring or excessive because it is all done in the style known as Early English Gothic, full of sophistication and variety, yet maintaining a freshness and simplicity lost in later, overly decorative or elaborate expressions of Gothic.

(the view from the triforium)


(the northern transept)



(Wells isn’t the only cathedral that can boast elegant inverted arches)


(a full-color version of the first photo, just because it’s so cool)


Winchester Cathedral

Once home to the early monarchs of the English Kingdom, Winchester remained of the great sees of the Church through the later Middle Ages and the Reformation period (bookended by bishops Stephen Gardiner and Lancelot Andrewes!), and despite suffering grievously from Reformation and Cromwellian depredations, still boasts one of the greatest cathedrals in the land.  At an astounding 170 meters (558 ft), Winchester is the longest medieval church building still standing, and the longest medieval cathedral ever built.  Its stunning nave offers an unobstructed view to the stained glass window at the end of the choir, nearly 500 feet away.


 All of Winchester’s original stained glass was destroyed by those cursed roundheads in the 1640s; the townspeople, however, set about gathering up all the larger fragments that they could, and put them together in one great hodge-podge as the new Great West Window, which has a haunting and tragic beauty all its own.










Cromwell’s troops were also fiendish enough to destroy all the tombs of the kings and saints from the Anglo-Saxon and Danish era, including such famous names as Ethelred and King Canute, leaving their bones scattered and confused.  These were later put in chests high up on the sides of the chancel, jumbled together, so that no one knows whose bones are where.


The restored Victorian reredos, however, gives some hint of the church’s earlier splendour.


















Always a fantastic photo angle in almost any cathedral–looking from the Quire down the vault of the nave.