Inside Worcester Cathedral

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:22 am

Visit Worcester CathedralThe views of Worcester Cathedral, elegantly perched on the east bank of the River Severn, are surely among the best of any cathedral in Britain.  Inside, Worcester is also one Britain’s most fascinating cathedrals.  This compensates for it being a little hemmed in and its east end being crudely violated by a busy road, Deansway.  This hums by far too close for comfort, providing a physical as well as a visual barrier to anyone approaching from the High Street and the somewhat detached Cathedral Plaza.  Residents of The Woo, as locals apparently refer to their city (no, I didn’t, either), may think I’m being picky.  Nevertheless, I do feel that a lovely old medieval Cathedral deserves better.  And I swear that Edward Elgar, whose bronze statue gazes hopefully from the High Street in the direction of the cathedral he loved, looks a bit miffed too.

Visit Worcester CathedralSo, why is Worcester Cathedral so interesting?  Well, it has a long history, some notable memorials and burials (not least those of wicked King John, and the unfortunate Prince Arthur, Henry VIII’s older brother) as well as a Norman crypt, medieval architecture (including some splendid cloisters), an astonishing font, wonderful stained glass (which includes a giraffe in the magnificent west end window) and a rather nice, surprising, café.

Beyond the generally known local lad Elgar connection, Worcester Cathedral also has a rich musical tradition; it is one of the triumvirate of English cathedrals, along with Hereford and Gloucester, that participates in the Three Choirs Festival, the longest running non-competitive classical music festival in the world, believed to have begun in 1715.

Swan Sanctuary, WorcesterA very brief history of Worcester Cathedral

Although the existing building is largely 13th/14th century Gothic, the foundations of the present Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Mary the Virgin at Worcester are far older.  The See was founded almost fourteen centuries ago in 680 AD, when Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury, separated off part of the Diocese of Lichfield.  St Oswald of Worcester became Bishop in 961 (as well as Archbishop of York in 972 while still Bishop of Worcester) and founded a new cathedral with a monastery in 983.  Worcester Cathedral became a centre of learning in the Anglo-Saxon period and Oswald was a great champion of education. En passant, he died while washing the feet of the poor during Lent, in 992.

The Norman crypt at Worcester CathedralThe present cathedral dates from 1084, when Bishop Wulfstan began to rebuild the old church.  The Romanesque crypt dates from this period. It is groin vaulted, the groin being the intersection at right angles of two barrel vaults (so now I know). Wulfstan (c1008 – 1095), who was canonised in 1203, was quite a chap.  Somehow, he managed to retain his post after the Norman Conquest in 1066, and by 1075 he was the only English-born bishop left in England. We may conclude that he either was an exceptional character, or knew something embarrassing about one or more of the new Norman ruling elite.  Worcester Cathedral’s website says he was an opponent of the slave trade too – and that surely puts him in a medieval minority.  On top of that, Wulfstan was a busy builder, undertaking several other ecclesiastical construction projects, including at Hereford and Tewkesbury.

The nave at Worcester CathedralThe shrines of Oswald and Wulfstan helped Worcester become a focus for pilgrimage – pilgrims were the medieval equivalent of modern tourists.  Moreover, the Benedictine monks maintained Worcester’s tradition and reputation for learning, established before the Conquest.  Not only would the monks study a wide range of subjects themselves, such as medicine, law, mathematics and astronomy, but wealthy landowners would also send their sons to the monastery to be educated.  The library today is one of the largest cathedral libraries in Britain and its collections include some 300 medieval manuscripts, including fragments from the 7th and 8th centuries, and some of the texts produced by the monks.  Among the collection is a manual on grammar and poetry by Bede, one of my favourite historians, who you can visit in Durham.

The cloister, Worcester CathedralWorcester Cathedral from the cloister garthThe monastery survived until the Reformation in 1540 when, like so many others, it was dissolved. Oswald’s and Wulfstan’s shrines were destroyed.  Then, in the Civil War of the following century, both sides caused considerable damage to the Cathedral.  For example, Royalist and Parliamentary troops alike stripped the lead roof to make ammunition, or simply to sell. Troops were billeted in the nave.  Worcester was besieged twice, in 1643 and 1646, the last battle of the Civil War took place in and around the City in 1651 and it suffered much from looting and vandalism.  After the battle of 1651, thousands of defeated Royalists were captured, many of them Scots who were held prisoner in the Cathedral before being transported to North America and the Caribbean.  Much of the restoration work in the Cathedral was, as in so many other churches, undertaken by the Victorians.

West window, Worcester CathedralSo what about the burials?

Everyone loves a good tomb, and Worcester has some corkers.  There are impressive monuments from all periods, bishops, knights, lords and ladies, not all in pristine condition, but worth a moment of your time. To mention but a few:

William Hamilton

William Hamilton, 2nd Duke of Hamilton, born in 1616, was one of the Royalist commanders at the Battle of Worcester in 1651.  He died of his wounds after the battle and is buried in front of the High Altar.  A memorial to him is on the wall in the North Quire Aisle.

Stanley Baldwin

Stanley Baldwin, 1st Earl Baldwin of Bewdley (1867-1947) a Worcestershire County Councillor and local MP (for Bewdley), was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom three times between the wars.  His ashes and those of his wife Lucy are buried in the nave, near to the West Door.

The Beauchamp Tomb, Worcester CathedralThe Beauchamp tomb

There are some amazing effigies of 13th century knights at the east end of the Cathedral, but the Beauchamp tomb in the nave deserves particular mention.  The effigies are believed to be of Sir John Beauchamp of Holt and his wife Joan, though some think they are of Sir John Beauchamp of Powick and his wife Elizabeth.  Sir John Beauchamp of Holt was in Richard II’s good books, served in wars against France and Scotland, but was beheaded for treason on Tower Hill in 1388. If the tomb is his, he did well to get such a fine, prominent, memorial.

King John's Tomb, Worcester CathedralKing John

The marble effigy of one of England’s least-loved kings, John (1167-1216), is situated in the centre of the choir.  It is a major magnet for visitors.  Although some historians disagree, King John is generally thought to have been a thoroughly unpleasant man. He is known for losing the family lands in France and falling out with his barons, thus precipitating Magna Carta, civil war and French invasion. As every school kid used to know, he also lost his jewels in the Wash and, therefore, had to change his laundry.  He died at Newark Castle and had specifically asked in his will to be buried at Worcester, near the shrines of Wulfstan and Oswald. His will, the oldest surviving original English royal will, is held in Worcester’s Cathedral library.

Prince Arthur's chantry chapel, Worcester CathedralPrince Arthur

Not far from John is the astonishing and ornate chantry chapel and tomb of Arthur, Prince of Wales, son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York.  His very name inspires the idea of a unified England after the wars ended by his father at Bosworth in 1485.  Arthur was married to Catherine of Aragon, one of the jewels of Europe.  His premature death at the age of 15 resulted in his young brother, Henry, inheriting the crown, leading to one of the most profound changes in Britain’s history; if Arthur had survived, would the Reformation have happened?

The Worcester Pilgrim

There’s a curious, and slightly sad, story told in a fascinating exhibition in the crypt. In 1986, an excavation at the base of the Cathedral’s south-east tower pier, revealed a headless skeleton that came to be known as the Worcester Pilgrim. His staff and knee-length boots are on display in the crypt and research suggests he may have been Robert Sutton, a dyer and bailiff of the city who died in 1454. He has been reburied in the Cathedral.

The font, Worcester CathedralWhat else?

I think the above summary and derisory illustrations provides enough information to whet your appetite for a visit to Worcester Cathedral.  However, before I go, I must mention the café, because it is delightfully situated off the cloister next to the Chapter House – another survivor from the Norman building. So, you grab your cappuccino and flapjack (or whatever) and take it next door to enjoy in the very place where the monks would discuss their affairs all those centuries ago.  I don’t think it gets much better than that, though Mrs Britain did suggest that a single flower on each table would have made the experience even more betterer. And I’m sure she’s right, as always.

East window, Worcester Cathedral

Here is Worcester Cathedral’s website.

74 thoughts on “Inside Worcester Cathedral”

  1. We visited a few days ago. The Cathedral is the current host of the ‘Three Choirs Festival’.

    We weren’t able to see all of the Cathedral but were treated to a practice of the ‘Enigma Variations’ that later in the day were due to be recorded by the BBC.

    I missed seeing the Cathedral but the music was amazing.

  2. Excellent and interesting read, in particular your ponderings about the potential fate of our country had Prince Arthur lived and his brother Henry never come to the throne.

  3. Well, even if the history wasn’t so intriguing, the photos alone would be enough to make one sit up and take notice — or what we call a “stunner.” I love how the “new” cathedral was built in the 1000s. Yes, probably an update here and there, but when you think nothing in our country was built till the 1700s, save whatever structures were inhabited by the Native Americans and boy, is the US a little baby in the scheme of the world. I love that it has been so well preserved even if the area around it is less than pastoral!

    1. Thank you, Jim. The Wash is a low-lying part of east England. King John was travelling through when the cart with his jewels on went into a marsh (or something – I’m a little hazy on the details) – hence the schoolboy joke.

  4. For those of us on ‘the other side of the pond’, thank you! The cathedral is stunning, and your post is very interesting.

  5. I’ve seen photographs of it from across the county cricket ground,but have never visited that part of the country, let alone the cathedral. Reading your post makes me wish that I had.

  6. I really enjoyed this post, particularly since I had no idea about this fascinating Cathedral. The interior is so beautiful. Definitely one for the travel wish list.

  7. Did a quick scan of all previous comments – and I may be the first to mention – Worcester Sauce! Not sure how I can make that in any way relevant to the cathedral, perhaps they had some on tap in the cafe? Anyroadup, sounds like a wonderful place to go on a pleasant sunny day and ponder what it must have been like to be a monk, in a habit, discussing current events in Medieval England. A cappuccino and sticky bun would help, I’m sure.

    1. I actually managed to get a crack about Worcester sauce into a project meeting. We were waiting supplies for something (can’t remember what) and they came from Worcester. “Ah,” says I, “So Worcester’s the source of the problem.” No one laughed – but then many of the people I dealt with had fairly limited conversation.

      1. You might have got more traction speculating whether the delay in supplies from Worcester might be due to road works on the 290, or downed trees from a storm on the A9 blocking part of the road, or perhaps heavy traffic on the Shrewsbury bypass was to blame….

  8. artandarchitecturemainly

    Going to Rome, Jerusalem or Santiago was not going to be possible for most people. So Worcester was very canny establishing the shrines of Oswald and Wulfstan as a local focus for pilgrimage. Good advertising eg miraculous health cures, would have put Worcester firmly on the map. But even more important was making Worcester a centre for learning centuries before the two universities opened. I am still very impressed today, with large and intact cathedral libraries. Sodding amazing!

      1. I think it was my end – there was another on that day. It was well worth coming back too. Your usual well illustrated history with touches of humour. I’m pleased to see that Mrs Britain is always right.

  9. Hi Mike – I hadn’t realised the history … so great to know there’s much to see – one day I’d love to get up and spend time in Worcester. Your ‘superhighway’ at the east end of the Cathedral seems to have been a very old route through those early settlements … so I guess the A44 was just allowed to develop – into today’s troubling noisy thoroughfare.
    I certainly hadn’t realised King John was buried there … nor the rest! Cheers Hilary

  10. Another super description of a cathedral that I have yet to visit (despite serving National Service initial training in Norton Barracks nearby in February 1954). I have done many “Cathedral Weekends” with my wife and friends, including Gloucester and Hereford. Now I must see Worcester! Thanks again, Mike.

  11. What a glorious place. I’ve only ever seen it from the outside when I was on my way to somewhere else. I’m definitely going to have to visit next time I’m in that part of the world.

    My favourite medieval ‘quote’ is about King John. Matthew Paris wrote words to the effect that John made hell worse by going there.

  12. I look forward with great happiness to your blog pots, Mike, which give me a chance to travel through Britain — accompanied by your wonderful erudition and humor! Thank you for another terrific armchair adventure! The detail that most piqued my curiosity in this particular blog post is the deportation of defeated Scots to North America in. the 1600s. I need to learn more about that significant turn of events…

  13. Each of your posts is a little gem. I haven’t been in Worcester Cathedral for a long time and the history lesson is a great refresher.

    Thanks so much.

  14. Thanks Mike this brought back a lot of memories so apologies for a somewhat rambling post. My comments are slightly off the Cathedral historical topic but the Three Choirs Festival reference started it. I grew up in a village seven miles from Worcester and I went to Worcester Royal Grammar School. My Music teacher in 1956 was Henry Sandon who was very involved in the Three Choirs Festival as a musician, singer and conductor for many years. I don’t think, as pupils, we were musically up to Mr Sandon’s expectations, but one thing I do remember. Henry was a Jazz fan and he explained how, in Fats Waller’s version of ‘My Very Good Friend The Milkman’, Fats very cleverly inserts a few bars of the Wedding March into his piano break. At least I learned something and I have been a Fats Waller fan ever since. You can now search for the track and listen for yourself. I think teaching Music to Secondary School pupils may not have been Mr Sandon’s ideal career and he followed his other passion for porcelain and ceramics eventually becoming the Worcester Porcelain expert on Antiques Roadshow and also featured on ‘This is Your Life’.
    Ruth [my wife for people who don’t know me] and I met at what is now the University of Worcester and all our end of year services were held in the Cathedral. You have highlighted many things I had forgotten about the Cathedral so thank you for that.

  15. Bill Nicholls

    Well you got a lot further than I did. I walked there from where my van was getting serviced and visited after looking at another church. Got in the door and was looking around and about to go into where king John was buried when I got a phone call to pick the car up. I did not take any photos because they told me I needed to pay. Was not being tight just thought I might not be there long. I will try and go back there one day as I really want to go around the place. Nice account Mike

  16. As you inevitably do Mike, you’ve brought one of England’s most interesting cathedrals to life.
    King John’s tomb is always going to be the main draw, but there is more to the cathedral (and the town) than that. You’ve added some great photos too, and I especially like those from across the river 🙂

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