Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:22 am
The 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.
So, 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.
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 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 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 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.
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, 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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here is Worcester Cathedral’s website.