Tales of Lincoln Cathedral

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:27 am

Lincoln CathedralI will never weary of wandering round medieval cathedrals.  The motivation and faith behind these places, as well as the financial and temporal power, is astonishing. I gaze in awe up at soaring arches, bathed in coloured sunlight, filtered through exquisite stained glass and dappling across old stones, absorb myself in the memorials and lap up the stories.  So, Lincoln Cathedral ticks a lot of boxes by simply being what it is. Indeed, perched atop Castle Hill from which, alongside the neighbouring fortress, it dominates the ancient city, Lincoln Cathedral, the Cathedral Church of St Mary, beguilingly beckons you through its ancient doors.  But I have to admit that I particularly wanted to pop in and see Eleanor.

Eleanor of CastileEleanor of Castile, tomb, Lincoln Cathedral

Eleanor of Castile

Eleanor of Castile was the first wife of one of England’s most formidable medieval monarchs, Edward I.  She was born in about 1241, a Spanish princess, daughter of Ferdinand III, King of Castile and Leon and Joanna, Countess of Ponthieu. Eleanor and Edward met when she was 10 years old and married when she was about 13 and he around 15. By all accounts it was a love match.  They travelled all over the place together, had fifteen or sixteen children (though most did not survive into adulthood) and were married for 36 years until her death, aged 49, in 1290.  She died, with Edward by her side, in the small Nottinghamshire village of Harby, just a few miles west of Lincoln.  The king was heartbroken and it was this profound grief, so ‘tis said, that inspired the erection of 12 memorial crosses from Lincoln to London, one for each of the places where the body of his beloved wife rested on its way for burial at Westminster Abbey. Apart from Lincoln, crosses were set up at Grantham, Stamford, Geddington, Hardingstone, Stony Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, St Albans, Waltham, Westcheap, with the final cross at Charing, on the edge of where Trafalgar Square is today.  Eleanor’s viscera, her internal organs, were removed and, with the exception of her heart, were interred in Lincoln Cathedral.  Her heart was buried at Blackfriars Monastery in London.  The removal of organs helped with body preservation; and, the more places of burial, the greater number of prayers could be said to ease the soul’s progress through purgatory.  In any event, that is why Eleanor was given a tomb in Lincoln Cathedral, though the original was destroyed by Cromwell’s supporters in the 17th Century and what we have now is a handsome Victorian version, complete with elegant effigy.

There is something compelling about Eleanor and Edward’s story. Partly, it is because few of us can resist a good romance.  But it is also because of Edward’s reputation as such a ruthless tough guy.  Without knowing all the facts, I like to think that Eleanor had to be quite remarkable as well as – of course – effortlessly beautiful.  We obviously don’t have a clue what she was really like.  But, for whatever reason, I was keen to pay my respects and loitered round the tomb, trying not to appear too morbidly creepy, as though some kind of revelatory comprehension would seep through stone from the dust of a long-dead queen’s sad and wretched remains.

Richard Fleming, memento mori

Richard Fleming

Lincoln Cathedral’s authorities could point out that other tombs are available.  Several, in fact.  A little to the north-west of Eleanor is a fussy-looking memorial with a worn effigy of a man, an angel at his head.  This is Richard Fleming (c 1385-1431), Bishop of Lincoln and founder of Lincoln College, Oxford.  Underneath his recumbent form, inside a sort of viewing-box, is another figure.  Look more closely and you will see that this is the macabre representation of a decaying corpse, wrapped in a shroud. It is Richard Fleming’s cadaver tomb, a memento mori, reminder of death – or the transience of life. We must all die.  Cadaver tombs became popular in the 14th century, in the wake of the Black Death and provided a powerful contrast with the stylised images of the deceased in life. There is an astonishing example in Ewelme, featuring Chaucer’s granddaughter, Alice de la Pole. Robert Fleming’s tomb in Lincoln is one of the oldest in England – though was badly damaged by Cromwell’s soldiers.

Katherine Swynford, tomb

Katherine Swynford

Not far from the High Altar is the tomb of another illustrious lady, Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster (c1350-1403).  Katherine was the mistress, then third wife, of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and a son of King Edward III. Katherine and John’s relationship seems to have been another love-match, but the descendants of their children, the Beauforts, are significant.  Their oldest son, John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, was Henry VII’s great-grandfather; the Tudor claim to the throne was based on Henry’s mother’s, Margaret Beaufort’s, descent from John of Gaunt.  John Beaufort’s daughter, Joan, married James I of Scotland; our present Queen is their direct descendant through the Royal Stuart line.  John Beaufort’s son Edmund, was the 2nd Duke of Somerset, whose Lancastrian rivalry with Richard, Duke of York, was instrumental in the terrible dynastic struggles we call the Wars of the Roses. Edmund was killed at the First Battle of St Albans, which marked the beginning of that long and bloody conflict, which none of his three sons survived. Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt’s daughter, Joan Beaufort (c1379- 1440), married Ralph Neville, 1st Earl of Westmorland. Their son Richard Neville, 5th Earl of Salisbury, was an ally of the Duke of York (both Duke and Earl died in the Wars of the Roses too) and Richard’s son, another Richard, was 16th Earl of Warwick, the ‘Kingmaker’ – and yet another casualty of the same wars.  Joan and Ralph’s daughter Cecily, ‘the Rose of Raby’, married the aforementioned Duke of York and was mother to two kings, Edward IV and Richard III.  Another of Joan and Ralph’s daughters, Eleanor, married Henry Percy, 2nd Earl of Northumberland.  The Percys were great rivals of the Nevilles; Henry also succumbed at St Albans and three of his and Eleanor’s sons went on to die in the subsequent fighting.

So, Katherine Swynford, ancestor of monarchs, can certainly claim her very own chapter in Britain’s history and was, apparently, a pretty remarkable woman to boot.  Her daughter, Joan (the one who married Ralph), is buried next to her.

Incidentally, the Beaufort’s heraldic badge was the portcullis, now the primary symbol of the UK’s Houses of Parliament.

Lincoln CathedralA bit about Lincoln Cathedral

I haven’t mentioned anything much about Lincoln Cathedral, yet, which is really where we began.  The Victorian hero of the chattering classes, John Ruskin, described Lincoln Cathedral as “out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles and roughly speaking worth any two other cathedrals we have”.  So there you go; and don’t you just love the commitment behind ‘roughly speaking’?

Lincoln Cathedral, naveLincoln Cathedral was founded in the 11th century, but much of it dates from after an earthquake in 1185.  It is said to be the fourth largest cathedral in area in Britain (after Liverpool, St Paul’s and York Minster) and, for almost 240 years, from 1311 to 1549, when its central spire collapsed in a storm, it was also apparently the tallest building in the world.  A book could be written (and probably has) about Lincoln Cathedral. But I want to mention just four things before you go: – Magna Carta, rose windows, the Lincoln Imp and Little Saint Hugh.

The Cathedral owns one of the four surviving original 1215 copies of Magna Carta, now on display in a secure facility in Lincoln Castle.  This is because Hugh of Wells, Bishop of Lincoln, was a signatory to Magna Carta and his copy, along with three others, has survived.  Hugh is buried in the Cathedral too, by the way. Interestingly, the Lincoln Magna Carta was sent to New York in 1939, where it was on display at the ‘Hall of Democracy’ at the World Fair.  When war broke out, the priceless document became stranded and was eventually kept in Fort Knox until returning safely home after the war. In a moment of rashness, the Foreign Office did consider gifting the Lincoln Magna Carta to the USA; but the proposal was shelved. It was, however, lent to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, USA, in 2009.

Lincoln Cathedral, Dean's EyeRose windows are features of some great European Gothic buildings.  Lincoln Cathedral has two stunning examples, far beyond my ability or desire to meaningfully describe.  “The two eyes of the church”, as they were described by a medieval writer, face one another across the north-south transepts, the north rose known as the Dean’s Eye and the south rose as the Bishop’s Eye. The south is said to represent the Holy Spirit, the north the Devil.  The Dean’s Eye dates from 1220, the Bishop’s Eye from around 1330.  There is a legend, similar to that of the Apprentice’s Pillar at Rosslyn Chapel, that the Bishop’s Eye was made by a master mason’s apprentice and that the master, seeing that that his pupil’s work was so much finer than his own, threw himself off the scaffolding in a rage.

Mythology brings us neatly to the Lincoln Imp, which visitors are led to believe is one of the Must-See attractions of the Cathedral. The Lincoln Imp is one of many fine and interesting pieces of medieval stone carving in the Cathedral.  It is a grotesque, situated high up between two arches in the Angel Choir. The tale of how he came to be there varies, but the basic legend is that it all began when the Devil, feeling mischievous one day, released some ill-behaved young demons to cause a little gratuitous havoc. One apparently twisted the spire of St Mary and All Saints Church in Chesterfield, but a couple made their way to Lincoln Cathedral where they smashed windows, broke furniture and tripped up the dean. An angel appeared from an opened Bible and commanded they cease their naughtiness immediately. One of the imps sat on top of a column, hurling stones and abuse at the angel – who promptly turned him to stone.  And there he sits today, still wicked enough to move my camera several times whilst I was trying to photograph him.  The other imp escaped and now lives on Twitter.  Lincoln’s Imp is used as a badge by Lincoln City Football Club, who are, I have learned, known as ‘the Imps’.  He crops up at other places too, including Lincoln College, Oxford.

Little Saint Hugh, shrineTucked away in the Cathedral’s South Choir Aisle, you will come across the sorry and curious remains of the shrine of Little Saint Hugh.  The story behind it is tragic, and horrific.  In 1255, a small boy, Hugh, eight or nine years old, went missing for several weeks.  His mother, Beatrice, was told he had been playing with some Jewish children and found him in the well, or cesspit, in the house of a local Jew, Copin.  The story circulated that Hugh had been tortured, even ritually crucified, and that Copin confessed to the crime.  Ninety-two innocent Jews were taken from Lincoln to the Tower of London.  Eighteen were drawn (dragged through the streets) and hanged, their property confiscated. The remainder, after a ransom had been paid, were freed.  Hugh became known as Little Saint Hugh, though he was never canonised.  Viewed as a martyr, a shrine was built for him and the Cathedral benefitted handsomely from the pilgrims that came to pray at it.

We do not know what really happened to poor little Hugh, whether Copin killed him, there was a terrible accident, or what.  The dreadful story is, of course, by no means the only example of extreme anti-Semitism to come down to us from the Middle Ages. Nor indeed is it the only example of absurd allegations of ritual child-murder.  Jews were often the scapegoats of choice for ignorant, superstitious and greedy, medieval minds throughout Europe, just as Romans may have hated the deviant Christians in their day.  Shamefully, in 1290, Edward I expelled the Jews from England and it took Cromwell to allow their return some three and a half centuries later.

Depressingly, the story of Little Saint Hugh strikes a chord in the 21st century where, even in a supposedly free and democratic society, irrational bigots still blame other tribes for their own and society’s ills: black, white, Muslim, Christian, East, West, North, South, Tory, Labour, Leave, Remain, Nationalist, Republican, Democrat.  What or whoever your favourite scapegoat happens to be, they are surely up to no good.

Lincoln Cathedral, crossing

Here is Lincoln Cathedral’s website.

65 thoughts on “Tales of Lincoln Cathedral”

  1. John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford were some of my royal ancestors so I would love to come see this cathedral. However, I live in Paris, Texas so I doubt I will get to see it.

  2. We drove through Lincoln on the way to Yorkshire years ago, but didn’t have the time to stop and explore the city and cathedral. Unfortunately, I have never returned but I remember the feeling of awe I felt as we drove up the hill towards the cathedral. What an amazing building! Before Richard retired nearly six years ago we thought it might be a good project to visit all the cathedrals in the country once we had the leisure to do so. Sadly, the leisure has eluded us so far and we haven’t made a start on our project.
    In the mean time I have your wonderful web site to visit and can see all these fabulous buildings from the comfort of my home! Thanks, Mike!

    1. It’s quite a project, to get round the whole country ‘capturing’ every cathedral. I think there’s well over 60 in England alone (don’t quote me). Wonderful, though! But you’d get diverted, wouldn’t you?! So many other fascinating places to see next door or nearby while you’re there – castles, palaces, city walls… Great fun!

  3. I like visiting cathedrals too. I marvel at the sheer enormity of the various skills that went into building them, the stone masons, carpenters, the master glaziers, all those brilliant skills, still intact after all those years.

  4. I love Lincoln and its cathedral I have special memories of an Easter visit there. I hope to return in the not too distant future 🙂

  5. Great post. Its a magnificent cathedral in a great setting. We were lucky enough to visit on a warm sunny day and enjoy the antiques street market outside. I think we saw a copy of the Magna rather than the real copy but it was quite awe inspiring.

  6. I used to lecture on the Jewish community of Britain before the expulsion, and knew Little Saint Hugh very well. But I don’t remember his mother Beatrice, including her being told he had been playing with some Jewish children and found him in the well. You are totally correct that there were many examples of Jews being blamed for ritual child-murder, and not just in Britain. Perhaps it was easier for grieving parents to see their dead child as a martyr, rather than as an under-fed, under-cleaned child who contracted a nasty infection.

    This ritual child-murder was in 1255, so it didn’t take very long for Edward I to totally expel the Jews (in 1290). Not Britain’s finest moment in history.

  7. I think the story of the Lincoln Imp is totally believable myself. Does look as though you need a telephoto lens to capture it mind. I’m sure the Devil had a hand in that earthquake of 1185. Nice place to visit I’m sure. And btw – don’t know why no tea and bun shop got a mention ?

    1. Well, something stopped me getting a decent shot of the Imp – and if you’re saying it wasn’t down to bad photography, that’s OK with me. There must have been a reason for the lack of tea and buns; maybe it was beer day.

  8. Hi Mike – that part of the UK I’ve hardly ‘explored’ … so this was fascinating – as a young adult, I remember reading about John of Gaunt – romantic, historical novels – is about my knowledge … so thank you for adding a bit of culture for my brain!
    The Cadaver tomb is fascinating to see … I went to a Memento Mori exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London a few years ago … it was quite extraordinary.
    Brilliant post – thank you. Loved the history … and sometime I will definitely get to visit … have a peaceful Easter – Hilary

      1. Interesting client to have!! Hope you had a good Easter … can’t wait for warmer weather! Cheers Hilary

  9. As amazing as it is, I don’t think I’d like to go to church there – all those arches, layer upon layer (don’t know the correct term) – it’s so busy.
    A Happy Easter to you, Mike! 🙂

  10. I have never heard of this Cathedral, but wow, does it have a lot of history. It does sound like a wonderful place to visit.

    Loved the story of Eleanor, and how cool that it has a copy of the Magna Carta.

    I was not aware of the anti-Semitism that existed that long ago…

  11. Wonderful pictures! We used to visit Lincoln regularly when we lived in South Yorkshire, usually for the day. However, we stayed overnight once to attend the Mystery Plays staged outside the Cathedral. Despite being the summer, the wind at the top of that hill was formidable! I had never felt so cold in my life and had to have a Red Cross blanket for the second half.

  12. I have visited Lincoln and its cathedral. We have friends near there. Next time I visit I will make a point of looking for the tombs you mention. I had no idea they were there.
    Incidentally, for anyone interested in quenn’s tombs, Katherine of Aragon (Henry VIII first wife) is buried in Peterborough cathedral.
    Our great cathedrals are wonderful, but many people miss our smaller churches which often have equally fascinating histories.

    1. Yes, I believe Katherine gets a lot of visitors. And Peterborough Cathedral is another beautiful, and fascinating, building. You’re right. I find it hard, generally impossible, to walk past a medieval church without paying a visit.

    1. Pews are relatively recent things – post-Reformation, I think. People used to stand, or kneel. Many cathedrals in Britain use chairs nowadays – much more flexible for different services and events – though most parish churches have pews of one sort or another.

  13. Another excellent account of one of my favourite cathedrals. You’ve crammed in so much information in such a short space – and that’s not easy. Fabulous!.

  14. I remember taking one of my daughters to Lincoln when she was choosing which university to attend for her teacher training . She eventually settled on York (another Cathedral city) because it was nearer to home, but whenever I think of the Lincoln visit all I can remember is the beautiful cathedral.

    1. I love York Minster as well, also unique with its setting by the city wall. My daughter-in-law went to university in York, which is were she met my Air Force son, then they ended up living in Lincoln. Two very special cities.

  15. I do like the Dean’s Eye being said to be that of the Devil…reminds me of ‘all Gas and Gaiters’.
    You do wonder how these princes and princesses met…if they did at all…and how they communicated. What a difficult start to any marriage.

  16. Our favorite cathedral! How fortunate we were to hear the organ during our visit. Interesting to read John Ruskin’s quote, as we are familiar with him here in the States. If you ever get to Chicago, be sure to visit the Tribune Tower, a fine example of early 20th Century architecture. In the center of the floor in the lobby is a John Ruskin quote, inlaid into the tile. It reads:
    “Therefore when we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it be not for the present delight, nor for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that. a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, it “See! this our fathers did for us.”
    I dare say that Lincoln Cathedral fits the bill as one such structure.

    1. I always wonder how long the builders of cathedrals thought they would last. They probably thought the world would end long before the twenty first century!

  17. One of my favourite cathedrals, though you seem to have paid more attention to the tombs than I have! Two of our grandchildren were born in Lincoln so we got to know the the city and walk up and down the hill many times. I love the idea of the cathedral being the tallest building in the world and it is stil impressive with its position. My friend knitted a Lincoln Imp from a kit she bought in the cathedral shop! A couple of times we popped in to the cathedral and were lucky to catch rehearsals, Swingle Singers and the Halle orchestra.

  18. What a terrific visit to this extraordinary structure! I did not know that Jews were expelled from England in 1290! Argh. We human beings DO seem to find scapegoats again and again and again on whom to “hot potato” all sorts of our own unresolved issues — often with horrific results. I went to Wikipedia to learn more about Lincoln, which has layers upon layers of architecture and history!! What a country you live in!! In addition to the stories and photos you share, I continue to savor your use of language. Here is just one of the phrases which captivated me in this blog post: “as though some kind of revelatory comprehension would seep through stone from the dust of a long-dead queen’s sad and wretched remains.” Well done!

  19. Wow, so much wonderful, very interesting history, Mike. It’s amazing how our countries are so woven together in time. I am proud of this actually. The cathedral is incredibly beautiful, those who constructed it so long ago were true artists. Thanks for another great post!

  20. Another interesting post Mike, I might have better enjoyed history at school if you had been my teacher 🙂 I like the stories of the Lincoln imp and Little Saint Hugh 🙂

A Bit About Britain welcomes visitors. What do you think?

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: