They’re the link to our medieval past, a living connection to a part of our ancient history and a continuous thread through centuries of change. Bernadette Fallon selects 10 inspiring cathedrals to visit. Pictured above (Ely Cathedral from The Almonry Garden)

1. Canterbury

It’s the Mother Church, not only of all England but of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and the seat of the most powerful archbishop in the country. Canterbury Cathedral has seen it all in 1,400 years of history and today is one of the most famous church buildings in Europe.

It’s the site of the oldest cathedral in England and its foundation marks the Christian conversion of a large part of the country after Augustine, a Benedictine monk sent by Pope Gregory to convert the Pagan Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, arrived in Kent in 597.

It’s also of course the site of a very famous murder when Archbishop Thomas Becket was butchered by four royal knights of King Henry II. Today a small altar marks the spot of Becket’s murder, nearby a white stone stained with red is said to be the spot where his head lay bleeding after the deed was done. The original shrine, covered in gold and precious jewels, was dismantled under the orders of King Henry VIII during the Reformation.

Other must-sees in the cathedral include St Gabriel’s Chapel with wall paintings that date from the Middle Ages, the Great South Window with its medieval stained glass and a contemporary sculpture by artist Antony Gormley in the crypt, suspended above the original site of Becket’s tomb.

2. Durham

Founded as the final resting place of Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne, Durham Cathedral began life as a simple timber shrine. As Cuthbert’s fame grew with news of the miracles he performed for pilgrims to the site, the shrine became a church and at the end of the 11th century, today’s mighty cathedral began to take shape.

William of St Carilef (William of Calais) was its first ‘prince bishop’ – until the 19th century the Bishop of Durham was a military leader as well as a religious one – appointed by William the Conqueror in 1080. He was responsible for getting the cathedral built and construction began in 1093 at the eastern end. First completed was the choir and then builders moved on to the nave, which was fully completed almost forty years later.

Back then, Cuthbert’s shrine was described as ‘the most sumptuous in all of England’. Today it’s a simple stone slab behind the high altar, the original plundered and destroyed in the Reformation. But even if Durham lost its shrine, it still has its wonders.

3. Winchester

Winchester is the longest cathedral in Britain, stretching 169m from the west entrance to the east end, and one of the biggest medieval churches in the world. Built on the site and using the stones of the old minster in the one-time capital city of England, it was founded in 1079 by William the Conqueror, just thirteen years after his victory at Hastings. It is the final resting place of St Swithun of the ’40 days of rain’ fame – though his original shrine was destroyed – and author Jane Austen, who has no less than three memorials in the nave.

And while Swithun’s shrine didn’t survive the destruction of the Reformation, several medieval chantry chapels miraculously did, including that of Bishop Stephen Gardiner, former Bishop of Winchester and a key player in the court of King Henry VIII who was subsequently imprisoned in the Tower of London for his Catholic beliefs.

But one of the cathedral’s most famous memorials is not to a saint, bishop or literary legend, but a dockyard diver. A bronze sculpture of William Walker celebrates the man who saved the cathedral with his bare hands at the start of the 20th century; diving under the building in deep water to underpin the cathedral’s foundations and save it from sinking into the ground beneath.

4. Salisbury

It’s one of the most quintessentially English cathedrals and its spire is the tallest in the country. Set in lush meadows by a river, Constable painted about 300 different versions of Salisbury Cathedral over his lifetime. And it is unusual among its medieval counterparts in not evolving piecemeal, section by section, but was built as a single creation in the 13th century, the third structure to hold the name Salisbury Cathedral but the first one to occupy this site.

Within its walls you’ll find some of the oldest carved choir stalls in the country, including some gifted by King Henry III in 1236; one of the most stunning examples of fan vaulting in England, dating from the Perpendicular Gothic period; and the oldest working clock in existence, dating from about 1386.

One of the cathedral’s most arresting features is placed in the nave. The Living Water Font was designed by British water sculptor William Pye and installed in 2008, on the eve of Michaelmas Day, as part of the 750th anniversary celebrations of the original consecration of the cathedral in 1258.

5. Lincoln

The ‘soft blonde stone’ of Lincoln’s great west front is all that remains of the original Norman building founded here in 1072 by William the Conqueror’s travelling companion and supporter, the Benedictine monk Remigius. On top of one of the steepest hills in the country, the cathedral can be seen from most parts of the county and was described by the Victorian critic John Ruskin as ‘the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles and roughly speaking worth two of any other cathedrals we have’. It was also for a time in the Middle Ages the tallest building in the world.

Today, Lincoln displays a perfect history of medieval architecture through the cathedral’s many phases – from Norman to each of the Gothic styles. From the Early English nave to the Decorated Gothic screen that separates it from the quire with its magical angel carvings, to the final Gothic flourishing, Perpendicular, in the east end. This is home to St Hugh’s shrine, in memory of the revered 12th century bishop who was canonised a saint when he performed many miracles for pilgrims after his death.
Above the shrine is the Lincoln imp, turned to stone by an angel after  causing mayhem during a religious procession, today forever grinning at the visitors below.

6. York

York Minster is one of the biggest Medieval Gothic cathedrals in northern Europe and holds half of all the Medieval stained-glass in England. As the Mother Church of the Northern Province, it’s one of the most important spiritual centres in Britain and the seat of an archbishop. It costs £20,000 a day to run and employs a full-time staff of 200, including thirty permanent glaziers and stonemasons, as well as 500 volunteers.

Its history stretches back to the Roman Emperor Constantine, who founded the first church in York in the 4th century. The first minster was a wooden church built in 627 for the baptism of King Edwin of Northumbria. Although the current minster is an impressive 800 years old, dating back to the 13th century when the 250-year building programme began, this is in fact the fourth minster to be built in the city.

York’s treasures include the famous Rose Window, with its stonework from 1240 and glass from the early 1500s, the Five Sisters window that dates from the 13th century, and features in Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, and the magnificent Decorated Gothic Chapter House, which has played home to English parliaments in its history.


7. Ely

Known as the ‘Ship of the Fens’, Ely Cathedral rises majestically from the surrounding landscape. Isolated on an island until the draining of the Fens marshland several centuries ago, today it rises magically from the early morning mists. Magical too is the story of its origin. Most unusually it was founded by a woman, Etheldreda, an Anglo-Saxon princess of the 7th century and the daughter of the King of East Anglia.

The Anglo-Saxon church she established became a monastery and in 1081 work on today’s cathedral began on this site. In the 13th century a large extension was added to the building to accommodate Etheldreda’s shrine and make room for the crowds of pilgrims who flocked to visit it. Today St Ethelreda’s Chapel is marked by a modern statue made in the 1960s by Philip Turner and nothing remains here of her original relics.

The cathedral is particularly famous for its Octagon and Lantern, a masterpiece of medieval engineering built from wood to replace the Norman central tower that fell down in the 14th century. It frames the central space high above the nave with a dazzling display of elegantly executed arches, painted panels and detailed carving. Visitors can take a guided tour up to it and right out onto the roof itself for a not-to-be-missed experience.

8. St Davids

St David is the patron saint of Wales and the cathedral that bears his name stands on the site of his 6th century monastery in the city of St Davids, the smallest city in the UK but so important it dropped its apostrophe. This historic site was in fact a centre of Christian worship and pilgrimage long before St Augustine arrived in Kent to spread the faith.

William the Conqueror visited as a pilgrim, as did King Henry II after the cathedral was established in the 12th century. All were drawn to pray at the shrine of St David, which like so many others, was defaced in the Reformation. Today, its stonework has been updated with gleaming painted icons by local artist Sarah Crisp.

Other memorials to visit in the cathedral include the tomb of Edward Tudor, father of King Henry VII and grandfather to King Henry VIII, and the grand Gothic Holy Trinity Chapel, final resting place of St Davids’ Bishop Vaughan.

9. Edinburgh

St Giles Cathedral has been a place of worship for nearly 900 year and has played a tumultuous part in Scottish history, a legendary scene of revolts and reconciliations. It’s believed to have been founded around 1124 by King David and named in memory of a 7th century Greek hermit, the patron saint of – among other things – lepers. Only a few of the stones of the original medieval building remain and today the oldest part of the cathedral is believed to be the sanctuary at the crossing, dating from the early 1300s.

Among the famous historical figures it has played host to over the years are John Knox, one of the foremost proponents of the Reformation in Scotland and Jenny Geddes, who may have been responsible for the start of the Civil War that overthrew the monarchy, though her actual existence is still in some dispute.

The cathedral is also home to the Knights of the Most Ancient and Most Noble order of the Thistle, who have their own regal chapel in the cathedral, a wonderful Gothic creation, which, despite its ancient appearance, dates from the early 20th century.

10. Ripon

Ripon Cathedral may hold the body of one of the greatest early saints of England and might just have provided the inspiration for one of the best-known books in the English language. What we know for sure is that, while it’s not the oldest church building in the UK, its 7th-century crypt dates from 672 and predates every existing cathedral in the country.

It was founded by Wilfrid, the bishop who is also credited with the origins of Chichester Cathedral. Canonised a saint after his death, his body may still rest in the cathedral though the site is long lost. But his life is celebrated in a contemporary glass memorial close to the cathedral’s main entrance.

There’s a treasure trove of stunning carvings on the misericord seats in the quire, one of which shows a griffin chasing a rabbit down a rabbit hole. It may just have inspired Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, the pen name of writer Charles Dodgson. Dodgson was very familiar with Ripon and was a frequent visitor to the cathedral as his father, also Charles, was canon there in the 1850s.