Britain’s Best Cathedrals: History and the Reformation

It seems unimaginable that the peaceful streets and countryside of Britain were once such violent places in medieval times. The land was largely under the control of powerful feudal lords and wealthy bishops. The king clung to his power by lobbying among them and seeking their support. They gave this to him in exchange for favours, for without a monarch the centre simply would not hold.

Best English Cathedrals

Carew Castle, Pembrokeshire, Wales

The feudal lords raised private armies to protect their farmland, and progressively extended their homes into mighty castles. Some of these withstood everything their enemies threw at them. Most eventually fell though, were trashed, and gradually became the crumbling ruins we see today. The moss that grows between the stones belies the awful bloody tragedies of those violent days.

Best English Cathedrals: Carew Castle, Pembrokeshire
Carew Castle, Pembrokeshire: Photo James Russell / CC 2.0

Canterbury Cathedral

The bishops claimed the authority of the Lord that even the kings feared, and raised mighty cathedrals to house the holy relics that attracted paying pilgrims. The ordinary people used them as meeting places where they could stop and chat, as is the custom in Britain’s shopping malls today. Holy rituals took place at altars behind carved stone screens the people never visited, because the conversation was in Latin they did not understand.

Best English Cathedrals: Canterbury Cathedral, Kent
Canterbury Cathedral, Kent: Photo Matthew Black / CC 2.0

Ljubljana Cathedral, Slovenia

The English church was staunchly Catholic in the Middle Ages. As was the custom throughout Europe, bright colours, gilded ceilings, paintings on the walls and statues of the saints stood in every corner they could find. These days, we can only imagine their glorious splendour, because the Civil War destroyed the decoration forever. They may have looked like Ljubljana Cathedral in Slovenia below, although we will never know for sure because everything has been stripped away in Britain.

Best English Cathedrals: Ljubljana Cathedral, Slovenia
Ljubljana Cathedral, Slovenia: Photo Pedro Szekely / CC 2.0

The Reformation

During the English Civil War of 1642 to 1651, the authority of the established church was overthrown, and the absolute power of the king replaced by parliament. As this period known as The Reformation unfolded, soldiers evicted clergy and used Britain’s great cathedrals as garrisons to sleep in, as ammunition stores, as jails for prisoners of war, and even as stables for their horses. They looted the relics, trashed the rich ornamentation and used it as firewood.

Best English Cathedrals: Hereford Cathedral
Hereford Cathedral: Photo Michael D Beckwith / CC 2.0

Whenever I visit an English cathedral, its awesome, simple beauty overtakes me as if the stonemasons had just finished their job. These were master artisans, in love with their material and determined to build a holy habitation for their God. They left us a gift of irreplaceable beauty, and a vision of mighty stones soaring up to heaven as if on the wings of angels. I sometimes think they look better without all their decoration.

Best English Cathedrals: Exeter Cathedral, Devon
Exeter Cathedral, Devon: Photo Javi / CC 2.0

About Richard Farrell

Richard FarrellI tripped over a shrinking bank balance and fell into the writing gig unintentionally. This was after I escaped the corporate world and searched in vain for ways to become rich on the internet by doing nothing. Despite the fact that writing is no recipe for wealth, I rather enjoy it. I will deny I am obsessed with it when I have the time.My base is Umtentweni in South Africa on the Kwazulu-Natal South Coast (30.7167° S, 30.4667° E). I work from home where I ponder on the future of the planet, and what lies beyond in the great hereafter. Sometimes I step out of my computer into the silent riverine forests, and empty golden beaches for which the area is renowned.

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