Volumes of Stone - Cathedrals and Monasteries

Click to a larger version of Durham Cathedral Priory, County Durham (Church of England): photos © Jean Williamson & Mick Sharp

Durham Cathedral Priory, County Durham (Church of England): photos © Jean Williamson & Mick Sharp

Driven out by ferocious Danish raids, the monks of Lindisfarne quit their holy isle in 875, taking with them a wooden coffin containing illuminated manuscripts, the head of martyr-king St Oswald and the preserved body of St Cuthbert. The monastic community ended its wanderings in the 990s on a plateau looped by the River Wear, where the monks built the ‘White Church’ to hold their sacred relics. William the Conqueror’s ‘Harrying of the North’ in the winter of 1069-70 ruthlessly suppressed the English uprisings against his harsh regime. The Normans quickly put their stamp on Church and State, building to overwhelm and set messages in stone. In 1072 a Norman castle was placed to defend the neck of the peninsula and the Anglo-Saxon monastery was reformed, its church demolished and rebuilt between 1093 and 1133 to compare with the new churches rising in Normandy. Sir Walter Scott was moved to write “Grey Towers of Durham. Yet well I love thy mixed and massive piles. Half church of God, half castle ‘gainst the Scot.” The 12th-century original of this replica sanctuary knocker on the north door of the nave is in the Cathedral Treasury: ‘Clinging to this knocker criminals might claim sanctuary in the cathedral until their offences had been pardoned by the king’. A criminal taking refuge in a church could not be forcibly removed and was allowed to ‘abjure the realm’ by taking ship after swearing before a coroner to leave and never return. By 1540 the right of sanctuary had been restricted to seven cities and was abolished for crime by 1623 although still used in civil process for another 100 years.
Click to a larger version of Jarrow Monastery and St Paul’s Church, Tyne & Wear (English Heritage/CofE): photo © Jean Williamson

Jarrow Monastery and St Paul’s Church, Tyne & Wear (English Heritage/CofE): photo © Jean Williamson

Seen from the monastery ruins, the flag of St George flutters over the central Norman tower of St Paul’s church. Benedict Biscop established a Saxon monastery here in 681 with a small chapel built of reused Roman masonry. A little later he added a separate basilica which is now under the Victorian nave while the chancel, on the right of the tower, is the original Saxon chapel. From the age of seven, the Venerable Bede spent his time here and wrote ‘A History of the English Church and People’ and other works. As a novice he survived the plague which killed the choir monks skilled in the Roman-style chant favoured by Biscop, leaving only the boy and Abbot Ceolfrith to sing the daily Divine Office until replacements could be found and trained. He died aged 63 on Ascension Day eve in 735 and was buried in the church at Jarrow. A contemporary account of the two weeks approaching his ‘heavenly birthday’ describes him as weak, breathing with great difficulty, but never ceasing to pray, sing, give lessons and dictation, cheerfully urging his monks to ‘learn quickly ....... for my Lord may call me in a short while’. Around 1020 his relics were stolen by a monk from Durham and placed in the shrine of St Cuthbert; they are now in a separate tomb in the cathedral’s Galilee Chapel. Vikings burned Saxon Jarrow and by the 850s it was abandoned. In 1074, inspired by Bede’s writing, Prior Aldwin of Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, rebuilt the monastery on the Benedictine pattern and placed the tower on top of a pre-Conquest structure linking the Saxon basilica and chapel. Aldwin became first prior of the reformed monastery at Durham while Jarrow became one of its daughter houses, staffed on rotation by Durham monks.
Click to a larger version of Beverley Minster, East Yorkshire (Church of England): photo © Mick Sharp

Beverley Minster, East Yorkshire (Church of England): photo © Mick Sharp

Bede says that he was ordained deacon and priest ‘at the hands of the most reverend Bishop John’. St John of Beverley was born c 640 at Harpham, south-west of Bridlington. He became Bishop of Hexham, then York, and founded his own monastery in a wooded swamp at Beverley where he retired in 718 to spend the final four years of his life. The present Minster dates mainly from 1220 to 1400 with major restorations of the 18th and 19th centuries. John became famous for his aid to the poor and infirm, and his miracles of healing. He was canonized in 1037, after which Beverley became an important pilgrimage centre with wealth, status and the right of sanctuary for fugitives for a two-mile radius around the town. Pilgrims to the Minster included King Athelstan who believed that the saint had aided his emphatic victory over the Scots and Norse at the battle of Brunanburgh in 937. Even William the Conqueror refrained from harming the church during his ‘Harrying of the North’ when he saw a vision of John above the shrine. Edward I took the banner of St John on his campaigns and Henry V ascribed his triumph at Agincourt (25 October 1415) partly to it being the feast of St John’s translation, when his relics had been moved from the tomb in the east of the nave to a specially built reredos behind the high altar. The shrine was dismantled at the Reformation, the relics hidden under the nave floor where they were rediscovered in 1736. They now lie under a black marble slab on the site of the original tomb. Once each year, children bring primroses from Harpham to refresh the cold stone and warm memories of this much loved saint.
Click to a larger version of Iona Abbey, Argyllshire (Historic Scotland/NTS/Iona Community): photo © Mick Sharp

Iona Abbey, Argyllshire (Historic Scotland/NTS/Iona Community): photo © Mick Sharp

In 563 Columba and his twelve companions from Ireland steered their sixty-six-foot, skin-covered, sea-going currach to the south coast of the isle of Iona. They had come to found a monastery under the protection of Conall who ruled the Irish-Scots kingdom of Dalriada from Dunadd fort in Mid Argyll. One of their first tasks was to establish a vallum, the symbolic and legal boundary of an early monastery. At Iona the bank and rock-cut ditch were massive enough to be defensive and enclosed a sub-rectangular area of at least 20 acres (8ha). The principal timber buildings were at the centre, in the area now occupied by the refurbished Benedictine abbey and St Oran’s Chapel. Despite Viking raids in the late 8th and early 9th centuries - when relics were looted and monks put to the sword, or axe or whatever was to hand - the Columban monastery survived until around 1204 when Reginald, son of Somerled Lord of the Isles, established the Benedictine abbey against the Columbans’ wishes. Until the Scottish Reformation of 1560 extinguished the monastic community, pilgrims in great numbers visited the island abbey with its shrine to St Columba and landscape of miracles. The Iona Cathedral Trust was formed in 1899 and the main rebuilding work was completed in 1966. The Iona Community has restored a passion for Christian life and worship to the abbey church of St Mary in the monastery of St Columba. As I took this photograph a wooden cremation casket, empty of its ashes, lay open further along the bank, at the end of its journey from who knows where.
Click to a larger version of Caldey Island Priory, Pembrokeshire (Reformed Cistercian Order): photo © Mick Sharp

Caldey Island Priory, Pembrokeshire (Reformed Cistercian Order): photo © Mick Sharp

The restored church of the Norman Tironensian priory is dedicated to St Illtud who, with St Dyfrig (Dubricius) the 6th-century ‘pope’ of the area, is credited with founding the first monastic community on Caldey. The pre-Norse name of Caldey was Ynys Pyr - the island of Piro - in honour of the first abbot. The Life of the second abbot, St Samson (Sampson), describes Piro’s unseemly death by falling drunk into a deep well one night. At the age of five, Samson was sent to be educated by Illtud at his Llantwit Major monastery in the Vale of Glamorgan. Illtud's nephews became jealous of Samson’s rapid progress and, fearing he would be appointed abbot over them, attempted to kill him by poisoning his herbal tea. Sent to Caldey as cellarer, Samson became abbot on Piro’s fall from grace. He later set up a remote and austere monastery in Ireland, but was recalled to become abbot of Llantwit and made a bishop by Dyfrig. During one of his vigils ‘a mighty man shining’ told him he was to become very great in the Church as a pilgrim beyond the sea. Samson went on missionary journeys through Cornwall and Brittany, eventually becoming Bishop of Dol where he died around 563. The island was given in 1136, by its Norman owner, to the Benedictine monks of the Abbey of Tiron (France), and the priory became a cell of their abbey at St Dogmael’s near Cardigan. It was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1536. Caldey is now home to a Reformed Cistercian Order who, in 1929, took over the Mediterranean-style monastery, with turrets and red-tile roofs, constructed 1910-13 by Benedictines. The island is a true holy place, fragrant with spiritually and the scent of gorse flowers used by the white-clad monks to make perfume.
Click to a larger version of Finchale Priory, County Durham (English Heritage): photo © Mick Sharp

Finchale Priory, County Durham (English Heritage): photo © Mick Sharp

Here, in a bend of the River Wear north of Durham, lived an Anglo-Saxon hermit born in Norfolk. From 1115 until his death in 1170, St Godric lived a mystical life of ‘fearful austerity’, haunted by the sins and spiritual shortcomings of his adventurous early years. Amongst other things he was a pedlar, a sailor, a ship-owning merchant-adventurer (pirate) and a bailiff for a Norman lord who mistreated his Saxon tenants . Godric went on several pilgrimages to shrines in Europe and the Holy Land, worked in a hospital and lived with hermits in the desert. Drawn to the Benedictine priory at Durham by a vision of St Cuthbert, Godric was made an honorary monk and granted permission to settle on the bishop’s land at Finchale. His reputation for holiness, supernatural gifts, clairvoyance and prophecy attracted admiring visitors and correspondents including St Thomas of Canterbury, Abbot Ailred of Rievaulx and Reginald of Durham who became his biographer. The ‘holy tramp’ lived to be over 100, but he was increasingly troubled by supernatural phenomena including diabolic spirits and poltergeists. He was tended in his final, long illness by Durham monks who buried him in his hermitage around which, from 1196, the priory began to grow. The present stone building dates mainly from the 1230s. St Godric’s tomb is in the central part of the chancel built over his chapel to St John the Baptist. By the 14th century, Finchale was being run by a prior and four monks as a rest-house for their Durham brothers who, in rotating groups of four, spent three weeks there each year ‘on holiday’. This benign regime - somewhat at odds with Godric’s mortifying austerity - was put to an end by the priory’s dissolution in 1538.
Click to a larger version of Tintern Abbey, Monmouthshire (Cadw): photo © Jean Williamson

Tintern Abbey, Monmouthshire (Cadw): photo © Jean Williamson

The great work of a monastic community was to recite the seven services of the liturgy known as the canonical Hours. Times varied with the cycle of the year but at the equinoxes, when day and night were of equal length, monks began Vigils at 2am and completed the Hours with Compline at 6pm. Early on an October morning, when this photograph was taken with mist rising from the River Wye, the monks would have been at Prime, the third office of the day begun at sunrise. Tintern was the first Cistercian house in Wales, founded 1131 by the Norman lord of Chepstow with monks from L’Aumône near Chartres. The ‘white monks’ renounced all wealth and luxury and sought to dwell ‘remote from the comings and goings of the people’. One of the Order’s founders, St Bernard of Clairvaux, wrote that ‘Stones and trees will teach you a lesson you never heard from masters in school.’ With the help of lay brothers the ‘wilderness’ was turned to farmland with rich grazing for their flocks of sheep. Increasing land holdings and commercial success eventually led the Cistercians far from their early ideals of austerity, simplicity and compassion. By the late 1200s there were at least 20 monks at Tintern and the great abbey church was rebuilt. Unlike more unfortunate monasteries, Tintern was not much troubled by Anglo-Welsh conflicts, and by the time of its dissolution in 1536 it was the richest monastic house in Wales. During the 1790s J. M. W. Turner made two visits to paint the soaring, romantic, ivy-clad ruins. William Wordsworth also made two visits and wrote ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798’.
Click to a larger version of Canterbury Cathedral, Kent (Church of England): photo © Jean Williamson

Canterbury Cathedral, Kent (Church of England): photo © Jean Williamson

The Cathedral Church of Christ in Canterbury is the seat of the Archbishop, Primate of all England. The former Benedictine priory housed 100 monks or more and its priors were allowed to wear a mitre and granted other special privileges by the pope. The first cathedral was an old Roman church refurbished and dedicated by St Augustine in 602. The Anglo-Saxon cathedral priory grew, but was badly damaged in 1011 when the Danes sacked Canterbury and took hostage Archbishop Alfege. A year after the Conquest, fire destroyed the cathedral and from 1070-77 the first Norman archbishop, Lanfranc of Bec, completely rebuilt it and reorganized the monastery. The shrine and miracles of the ‘martyr’ Archbishop Thomas Becket, murdered in the cathedral in 1170 by four of Henry II’s knights, made Canterbury the main destination in Britain for pilgrims whose donations helped to rebuild the church after another great fire in 1174. Under Thomas Chillenden, ‘Flower of English Priors’, the Great Cloister was completely reconstructed in the 1390s by Kentish architect Stephen Lote. Some 825 heraldic bosses decorate the roofs of the four cloister walks, arranged in a square around the central open garth, which allowed the monks fresh air and exercise in all weathers. The family badges amongst the fan and liene (clematis) vaulting commemorate those who contributed to the rebuilding. At the surrender of Christ Church to Henry VIII in 1540, only 50 monks remained. Canterbury became the metropolitan cathedral of Reformed England, with provision for a Dean and 12 prebendaries: 22 of the monks, including the prior, were pensioned off, the rest became members of the new cathedral foundation.
Click to a larger version of Canterbury Greyfriars, Kent: photo © Jean Williamson

Canterbury Greyfriars, Kent: photo © Jean Williamson

A wild flower meadow adds lustre to the site of a Franciscan friary, established in 1267 on an islet in a fork of the River Stour. The surviving building of flint, red-brick and stone - possibly the dormitory or Warden’s house - spans the river on pillars and pointed arches. St Francis of Assisi, born the son of a rich Italian merchant, felt himself called to follow perfectly the way of Jesus. His primitive and modified Rules were approved by Rome in 1210 and 1223 when his followers were some 5000 strong: mendicant friars - poor ‘brothers’ - who walked barefoot and relied solely on alms to support their mission to the laity: to preach the Gospel, combat heresy, hear confessions, administer the sacraments, tend the sick (especially lepers) and absolve sinners. Their mobile, more democratic structure and strict adherence to Christ’s teachings set them at odds with some amongst the richer, more paternalistic monastic orders, and their willingness to minister to the people reduced the income of parish priests. The new orders of friars were initially loved by the poor and generally made welcome in England: monarchs used them as confessors and envoys, and some in the established Church, such as Archbishop Stephen Langton of Canterbury, welcomed their spiritual rigour. However, by the 14th century the Church had made literal adherence to Francis’ teachings on poverty a heresy, and friars gradually ceased to be itinerant and even took to employing professional beggars. Friars were allowed the use of land held under trust and the friary here grew to cover 18 acres with gardens and orchards. Many wished to be buried in their precincts which was allowed only if the friars shared offerings and legacies with the local parish clergy. In 1538, Henry VIII appointed a Dominican friar to suppress the friaries: the brothers were cast out into the community once more and their houses sold to laymen.
Click to a larger version of Peterborough Cathedral, Cambridgeshire (Church of England): photo © Mick Sharp

Peterborough Cathedral, Cambridgeshire (Church of England): photo © Mick Sharp

The Romanesque west front of St Peter’s church was framed by a 13th-century screen wall with three huge Gothic arches and two flanking turrets. A Perpendicular porch was inserted 1370-80 to stabilize the leaning central arch. The original monastery of ‘Medeshamstede’ was founded 656 by Peada, the first Christian king of Mercia. In 870 Danish raiders sacked the monastery and murdered Abbot Hedda, his brethren and villagers who had sought refuge in the church. The abbey was re-founded 960 as a Benedictine house, and Peterborough gained its name around 1000 when a fortified ‘burgh’ was created by building a defensive wall around the abbey. Its church burnt down in 1116, the present building was started two years later. The abbey required relics to attract donations from pilgrims travelling across the Fens to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, and Abbot Aelfsy (1006-55) was ‘like a laborious bee’ in collecting them. The relics of over 70 saints came to be held there including the uncorrupted right arm of St Oswald, stolen from Bamburgh c 1060 by a Peterborough monk named Winegot. The arm, ‘a thing more precious than gold even’, was kept under constant watch from a specially built tower in the south transept chapel. As well as local relics acquired against fierce competition from rival communities, wonders were brought from afar including the swaddling clothes of Jesus, pieces of his manger and cross, fragments from his sepulchre, remains of the five loaves fed to the five thousand, the ‘raiment of Saint Mary’, the magic rod used by Aaron in Egypt, the hand of St Magnus and the arm and head of St George. Katharine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, was also buried in the church: Henry dissolved the abbey in 1539, but it was one of the six churches he elevated to cathedral status.
Click to a larger version of Bath Abbey, Bath and NE Somerset (Church of England): photo © Jean Williamson

Bath Abbey, Bath and NE Somerset (Church of England): photo © Jean Williamson

On Whitsunday 973, Edgar had himself re-crowned king of England in the newly reformed Benedictine abbey of Bath as a symbol of revival after years of Danish oppression: Edgar and St Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, agreed that the pursuit and support of the monastic ideal was the path to salvation. After the Conquest, the Normans created ten monastic cathedrals and Bath, re-founded and rebuilt 1088-1122, became co-cathedral with Wells. It was rebuilt again after a fire in 1137 and from 1499 refashioned in Perpendicular style by Bishop Oliver King, chief secretary to Henry VII. King experienced a dream in which he saw angels on the Ladders of Heaven and heard a voice urging him to restore the church. The angels and other elements of his vision are carved on the west front. The abbey was dissolved in 1539 before the work was finished, the lead and glass sold off. It became the mother church of Bath and the citizens funded its completion in the 1600s. It has been much altered and restored since then, especially in the 19th century, and the 1960s when bomb damage from WWII was repaired. In 1942 British Bomber Command fire-bombed Lübeck and Rostock at the start of a new policy to destroy the moral of German workers. The Luftwaffe responded by targeting historic English towns featured in the Baedeker guidebook: Bath, Exeter, Norwich and York were hit with ‘high explosives, incendiaries and machine-gun fire’. The Allied landings on the Normandy beaches, at dawn on 6 June 1944, raised poignant echoes of the Norman invasion of England. The British fought their way off Sword Beach and headed for Caen, the source of so much stone for Norman buildings. The place where William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy and king of England, lies buried in the monastery he had built on land stolen from a man called Ascelin.
Click to a larger version of Whitby Abbey, North Yorkshire (English Heritage): photo © Mick Sharp

Whitby Abbey, North Yorkshire (English Heritage): photo © Mick Sharp

The exposed location on East Cliff, high above the former whaling harbour, and gaunt remains from the 13th and 14th centuries create a classic Gothic ruin - a dramatic stage effect associated with ‘Bram’ Stocker’s dark Victorian tale of Dracula and Victoria’s mourning jewellery of Whitby jet. Formerly known as Streaneshalch, the first monastery here was founded after 655 by King Oswy of Northumbria. He had vowed to found 12 monasteries and pledged his daughter, Elfleda, as perpetual virgin to God in return for victory over the invading Mercians and their pagan king, Penda, who had killed Oswy’s brother Oswin. St Hilda of Hartlepool was made abbess of the new double monastery of monks and nuns. Oswy called a synod at Whitby in 664 to resolve differences - including the timing of Easter - between Roman and Celtic christianity. Oswy settled for Rome, but Iona did not accept the ‘universal’ practices until 716. A famous political centre and school, Whitby became a monument and shrine to the Northumbrian royal family and home to the herdsman St Caedmon, first poet and hymnist in the Anglo-Saxon tongue. Destroyed by Danes in the 860s, the monastery was re-founded under Benedictine rule by the Normans. Their church was too small to accommodate the growing numbers of pilgrims, so it was rebuilt in 1220 and enlarged again over the next two centuries. Whitby became one of the richest Benedictine houses in Yorkshire, home to 40 monks or more, but there were only 22 at its surrender in December 1539. The timber, lead and bells were sold, and stone taken from the monastery to build a mansion, but the church remained largely intact till most of the nave fell in 1762. The south transept soon followed, and most of the west front in 1794. The central tower collapsed in 1830, a storm damaged the choir in 1839 and, to complete the effect, a German cruiser squadron shelling North Sea ports during WWI scored several direct hits.

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