Cathedrals have a special place in national life. Attracting large congregations and tourists, they are important in public life for their scale and splendour as well as their significance as places of worship.
From Norman to Modernist, there are many different architectural styles in England’s cathedrals.
Here are just a few stunning cathedrals, with photos taken from the Historic England Archive.
1. Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, Carlisle, Cumbria
Carlisle Cathedral marks its 900th anniversary in 2022, celebrating its beginnings as a Priory Church in 1122. It became a cathedral in 1133, when Henry I formed the Diocese with Carlisle as the centre.
The building was refurbished in the 13th and 14th centuries, as Edward I held his parliament in Carlisle and lived and worshipped at the cathedral.
Although it is one of the smallest of England’s ancient cathedrals, it holds the largest window in the ‘flowing decorated Gothic’ style in England.
2. Cathedral Church of St Andrew, Wells
The small settlement of Wells was able to claim city status once the cathedral moved here from Sherbourne. The first construction phase of Wells Cathedral was initiated by the local Bishop, Reginald Fitz Jocelin, in the year 1176. It took nearly three centuries to complete, although the cathedral was officially consecrated in 1239.
The famous ‘scissor’ arches were constructed from 1338 to 1348, and added to solve a critical engineering problem. By 1313, a high tower topped by a lead covered wooden spire had been constructed but the foundations were not stable enough and large cracks began to appear. The arches were added by master mason William Joy as a solution.
3. Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Chad, Lichfield
Lichfield Cathedral is the only medieval three-spired Cathedral in the UK and the burial place of the great Anglo-Saxon missionary Bishop, St Chad.
In St Chad’s time the diocese stretched from the Welsh border to the North Sea; and from Northumberland to the Thames. The diocese may have shrunk over time, but Lichfield remains one of the largest in the Church of England, serving a population of just under two million people in 1,744 square miles.
Famous English Gothic Revival architect Sir George Gilbert Scott renovated the ornate West Front from 1855 to 1878. Working with original materials, he restored the cathedral to the form he believed it took in the Middle Ages.
4. Cathedral of St Michael, Coventry
Coventry Cathedral, dating from the 14th century, was badly damaged in 1940 when over 500 bombers from the Luftwaffe targeted Coventry. It was left a virtual shell with only the tower and its spire still standing.
The decision to rebuild the cathedral was taken the morning after its destruction – as a symbol of reconciliation and faith in a future world free from conflict. A competition was launched in 1951 to find a design for a new cathedral: it was one of the most important architectural commissions of the post-war period.
A radical plan submitted by the young architectural practice Basil Spence & Partners was chosen from 219 entries. It was striking for its vision of preserving the ruined shell of the ancient cathedral as an integral part of the overall modern design.
The dramatically modern cathedral, which caused public controversy at the time, was built at right angles to the ruins of the old and shared the same red sandstone exterior.
Basil Spence commissioned some of the finest artists of the period to create striking designs and bold decorative detail for the interior.
The foundation stone was laid by the Queen on 23 March 1956 and the cathedral took six years to complete: it was consecrated in her presence on 25 May 1962.
5. Saint Sophia’s, Moscow Road, London
In the 1870s, it was decided a new church was needed to serve the Greek community who lived in the new west London suburbs of Paddington, Bayswater and Notting Hill. Designed by John Oldrid Scott, he consulted Edwin Freshfield – a renowned Byzantinist of the time – on the design, who happened to be the church’s solicitor. The foundation stone was laid in 1878 and consecrated by the Archbishop of Corfu on 5 February 1882.
Saint Sophia became a Greek Orthodox Cathedral in 1922, when it was designated by the Oecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople as the seat of the newly-created Diocese of Thyateira.
During the Second World War, Saint Sophia became the seat of the Greek government in exile, therefore becoming the cathedral of the Greek Nation. It sustained some bomb damage during the Blitz.
6. Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul, Clifton, Bristol
A new cathedral in Clifton was commissioned in 1965 to replace the Pro-Cathedral (already listed) of the 1830s. The Percy Thomas Partnership produced a powerful and dramatic building.
Clifton is often described as being the first cathedral in the world to accord completely with the liturgical guidelines issued by the Vatican in November 1963. The altar for example, is placed to one side with a horseshoe of seating for the congregation, which quickly became a preferred alternative to the notion of seating entirely in the ‘round’ because of the clearer view it gave everybody of the celebration.
7. Cathedral Church of Christ and St Mary the Virgin, Durham
Durham Cathedral was built between the late 11th and early 12th century to house the bodies of St. Cuthbert (AD 634 to 687), the patron saint of Northumbria, and the Venerable Bede (AD 672/3 to 735). The castle was built around 1072 by the Normans, intending to re-establish William the Conqueror’s control over the town after the defeat of his army.
Over the centuries it has been a stronghold and palatial residence for Durham’s prince-bishops and since 1836 has been the home of Durham University. Durham World Heritage Site was inscribed on the World Heritage List by UNESCO in 1986.
8. Cathedral Church of St Peter, St Paul, and St Andrew, Peterborough
The cathedral we see now is a rebuilding from 1118, which began after a disastrous fire in 1116. The first abbey on the site was established in AD 655 but destroyed by Viking raiders in 870, followed by the mid-10th century abbey destroyed in the Norman takeover in 1069.
Peterborough Cathedral was consecrated in 1238 – the original wooden ceiling survives in the nave, the only one of its time in England. Many features of the cathedral were destroyed during the English Civil War, although much of the original structure remains today.
Two famous queens were buried in the cathedral, Katherine of Aragon and Mary Queen of Scots. Katherine’s grave is in the North Aisle, whilst Mary was reburied in Westminster in 1612.
The role of Historic England
Many places of worship are protected as listed buildings. You can find out more about them from the National Heritage List for England.
If you’re involved in a project to make changes to or carry out new work in cathedrals, read our advice.