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Profile: Cathedral Church of St Peter and the Holy and Indivisible Trinity, Gloucester

When our guide told us 'You're looking at a Benedictine abbey,' he wasn't quite joking.

Gloucester Cathedral might not literally be an abbey any more, but the physical structure hasn't changed all that much since the dissolution and conversion in 1541. With no significant additions, the building visitors see now is the abbey as it stood in the late 1400s, including the nave which mostly dates back to the Norman building work of 1089-1100.

Image shows the nave's north wall from the eastern end, with chairs laid out in the centre of the nave, and a line of round columns with rounded arches and carved chevrons, in front of an aisle with round-headed windows along the wall
Norman! Norman! Norman!

That's why our guide could point at the rounded arches, rounded windows and broad circular columns in the nave and exclaim 'Norman! Norman! Norman!' Then, he grinned a little sheepishly, pointed to the south aisle with its pointed-arch windows, and admitted 'They're not Norman, but we'll get to those later.'

At first glance, Gloucester's nave is pretty consistent. The ten bays are formed from matching circular pillars on each side, and even the discolouration caused by historic fire damage seems fairly uniform. The length of the nave, coupled with a modest ceiling height, feels quite compact.

Built over existing Roman trenches and land prone to flooding, the nave has long had issues with subsidence; the west end had to be brought closer, and the south aisle still curves slightly in a way that walls shouldn't. To prevent collapse, that wall was remodelled with bigger windows (bigger windows mean more glass and less stone, so the wall has less weight to support). The bigger windows, of course, are Gothic and pointed, so don't match the Norman ones opposite.

A pointed-arch window in the south wall, above some funerary monuments.
Not Norman! The south wall.

St Peter's abbey was built in the 600s, unusually headed by a woman, and then like so many major English churches was rebuilt in stone by the Normans late in the eleventh-century. Gloucester was important for the Normans, like it had been under the Romans, and Norman kings honoured the city with council meetings and public crown-wearing ceremonies. These annual events at Gloucester, Westminster and Winchester forged royal connections with the cities and helped legitimise the Normans' connection to, and inheritance from, the previous Saxon kings.

This bit of the cloisters is a long paved corridor with a vaulted ceiling and an open door at the far end. The windows let in a lot of light, and in near focus there's are some stained glass windows (much newer than the cloister itself) over a little cubicle for a monk to sit at his desk in.
Gloucester's Cloisters

The old abbey's monastic cloisters – unusually on the colder northern side – are lined with little cubicles that once housed a monk and his desk, but without any glass in the windows the view of the cloister garden must have been a draughty one. Those cloisters and their fan vault ceiling are probably now the most famous part of the building, after several film and TV appearances (including as corridors at Hogwarts).

Before those films, though, the abbey church at Gloucester was famous for two royal events, now commemorated in Victorian stained-glass. Firstly, as the site of the only English coronation (so far) outside of Westminster, since the Norman Conquest. Secondly, as the burial-place of a murdered English king.

After his unpopular father's death in 1216, nine-year old Henry III's coronation was rushed through at Gloucester, before rebellious barons could crown somebody else (like French prince Louis, who was nearby with an army). Despite the unusual location and choice of crown (the young boy is said to have needed an arm-bracelet of his mother's rather than a full-size crown) Henry's reign stuck and lasted fifty-six years.

A modern statue of Saxon St Kyneburga, in a niche in one of the pillars at the cathedral crossing - it's a very clean statue, showing the abbess holding a crozier and a small model of the Saxon church
St Kyneburga, Gloucester's early abbess

Henry III's grandson, Edward II, fared less well and was deposed by his barons, his wife and her lover, before dying in suspicious circumstances at Berkeley Castle. Edward's reputation wasn't great in life, and hasn't improved much since his death, so the abbot of St Peter's in Gloucester was taking a gamble in agreeing to host a corpse nobody wanted. The gamble paid off, though, and Gloucester became an unlikely pilgrimage site for those attracted to the tomb of a murdered king.

The gamble paid off in other ways too. While visitors (and their money) poured into Gloucester, the new king, Edward III, commissioned a more impressive resting-place for his father, which led to a rebuilding of the abbey's entire eastern end. The cathedral's south transept is now regarded as the oldest surviving example of English Perpendicular architecture, the style that came to dominate the later medieval period and still largely defines our image of what a church should look like. That style was later extended to the quire, eastern lady chapel, and the north transept.

At the Dissolution of the Monasteries from 1539, the community at St Peter's, like so many others, was evicted and dispersed. As part of his split from the Catholic church, Henry VIII dissolved England's monastic institutions, and stripped many of them of their assets - whether their precious metals, money, or building materials like stone and roof lead. The English landscape is still littered with the ruins of dismantled monasteries.

St Peter's was one of the lucky ones, possibly because of those existing royal connections. The abbey was converted into a cathedral and became the seat of a new diocese, carved out of the diocese of Worcester. The abbot and monks were replaced by a Dean and Chapter, and most of the abbey's estates (including the church close and cloisters) were kept by the new institution.

The monument to Edward II, which is a pile of Perpendicular-style arches clustered under one of the rounded arches in the eastern transept. The pillars to each sie have a band of red paitn with white harts.
Edward II's very Perpendicular monument, with some pillar decoration marking Richard II's later visit

In the early seventeenth-century, Gloucester cathedral was briefly on the front lines of the emerging cultural war between advocates of a more elaborate style of worship, and their opponents, who preferred something much more stripped-back. William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1633-1645, has traditionally been regarded as the leader of those intent on elevating and glorifying the church above the secular world. In the 1610s he was dean of Gloucester, and you can still see the controversial rails he had installed to separate the altar from the common worshipper.

During the series of wars across the British Isles starting in 1639, and the Interregnum that followed, cathedrals across England saw some big changes, and were all briefly under new management. In Gloucester there are reports of the cloisters being used as a military barracks or stables, and theological debates, assize courts, and puritan preaching in the nave. The chapter house was converted into a library, which is still growing and now housed elsewhere in the cathedral.

A wooden throne in the cathedral quire, late seventeenth-century
The mayor's seat in the choir

In 1657, amid warnings that the ruinous cathedral was in danger of collapse, the city's mayor received an Act of Parliament granting him and the city burgesses control over the church and surrounding buildings (and therefore responsibility for their upkeep). This arrangement only lasted until 1660's restoration of the dean and chapter, but modern tour guides claim the mayor's seat in the cathedral quire - opposite the slightly larger bishop's throne - is a mark of gratitude for the mayor saving the cathedral from destruction.

Cathedral stained glass and music were particular targets during the civil wars: the glass because the images might encourage idolatry, and the music because it got in the way of the important business of preaching sermons. After the Restoration, Gloucester's biggest bills were for re-glazing windows and for replacing the organ. The modern cathedral, however, has one of the world's largest examples of (reconstructed) medieval glass with its vast Great East Window depicting the Divine Order of medieval society.

Fears of the death of cathedral choral music also proved to be unfounded, and Gloucester is currently one of the hosts of the annual Three Choirs Festival, first held in the 1710s.

Gloucester Cathedral came out of the era of Victorian restorations in good condition, and today the visitor can tour the tower, library, crypt and cloisters of a building that has been a part of the city for nearly a thousand years.

A vast eastern stained glass window, above a Perpendicular altar screen, and with some of the fan vault ceiling visible above. The window has five horizontal levels, twelve panels across, the lowest of which shows local heraldic shields, while the other four have panels showing figures representing the levels of the medieival social hierarchy, with abbots at the bottom and a pope with Christ at the top.
The Great East Window, depicting medieval social hierarchy



Suzanne Eward, No Fine but a Glass of Wine: Cathedral life in Stuart times

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