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Monday, 29 May 2017

Gloucester Cathedral - ancient and magnificent

   Gloucester Cathedral soars magnificently into the heavens and is perfectly proportioned to my eyes. It is one of 5 cathedrals founded by Henry VIII from some of the monastic churches that he had disendowed. Before that rebirth in 1541, it had a long history dating from its ancestor, a religious house dedicated to St. Peter. This owed its inception in 678-9 to King Ethelred of Mercia who assigned to Osric, a prince in the province of Hwicce, an area of land for the purpose. Benedictine monks were installed there in the early 11th century by Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester but nothing remains of this Anglo-Saxon monastery, in which the men slept, worked, ate and died, being buried in the cemetery in the South East of the church. Pilgrims were admitted for devotions which included kneeling at the tomb of King Edward II.
   The Norman period.
   In 1072, when there were only 2 monks and 8 novices, William the Conqueror appointed a Norman monk as Abbot of Gloucester. His name was Serlo and I imagine him as sturdy, inspiring and not a little bossy as he was responsible for invigorating and expanding the community as well as organising the building of the eastern part starting in 1089 with the nave, the crypt, its apse, its encircling ambulatory, its chapels and the choir above it. This section was dedicated on 15th July, 1100. Then he organised the building for the monks before dying in 1104. There was a serious fire in 1122 but the work on the nave was completed in about 1160. Further additions were made but the body of the building is largely Norman and its plan is excellent for allowing circulation between its various parts.
    Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and this one was changed into a house of secular clergy who lived as ordinary priests, not as monks. The old Latin services were replaced with the English Prayer book which meant that worshippers could understand what was happening - and I sometimes wonder if the minor clergy were not similarly aided in comprehension.
   The nave has pillars 30 ft 7 inches high to the eye but are even taller since the present pavement was raised in 1740 by several inches. The glass is mostly modern. The South Transept is reputedly the birthplace of Perpendicular architecture as, in about 1330,  the Gloucester builders placed straight up-and-down tracery over the old Norman work. The tower rises above the choir to the height of 225 feet.
The East window, assembled during the 1350's, has the largest area of any cathedral window in Britain and was in essence a war memorial commemorating the deeds of barons at Crécy (1346) and Calais (1347). It is not flat but has bayed wings.

The Cloister is famous for the fan vaulting on its walls and this is where the monks worked, taught, walked and meditated. Unusually it lies to the North and so these men had a cold time of it. There is a lavatorium or washing place and there were 20 carrels or study closets along the walls. (I was interested to find this lovely word still in use in libraries in the U.S.A.) The chapels are fascinating also and the large bell, Great Peter, is the only Medieval Bourdon bell remaining in England and weighs in at a hefty 59 cwt plus, ringing out over the city marking the daylight hours.
The Effigies. I am always on the look-out for the Welsh connection when I go abroad and sought out the tomb of the eldest son of William the Conqueror, Robert Curthose, made from Irish bog oak a century after his death in Cardiff Castle in 1134, where he had been imprisoned by his younger brother, Henry I. More magnificent is the tomb of Edward II who was brutally murdered in Berkeley Castle in September 1327, but the reasons and the supposed method are not mentioned in any of the discreet guide-books I have read. The effigy is made of alabaster and rests on a tomb chest of oolitic limestone clad in Purbeck marble.


Of the many famous people and events connected with the cathedral, I warm to the story of the hasty coronation in 1216 of the boy King Henry III using, according to legend, his mother's bracelet.

After this I enjoyed my CAKE in the café garden and then I wandered outside, gazing again at the tower, realising that part of its stunning effect derives from the presence of smaller towers around it, imitating its proportions. The doorway is splendid.


With a couple of hours to spare before my train to Newport to take me home on a Monmouthshire bus, I had a look at the city and was underwhelmed to find it largely a chain-store shopping mall. Hoping that Gloucester Quays might be more atmospheric I took a bus down there to find another soulless mall dedicated to designer outlet retail therapy. I can be a keen devotee of purchase power and snapped up a bargain but it does seem a great pity that our cities and towns are now so much alike and lack any individuality or connection with their richly textured history. Sad.

I am indebted to 3 guides for my research: one written by the then Dean, Dr. Henry Gee who died in 1938; the Pitkin Guide and one by David Verey and David Welander. Opening hours and other information may be checked by clicking here and my articles on Cardiff Castle and Berkeley Castle might be of interest to you also. I do hope so. All readers are allowed a large piece of CAKE after a visit either to a historic site or to my blog!


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