The cathedral is a Grade I listed building, and part of a heritage site that also includes the former monastic buildings to the north, also listed Grade I. The cathedral, typical of English cathedrals in having been modified many times, dates from between 1093 and the early 16th century, although the site itself may have been used for Christian worship since Roman times. All the major styles of English medieval architecture, from Norman to Perpendicular, are represented in the present building.
The cathedral and monastic buildings were extensively restored during the 19th century amidst some controversy, and a free-standing bell-tower was added in the 20th century. The buildings are a major tourist attraction in Chester, a city of historic, cultural and architectural importance. In addition to holding services for Christian worship, the cathedral is used as a venue for concerts and exhibitions. History
The city of Chester was an important Roman stronghold. There may have been a Christian basilica on the site of the present cathedral in the late Roman era, while Chester was controlled by Legio XX Valeria Victrix. Legend holds that the basilica was dedicated to St Paul and Saint Peter. This is supported by evidence that in Saxon times the dedication of an early chapel on this site was changed from Saint Peter to Saint Werburgh. In the 10th century, St Werburgh’s remains were brought to Chester, and 907 AD her shrine was placed in the church. It is thought that Æthelfleda turned the church into a college of secular canons, and that it was given a charter by King Edgar in 968. The abbey, as it was then, was restored in 1057 by Leofric, Earl of Mercia and Lady Godiva. This abbey was razed to the ground around 1090, with the secular canons evicted, and no known trace of it remains.
In 1093 a Benedictine monastery was established on the site by Hugh Lupus, Earl of Chester, and the earliest surviving parts of the structure date from that time. The abbey church was not at that time the cathedral of Chester; from 1075 to 1082 the cathedral of the diocese was the nearby church of St John the Baptist, after which the see was transferred to Coventry. In 1538, during the dissolution of the monasteries, the monastery was disbanded and the shrine of Saint Werburgh was desecrated. In 1541 St Werburgh’s abbey became a cathedral of the Church of England by order of Henry VIII. At the same time, the dedication was changed to Christ and the Blessed Virgin. The last abbot of St Werburgh’s Abbey, Thomas Clarke, became the first dean of the new cathedral at the head of a secular chapter.
Although little trace of the 10th-century church has been discovered, save possibly some Saxon masonry found during a 1997 excavation of the nave, there is much evidence of the monastery of 1093. This work in the Norman style may be seen in the northwest tower, the north transept and in remaining parts of the monastic buildings. The abbey church, beginning with the Lady Chapel at the eastern end, was extensively rebuilt in Gothic style during the 13th and 14th centuries. At the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, the cloister, the central tower, a new south transept, the large west window and a new entrance porch to the south had just been built in the Perpendicular style, and the southwest tower of the façade had been begun. The west front was given a Tudor entrance, but the tower was never completed.
In 1636 the space beneath the south west tower became a bishop’s consistory court. It was furnished as such at that time, and is now a unique survival in England, hearing its last case, that of an attempted suicide of a priest, in the 1930s. Until 1881, the south transept, which is unusually large, also took on a separate function as an independent ecclesiastical entity, the parish church of St Oswald. Although the 17th century saw additions to the furnishings and fittings, there was no further building work for several centuries. By the 19th century, the building was badly in need of restoration. The present homogeneous appearance that the cathedral presents from many exterior angles is largely the work of Victorian restorers, particularly George Gilbert Scott. The 20th century has seen continued maintenance and restoration. In 1973–75 a detached belfry designed by George Pace was erected in the grounds of the cathedral. In 2005 a new Song School was added to the cathedral. During the 2000s, the cathedral library was refurbished and relocated. It was officially reopened in September 2007. The cathedral and the former monastic buildings were designated by English Heritage as Grade I listed buildings on 28 July 1955. In February 2009 plans for the transformation of the area around the cathedral and nave platform were announced.
Like the cathedrals of Carlisle, Lichfield and Worcester, Chester Cathedral is built of New Red Sandstone, in this case Keuper Sandstone from the Cheshire Basin. The stone lends itself to detailed carving, but is also friable, easily eroded by rain and wind, and is badly affected by pollution. With the other red sandstone buildings, Chester is one of the most heavily restored of England’s cathedrals. The restoration, which included much refacing and many new details, took place mainly in the 19th century. The sandstone exterior (from the south west) has much decorative architectural detail but is heavily restored.
Because the south transept is similar in dimension to the nave and choir, views of the building from the south-east and south-west give the impression of a building balanced around a central axis, with its tower as the hub. The tower is of the late 15th century Perpendicular style, but its four large battlemented turrets are the work of the restoration architect George Gilbert Scott. With its rhythmic arrangement of large, traceried windows, pinnacles, battlements and buttresses, the exterior of Chester Cathedral from the south presents a fairly homogeneous character, which is an unusual feature as England’s cathedrals are in general noted for their stylistic diversity. Close examination reveals window tracery of several building stages from the 13th to the early 16th century. The richness of the 13th-century tracery is accentuated by the presence of ornate, crocketted drip-mouldings around the windows; those around the perpendicular windows are of simpler form.
The façade of the cathedral is dominated by a large deeply recessed eight-light window in the Perpendicular style, above a recessed doorway set in a screen-like porch designed, probably by Seth and George Derwall, in the early 1500s. This porch formed part of the same late 15th-century building programme as the south transept, central and southwest towers, and cloister. Neither of the west towers was completed. To the north is the lower stage of a Norman tower, while to the south is the lower stage of a tower designed and begun, probably by Seth and George Derwall, in 1508, but left incomplete following the dissolution of the monastery in 1538. The cathedral’s façade is abutted on the north by a Victorian building housing the education centre and largely obscured from view by the building previously used as the King’s School, which is now a branch of Barclays Bank. The door of the west front is not used as the normal entrance to the cathedral, which is through the southwest porch which is in an ornate Tudor style.
The interior of Chester Cathedral gives a warm and mellow appearance because of the pinkish colour of the sandstone. The proportions appear spacious because the view from the west end of the nave to the east end is unimpeded by a pulpitum and the nave, although not long, is both wide and high compared with many of England’s cathedrals. The piers of the nave and choir are widely spaced, those of the nave carrying only the clerestory of large windows with no triforium gallery. The proportions are made possible partly because the ornate stellar vault, like that at York Minster, is of wood, not stone.
The present building, dating from around 1283 to 1537, mostly replaced the earlier monastic church founded in 1093 which was built in the Norman style. It is believed that the newer church was built around the older one. That the few remaining parts of the Norman church are of small proportions, while the height and width of the Gothic church are generous would seem to confirm this belief. Aspects of the design of the Norman interior are still visible in the north transept, which retains wall arcading and a broadly moulded arch leading to the sacristy, which was formerly a chapel.The transept has retained an early 16th-century coffered ceiling with decorated bosses, two of which are carved with the arms of Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey.
The north west tower is also of Norman construction. It serves as the baptistry and houses a black marble font, consisting of a bowl on a large baluster dating from 1697. The lower part of the north wall of the nave is also from the Norman building, but can only be viewed from the cloister because the interior has been decorated with mosaic.
The Early English Gothic chapter house, built between 1230 and 1265, is rectangular and opens off a “charming” vestibule leading from the north transept. The chapter house has grouped windows of simple untraceried form. Alec Clifton-Taylor describes the exterior of this building as a “modest but rather elegant example of composition in lancets” while Nikolaus Pevsner says of the interior “It is a wonderfully noble room” which is the “aesthetic climax of the cathedral”. To the north of the chapter house is the slype, also Early English in style, and the warming room, which contains two large former fireplaces. The monastic refectory to the north of the cloister is of about the same date as the chapter house.
The Lady Chapel to the eastern end of the choir dates from between 1265 and 1290.It is of three bays, and contains the Shrine of St Werburgh, dating from the 14th century. The vault of the Lady Chapel is the only one in the cathedral that is of stone. It is decorated with carved roof bosses representing the Trinity, the Madonna and Child, and the murder of Thomas Becket. The chapel also has a sedilia and a piscina.
The choir, of five bays, was built between 1283 and 1315 to the design of Richard Lenginour, and is an early example of Decorated Gothic architecture. The piers have strongly modelled attached shafts, supporting deeply moulded arches. There is a triforium gallery with four cusped arches to each bay. The sexpartite vault, which is a 19th-century restoration, is supported by clusters of three shafts which spring from energetic figurative corbels. The overall effect is robust, and contrasts with the delicacy of the pinnacled choir stalls, the tracery of the windows and the rich decoration of the vault which was carried out by the ecclesiastical designers, Clayton and Bell. The choir stalls, dating from about 1380, are one of the glories of the cathedral.
The aisles of the choir previously both extended on either side of the Lady Chapel. The south aisle was shortened in about 1870 by George Gilbert Scott, and given an apsidal east end, becoming the chapel of St Erasmus. The eastern end of the north aisle contains the chapel of St Werburgh. The building of the nave, begun in 1323, was halted by plague and completed 150 years later.
The nave of six bays, and the large, aisled south transept were begun in about 1323, probably to the design of Nicholas de Derneford. There are a number of windows containing fine Flowing Decorated tracery of this period. The work ceased in 1375, in which year there was a severe outbreak of plague in England. The building of the nave was recommenced in 1485, more than 150 years after it was begun. The architect was probably William Rediche. Remarkably, for an English medieval architect, he maintained the original form, changing only the details. The nave was roofed with a stellar vault rather like that of the Lady Chapel at Ely and the choir at York Minster, both of which date from the 1370s. Like that at York, the vault is of wood, imitating stone.
From about 1493 until 1525 the architect appears to have been Seth Derwall, succeeded by George Derwall until 1537. Seth Derwall completed the south transept to a Perpendicular Gothic design, as seen in the transomed windows of the clerestory. He also built the central tower, southwest porch and cloisters. Work commenced on the south west tower in 1508, but it had not risen above the roofline at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, and has never been completed. The central tower, rising to 127 feet (39 m), is a “lantern tower” with large windows letting light into the crossing. Its external appearance has been altered by the addition of four battlemented turrets by George Gilbert Scott in the 19th century.
Former monastic buildings
The Perpendicular Gothic cloister is entered from the cathedral through a Norman doorway in the north aisle. The cloister is part of the building programme that commenced in the 1490s and is probably the work of Seth Derwall. The south wall of the cloister, dating from the later part of the Norman period, forms the north wall of the nave of the cathedral, and includes blind arcading. Among the earliest remaining structures on the site is an undercroft off the west range of the cloisters, which dates from the early 12th century, and which was originally used by the monks for storing food. It consists of two naves with groin vaults and short round piers with round scalloped capitals.
Leading from the south of the undercroft is the abbot’s passage which dates from around 1150 and consists of two bays with rib-vaulting. Above the abbot’s passage, approached by a stairway from the west cloister, is St Anselm’s Chapel which also dates from the 12th century. It is in three bays and has a 19th century Gothic-style plaster vault. The chancel is in one bay and was remodelled in the early 17th century. The screen, altar rails, holy table and plaster ceiling of the chancel date from the 17th century. The north range of the cloister gives access to a refectory, built by Simon de Whitchurch in the 13th century. It contains an Early English pulpit, approached by a staircase with an ascending arcade. The only other similar pulpit in England is in Beaulieu Abbey.
Much of the exterior stonework has been refaced in the 19th and 20th centuries. By the 19th century the fabric of the building had become badly weathered, with Charles Hiatt writing that “the surface rot of the very perishable red sandstone, of which the cathedral was built, was positively unsightly” and that the “whole place previous to restoration struck one as woebegone and neglected; it perpetually seemed to hover on the verge of collapse, and yet was without a trace of the romance of the average ruin.” Between 1818 and 1820 the architect Thomas Harrison restored the south transept, adding corner turrets. This part of the building served until 1881 as the parish church of St Oswald, and it was ecclesiastically separate. From 1844 R. C. Hussey carried out a limited restoration including work on the south side of the nave.
The most extensive restoration was carried out by the Gothic Revival architect, George Gilbert Scott, who between 1868 and 1876 “almost entirely re-cased” the cathedral. The current building is acknowledged to be mainly the product of this Victorian restoration commissioned by the Dean, John Saul Howson. In addition to extensive additions and alterations to the body of the church, Scott remodelled the tower, adding turrets and crenellations. Scott chose sandstone from the quarries at Runcorn for his restoration work. In addition to the restoration of the fabric of the building, Scott designed internal fittings such as the choir screen to replace those destroyed during the Civil War. He built the fan vault of the south porch, renewed the wooden vault of the choir and added a great many decorative features to the interior.
Scott’s restorations were not without their critics and caused much debate in architectural circles. Scott claimed to have archaeological evidence for his work, but the Liverpool architect, Samuel Huggins argued in an 1868 address to the Liverpool Architectural Society, that the alterations were less like restoration and more like rebuilding. One of the larger changes was to shorten the south aisle and restyle it as an apse. The changes also proposed the addition of a spire above the existing tower, but this proposal was later rejected. Samuel’s further paper of 1871 entitled On so-called restorations of our cathedral and abbey churches compelled the Dean to attempt to answer the criticism. The debate contributed to the establishment of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.
Later in the century, from 1882, Arthur Blomfield and his son Charles made further additions and modifications, including restoring and reinstating the Shrine of St Werburgh. More work was carried out in the 20th century by Giles Gilbert Scott between 1891 and 1913, and by F. H. Crossley in 1939.
Towards the end of 1963 the cathedral bells, which were housed in the central tower, were in need of an overhaul and ringing was suspended. In 1965 the Dean asked George Pace, architect to York Minster, to prepare specifications for a new bell frame and for electrification of the clock and tolling mechanism. Due to structural difficulties and the cost of replacing the bells in the central tower it was advised that consideration should be given to building a detached bell and clock tower in the southeast corner of the churchyard. It was decided to proceed with that plan, and in 1969 an announcement was made that the first detached cathedral bell tower was to be erected since the building of the campanile at Chichester Cathedral in the 15th century. In February 1969, nine of the ten bells in the central tower were removed to be recast by John Taylor & Co as a ring of twelve bells with a flat sixth. The new bells were cast in 1973. Work on the new bell-tower began in February 1973. Two old bells dating from 1606 and 1626 were left in the tower. On 26 February 1975 the bells were rung for the first time to celebrate the wedding of a member of the Grosvenor family. The official opening on 25 June 1975 was performed by the Duke of Gloucester. The belfry is known as the Dean Addleshaw Tower, after the dean of the cathedral responsible for its construction. The tower is built in concrete, faced with sandstone at its base. It is the first detached bell tower to be built for a cathedral in this country since the Reformation. Between the bell tower and the south transept is a garden in remembrance of the Cheshire Regiment (originally the 22nd Regiment of Foot).
Fittings and Glass
The Consistory Court of 1632 The treasures of Chester Cathedral are its rare fittings, specifically its choir stalls and the 17th-century furnishing of the bishop’s consistory court in the south tower, which is a unique survival.
The choir stalls date from about 1380. They have high, spiky, closely set canopies, with crocketed arches and spirelets. The stall ends have poppyheads and are rich with figurative carving. The stalls include 48 misericords, all but five of which are original,depicting a variety of subjects, some humorous and some grotesque. Pevsner states that they are “one of the finest sets in the country,” while Alec Clifton-Taylor calls them “exquisite” and says of the misericords that “for delicacy and grace they surpass even those at Lincoln and Beverley.”
Chester suffered badly at the hands of the Parliamentary troops. As a consequence, its stained glass dates mainly from the 19th and 20th centuries and has representative examples the significant trends in stained glass design from the 1850s onwards. Of the earlier Victorian firms, William Wailes is the best represented, in the south aisle (1862), as well as Hardman & Co. and Michael Connor. Glass from the High Victorian period is well represented by two leading London firms, Clayton and Bell and Heaton, Butler and Bayne. The Aesthetic style is represented by Charles Eamer Kempe. Early 20th century windows include several commemorating those who died in World War I.
There are also several notable modern windows, the most recent being the refectory window of 2001 by Ros Grimshaw which depicts the Creation. The eight-light Perpendicular window of the west end contains mid-20th century glass representing the Holy Family and Saints, by W. T. Carter Shapland. Three modern windows in the south aisle, designed and made by Alan Younger to replace windows damaged in the Second World War. They were donated by the 6th Duke of Westminster to celebrate the 900th anniversary of the cathedral and contain the dates 1092 and 1992 to reflect the theme of “continuity and change.”