The Pillars of the Earth – Inside England’s Medieval Cathedrals

From the Middle Ages until the advent of the skyscraper, Cathedrals were often the world’s tallest buildings.
In 1311, the spire of Lincoln Cathedral surpassed the height of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

They reached for the heavens to the glory of God.

Immerse yourself in the majesty of these magnificent monuments with Gregorio Allegri’s captivating Miserere mei, Deus as we take a journey inside England’s Medieval Cathedrals.

Bristol Cathedral, Bristol

A unique feature of Bristol Cathedral is its 14th-century Decorated Gothic vaulting. The short lierne ribs of the choir form beautiful stellar patterns that historian Nikolaus Pevsner called “superior to anything else in England” in terms of spatial imagination.

The nave of Bristol Cathedral looking west towards the entrance. Credit: David Iliff
The nave of Bristol Cathedral looking west towards the entrance. Credit: David Iliff
Vaulting of the choir. Credit: David Iliff
Vaulting of the choir. Credit: David Iliff

Canterbury Cathedral, Kent

One of the largest cathedrals in England, Canterbury Cathedral is famous for its 12th- and 13th-century stained glass, its perpendicular nave, the tomb of the Black Prince, and the site of St. Thomas Becket’s murder.

Canterbury Cathedral - 12th-century choir. Credit: David Iliff
Canterbury Cathedral – 12th-century choir. Credit: David Iliff
Canterbury Cathedral - The stained glass of the southern side of Trinity Chapel. Credit: David Iliff
Canterbury Cathedral – The stained glass of the southern side of Trinity Chapel. Credit: David Iliff
Canterbury Cathedral- stained glass window- detail showing miracles of healing
Canterbury Cathedral- stained glass window- detail showing miracles of healing
Canterbury Cathedral - upper half of Poor man's Bible window
Canterbury Cathedral – upper half of Poor man’s Bible window

Chester Cathedral, Cheshire

Chester Cathedral’s choir has exquisite figurative carving dating from 1380.

The building of the nave, which began in 1323, was halted by plague and not completed until 150 years later.

Chester Cathedral - Choir Stalls and Rood Screen. Credit: David Iliff
Chester Cathedral – Choir Stalls and Rood Screen. Credit: David Iliff
Chester Cathedral - The building of the nave, begun in 1323, was halted by plague and completed 150 years later. Credit: Michael Beckwith
Chester Cathedral – The nave. Credit: Michael Beckwith

Chichester Cathedral, West Sussex

Notable features include a transitional retro-choir, early Norman relief carvings and the 15th-century belfry. The spire can be seen from the English Channel.

Chichester Cathedral - The Choir looking west. Credit: David Iliff
Chichester Cathedral – The Choir looking west. Credit: David Iliff
Chichester Cathedral - The Lady Chapel. Credit: Richard Gillin
Chichester Cathedral – The Lady Chapel. Credit: Richard Gillin

Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire

Architecturally, Ely Cathedral is outstanding both for its scale and stylistic details. Built in a monumental Romanesque style, the galilee porch, lady chapel and choir were rebuilt in an exuberant Decorated Gothic.

One of the most important features is the central octagon built in 1322, which experts consider to be a wonder of English cathedral architecture.

The choir of Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire. Credit: David Iliff
The choir of Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire. Credit: David Iliff
The nave of Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire. Credit: David Iliff
The nave of Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire. Credit: David Iliff
Ely Cathedral - The ceiling of the nave and lantern, viewed from the Octagon. Credit: David Iliff
Ely Cathedral – The ceiling of the nave and lantern, viewed from the Octagon. Credit: David Iliff

Exeter Cathedral, Devon

A good example of the Decorated Gothic style of the 14-th century, Exeter Cathedral has the longest medieval vault in the world—running between two Norman towers built over the transepts.

Exeter Cathedral - looking east toward the organ. Credit: David Iliff
Exeter Cathedral – looking east toward the organ. Credit: David Iliff
Exeter Cathedral - The Lady Chapel. Credit: David Iliff
Exeter Cathedral – The Lady Chapel. Credit: David Iliff

Gloucester Cathedral, Gloucestershire

Massive masonry piers characterize the Norman nave, and the largest medieval window in the world is the area of a tennis court.

Gloucester Cathedral - The nave looking east toward the choir. Credit: David Iliff
Gloucester Cathedral – The nave looking east toward the choir. Credit: David Iliff
Gloucester Cathedral - The soaring stained glass windows behind the high altar. Credit: David Iliff
Gloucester Cathedral – The soaring stained glass windows behind the high altar. Credit: David Iliff

The cloisters have the earliest example of fan-vaulting, making a distinctive setting for scenes of the Harry Potter film series.

Gloucester Cathedral - Cloisters with fan vaulted roof was used as a location in the Harry Potter film series
Gloucester Cathedral – Cloisters with fan vaulted roof

Hereford Cathedral, Herefordshire

A Norman nave and large central tower with unusual north transept and porch house an important treasure—the Mappa Mundi, a medieval map of the world dating from the 13th century.

Hereford Cathedral - The nave looking west. Credit: David Iliff
Hereford Cathedral – The nave looking west. Credit: David Iliff
Hereford Cathedral - The Choir. Credit: David Iliff
Hereford Cathedral – The Choir. Credit: David Iliff

The Early English Lady Chapel is considered “one of the most beautiful of the thirteenth century”.

Hereford Cathedral - The Lady Chapel. Credit: David Iliff
Hereford Cathedral – The Lady Chapel. Credit: David Iliff

Lichfield Cathedral, Staffordshire

The only one of the cathedrals to have retained three spires, Lichfield Cathedral suffered serious damage during the English Civil War. Even though all of the stained glass was destroyed, the Lady Chapel retained some of the finest medieval Flemish painted glass in existence.

Lichfield Cathedral - The High Altar. Credit: David Iliff
Lichfield Cathedral – The High Altar. Credit: David Iliff
Lichfield Cathedral - The choir. Credit: David Iliff
Lichfield Cathedral – The choir. Credit: David Iliff

Lincoln Cathedral, Lincolnshire

The third largest in Britain, Lincoln Cathedral was reputedly the tallest building in the world for 238 years (1311–1549). The central spire collapsed in 1549 and was not rebuilt, but even so the Victorian writer John Ruskin called it “out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles and roughly speaking worth any two other cathedrals we have.”

Lincoln Cathedral - The nave looking east. Credit: David Iliff
Lincoln Cathedral – The nave looking east. Credit: David Iliff
Lincoln Cathedral - Interior view of the crossing tower. Credit: David Iliff
Lincoln Cathedral – Interior view of the crossing tower. Credit: David Iliff
Lincoln Cathedral - The choir looking west. Credit: David Iliff
Lincoln Cathedral – The choir looking west. Credit: David Iliff

Norwich Cathedral, Norfolk

Norwich Cathedral’s Norman tower surmounted by a 15th-century spire is the second tallest in England, surpassed only by Salisbury Cathedral. The spectacular vaulting has hundreds of ornately carved, painted and gilded bosses, each decorated with a theological image, and said to be without parallel in the Christian world.

Norwich Cathedral - The presbytery as viewed from the choir. Credit: David Iliff
Norwich Cathedral – The presbytery as viewed from the choir. Credit: David Iliff
Norwich Cathedral - The pulpitum. Credit: David Iliff
Norwich Cathedral – The pulpitum. Credit: David Iliff
Norwich Cathedral - The choir. Credit: David Iliff
Norwich Cathedral – The choir. Credit: David Iliff

Oxford Cathedral, Oxfordshire

One of the oldest in England, Oxford Cathedral’s 13th-century stone spire perfectly complements Oxford’s tradition as “the city of dreaming spires”. But the late-15th-century pendant vault over the Norman chancel is its most unusual feature.

Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford - The altar and vault. Credit: David Iliff
Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford – The altar and vault. Credit: David Iliff
Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford - The Choir. Credit: David Iliff
Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford – The Choir. Credit: David Iliff

Peterborough Cathedral, Cambridgeshire

Known for its imposing Early English Gothic West Front, Peterborough Cathedral’s nave has a decorated wooden ceiling which is unique in Britain and one of only four in Europe.

The structure of the building remains largely unaltered since it was completed almost 800 years ago.

Peterborough Cathedral - The choir. Credit: David Iliff
Peterborough Cathedral – The choir. Credit: David Iliff
Peterborough Cathedral - The lady chapel. Credit: David Iliff
Peterborough Cathedral – The lady chapel. Credit: David Iliff
Peterborough Cathedral - The High Altar
Peterborough Cathedral – The High Altar

Ripon Cathedral, North Yorkshire

Dating from the 7th century to 1522, Ripon Cathedral’s choir is famed for its richly carved 14th-century stalls, with many lively figures among the carvings.

Ripon Cathedral - The nave, showing a clear asymmetry in the arches. Credit: David Iliff
Ripon Cathedral – The nave, showing a clear asymmetry in the arches. Credit: David Iliff
Ripon Cathedral - The rood screen. Credit: David Iliff
Ripon Cathedral – The rood screen. Credit: David Iliff
Ripon Cathedral - The organ. Credit: David Iliff
Ripon Cathedral – The organ. Credit: David Iliff

St Albans Cathedral, Hertfordshire

St Albans is the second longest cathedral in the United Kingdom (after Winchester), but it has the longest nave. Much of the structure was built from bricks salvaged from the nearby site of an ancient Roman town called Verulamium. Medieval wall paintings and a painted wooden roof from the late 13th century are among its other attractions.

St Albans Cathedral - The Wallingford Screen of c. 1480—the statues are Victorian replacements (1884–89) of the originals, destroyed in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when the screen itself was also damaged. Credit: David Iliff
St Albans Cathedral – The Wallingford Screen of c. 1480—the statues are Victorian replacements (1884–89) of the originals, destroyed in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when the screen itself was also damaged. Credit: David Iliff
St Albans Cathedral - The choir. Credit: David Iliff
St Albans Cathedral – The choir. Credit: David Iliff

Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire

With its harmonious proportions and the tallest spire in the United Kingdon, Salisbury epitomises the English Medieval Cathedral. It houses the world’s oldest working clock (from AD 1386), and the best surviving of the four original copies of Magna Carta.

Salisbury Cathedral - The nave looking east from the font. Credit: David Iliff
Salisbury Cathedral – The nave looking east from the font. Credit: David Iliff
Salisbury Cathedral's Trinity Chapel (Lady Chapel) ceiling. Credit: David Iliff
Salisbury Cathedral’s Trinity Chapel (Lady Chapel) ceiling. Credit: David Iliff
Salisbury Cathedral - The Choir. Credit: Julian guffogg
Salisbury Cathedral – The Choir. Credit: Julian guffogg

Wells Cathedral, Somerset

Wells has been variously described as “unquestionably one of the most beautiful” and as “the most poetic” of English cathedrals.

Pure Early English Gothic of the late 12th and early 13th centuries, Wells features deeply sculpted moldings and has retained much of the original glass.

Wells Cathedral - The nave, viewed from the entrance. Credit: David Iliff
Wells Cathedral – The nave, viewed from the entrance. Credit: David Iliff
Wells Cathedral - The Chapter House. Credit: David Iliff
Wells Cathedral – The Chapter House. Credit: David Iliff
Wells Cathedral - The Lady Chapel. Credit: David Iliff
Wells Cathedral – The Lady Chapel. Credit: David Iliff

Winchester Cathedral, Hampshire

The longest medieval cathedral in the world, Winchester’s spectacular perpendicular nave has been literally carved out of the original Norman interior, with its tall arches and prominent vertical design.

Winchester features elaborate wooden carvings from many different periods as well as a magnificent stone screen behind the High Altar.

Winchester Cathedral - The nave viewed from the west looking towards the choir. Credit: David Iliff
Winchester Cathedral – The nave viewed from the west looking towards the choir. Credit: David Iliff
Winchester Cathedral - The Choir looking west. Credit: David Iliff
Winchester Cathedral – The Choir looking west. Credit: David Iliff
Winchester Cathedral - The High Altar. Credit: David Iliff
Winchester Cathedral – The High Altar. Credit: David Iliff

Worcester Cathedral, Worcestershire

Worcester Cathedral incorporates  styles from every century from the 11th to the 16th.

The earliest part of the building is the multi-columned Norman crypt, with the nave showing a unique and decorative transition between Norman and Gothic over a 200-year period.

The Cathedral chancel contains the tomb of King John.

Worcester Cathedral - The choir. Credit: David Iliff
Worcester Cathedral – The choir. Credit: David Iliff
Worcester Cathedral - The lady chapel and east window. Credit: David Iliff
Worcester Cathedral – The lady chapel and east window. Credit: David Iliff
Worcester Cathedral - The transept organ-case. Credit: David Iliff
Worcester Cathedral – The transept organ-case. Credit: David Iliff

York Minster, North Yorkshire

One of the largest of its kind in Northern Europe, York Minster has a very wide Decorated Gothic nave with the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the world. The large central window has fine Flowing Decorated tracery called the “Heart of Yorkshire”.

Now an honorific title, “Minster” is attributed to churches established in the Anglo-Saxon period as missionary teaching churches.

York Minster - The nave of York Minster. Credit: David Iliff
York Minster – The nave of York Minster. Credit: David Iliff
York Minster - The Kings Screen and organ. Credit: David Iliff
York Minster – The Kings Screen and organ. Credit: David Iliff
York Minster - The chapter house. Credit: David Iliff
York Minster – The chapter house. Credit: David Iliff
York Minster - The Choir. Credit: David Iliff
York Minster – The Choir. Credit: David Iliff

Popular Posts


Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I may receive an affiliate commission. I only recommend products or services that I believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

David James

David James

I'm an Englishman in Boston. History is a joy—it binds us, it connects us, it guides us. I'm interested in making history more accessible and more fun. Join me on this fantastic voyage through time.