10 of the Best Medieval Cathedrals You Can See in Britain

The Medieval period in Britain has been agreed by many historians to be an ‘Age of Faith’. The majority of people living in the British Isles during this period were Christian; the thousands of religious structures built and rebuilt in the Middle Ages tell us this. No more does a structure suggest that Christianity played a dominant role in medieval life than a Cathedral. Medieval Cathedrals were characterised by their grand, gothic and imposing architecture. Arches, spires and vaulted roofs are plentiful in these 10 listed cathedrals.

The iconic Westminster Abbey and King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, whilst not cathedrals and so not listed below, are also important medieval sites that reflect the gothic architectural style of the period and are well worth visiting.

1. Durham Cathedral

durham

Dating back to 1093 and sitting nearby the equally historic Durham Castle, Durham Cathedral is a unique site that is recognised by many to be one of the finest examples of Norman architecture in Europe. Its setting is picturesque; sitting high above the River Wear the cathedral dominates the skyline and looms over its cobbled streets and many riverside trails. Its adjacent library contains such historic documents as pre-Dissolution monastic accounts and three copies of the Magna Carta. Built under William of Calais, who was appointed as the first Bishop of Durham by William the Conqueror in 1080, its construction was intended to project William’s power over the north of England which remained “wild and fickle” following the disruption of the Norman Conquest in 1066.

2. Canterbury Cathedral

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Though its site was founded as a place of worship in 597, Canterbury Cathedral as we know it today was built between 1070 and 1077. It contains the shrine of Thomas Becket, its Archbishop who was famously murdered inside the cathedral by King Henry II’s aids. It has existed as the seat of the Church of England’s leader, the Archbishop of Canterbury, for more than 1,400 years.

3. Christ church Cathedral

oxford

Built between 1160 and 1200, Christ church Cathedral sits at the heart of the medieval university town of Oxford. The city of dreaming spires is the location of one of England’s smallest cathedrals. Originally the church of St Frideswide’s Priory, in 1522 the priory was surrendered to Cardinal Wolsey, who had selected it as the site for his proposed Oxford college ‘Cardinal College’. However, in 1529 the foundation was taken over by King Henry VIII. It was amidst its cloisters that the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer was publicly degraded for treason and heresy; his clothes were stripped and his head was shaved. He was later imprisoned and burned at the stake on the nearby Broad Street.

4. Southwark Cathedral

The_Shard_and_Southwark_Cathedral

Southwark Cathedral has only had cathedral status since the creation of the diocese of Southwark in 1905. However, its history as being a place of Christian worship goes back over 1000 years. Between 1106 and 1538 it was an Augustinian priory, Southwark Priory, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Following the dissolution of the monasteries, it was converted into a parish church which was severely damaged in the Great fire of 1212. Its consequent reconstruction which took place during the 13th century, formed its layout which remains to this day. It was one of the first Gothic structures to be built in London after Westminster Abbey. In the present day it is also rather unique, sitting in the shadow of Europe’s tallest building: The Shard. Modern glass harmoniously meets medieval stone and reflects humanity’s ingenuity, progress and timeless creativity.

5. Glasgow Cathedral

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Built from the late 12th century onwards and serving as the seat of the Bishop and later the Archbishop of Glasgow, Glasgow Cathedral is an example of Gothic architecture at its finest. It is also one of the few Scottish medieval churches (and the only medieval cathedral on the Scottish mainland) to have survived the Reformation not unroofed.

6. Winchester Cathedral

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Though founded as place of worship in 642, Winchester Cathedral was built from 1079 and consecrated in 1093.  It has the longest nave and greatest overall length of any Gothic cathedral in Europe. Much of the limestone used to build the structure was brought across from quarries in the Isle of Wight.

7. Bristol Cathedral

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Founded in 1140 and consecrated in 1148, it was originally St Augustine’s Abbey. After the Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries it became the seat of the newly created Bishop of Bristol and the cathedral of the new Diocese of Bristol in 1542.

8. York Minster

york minster

York Minster is the second largest cathedral in Britain after St Paul’s and one of the largest in Europe. Originally the site of a church dating back to the 7th century, the Cathedral as it exists today began to be built from 1220. The north and south transepts were the first structures completed in the 1250’s and cathedral was declared complete and consecrated in 1472.

9. Hereford Cathedral

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Dating back as a diocese to the 6th century, Hereford Cathedral sits at the centre of the Welsh bordering city of Hereford; it contains the T and O derived Mappa Mundi, a mediaeval map of the world dating from the 13th century. It is the largest medieval map known to exist. In 1056 the church on the site was plundered and burnt by a combined force of Welsh and Irish under the Welsh prince, Gruffydd ap Llywelyn. It remained in a state of ruin until Robert of Lorraine was made Bishop in 1079 and started to undertake its reconstruction which formed the basis of the cathedral that exists today.

10. Lincoln Cathedral

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The third largest Cathedral in Britain, Lincoln Cathedral dates back to 1088 when its building commenced. It was the tallest building in the world for 238 years (1311–1549). Its central spire collapsed in 1549 and was not rebuilt.

Studied History at King's College London and has a particular interest in the history of God and Christianity

  • Talesin

    Amazing. Thoroughly enjoyed this article.

  • Amanda Osborne

    Canterbury Cathedral hasn’t contained Thomas Becket’s shrine since it was destroyed during the reformation, along with Becket’s remains. There is just a candle marking the space it used to inhabit now.

    • Sam Higson

      Thank you for your comment. Tomb or burial place rather than shrine would be more accurate yes.

    • Roslyn Pittoni

      Also it has not been the the seat of the Church of England’s leader, the Archbishop of Canterbury, for more than 1,400 years, as the Church of England was created/founded by King Henry VIII in 1534(ish) making it the seat of the Church of England for only 483 years.

  • Sam Higson

    Sailsbury Cathedral could also easily be added to this list.

  • Harry Cunningham

    Sorry, but where is Wells Cathedral? It’s fantastic, better than some of the examples here, and has (I think) more statues on its west face than any other cathedral in England.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wells_Cathedral

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