Magical Chester Cathedral

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Chester Cathedral, Chester, England

There are some cathedrals which you go into and think ‘nice’; there are some that make you think ‘bleh’.  Then there are some that you just don’t want to leave.  Chester was one of those.  The longer you stayed, the more there seemed to be to see.  It’s hardly surprising considering that the building dates from 1093 and has been added to by every generation since then.

As it happens the cathedral is built of local Keuper sandstone, which is good to carve but consequently also easily damaged by the weather and pollution.  The exterior is therefore heavily restored, with much of the work being done in the 19th century.

But the cathedral actually started life as an abbey church for a Benedictine monastery dedicated to St Werburgh, whose remains were here until the Reformation saw them destroyed and thrown out.  There may have been an early Christian basilica on the site but the earliest surviving parts of the structure date from the late 11th century, with Norman style architecture visible in parts of the cathedral, such as the northwest tower below.

With the dissolution of the monasteries, St Werburgh’s abbey became a Cathedral of the Church of England in 1541, with its last abbot slipping seamlessly into the new faith by becoming the first dean.  It was at this time that the cathedral was dedicated to Christ and the Blessed Virgin.

By the 19th century, the cathedral needed restoration, and its current appearance is in many ways the result of Victorian building work, some of which was quite controversial.  From 1868, major changes were overseen by George Gilbert Scott, who was the influential exponent of the Gothic revival style (and responsible for St Pancras Station and the Albert Memorial).

As happened a fair bit in the 19th century (see Lausanne Cathedral), architects commissioned as renovators sometimes didn’t know when to stop their flights of fancy.  Even at the start of the project in 1868 there was a to-do when an architect, Samuel Huggins, claimed that Scott was rebuilding rather than restoring – and since Scott wanted to add various turrets and transform a part of the southern aisle into an apse (among other things), he had a point.  Huggins kept up his annoyance and in 1871 published “On so-called restorations of our cathedral and abbey churches” – the ongoing debate contributed to the creation of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.

Despite being quite a vast building, the cathedral feels cosy and warm.  This effect is partly helped by the colour of the sandstone, but it’s also just the way that it’s designed.  The afternoon we were there, a choir was rehearsing for a concert so there were parts of the cathedral that we couldn’t get to because of all their gear – but the sound of them singing was just lovely.  The acoustics of the building are great, so it makes sense that they hold regular concerts.

They also hold regular exhibitions, and when we visited there were random sculptures scattered around the cathedral grounds – some really vulgar, some peculiar, some an unneeded distraction, some striking.

The Consistory Court and Organ 

One of the more quirky features of Chester is the unique presence of a consistory court.  What is a consistory court, you ask?  It’s an ecclesiastical court that settles issues involving the moral and religious conduct of those in the diocese – though the cases brought to this court were primarily from Cheshire and South Lancashire, which was the former archdeaconry of Chester.  It dealt with a range of fascinating cases like heresy, defamation, witchcraft – along with the rather more self-absorbed ecclesiastical concerns such as the non-payment of church dues and clerical absenteeism.

However, some of the more exciting cases are:

  1. 1555 – George Marsh, a Protestant preacher, refused to give up his faith during the reign of Catholic Mary I – so he was burned at the stake.
  2. 1664 – Maria Williams accused Elizabeth Sutton of calling her “a rotten queen and her son a lousy bastard”.  Libel was proved.
  3. 1667 – Mary King accused Ellen Harrison of saying that she was a “false Theef… and hath Robbed my Cupboard and… she.. might have had a Bastard”.  Harrison was found guilty and paid a fine as well as the cost of repairing the cupboard.
  4. 1670 – Margey Halliwell accused Eliza Edwards of calling her a “hairy hermaphrodite”.  The case was dropped.

In 1844 a new organ was installed in the cathedral which replaced an instrument which had parts dating back to the 1600s.  In the 1870s, the organ was rebuilt and enlarged (like so much of the cathedral) and this happened again in 1910 and 1969.  It is huge.  And, if you’ve got £150 odd to spare, you can but a limited edition Lego Organ.  Super-cute.


One of the most striking aspects of the cathedral was the fact that so many of the memorials on the walls were not only attractively crafted but had beautifully written text, with lovely sentiment and genuine feeling.  I also have a fascination for those which have a connection with India, so there were quite a few memorials here and in the cloister windows that grabbed my attention.

Stained Glass Windows

Having supported Charles I during the Civil War, Chester suffered badly at the hands of the Parliamentary troops, and the windows of the cathedral were some of the victims.  Most of the glass dates from the 19th and 20th centuries.  For me, the more modern pieces were the most attractive because their designs really capture the spirit of stained glass windows – the way they use the light shows off the lovely bright colours as well as the striking designs.

The Cloisters

The beautiful cloisters were restored in the 20th century.  The stained glass windows in this section are fascinating and beautiful.

The small garden that leads off the cloisters is a tranquil spot, with pretty planting and some striking flowers.  The sculpture in the centre is from 1994: The water of life by Stephen Broadbent depicts the encounter between Jesus and the Woman of Samaria, their shared bowl overflowing with water.

Cloister Windows 

The windows of the cloisters all appear to be from the 1920s and they are just wonderful.  Not only are they prettily designed, delicately drawn, and perfectly coloured, but their inscriptions are fascinating.  Practically every window had something interesting about it, but I have just made a small selection, mainly to demonstrate the variety on show.

The lovely windows showing the angels Gabriel and Raphael are from 1926.  The dedications are what really interested me, though.  The one on the left reads:

In ever-loving memory of Gordon Ralph Troughton Dean, Lieut. 1st Batt of the 22nd (Cheshire) Regiment accidentally shot near Lucknow, India, 19th July 1923 aged 26 years.  In thy presence is the fulness of joy.

The one on the right reads:

George Edward Lynch Cotton (1813-66) Born in this City, Headmaster of Marlborough College, Bishop of Calcutta and Metropolitan of India.  Drowned at Kooshtea, Assam.

There are many other interesting windows, including one depicting the HMS Chester, which played a significant role in the Battle of Jutland in 1916.  29 men were killed and 49 were wounded.  One of the fatalities was the 16 year old John Cornwell who was awarded the Victoria Cross.  He was the only one of the gun crew to survive until the end of battle, despite being injured early on.  There is something very moving about seeing a depiction of modern war in stained glass, especially since it’s just a simple and very dignified image of the ship.

The Choir and The Lady Chapel

The Lady Chapel contains the 14th century stone shrine of Saint Werburgh which contained her relics before the Reformation.  Some of the original parts of the shrine were found during the 1873 cathedral restoration so in 1888 a newly reassembled shrine was returned to the chapel.

The choir is a warm and atmospheric area with some stunning stalls from the 1380s.  The rest of the decoration is – you guessed it – 19th century.  Scott designed the vault, which is very pretty, but he didn’t stop there – there is a screen, gates, rood, cathedra, reredos and floor mosaic added by him too.

Now, the thing is, I do really like 19th century Gothic.  I like the aesthetic and the colours and the idea.  I think the ceiling in particular looked really pretty.  But I do have a problem with Scott’s apparent hacking and mangling of many parts of the Cathedral (an article from 1915 by FH Crossly discusses the stalls, and some of Scott’s work:  The stalls had been moved around before, but Scott deconstructed and rearranged them again.  Five of the misericords were destroyed because they were ‘improper’ – not his idea, this time, but that of the Dean.

The carving on the sides of the stall-ends are stunning, as are the ‘elbows’…

The stalls include 48 misericords (the little shelf on the underside of the folding seats that help people to stand during services).  Five are not original.  They depict a range of weird and wonderful subjects, many of which were hard to make out, as it was getting dark by the time we got round there.  I’m really annoyed about that because I’ve subsequently seen that there are some particularly odd things happening on them.

So In Summary

I loved visiting Chester Cathedral.  Loved, loved, loved.

I really admire the fact that the Chester authorities have kept up a steady flow of modernity for all of its time in existence.  I think maybe that’s why the more recent elements, like the newer stained glass and statues, aren’t as jarring as they would be in some other places.  They seem to harmonise with the perpetual eclecticism that has made the cathedral what it is.  And there are some real treasures in every corner.

Further Information

Entry to the Cathedral is free, but a £3 donation is suggested.

The cathedral has a very busy schedule trying to appeal to as many people as possible – for example, you know you can go to church for prayer, but you don’t expect to be able to also handle birds of prey in the gardens.  There are fully blown concerts, as well as organ recitals and choral evensong.  Regular talks, exhibitions and a pleasant, unusually un-smelly cafe all also help make the cathedral a bit of a hub for activities. 

We visited in July 2017.

How to Get There

Information about local transport is available via whereas if you’re planning a long distance trip via train, check out these guys:







1 Comment

  • sheilarowland2013 21st July 2020 at 3:23 am

    As a teen I used to visit the Cathedral often. There is a narrow stair that leads you to the roof of the cloisters, When I was in England last I was disappointed to discover that the flags and banners of the Cheshire Regiment and the RAF banners had been disposed of because they were in bad shape. But why did they not replace them?


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