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10 things you might not know about British cathedrals

By Bernadette Fallon

You may know that Winchester is the longest cathedral in Britain, but did you know that St Asaph’s in Wales is the smallest? And maybe you knew that Salisbury Cathedral has the tallest spire in the country, but did you know that Exeter has the longest Gothic stone vaulted ceiling in the world? Or that one of the most prized possessions of a famous London cathedral is a cat? Read on to discover 10 more curious facts you might not know about Great Britain’s most famous cathedrals.

York Nave West Window – photo by Bernadette Fallon

The stained glass of York

York Minster holds half of all medieval stained glass in England and its full-time staff of 200 includes 30 permanent glaziers and stonemasons. One of its most famous pieces, the majestic West Window, sits over the great west doors, the ceremonial entrance to the minster leading to the mighty nave. It was commissioned in 1338 but it also has a modern provenance. The stonework of the frame had to be completely replaced in 1989 due to the effects of pollution and erosion.

The rabbit in Ripon

The beautiful wooden carvings on the misericord seats in Ripon Cathedrals may just have inspired one of the most famous books ever written, Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, the pen name of writer Charles Dodgson. Dodgson was very familiar with Ripon and was a frequent visitor to the cathedral as his father, also Charles, was canon there in the 1850s. One of the carvings shows a griffin chasing a rabbit, which is leaping down a rabbit hole. Did this give him the idea for the story? It seems likely!

Ripon griffin rabbit – Photo by Bernadette Fallon

The origin of St Paul’s

St Paul’s in London is one of the few ancient cathedrals to be built solely for the Protestant faith. Unlike most of its English cathedral counterparts that were originally Catholic buildings converted for Protestant worship following the 16th-century Reformation, the current St Paul’s was built as a Protestant cathedral, which meant the clergy were not particularly delighted to find the man entrusted with its building, the great Sir Christopher Wren, looking to the pope’s church, St Peter’s in Rome, for his inspiration. Wren spent four months travelling in Europe in the 17th century before starting work on St Paul’s in 1675 and, in Paris, met one of the designers of St Peter’s in Rome, Gian Lorenzo Berini, whose work he greatly admired.

The kings of Westminster Abbey

On Christmas Day 1066, William the Conqueror had himself crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey and every royal coronation since then has taken place in the abbey, 29 in total. But if anybody tells you that every British monarch has been crowned there, tell them that’s not true. Monarchs assume their title on the death of the previous ruler. But the coronations do not take place until several months after. For that reason, two kings have missed out on the ceremony: the 12-year-old Edward V, because he was murdered in the Tower of London in 1483 before his coronation; and Edward VIII, because he abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson in 1936.

Rochester’s fresco

Rochester fresco – photo by Bernadette Fallon

Rochester Cathedral holds the first genuine fresco to be created in England in 800 years. The work of a Russian artist, Sergei Fyodorov, it was commissioned to mark the 1,400th birthday of the cathedral and unveiled in 2004.

Celebrities in Lincoln

Lincoln Cathedral was used to film part of Hollywood blockbuster The Da Vinci Code when Westminster Abbey, where part of the action is set, refused to allow access. Based on the bestselling novel by Dan Brown and starring Tom Hanks, the interior of Westminster had to be created in the cloisters and Chapter House. A couple of years later, Lincoln stood in for Westminster Abbey once more in the film Young Victoria.

Sightings of Chichester

Chichester Cathedral – photo by Bernadette Fallon

Chichester is the only English cathedral that can be seen from the sea, making it an important site for sailors as well as Christians.

Confusion in Norwich

Norwich cathedral holds the grave of a child who, according to the dates engraved on it, was born in April and died in February of the same year. The disparity comes from the fact that up until 1752 two calendar systems were used in England. The civil (legal) year began on Lady Day, March 25, while the historical year started on January 1. So, a date in February was in the same legal year as a date in the preceding April.

The famous Exeter mice

Exeter clock – photo by Bernadette Fallon

The astronomical clock at Exeter Cathedral, dating from 1484, is credited with being the inspiration for a famous children’s nursery rhyme. Mice in the cathedral were attracted to the ropes of the clock mechanism by the fat used as a lubricant. Which gives us:

Hickory, dickory, dock, The mouse ran up the clock, The clock struck one, The mouse ran down, Hickory, dickory, dock

But what about the cat…

London’s Southwark Cathedral has a resident cat, Doorkins Magnificat, and you will often find her lunching behind a pillar in the nave where she keeps her food bowl and water dish. Doorkins wandered into the cathedral at Christmas 2008, and has since made the building her home. Doorkins memorabilia is sold in the cathedral gift shop, making Southwark the envy of its famous neighbour, St Paul’s, across the river. Apparently cat memorabilia does wonders for a cathedral’s coffers.

Bernadette Fallon is author of the Cathedrals of Britain series, published by Pen & Sword Books, which comprises the titles North of England and Scotland, London and the South East, Central and East and West, South West and Wales. Click here for more information on the books.

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