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Southwark Cathedral

by Sean McLachlan

Southwark CathedralFor centuries, the boroughs of London on the South Bank of the Thames were considered a no-go area for respectable people, being a den of thieves, prostitutes, gambling, and (horror or horrors!) the theatre. Of course, these activities actually attracted a lot of so-called respectable people from the wealthier districts north of the river, who tended to visit in large, well-armed groups.

But for centuries there has been a more positive influence here. Southwark Cathedral was once one of the only refuges of sanity and beauty in the stink and chaos of Borough of Southwark, and is now a religious and tourist center in a newly revived and much more prosperous South Bank.

The cathedral, officially the Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St. Saviour and St. Mary Overie, Southwark, is similar to many of London's older churches in that nobody is sure just when it was founded. Local legend says that St. Swithun, Bishop of Winchester, set up a college of priests here sometime in the middle of the ninth century. The Domesday Book, a meticulous census done by the Normans to see just how much they got when they conquered England, records that a monastery existed on the spot when the Normans arrived in 1066. The book records that the monastery had its own wharf and conducted trade along the river.

The present church got its life as St. Mary Overie, meaning "over the river", in 1106, and was home to monks of the Augustinian order. The Augustinians served the local populace with a hospital named after St. Thomas of Canterbury. Amazingly, St. Thomas hospital still exists, although it has been moved west to Lambeth.

The church immediately became important due to its relation with the Bishop of Winchester, who lived in a palace only a short walk away. One wall of this palace exists to its original height and incorporates an attractive rose window. Besides tending to the faithful, the bishop had several other duties, including running the local prison, the famous "Clink", burned to the ground in a riot in 1780 and now the site of a cheesy tourist trap "museum". He also oversaw the local businesses, which included a large number of brothels, whose ladies of the night were called "Winchester Geese."

Southwark CathedralThe oldest parts of the present church date to 1260, the product of a rebuild after a fire destroyed the original church. The architects took their inspiration from the French Gothic, and this the oldest Gothic building in the city. Over the years, more fires and gradual decay led to many additions and changes, including the installation of an ornate altar screen in 1520 separating the choir from the retro-choir.

During the Dissolution, Henry VIII's grab for church property did not spare St. Mary Overie, and it lost much of its property and became a parish church called St. Saviour, Southwark. While Henry VIII tried to make England Protestant, his daughter Queen Mary tried to revert back to Catholicism. During her reign Stephen Gardiner was Bishop of Winchester and tried heretics in the church. Most of these unfortunates were preachers who spoke out against Queen Mary or Catholicism, and Gardiner sent seven men to their deaths.

Throughout its history the cathedral had a rather ambiguous relationship with the borough. It tried to set a moral example, yet licensed a large number of brothels. It preached law and order, but many thieves claimed sanctuary within its walls. No matter what side of an issue it came down upon, however, Southwark Cathedral was always a driving force in the borough and a center for the community.

The church's most major remodel came in 1890 with the construction of a new nave. The builders kept the soaring French Gothic style and the nave is in such perfect harmony with the rest of the building that many visitors assume it's medieval. The modern age has so many examples of inappropriate or just plain ugly additions to beautiful old buildings that Southwark Cathedral comes as a welcome exception.

The nave heralded a new beginning for the church, which had declined into disrepair in the previous century. In 1905 it became the Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie, seat of the bishopric of Southwark.

Southwark CathedralThe newest addition to this historic building is an annex, opened in 2001 by Nelson Mandela, containing meeting rooms and a gift shop stocked with a good selection of books. Of interest to visitors is a display from the archaeological excavations that cleared the way for the annex to be built. Many original features are left as the archaeologists found them, including a first century Roman road, the early twelfth century foundations of the Norman priory, and part of a slightly later chapter house and archway. There's also a stone coffin still in place from the thirteenth century and a Delft pottery kiln from the seventeenth century.

One notable find from a separate excavation beneath the choir was a statue of a Roman hunter god, hinting that this was a site of worship well before the advent of Christianity. The statue was found at the bottom of a well, so perhaps it comes from the time when the old gods were being overthrown for the new one. It's on display in the annex. Archaeologists also found a portion of a Roman villa and some of the paving is still on the floor of the choir.

Today Southwark cathedral is an active church with a special ministry for those suffering from HIV and AIDS. There are daily services, and a choral Evensong most evenings. Builders of the French Gothic not only knew how to construct dramatic interiors, they also understood acoustics, and the Evensong is a transcendent musical experience.

Visiting the cathedral is easy, since it's right off the Thames Path, a popular pedestrian walk along renovated neighborhoods next to the river. The outside of the church is very distinctive with its flint cobbles. This unusual construction is popular in areas of England where flint is plentiful, especially Hertfordshire, and churches built with a flint facing are called "puddingstone churches."

Inside, the most impressive features are the lofty 19th-century nave and the 16th-century choir screen, dating to 1520. Passing by this screen, which reaches almost to the ceiling, enter the retro choir at the very end of the church. This part dates to the thirteenth century and is a large open area that seems roomier than it is due to the slim columns upholding graceful arches. When the church fell on hard times in the 16th century, this area was rented out and used as a pig sty.

Southwark CathedralOne side chapel is called the Harvard Chapel and is dedicated to John Harvard, the son of a butcher who was baptized here in 1607 and went on to found the famous university. Don't miss the nearby gisant, a recumbent stone effigy of an emaciated corpse in a shroud. In past centuries, people didn't cover up the ugly face of death and gisants can be seen in churches throughout Western Europe.

There's also a monument to Shakespeare, who lived in this parish but is buried in his home town of Stratford-upon-Avon. Behind it is a splendid stained glass window showing scenes from some of his plays. Another influential writer who actually does rest here is John Gower, poet laureate to Richard II and Henry IV and dubbed "the first English poet" since he often wrote in English at a time when his contemporaries favored Latin and French. There are also monuments to Edmund Shakespeare, William's brother, and dramatists John Fletcher and Philip Massinger.

A sharp-eyed visitor will find many more interesting details in a careful tour of the cathedral, too many to list here. The Southwark Cathedral makes a perfect stop on the Thames Path, which passes right by the building. The South Bank is getting new life as businesses and professionals move into the area to take advantage of its cheaper rents. The neighborhoods still get a bit rough a few blocks south of the river, but the area along the Thames Path is quite safe, so leave your sword and brace of pistols at home.

Visitor's Information

Entrance to the Cathedral is free although a voluntary donation is welcome. The cathedral offers a drop-in tour on Friday at 11am and 1pm, and Sunday at 1pm. The cost per person is 3 and under 16s go free. Due to services and events, it's recommended that you contact the cathedral first to check that the tour is available on the day. For group visits and tours, contact the Visits and Tours Officer on 020 7367 6734.

There's a small fee to take photos within the cathedral. Services are open to everyone. Services and Evensong dates may vary due to special events, so check the website or call ahead before you go to get the latest schedule. The Cathedral is open Mon.-Fri., 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. and Bank Holidays 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. For more information, check out their website at http://www.southwark.anglican.org/cathedral/index.htm

Sean McLachlan is a freelance writer specializing in travel and history. He has written several books including Byzantium: An Illustrated History (Hippocrene, 2004) and Moon Handbooks London (Avalon, 2007). Visit him on the web at http://midlistwriter.blogspot.com and http://grizzledoldtraveler.blogspot.com.

Article and photos © 2007 Sean McLachlan


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