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Southwark Cathedral (part one)
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Southwark Cathedral (part one)Few acres of London have had so eventful a past as those that make up the ancient town of Southwark. The town's raison d'etre was London Bridge, which was London's only bridge from Roman times until as recently as 1750. Southwark was London's gateway from the south. The cathedral has stood sentinel over this southern approach for over a thousand years. Chaucer's pilgrims, Shakespeare's plays, the mediaeval rebellions of Wat Tyler and Jack Cade, and the mediaeval palace of the powerful Bishops of Winchester have all been part of the story of its ancient parish.

William Shakespeare's Globe Theatre once stood in the cathedral's parish, and Shakespeare's brother Edmund, an actor, was buried in the church in 1607 'with a forenoone knell of the great bell'. The playwright himself has a substantial 20th-century memorial. The cathedral's records show that many of his actors lived in the surrounding streets; the first Hamlet, for example - Joseph Taylor -lived in Langley's Rents off Park Street. In the same year in which Edmund Shakespeare was buried in the church, John Harvard, the founder of the American university, was baptized in it. The great Tabard Inn, from which Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims set out in the 14th century, was also in the parish; Chaucer's contemporary, the poet John Gower, is commemorated in the cathedral by its most striking mediaeval monument. In fact, the cathedral has monuments of great interest in abundance, including those of a saintly Jacobean bishop (Lancelot Andrewes), a City Alderman of the same era (Richard Humble) and a physician (Lionel Lockyer), whose cure-all pills made him famous in King Charles II's time.

Southwark Cathedral (part one)

The 13th-century choir, which has been embellished over the past hundred years.


Southwark was probably founded as a fortified town or burh as a defence against the Vikings, possibly in King Alfred's time in the late 9th century. Its ancient name, Suthringa geweorche ('the defensive work of the men of Surrey'), makes it clear that it was a burh. Burhs generally had a church, and it is likely that Southwark Cathedral originated in that way. Only archaeology will tell its early history in more detail. The cathedral first appears in written history in the Domesday Book (1086), which describes it as a minster, and states that it was then in the hands of Odo, Bishop of Bayeux in Normandy. A minster was more important than an ordinary parish church: it was the chief church of a district or one whose history or possessions marked it out as being special.

Southwark Cathedral (part one)

The effigy of John Gower, the poet who died in the precinct in 1408. His head rests on his three books.


Southwark's minster was made the church of an Augustinian priory in the early 12th century. The priory had the name of St Mary Overy, whose 'surname' means either 'over the river' or 'on the bank'. William Gifford, Bishop of Winchester, was possibly the priory's founder. From a little later in the 12th century, when the mighty Henry of Blois - King Stephen's brother - was Bishop of Winchester, the bishops lived in a palace next door to the priory. Ruins of it survive today.

Southwark Cathedral (part one)

The Jacobean monument of Alderman Humble and his two wives on the north side of the choir.


The building we see today dates from between the 13th and the 15th centuries and from the late 19th century (a period of intense restoration), with minor contributions from other eras. The mediaeval glory of the building is the 13th-century choir, whose date is reflected in dog-tooth moulding and in the characteristic shapes of piers and arches. The overall design is generally stated to show French influence. The vaulting shafts go right down to the ground; there is an arcaded wall-passage rather than a normal triforium; and the vaults are quadripartite. All these features were more French than English in the period at issue. In the 19th century, the clerestory and vaults were rebuilt by George Gwilt the younger, who also replaced the east window. The choir is of five bays. Behind it is the retrochoir, which has three bays spanning the full width of the choir and its aisles. It is divided on its east side into four chapels, which correspond with the four small gables seen from the approach to London Bridge. The retrochoir is also 13th-century in character, but with just a little later detail.

The transepts differ from the predominant character of the building. The north transept appears to have the main surviving Norman fabric: rubble walling on the north side (seen from outside) and the remains of an east apse in what is now the Harvard Chapel. To the west, in the north nave aisle, there are parts of two doorways that survive from the Norman church: the prior's doorway nearer the transept, and the canons' doorway towards the west end. The south transept shows 14th-century work in its windows. It also has a cast of the arms of Cardinal Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, on its east side. This might indicate work he had undertaken in the chapel that once stood east of the transept. He might also have had a connection with the building of the tower, which is of 14th- and 15th-century date.


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