Southwark Cathedral

Southwark Cathedral or The Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie, Southwark, London, lies on the south bank of the River Thames close to London Bridge.

It is the mother church of the Anglican Diocese of Southwark. It has been a place of Christian worship for over 1,000 years, but a cathedral only since 1905. The present building is mainly Gothic, from 1220 to 1420, although the nave is a nineteenth-century reconstruction in a thirteenth-century style.

Remarkably the main railway viaduct connecting London Bridge station to Blackfriars, Cannon Street and Charing Cross stations passes only 18 metres from the south-east corner of the cathedral, blocking the view from the south side. This was a compromise when the railway was extended along this viaduct in 1852; the alternative was to demolish the building completely to allow a more direct passage for the line. Borough Market is immediately to its south and the Hall of the Worshipful Company of Glaziers and Painters of Glass is on the riverside part of Montague Close on its north.

The earliest reference to the site was in the Domesday Book survey of 1086, wherein the “minster” of Southwark seems to be under the control of Bishop Odo of Bayeux (William the Conqueror’s half-brother). It is unlikely that this minster pre-dates the conversion of Wessex in the mid-seventh century, or the foundation of the “burh” ca AD 886. There is no proof of any claims, as presently made by the Cathedral authorities, that a convent was founded on the site in 606 nor of the claim that a monastery was founded by St Swithun in the ninth century. The Old English minster was a collegiate church servicing a south Thames area. In 1106, Henry I’s reign, the latter became an Augustinian Priory: this was founded with the patronage of the Bishops of Winchester which relationship was re-inforced by the establishment of their London palace immediately neghbouring the Priory to the west in 1149; a remaining wall and rose window of the refectory of the Palace survives on nearby Clink Street. Norman stonework can still be seen, and Thomas Becket preached here before departing to Canterbury, days before his murder in 1170.

The Priory was dedicated to the Virgin Mother as ‘St Mary’ but had the additional soubriquet of ‘Overie’ (‘over the water’) to distinguish it from the many other churches in the City with the same name.

The main structure of the present church was built between 1220 and 1420, making it the first Gothic church in London.

The church was rebuilt following a fire in 1212. In its thirteenth century state – much of the basic layout of which survives today – the church was cruciform in plan, with an aisled bay of six naves, a crossing tower, transepts, a five bay chancel, and a retrochoir or “Lady Chapel” , the form of which has also been interpreted as group of four chapels with separate gabled roofs, two opening from the choir, and two from each aisle. There was a parochial chapel attached to the south transept. The so-called “Bishop’s Chapel” was later added at the east end.

In the 1390s, it was again devastated by fire, and in around 1420, once again a Bishop of Winchester Henry Beaufort, assisted with the rebuilding of the south transept and the completion of the tower.

The 15th century poet John Gower was a resident in the Priory precinct and is entombed in the church, with a splendid memorial, with multichrome panels (picture below). There has also survived a recumbent knight effigy in timber (rather than brass or stone) and it is suggested by the church that this dates from the 13th Century. If so then this is one of the oldest such memorials and some credence can be given to this by their being no heraldic emblems on it.

A drawing showing Old London Bridge with Southwark Priory (now the Cathedral) in 1616, in the foreground

Heresy trials occurred in the Galilee chapel in 1555, under Mary I of England.

The Priory was dissolved in 1538 and the local church parishioners of St Margaret, Southwark acquired the building from the Crown shortly afterwards to provide a larger parish church for the growing population. It was rededicated to ‘St Saviour’.

The church was that of the parish for the Bankside area and as such it has strong connections with the great Elizabethan dramatists. William Shakespeare’s brother, Edmund, was buried here in 1607. The grave is unmarked, but there is a commemorative stone in the paving of the choir which was placed there at a later date. The Cathedral instituted a festival to commemorate this cultural history in the 1920s which endured into the urban renewal of the district in the late 20th Century. As such a large stained glass window dedicated to William, depicting scenes from all of his plays, at the base of which is a statue of the Bard reclining, holding a quill. The church was a popular resting place for dramatists – John Fletcher and Philip Massinger are also buried here. These and Edward Alleyne were officers and benefactors of the parish charities and St Saviour’s Grammar School.

A business associate of Shakespeare’s family was a local butcher and inn-holder who was also a parochial, school and church officer with the Bard’s colleagues; this was Robert Harvard whose son John Harvard was baptised here. He is commemorated by the Harvard Chapel in the North Transept, paid for by Harvard University alumni resident in England.

The connection with the bishops of Winchester continued after the Reformation. One, Lancelot Andrewes, part-author of the Authorised Version, was buried in the small chapel at the east end that afterwards became known as the “Bishop’s Chapel”. After the destruction of the chapel in 1830, his tomb was moved to a new position, immediately behind the high altar.

It was from the tower of Southwark Priory that Czech Wenceslas Hollar drew the “Long View of London” in 1638, a panorama which has become a definitive impression of 17th century London.

By the early 19th century the fabric of the church had fallen into disrepair, All the medieval furnishings were gone, and the interior was as Francis Bumpus later described it, “pewed and galleried to a fearful extent”.

Between 1818 and 1830, the tower and choir were restored by George Gwilt Jun, and the transepts, less sympathetically by Robert Wallace. The Bishop’s Chapel and parochial chapel were removed, but plans for the demolition of the retrochoir were averted, and it was restored by Gwilt in 1832. In 1839, the nave was demolished to within seven feet of the ground, and rebuilt to a design by Henry Rose.

On the initiative of Anthony Thorold, Bishop of Rochester, the nave was once again rebuilt between 1890 and 1897 to the designs of Arthur Blomfield.

The collegiate parish church of ‘St Saviour’ was designated as a cathedral in 1905 when the Church of England Diocese of Southwark was created.

There are memorials to Isabella Gilmore, the victims of the Marchioness disaster, and monuments to Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. On 16 November 1996 the cathedral became a focus of controversy by hosting a twentieth-anniversary service for the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement. Jeffrey John, the Dean of St Albans and former bishop-elect of Reading, was Canon Theologian of Southwark. In 2001, Mandela opened a new northern ‘cloister’ on the site of the old monastic one, with a refectory, shop, conference centre, education centre and museum. In 2002, these Millennium buildings received an award for being one of the best new buildings of the year.

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