You don’t have to travel too far in the UK to encounter some fascinating reminders of our tumultuous past. The country is home to a treasure-trove of historical sites including castles and prehistoric monuments. Britain also boasts an incredible collection of cathedrals. These iconic religious buildings span hundreds of years and showcase a dazzling array of architectural styles.
As well as being important places of worship, they’ve played host to royal weddings, house classical works of art and literature and serve as resting places for some extremely influential figures in our history. There’s plenty of debate about which are these buildings are the most impressive. So to confuse matters we’ve put together non exhaustive a list of cathedrals that we think are among the most awe-inspiring in the world.
Canterbury, the cradle of Christianity in Saxon England, is dominated by its Norman cathedral. Built in 597, this famous building became an important place of pilgrimage following the murder of Thomas Becket 1170. Today Canterbury Cathedral is part of a World Heritage Site and features one of the finest medieval stained glass windows in the UK. Some of the main highlights include a towering 14th century quire screen, an enormous Norman crypt and the 12th century Trinity Chapel – inside is a shrine to Becket as well as the tombs of Henry IV and Edward the Black Prince.
York Minster Cathedral
The vast and imposing York Minster is another breathtaking UK cathedral that should form part of any short break holiday itinerary. It was completed in 1472 after a rather lengthy construction process spanning two hundred and fifty years. Towering over the rooftops of York, this cavernous building is the second-largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe. 525 feet in length, the cruciform layout comprises a central tower that stands at 235 feet, an octagonal chapter house and the widest gothic nave in the UK. Its 128 medieval stained glass windows are among the art treasures of the world.
Gloucester Cathedral dates from eleventh century and is the resting place of Edward II. It’s one of England’s finest medieval religious buildings and features a pinnacled 225 foot central tower that overlooks the surrounding city. The cathedral offers a glorious example of Gothic architecture with the intricate fan vaulting of the cloisters and Lady Chapel particularly noteworthy. Housed in the north ambulatory is the tomb of Edward II, comprising an alabaster stone effigy of the deposed King as well as the original limestone canopy. Also not to be missed is the Great East Window. Made to commemorate Edward III’s victory at the Battle of Crecy in 1344, it measures 72ft by 38ft and is the second largest stained glass window in the UK after York Minster.
St Paul’s Cathedral
Is there a more iconic building in London? Well, that’s open to debate. But there’s no denying that St Paul’s Cathedral is among the most recognisable landmarks in our nation’s capital. Designed by Christopher Wren, St Paul’s was built as part of a wider reconstruction plan following the Great Fire of London which also decimated the original gothic cathedral that preceded the present building. Happily, Wren’s celebrated structure has stood the test of time, narrowly escaping Luftwaffe bombs during the Blitz. The building’s centrepiece is its dome. Towering some 365 feet above London, it consists of three shells – the outer dome, a concealed brick shell and an inner dome. As well as hosting numerous nationally significant services and events, St Paul’s Cathedral is the resting place of countless luminaries from our past such as the Duke of Wellington and Admiral Nelson.
Salisbury Cathedral is the only English cathedral to exhibit a single architectural style. Save for the tower and spire, it’s almost entirely Early Gothic. The building was finished around 1280 with the magnificent spire (the tallest in England at 404 ft) added in 1334. The cathedral’s spacious interior is graced by large stone columns and a fascinating assortment of tombs and monuments. In the north aisle of the nave is a large dial-less clock from the late fourteenth century – thought to be one of the oldest working mechanisms in the world. The fan-vaulted roof in the Audley Chantry is exquisitely designed while the cloisters are also the largest of any English cathedral. And inside the East Walk library is one of four original copies of the Magna Carta.
Standing on a limestone plateau overlooking the River Witham, this medieval masterpiece was built after an earthquake ruined an earlier church in 1185. Made of honey-coloured stone which seems to change colour in varying shades of light, Lincoln Cathedral rises to 271ft and covers more than 50,000 square feet. It is considered one of the finest examples of the Early Gothic style in all of Europe. This is partly because of the incredible 13th century stained glass found within. Of particular note are the Dean’s Eye and Bishop’s Eye – two great rose windows that face each other across the north and south transepts. The interior, replete with all manner of intricate and curious carvings such as the Lincoln Imp, also features a few design quirks. The vaulting that connects the nave to the west front is misaligned, while the lancets underneath the Bishop’s Eye window are uneven.
Work on the majestic Winchester Cathedral began in 1079 on a site adjacent to an earlier Saxon church. Consecration took place in 1093 with extensions and alterations continuing for more than 500 years. At 556 ft the structure is among the longest cathedrals in Europe – its design fuses several styles, from the Norman transepts to the huge Perpendicular nave that was originally Norman in construction. Throughout the middle ages, the cathedral’s St Swithun’s Shrine was an important centre for pilgrims from the Continent on their way to Becket’s Shrine in Canterbury. A wonderful assortment of treasures can be found inside including seven intricately carved chapels, mortuary chests containing the bones of ancient kings, a 12th century marble font and numerous medieval wall-paintings.
St David’s Cathedral
St David’s Cathedral dates from the 12th century and was built from local sandstone. Set in a hollow below Britain’s smallest cathedral city, this compact but impressive building features distinctive sloping floors, a fine nave complete with Irish oak roof and a 14th century stone screen. The cathedral, declared an important pilgrimage site by Pope Calixtus II, has attracted the likes of William the Conqueror and Henry II. Sadly, it also attracted the attentions of Protestant reformers in the 16th century who destroyed its shrine. This was later restored in 2012 and is now on display as are numerous items relating to Christian worship such as chalices, copes and staffs. The cathedral library is also home to more than 5000 books, some of which are more than 500 years old.
Set in one of England’s most attractive cities, Durham Cathedral was begun in 1093 by Bishop William of Calais and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was the first church to use ribbed vaulting on a wide scale and boasts many outstanding features besides. In addition to the huge carved Norman pillars, the richly ornamented interior is graced by a magnificent screen behind the high altar as well as an array of intriguing tombs such as that of the Venerable Bede. Other treasures inside include eighth century manuscripts and a twelfth century brass doorknocker once used by lawbreakers seeking sanctuary from authorities.
The 100ft west front of Wells Cathedral is one of the finest in Britain. Originally embellished with nearly 400 statues of saints, angels and prophets, many were sadly destroyed in the seventeenth century. But it’s still impressive as is the north porch, the inverted arches added in 1398 to strengthen the central tower and the Lady Chapel with its intricate, irregular vaulting. Wells Cathedral also house one of the country’s most significant collection of medieval stained glass. Although damaged by Parliamentarians during the civil war, much remains such as the late thirteenth century windows in the chapter house. Exquisite stone carvings can be found throughout the interior, in particular those ornamenting the choir, transepts and nave.
There are course numerous other impressive cathedrals in the UK. Honorable mentions must go to Norwich Cathedral and the more modern, but no less impressive Liverpool Cathedral.