Manchester Cathedral, or the Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St Mary, St Denys and St George as it’s more formally known (because you need three saints to round things out), was on the agenda for our trip this last December. Manchester has one of the better Christmas markets, and we figured we could kill two birds with one stone.
Alas, the traffic in and out of Manchester was horrific, so our time got quite compressed, and the light was rapidly fading by the time we arrived at the cathedral.
It was also raining, of course. It’s England!
I was surprised to find how large the town of Manchester is, at least by British standards, though I should have clued in earlier. It does have its own airport.
The cathedral is right downtown, surrounded by buildings, so getting decent shots was a bit problematic, but we managed a few.
Note the palm tree to the right of the shot below. Those things much be must hardier than I thought. Update: a reader tells me this is a Cordyline australis or cabbage palm, native to Australia and good to -10° C. Impressive!
I was concerned about closing time; we snapped a few shots and hustled our way inside, past the iron gates decorated with what looked like many-petaled poppies.
I knew I was going to like this cathedral as soon as I saw the greeting committee, just to the left of the main doors.
Then we went into the nave. Stunning.
The first thing you notice about Manchester Cathedral is how wide it is. It seems to go on forever.
I learned later it’s because the nave was built first, then side chapels were added at later dates, and finally, the walls between the side chapels and the nave proper were opened up, leaving a clear line of sight between the columns.
The church goes back as far as 1086 when Manchester was recorded in William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book. It notes that the place had a Parish Church and it is believed that this church was located at the corner of St Mary’s Gate and Exchange Street, but this site was abandoned in 1215.
The present site was chosen by Robert Greslet, Lord of the Manor and 5th Baron of Manchester. I guess he didn’t like the trek to the previous location, as he decided to build adjacent to his manor house (now Chetham’s Library). This became the Parish Church of Manchester.
The current Cathedral replaced an earlier structure, and construction took place in two stages: Ralph Langley, the third warden, was responsible for the initial stage, building the nave in the Perpendicular Gothic style popular in the late 15th century or late medieval period. The second stage was undertaken by James Stanley, who raised the clerestory and added the gorgeous decorated timber roofs and choir stalls. His stepmother, Lady Margaret Beaufort was the mother of Henry VII and through their alliance with the Tudor dynasty, the Stanleys had come into enormous wealth and had access to the eminent architects and craftsmen of the time. Isn’t the roof something?
I always think it’s odd that clerestory is spelled that way. I think of it as “clear storey”, which is what it’s designed to do: raise the roof and bring in the light. They’re attributed to John Wastell, the architect involved in the completion of Kings College Chapel, and you can see the similarities.
I’ll get to the choir stalls in a minute because they have their own story to tell. In the meantime, note the screen into the choir. It just glows with gilding, some of it quite irreverent. Looks like my kids when asked to eat Brussels sprouts.
Look down at the very bottom left-hand corner of the photo below, just to the side of the choir screen. See that little block of carving?
It’s the angel stone, dating from around 700 AD, discovered embedded in the wall of the original South Porch of the Cathedral when renovations were carried out in the Victorian era. I didn’t get a closeup of it and have borrowed this one from the Cathedral website. I hope they don’t mind. 🙂
Another look at the screen, with the pipes of the organ soaring above.
Within the nave are life-sized carvings of angel minstrels, each playing a different medieval musical instrument. I was only able to get this very poor shot (it was just too dark inside to work without a tripod, and they frown on such things) but you get the idea.
On to the choir stalls, which were carved at the workshop of William Brownflet of Ripon, and they’re among the finest in the country.
More angels in here, though they’re lower to the ground and the lighting was better.
The detail is amazing – with the better light I was able to crouch down and balance the camera on my knee – photography is anything but dignified..
Now onto the very best part. The misericord seats, so named, I imagine, due to the misery of perching on the things throughout a long service. In all seriousness, it means quite the opposite: “pity of the heart”, or to create an act of mercy. They were constructed such that the seats could be turned up when standing was required. At other times, one would position one’s posterior on that shelf and say thank you. They were reserved for more prominent clergy; everyone else had to stand with no support at all.
I direct your attention to the carving below the seat. Your eyes do not deceive you. It’s two people playing backgammon; it’s thought that the carvers had heard the medieval priests denouncing the game as the devil’s own device for hindering church attendance.
The artist clearly had a sense of humour; typically, misericord seats were carved with pagan or secular depictions “entirely at odds with the Christian iconography and aesthetic that surround them”, according to Wikipedia. This one shows a hunter all trussed up, in a reversal of the hunter and prey norm. He’s about to be roasted over a spit by the rabbits and his dog is already in the pot.
Often it was the apprentices who did the misericord carvings, while the more skilled workers performed the more important work. Which makes sense – apprentices would be younger lads with adolescent lavatory humour. I think this one is a lion, perhaps vanquishing a dragon.
An animal troll (a hedgehog?) demanding fare to cross a covered bridge?
Animals feasting on another animal? A dog and some pigs?
A woman and a winged horse.
Not sure what these monkeys are doing, but it doesn’t look good for the fellow at the bottom.
There were some more comfortable looking seats further back in the choir, with carefully arranged cushions.
I wonder who gets the cushioned seats?
Then there is the chair which doesn’t look comfortable at all. It looks like a witness box for the accused.
The animal references continue at the altar rail, with the modern needlepoint kneelers.
The animals performing human activities theme goes on with a monkey holding a baby.
A bear, fox and hedgehog writing in a book?
And a pig playing the lyre.
A very helpful docent saw us taking great interest in the carvings and came over to give us more information. She directed our attention to this carving depicting the legend of Lord Lathom who tricks his wife into adopting his secret illegitimate son. His men find a baby in the treetops, supposedly abducted by an eagle. One wonders if the wife was truly fooled.
Just outside the choir is the entrance to the chapter house.
The decoration over the doorway is lovely.
Judging from the dress of the people shown in the pictures, it must be quite modern.
Inside, the Chapter House is the typical octagonal structure, with very large windows.
I was working quickly as the light was fading.
We made our way over to the recently built Guy Chapel which replaced the chantry and lady chapels, both severely damaged by a German bomb during the Manchester Blitz in 1940. It took almost 20 years to complete the repairs.
There are pictures of the damage from the bomb. Bloody hell!
The statue of Humphrey Cheltham shown presiding over the wrecked interior is still in the cathedral, looking none the worse for wear. Bombs are interesting things in their selective destruction.
There was also an exhibit commemorating the end of World War 1 with the Armistice Coin designed by Stephen Raw.
The coin is based on a poem by Wilfred Owen, a local lad who experienced the horrors of war first hand. Unlike the patriotic verse so prominent at the time, Owen’s poetry raised awareness of the horrors of life in the trenches with gas warfare. In 1915 Owen was blown up by a mortar and lay unconscious for several days on an embankment, surrounded by the remains of one of his fellow officers, and was later treated for shell shock. Though he could have remained on home duty after his recuperation, he returned to the front lines and was killed in action on the 6th of November, 1918, five days before the war ended.
Back out in the nave, we got ready to take our leave but were deterred by the very helpful docent. She wanted to show us something special before we departed.
She directed us to the vestibule at the back of the church, which apparently had some fun surprises.
“Look up,” she said. I thought she meant the lovely fan ceiling which is unlike the wooden one in the nave.
I duly admired it – it’s gorgeous.
But no – it’s green men! They’re right at the junction of the pillars where the arches begin. It turns out Manchester Cathedral has a lot of pagan images. A Green Man is ‘sculpture or other representation of a face surrounded by or made from leaves. Branches or vines may sprout from the mouth, nostrils, or other parts of the face and these shoots may bear flowers or fruit.” Love it.
More prosaically, the vestibule also displays the names of all the bishops that have served in the Cathedral.
I liked the rainbow coloured cushions, though the fire extinguisher sort of spoils the picture.
We thanked our helpful guide and stepped out into the night. It was definitely past wine o’clock and we anticipated a 30-minute drive to get back the cottage where we were staying. Had we known that we were going to sit in traffic for the better part of two hours we might have dined in Manchester and gone later, Oh well!
I’m sharing this post with Between Naps on the Porch.
Some of the most fascinating and historically important woodcarvings in the Cathedral are the least obtrusive.