A beautifully illustrated new book tells the stories behind 50 artefacts from the cathedrals of England and Wales.
Written by Janet Gough, OBE, author, lecturer and advisor on historic churches and cathedrals, the book features manuscripts such as the Magna Carta, St David’s shrine, John Donne’s memorial sculpture and stained-glass windows by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Below, she writes why these artefacts are so important and a vital part of our national heritage.
The cathedrals of England and Wales are remarkable buildings. From the centuries leading up to the Norman Conquest to the tumults of the Reformation and devastating wars of the twentieth century, they carry traces of our nations’ darkest moments and most brilliant endeavours. The gloriously-coloured cover shot is the central oil painted panel from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Seed of David triptych (1856-64) in Llandaff cathedral.
With a double page spread and beautiful images my new book tells the stories behind 50 remarkable artefacts – one selected by the dean of each cathedral – that have been preserved by the cathedrals of the Church of England and the Church in Wales.
Powerful and enduring
Featuring the Magna Carta of Salisbury Cathedral as well as the oldest book of English literature in the world, an Anglo-Saxon portable sundial, the naturalistic stone Leaves of Southwell (1290s), and Pre-Raphaelite glass, painting and embroidery, made in the Ages of Saints to today, these local and national treasures are a vital part of our heritage, testifying to the powerful and enduring links between cathedrals and the wider communities of which they are part.
This book is a testament to the work of generations of skilled craftspeople who have created and maintained the stonework, the wood carvings and the embroidery - including the kneelers stitched, mostly by women, at Guildford cathedral – that are so much a part of what we see in cathedrals today.
The volume further features roods, crosses and liturgical items, since cathedrals are primarily places of worship. The Dean of Hereford reminds us that ‘all cathedrals have in common the message of the Gospel, the power of the Holy Spirit and an amazing historical pageant of godly people who have been the motivation behind so many of the tangible treasures.’
Above: the medieval Mappa Mundi, displayed at Hereford Cathedral.
Cathedrals are open 365 days a year. Sitting often literally next to our national museums (Derby’s new Museum of Making on the site of the first industrialised silk mill is adjacent to Derby cathedral), they house artefacts that tell the stories of our cities, counties and nations. Alongside regular programmes of services, community service is central to their mission – witness Lichfield, Salisbury, Bangor and several other cathedrals that opened as mass vaccination centres during the Covid pandemic.
Most of all they welcome visitors and all these treasures are available for inspection by the public. As I write it is exciting to see feature on Chanel Four the Cosmati pavement c 1268, a mosaic floor made of precious metals, glass and Purbeck marble at the heart of Westminster Abbey – where coronations, royal weddings and major services are led. In 2022 Sir Edward Burne-Jones’s stained-glass window Ascension (1885) and his three other windows, designed specifically for Birmingham cathedral as it was made-up from church to a cathedral, were offered a significant grant for their conservation from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Also in 2022 the manuscript known today as Textus Roffensis (‘the Rochester book’), compiled circa 1123 - and comprising Anglo-Saxon laws and early charters for the foundation of the priory that became Rochester cathedral - was added to the UNESCO memory of the world UK register.
I am fascinated by the choice of the dean of St Paul’s, London - the memorial to John Donne (1572-1631) wrapped in a sheet and standing on a funerary urn, was sculpted by prominent sculptor, Nicholas Stone. Commissioned by Donne himself, it is a monument to the man I knew as one of the pre-eminent metaphysical poets, who enjoyed a racy youth, was a soldier, a sometime MP and most extraordinary Catholic.
As some point he converted to the reformed Protestant Church of England and went on to become the most famous dean of St Pauls, with his sermons much admired and published. Equally extraordinary, his is the only statue to survive intact the destruction of St Paul's in the Great Fire of 1666. Set now into the south aisle wall of Sir Christopher Wren's later baroque cathedral, I shall never again just walk past.
Equally I love the story of the early 11th century prior’s doorway and stoup basin at Southwark Cathedral. Now slightly hidden by 19th century renovation works, there is a plan to reveal these properly and I am most intrigued that Archbishop Thomas Becket stepped through the prior’s door in the Augustinian Priory of St. Mary Overie and would have dipped his fingers in the holy water stoup before making his final sermon at Southwark, prior to his martyrdom at Canterbury in December 1170.
Cathedral Treasures of England and Wales is published by Scala Arts and is on sale for £14.95.
Use the discount code NCTRUST10 when you buy online at Church House Bookshop for a 10% discount during the month of December: