Southwark Cathedral in London

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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.


Saxon and medieval

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.

Sixteenth and seventeenth centuries

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.

Nineteenth century

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".<ref name=bumpus/>

Between 1818 and 1830, the tower and choir were restored by George Gwilt Jun, and the transepts, less sympathetically by Robert Wallace.<ref name=BoE/>. 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,<ref name=bumpus/> 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<ref name=bumpus/> to the designs of Arthur Blomfield.<ref name=BoE/>

Since 1900

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.

Other information

The cathedral is used by London South Bank University for its annual honorary degree ceremony and the graduation ceremonies of Regent's College, and by King's College London for its medical and dental degree ceremonies, an association stemming from the merger with Guy's and St Thomas' teaching hospitals. Indeed, St Thomas' started as an infirmary attached to the Priory of St Mary. The cathedral is also used to host The London Nautical School's annual Christmas Carol Service.

There are two other cathedrals in Southwark — the Roman Catholic St George's Cathedral Southwark and the Greek Orthodox St Mary's at Camberwell New Road.

Parts of the Doctor Who episode "The Lazarus Experiment" take place at Southwark Cathedral but, although the exterior appears, the interior shots were filmed at Wells Cathedral.

Cathedral choirs

Main Cathedral Choir

The Cathedral Choir is supported financially by the St Olave's & St Saviour's Schools Foundation, which stems from the two parochial schools set up in the 1560s which still hold their commemoration and annual services here as their 'foundation' church.

Southwark Cathedral does not have a choir school and so the boys and girls of the Cathedral Choir are drawn from schools throughout London and the surrounding areas. There are six Lay Clerks in the Cathedral Choir and up to six Choral Scholars. Three of the Lay Clerks are supported by endowments from The Ouseley Trust; the Vernon Ellis Foundation and the Friends of Cathedral Music.

The Cathedral Choir performed the theme song to the television series Mr. Bean.

Merbecke Choir

In 2004 the Cathedral founded the Southwark Cathedral Merbecke Choir. This Choir is intended to be the place both for boys and girls who leave the Cathedral Choirs and also other young singers who wish to maintain their sight-reading skills acquired as choristers and explore a wide range of repertoire under expert tuition. Several members have gone on to university as choral scholars. The upper age for membership of the choir is 25.

The choir sings Compline on the 4th Sunday of each month at 6.30pm and performs a seasonal concert of music in each of the terms. In addition the choir sings for livery companies in the City of London and for other organisations. A highlight of their career has been singing as part of Her Majesty The Queen's Christmas Broadcast recorded at Southwark Cathedral in 2006.

The Choir is named after the Tudor composer, John Merbecke (1510–1585), who composed one of the most popular settings of the Book of Common Prayer Communion Service. Merbecke with three other companions was tried for heresy in 1543 in the Retrochoir at Southwark, which was used for this purpose at the time. He was found guilty and condemned to be burned at the stake. His sentence was commuted however by Bishop Stephen Gardiner the then Bishop of Winchester, who decided that as a mere musician Merbecke 'knew no better' and so was released to continue his music making.

Thursday Singers

The Thursday Singers are made up of people from the local community, residents and those in work in the shops and businesses around the Cathedral, who simply enjoy singing. There is no audition, just a love of choral music. The Thursday Singers sing for Festival Eucharists which fall on a weekday and also sing one service of Choral Evensong most terms. They also lead the singing at the Cathedral's Carol Sing-In before Christmas.


The Cathedral's organ was built by Lewis & Co. of Ferndale Road, Brixton, south London, and completed in 1897. Thomas Christopher Lewis, the company's founder, was renowned for building instruments that had a bright, vibrant tone which, in part, was due to his use of low wind pressures. Consequently, he was somewhat out-of-step with the trend at the time, which was tending towards high wind pressures and rather thicker tone. The instrument's action was, and is, electro-pneumatic with slider chests, and the main case was designed by the noted Victorian architect Arthur Blomfield.

Apart from routine maintenance, the instrument remained untouched until 1952, when Henry Willis & Sons undertook a major rebuild, during which the wind pressures were increased. The balanced Swell pedal and the hitch-down Solo pedal were replaced by Willis's Infinite Speed and Gradation pedals. The Choir organ - which had been housed in front of the Swell - was relocated to the north side and a new console was installed adjacent to it (the original console was on the south side). The Choir organ's Flauto Traverso was replaced by a Nazard, and a Tierce was provided on a new slider. A number of new couplers were also provided and the Violon unit (32'-16'-8') was extended by 12 pipes to create a Viola 4'.

Some years after the rebuild it was thought that the Willis changes, though undoubtedly well-intentioned, detracted too much from the original concept, so the decision was taken to restore the instrument to the Lewis specifications. The Durham-based firm of Harrison and Harrison was engaged and the work was carried out in two stages. Firstly, in 1986, the electrics were renewed and although the Willis console was retained, it was given a solid state action with eight memory levels for the combination pistons and four for the Crescendo pedal. Also, the Willis swell pedals were replaced by balanced pedals. In 1991, the main work was undertaken, including the re-voicing of the stops on Lewis's original wind pressures. A Lewis Flauto Traverso rank was obtained for the Choir organ, to replace the one discarded by Willis, and the Nazard and Tierce were removed - meaning that the Great organ's Octave Quint is now the instrument's only mutation register. The two prepared for drawstops on the Pedal were also disposed of. Thus, the stop list is now as Lewis left it, except for the Viola 4' which was retained because it was a gift in memoriam.

A specification of the organ can be found on the National Pipe Organ Register.

List of organists

  • 1897 Alfred Madeley Richardson
  • 1908 Edgar Tom Cook
  • 1953 Sidney Schofield Campbell
  • 1956 Harold Dexter
  • 1968 Ernest Herbert Warrell
  • 1976 Harry Wakefield Bramma
  • 1989 Peter Michael Wright

Assistant organists

  • F. Stanley Winter
  • Charles Edgar Ford 1908 - 1917
  • Francis W. Sutton 1917 - 1922
  • J.C. Bradshaw 1922
  • Ralph William Downes 1923 - 1925
  • Philip Miles 1934 - 1935
  • Ernest F.A. Suttle 1936
  • Ernest Herbert Warrell 1937 - 1954
  • William Allen Humpherson 1955 - 1956
  • Denys Darlow 1957 -
  • Arthur Newell 1962 -
  • Christopher Jenkins 1971
  • Nicholas Woods 1975 - 1978
  • John Scott 1978 - 1985
  • Andrew Lumsden 1985 - 1988
  • Martin Wightman
  • Stephen Layton
  • Stephen Disley

Transport links

Public transport access
London Buses London Bridge Station 47, 343, RV1
London Bridge 17, 21, 35, 40, 43, 47, 48, 133, 141, 149
London Underground London Bridge
National Rail London Bridge

See also

See also the List of Organ Scholars at Southwark Cathedral.

  • List of cathedrals in the United Kingdom
  • St Paul's Cathedral - the Anglican cathedral in the neighbouring Diocese of London
  • St George's Cathedral, Southwark - the Roman Catholic cathedral in the Archdiocese of Southwark
  • List of churches and cathedrals of London
  • Architecture of the medieval cathedrals of England
  • English Gothic architecture
  • Church of England

External links