Researching the history of cathedrals

Manuscript illumination showing Wells Cathedral in 1464 (Bodleian Library Ms. New Coll 288, f4v.) A cathedral is a church containing a cathedra - the throne of a bishop. It is therefore the chief church of a diocese.

The role of bishops spread into the British Isles with Christianity itself, but the earliest surviving diocesan system is that in Wales created in the mid-6th century. Eleven of the Saxon dioceses of England survive, while the Irish dioceses were mainly established in the Viking period. The medieval dioceses of Scotland were based on a 12th-century organisation, but some had earlier roots, notably that of Galloway first founded by St Ninian c.400.

An odd feature of the medieval Church in England was that a number of cathedrals were also monastic churches. At the Dissolution of the Monasteries these were transferred to the control of a dean and chapter, except for the cathedrals of Bath and Coventry, which were deemed redundant, as each diocese had another (non-monastic) cathedral. On the other side of the ledger, Henry VIII re-founded four monastic churches as cathedrals.

Cathedrals in Scotland became redundant with the abolition of Scottish bishoprics. Some were simply deserted. Others survived, wholly or in part, as parish churches. The Church of Scotland remains Presbyterian. So when the Scottish Episcopal Church was legally established in the 19th century, it needed new cathedrals.

Meanwhile in England a rising population required more bishops: 20 Anglian dioceses have been created since 1836. Large parish churches were converted into cathedrals for most of them, but a few ambitious dioceses built anew: Truro, Guildford and Liverpool. The modern cathedral at Coventry followed the destruction of its parish church cathedral in World War II.

Following the Act of Toleration, the Roman Catholic Church established its own diocesan system for England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland, which created the opportunity for architects to design new cathedrals. The first was St Chad's in Birmingham, designed by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin in the Gothic revival style which became the standard for new Catholic churches and cathedrals. However the magnificent Westminster Cathedral was built the Byzantine style. More recently Liverpool and Bristol gained strikingly modern R.C. cathedrals.

For style see Romanesque and Gothic.

J.M.W. Turner, Interior of Salisbury Cathedral c.1802-5 (Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum) Gazetteers


Design by William Butterfield 1840s for the College of the Holy Spirit, Millport, Cumbrae, Scotland, later the Cathedral of the Isles. Primary sources

The archive of the Dean and Chapter should include fabric accounts and plans for restoration work. Some cathedral archives have been retained by the cathedral, for example those of Christ Church, Dublin (archive catalogue and list of published records online), while others have been deposited in the most convenient record office. Those of St Paul's Cathedral are in the Guildhall Library, London. The medieval fabric accounts for Exeter Cathedral have been published by the Devon and Cornwall Record Society vols. 24 and 26. Other relevant material may be found in the private papers of individuals closely involved with a renovation, for example material on St Pauls's Cathedral is among the papers of Sir Nicolas Bacon. The papers of architects involved in 19th-century renovations or building new cathedrals may well survive. In the absence of more concrete evidence, a grant of indulgences may mark the consecration of a cathedral, perhaps surviving in a charter or cartulary or in diocesan records. See also general sources for ecclesiastical buildings.

Cathedrals have been particularly popular subjects for artists. See images for general sources. They continue to be popular with photographers and a huge number of recent cathedral photographs can be found online simply by using a Google image search.


Web-sites for cathedrals are not intended for the scholar, but do generally give opening hours and a brief history. The more informative give a virtual tour. Anglicans Online provides links to web-sites of Anglican cathedrals in the UK and Republic of Ireland.

Andrea Kirkby explains how to read a Gothic cathedral façade.