The present-day Chester Cathedral began as the tenth-century church of St Werburgh, was refounded as a Benedictine abbey by the Norman Hugh Lupus, first Earl of Chester, and at the Dissolution of the Monasteries became the centre of a new diocese, when the last abbot became the first Dean of Chester. (Henry VIII had apparently first considered locating the see at Fountains, where the abbey buildings were kept intact for a brief, deliberate pause.)
The present building was begun in 1092 and then remodelled and enlarged from the late thirteenth century onwards: the later generations of builders kept their work in harmony with their predecessors, as did their contemporaries at Westminster Abbey and Beverley Minster.
Its exterior has been so repeatedly and heavily restored, by Thomas Harrison (1818-20), R C Hussey (from 1844), Sir George Gilbert Scott (from 1868) and Sir Arthur W Blomfield (after 1882), that it’s difficult to be sure if any of the visible fabric is earlier than the nineteenth century.
Certainly the apse at the end of the south choir aisle, with its exaggerated roof, is pure Scott. This most notorious of the Victorian “Scrape” school of restorers, obsessively committed to tidying up and purifying the style of medieval churches, was heavily criticised for his work at Chester, yet some of his contributions, such as the choir screen and its wrought-iron gates (1876) are now highly-regarded designs in their own right.
He was not the only author of Victorian depredations: Dean Howson, regrettably, ordered the removal of five medieval misericords, of which the subject-matter was considered to be “very improper”.
Ironically the medieval shrine of St Werburgh survived the Reformation because the base was used for the Bishop’s throne. Sir Arthur W Blomfield restored it as best he could in the late Victorian period.
The Chapter House, described by Pevsner as “the aesthetic climax of the cathedral”, dates from the thirteenth-century, but was restored by R C Hussey in the mid-nineteenth century. Similarly, the south side of the cloisters is a reproduction by Sir George Gilbert Scott. The refectory, still with its monastic pulpit, has an east window by Giles Gilbert Scott, installed in 1913, and the roof is by F H Crossley, completed in 1939.
In contrast, the most modern, uncompromising yet least obtrusive addition to the Cathedral is the Addleshaw Tower, a detached bell-tower by George Pace, completed in 1972-4, after the old bell-frame in the central tower was found to be beyond safe restoration.
So Chester Cathedral looks now like it never did in the past. This is true of most ancient buildings. I think this complexity makes it all the more interesting, once you know what you’re looking at.
Chester Cathedral operates as a tourist attraction, charging for entry outside service-times: http://www.chestercathedral.com/chester-cathedral-visiting-opening-hours.htm.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals: past views of English architecture, please click here.
The 48-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Historic Chester tour, with text, photographs, and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing. To view sample pages click here. Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.