Address: Minster Yard, Lincoln LN2 1PX

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Lincoln Cathedral History

The city is steeped in history and a simple walk around the streets makes it easy to imagine life in medieval times. The name Lincoln is derived in two parts, the first was by the Celts who named it ‘Llyn’, meaning lake. The second part came about after the Roman withdrawal nearly two thousand years ago. At the time, many Romans chose to remain in Britain for various reasons, so the Roman leaders, mindful of their safety, built four colonies in England so that the Romans would have the protection of each other within these colonies. These colonies were in Lincoln, London, Exeter and Colchester. From colonies came the ‘coln’ part.

In the years after William the Conqueror’s Norman invasion of 1066, a number of UK cathedrals were built and these included Lincoln. William was aware of the logistical importance of the city and keen to build a northern stronghold, he built a castle to support his troops. It was common practice at the time to then build a cathedral near a castle as churches had much political power and it would help the invading Normans become more readily accepted.

A distant relative of William was a Benedictine monk named Remigius de Fecamp. He was Bishop of Dorchester on Thames, near Oxford. When law was passed that the bishop must be in the centre of his population, William instructed Remigius to transfer his cathedral base to Lincoln in what was the largest diocese in medieval England, extending from the Humber to the Thames.

Remigius built the cathedral, which was modelled on both the cathedral at Rouen and the church at St Etienne, but passed away in May 1092, two days before it was consecrated. His tower is incorporated in the west front today.

The new cathedral had a timber roof and this was destroyed in a fire in 1141, with renovation being conducted by Bishop Alexander, who was Bishop of Lincoln between 1123 and 1148. He rebuilt the roof and ceilings in stone and some of his work remains today. These are the carvings around the main doors and the biblical frieze across the West Front.

In 1185 an earthquake, whose epicentre was Lincoln, struck and destroyed all but the central portion of the West Front and the lower halves of the Western Towers. Thankfully, part of Remigius and Alexander’s works survived. But the earthquake actually turned out to be a blessing as the old cathedral was “grim and fortress-like” and this now allowed the construction of a much larger, more modern building. The original cathedral was built almost castle-like, with arrow-slits visible today in the west front, and one of the reasons for the survival of the historic West Front was this castle-like construction, as opposed to the relatively weak structure of the later cathedral walls.

As with many great projects, the end result is often down to the drive and vision of one man, and so it was with the rebuilding of the cathedral when Hugh of Avalon became bishop in 1186. He had initially come over from France to establish a Carthusian monastery, this being the penance that Henry II agreed with the church for the murder in 1170 of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Hugh was a much loved man and embraced the massive rebuilding programme. The cathedral was built in a Gothic style with pointed arches, flying buttresses and ribbed vaults replaced the more traditional design. The size was as we see it today, giving Lincoln the third largest floor space of any British cathedral, being surpassed by only St Paul’s and York Minster. This new style of architecture, with pointed arches, transformed the cathedral as it allowed for a far greater load to be supported, allowing greater height and roof spans, which gave bigger space and created the opportunity for huge stained glass windows. This gave the cathedral the opportunity to install the two famous windows, the ‘Dean’s Eye’ window in the north transept and the ‘Bishop’s Eye’ window in the south transept. Hugh became St Hugh within 20 years of his death in what was a remarkably quick procedure. He was buried in the cathedral.

In 1237 the Central Tower collapsed and the Dean sought the permission of Henry III to remove part of the Roman city wall to build a cathedral extension. This was to accommodate the pilgrims who came to visit St Hugh’s grave. St Hugh’s body was transported to the new ‘Angel Choir’ in October 1280 and the ceremony was attended by King Edward I and Queen Eleanor.

In 1290 Eleanor died. Edward was heartbroken and honoured her with an elaborate funeral procession from London to Lincoln and the installation in Lincoln of an identical tomb to that in Westminster Abbey. Crosses were laid at every point that the procession stopped and ‘Eleanor Crosses’ are an integral part of English history and can be seen today in various locations along the route.

The Central Tower was rebuilt between 1307 and 1311 and at that point the spire stood at 525ft (160m) making it the highest building in the world, being taller than the Pyramids of Egypt. It held this position until 1549 – this was when it came crashing down. Between 1370 and 1400 the Western Towers were raised.

The dissolution of the monasteries, in the 1530s under Henry VIII, had a profound effect on the cathedral. Many religious buildings were destroyed at the time, but although the building survived, it was stripped of most of its treasure and the structure suffered damage. The damage wasn’t just to the building though, there was also a big change in daily running.

The seventeenth century saw the English Civil War, and as the church was largely a supporter of King Charles I and the Royalists, many religious buildings were again damaged. But with the restoration of the monarchy, under Charles II, the cathedral saw an upturn in fortunes. The new Dean re-established many of the old routines and church life began to prosper with much repair work being done to the fabric of the building. A library was added by Sir Christopher Wren and this was one of only two libraries that he built.

By 1726 the Western Towers had begun to lean and were suitably strengthened. But despite this, and mindful of the fate that befell the Central Tower, the locals felt in danger and petitioned for them to be taken down. In 1807 they were dismantled and the result is the cathedral that we see today.

Over the years much repair work has been done, and for a building of this size and intricacy, it’s a continual and expensive process and one that costs around £1 million a year.

The cathedral is visited today by around 250,000 people a year, producing much needed revenue to pay for this upkeep.

 

Lincoln Cathedral Visit

Like many cathedrals, Lincoln has had an eventful past and probably more so than most. It was once the highest building in the world and as such must have been hugely popular and the destination for many. At that point the spire on the main tower was over 500 feet high and it’s only when you see the size of the main tower today and realise that at one time it was double that height, you realise the mindboggling scale of the ancient structure. How they built things like that with the tools and transport that they had at the time is astonishing.

It’s easy to walk around the cathedral and think that you’ve seen all the detail, but there really is so much to see, so many small details and so much history. It’s good to read up beforehand or ask the staff to point out parts of interest.

Lincoln, as a city, is spread out a lot more than in ancient times with the new part of the city a few hundred yards away down an incredibly steep hill – a hill that’s even hard work walking down! The part at the bottom has the usual high street shop chains etc, whilst the buildings around the cathedral and back up on the hill have old buildings and the more ‘quaint’ type of shops. The city itself contains many buildings from maybe a thousand years ago and it’s fascinating viewing them as you walk around.

When viewing the cathedral, there are guided tours of the roof and tower (tower on Saturdays), with these giving you a much better idea of the structure and history than a walk around the ground floor.

As mentioned, the detail is amazing, but easy to walk past. There is the tiny figure of the Lincoln Imp high up on the east side, there’s a carving of the face of a man with toothache, there’s a carving in the choir of a frog disembowelling itself – a great favourite amongst choirboys! As well as a carving of Samson and Delilah. There’s the writing of the name ‘fricabon’ high up on the ceiling in the nave, just after you enter. There are dozens more figures and details, with the clergy that walk around only too happy to help the public by conveying information.

The Choir is the central area past the nave and is really quite spectacular and a wonderful place for the religious services. The Magna Carta is on show, and again, it’s a great idea to read about the background of it before you go as you can fully appreciate the meaning of the document you see.

Another interesting feature is the ridge line that runs along the top centre of the ceiling, running hundreds of feet from one end of the cathedral to the other. At the west side, maybe 50 feet from the end, there’s a distinct kink in the line, giving away secrets of past building joints.