The architecture of Chester Cathedral

Chester Cathedral is a remarkable building. It is beautiful, interesting and functions as well in the modern world as it has historically.

Despite the fact that it was built 475 years ago, this stunning building is still used every day, and now fulfils several important functions for the community of Chester. Today, it is used as a community centre, a church, an event venue, an art space, and it is an important tourist destination for the 8.5 million visitors who stop off in the city every year.

Chester Cathedral 3

When was Chester Cathedral built?

We mentioned above that the cathedral was built 475 years ago, but the history of the site that the cathedral is built on goes back much further than that. There is some evidence that the area around the cathedral has been used as a place of worship for over 2,000 years. Many archaeologists believe that, during prehistoric times, a Druid temple was erected close to where today’s cathedral is located.

We know for sure that the history of today’s building definitely stretches back to Roman times. The records show that a basilica was built on the site of the modern day cathedral. To start with, it is likely that this building was used primarily as a place for the town’s leaders to congregate and conduct their business. That was the normal use for this type of building during Roman times.

The Roman basilica

A typical basilica had a central nave and aisles, a layout that was adopted by many early Christian churches. However, historians believe that the basilica in Chester actually became a place of Christian worship while the Romans still ruled the area.

The Saint’s relics

Records dating back to 660 show that a traditional Christian church was in operation on the site, at that time. In 875, the relics of St Werburgh were placed in the church. The belief was that the Saint would protect the city from Viking invaders. Unfortunately, that did not quite work out as planned. In 893, the Vikings raided the city.

The monastery

The next big development in the history of the cathedral site did not take place until 1092. In that year, a monastery was also built on the site.

Over the centuries, the buildings continued to evolve. Each generation added to, or changed, the church in some way, but most of the cathedral that you see today was built as part of the monastery. The major building work started in 1283, when the choir, consisting of five bays, was built.

In 1323, the next major project started. It was at that point that construction of the nave of six bays, and the south transept, began.

The quiet years

However, the spread of the plague meant that no building work took place between 1360 and 1483. There were just not enough skilled artisans or general labourers available to carry out the work. In addition, the fact that the population of the UK had been decimated meant that there was no pressing need to build. The will, money and means were just not available to carry on the building work.

Building work recommences

When building working started in 1483, the nave of six bays was finished. From that point on, the development of the cathedral proceeded much more quickly when funds allowed.

Today’s cathedral emerges

Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries led to the church and monastery buildings being adapted and developed into a fully-fledged cathedral. He handed the monastery over to the Diocese of Chester stating that it was to be used as a cathedral. That happened in 1541. Around the same time, five more of the UK’s other important cathedrals, including Westminster Abbey, were developed from monasteries.

Unfortunately, by then there was no money for construction work. As a result, the fabric the building stayed largely the same for many decades.

In fact, things got so bad that in 1578, some of the ancillary buildings were pulled down. There simply was not enough slate and stone available to keep them habitable.

The lack of money meant that no repairs or restoration was carried out until 1583. From that point on, various restoration and decorative projects were undertaken. However, money was always short, so big benefactors paid for tasks like laying the marble floor and reroofing various sections of the building.

Who designed Chester Cathedral?

As you can see, the history of Chester Cathedral is a long one, so it’s impossible to say that any one person was responsible for designing it. Over the centuries, many architects have been involved in the construction of the cathedral that we enjoy today.

Sadly, we do not know who was responsible for designing the original buildings. The records only show us who carried out the design work from the 1270s onwards.

The main architects were Richard Lenginour (1272–1314), Nicholas de Derneford (1316–31), William Rediche (1461–90s), Seth and George Derwall (1495–1530s). Later Thomas Harrison, George Gilbert Scott, George Pace, Arthur Blomfield and his son Charles took on the task of restoring, adapting and maintaining the cathedral’s various buildings. They made many structural changes, and additions, but the bulk of the building that you see today was there by 1530.

The work of Richard Lenginour

Richard Lenginour designed the choir of five bays. Most of the construction work for this part of the cathedral took place between 1283 and 1315.

Nicholas de Derneford’s work

It is believed that the nave of six bays and the south transept were designed by Nicholas de Derneford. Construction of this section of the cathedral got underway in around 1323. Unfortunately, this building work stopped for over a hundred years, when the plague swept through the UK. Work on the nave recommenced in 1485, after the architect William Rediche redrew the plans and updated them.

The architect Seth Derwall was responsible for the construction of the South transept. Building of this section started around 1493. He and his brother George Derwall made several other important changes to the structure of the buildings. They pulled the various elements of the building together into a more cohesive whole, and made changes that made the cathedral a more practical space.

It was the restoration architect George Gilbert Scott who created the unified exterior of the cathedral. He did so by redesigning some of the traceried windows, pinnacles, buttresses and battlements so that they were of a similar size and distance apart. This gave the building a more harmonious and therefore pleasing look.

How much did Chester Cathedral cost to build?

Visitors often ask this but, as you can imagine, is a difficult question to answer. The fact that the building has been added to for hundreds of years means that it is impossible to put an accurate price tag on the project. However, there is no doubt that the cost of building something similar would run into the tens of millions in today’s money.

What we do know for sure is that the funding of the cathedral has been a problem for the dean almost from the start. In fact, times were so hard in 1551 that the plate and a bell had to be sold. The cathedral owned extensive lands, had benefactors and collected money in many different ways, but a lack of funds has plagued this beautiful building for hundreds of years. Even today, keeping the cathedral open is a financial struggle, but the current dean has come up with many new and innovative ways to help it survive.

River Dee 4

How has Chester Cathedral been used through the ages?

Over the centuries, the way the buildings on this site were utilized has evolved. The site the cathedral sits on has been a place of worship for the Druids, the Romans, Catholics and Anglicans. Parts of the building have been used as a monastery and a church.

Today, it is still an important centre of worship, but it is also a music and arts venue, there is even a music school based in the building. In recent years, the cathedral has been adapted to enable it to be used to host theatre productions, award ceremonies and conferences. Recently, it has also started to be used as an exhibition space.

Every day, thousands of tourists tours of this impressive building to learn more about the cathedral, its history, and Christian traditions. It is now a place of education as well. The falconry and nature gardens, gift shop and cafe are popular with tourists, and help to draw people back to visit the city.

Without a doubt, the way Chester Cathedral is used will continue to change. As the needs of the community change, this iconic building is sure to mirror them.

One of the joys of being based in the city of Chester is the fact that you are surrounded by such interesting architecture. This means that there is no shortage of inspiration for the d2 architects team to tap into. Our team loves a challenge, and enjoys tailoring every building it designs to the tastes, and needs, of each client.

The eclectic mix of architecture in our city often provides the inspiration we need to find solutions to design issues, and give you the building you really want. So, if you are planning a new build, a commercial building, an extension or a restoration, please get in touch and let us help you to fulfil your vision.

Posted by Mark
July 4, 2016

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