The History of England’s Cathedrals by Nicholas Orme

24 November 2017

Michael Tavinor on an up-to-date study of our cathedrals’ history

Cathedral since 1877: St Albans Abbey, c.1905, by Sidney Gardner. From the book

Cathedral since 1877: St Albans Abbey, c.1905, by Sidney Gardner. From the book


TO THOSE of us who learned our cathedral history from Pitkin Pride of Britain booklets during the 1960s, the arrival of the weighty individual-cathedral history during the 1970s came as a revelation. Successors to the tomes of the 18th century, these books gathered together contributions from a cross-section of scholars and presented cathedral history in huge detail. But they were heavyweight: my deanery shelves groan with such volumes, from York Minster (1977) to the most recent and opulent Durham Cathedral (2015).

What was needed was a single volume that brought together the key themes from all the cathedrals. This need was partially answered with Jon Cannon’s Cathedral (2007), but his book took us only to the eve of the Reformation. An overview of cathedral history to the present day has now been provided with Nicholas Orme’s magisterial volume.

It charts the remarkable voyage of cathedrals, during their 1700-year history from Roman times to the present day. It explains the layout and purpose of their buildings, the people who ran them, their worship and music, their links with learning and education, and their outreach to society. Unusual terms, taken for granted in cathedral life, are explained and expanded: the Close, canons, vicars choral, Old and New Foundations. It relates their history to national trends, and shows how they escaped destruction over the centuries, and adapted to changes in Church and society.

Books such as Flagships of the Spirit (1998) tackle the theology of cathedrals, and, while Professor Orme does not overtly take that line, he shows understanding and sympathy for the life and ministry of cathedrals today — here speaks the historian and the lay canon of Truro Cathedral.

Illustrations make an important contribution. Yes, there are the usual suspects — Salisbury by Constable, and Ely by Turner — but there is also a delightful series of early-20th-century watercolours, which enliven the text. Maps of the country showing the distribution of cathedrals at different periods prove very useful.

Of course, deans will pore over this book to see how their own cathedrals fare, and I am pleased to say that Hereford gets my imprimatur. I am not in accord with the author, however, in his opinion of the removal of the Hereford Victorian screen in 1967 (not 1966 as the book states); but I am thrilled that he should find the restored shrine of St Thomas of Hereford “remarkably gaudy”: high praise, indeed!


The Very Revd Michael Tavinor is the Dean of Hereford Cathedral.


The History of England’s Cathedrals
Nicholas Orme
Impress Books £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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