STROLLING through Leuven in 1885, one observant individual came across a baker wrapping his wares in pieces of ancient parchment. It transpired that these were the records of a local monastery that had been destroyed in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Further inspection somewhat surprisingly showed that one of the documents described some of the pre-Reformation silverware belonging to what is now Manchester Cathedral.
It is a revealing as well as a rather lovely story. It tells, first, of the difficulties any historian of the place will encounter. Manchester lacks the extensive records of a Westminster Abbey or a Winchester Cathedral. Even something as apparently solid and substantial as its architecture is not easy to interpret. Rebuilding and — again — an absence of documents makes much analysis somewhat speculative. As Sarah Boyer observes in her fascinating chapter on the music of Manchester Cathedral, much of what we know “rests on chance references” instead of ample archival evidence.
But the unexpected discovery of this valuable document in a Belgian bakery also reveals just how fascinating the story of Manchester Cathedral actually is. An important civic focus for the city, it is also a brilliant exemplar of the tensions and conflicts that have racked the Church more generally in the past 600 years.
The list found in Leuven was made by Laurence Vaux, a Roman Catholic priest who fled Manchester in 1559 with the silverware of what was then the Collegiate Church. More than this, as Ian Atherton notes in his wonderfully well-researched chapter on the post-Reformation period, an absence of evidence was often deliberate. “Obscurity”, he writes, “was a deliberate policy . . . so that they could hide their dubious practices.”
It takes real skill and exemplary scholarship to bring out the intrinsic interest of the institution despite the limitations of the sources available. Fortunately, the historians assembled by Jeremy Gregory in this new book are more than up to the job. They include such authorities as the Reformation scholar Lucy Wooding and perhaps the pre-eminent historian of the region, Terry Wyke.
courtesy of Manchester CathedralThe 15th-century nave roof of Manchester Cathedral, in one the many colour illustrations in the new history, reviewed here
For the modern period, the two leading historians of the 20th-century Church of England, Matthew Grimley and Jeremy Morris, each produce bravura performances. Indeed, every one of the 13 chapters — from Peter Arrowsmith’s prehistory of the place, to Marion McClintock’s account of the stained glass — is of high quality, as are the very many colour images provided.
The story that these scholars tell is one of change. Founded in 1421, Manchester Collegiate Church was dissolved in 1547 and restored in 1556; dissolved again in 1649 and restored once more in 1660. It became a cathedral in 1840, but continued to serve as a collegiate foundation and as a parish church for decades: an uncomfortable compromise that, as Arthur Burns shows in his first-rate chapter, produced all manner of complications. Moreover, Manchester itself was, of course, changing all around it.
A wonderful history of an important institution, this will be essential reading for all Mancunians and anyone interested in church history more generally.
The Revd Dr William Whyte is Fellow and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.
Manchester Cathedral: A history of the Collegiate Church and Cathedral, 1421 to the present
Manchester University Press £30
Church Times Bookshop £27