Lincoln Cathedral: The History

If you’re a Yellowbelly, the sight of Lincoln Cathedral on the horizon is a welcome reminder that you’re home – but how much do you actually know about that famous Lincolnshire landmark and its history?

Lincoln Cathedral has stood overlooking the city of Lincoln for almost 1,000 years, with part of the original cathedral of 1072AD still existing as part of the West Front. Most of us that live in its shadow don’t give it much thought, but the history of the Cathedral is a fascinating one, and its legacy extends far beyond Lincoln.

1072AD: The Beginning

The Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Lincoln, to give it its full name, was commissioned by Remigius de Fécamp, the first bishop of Lincoln and relative to William the Conqueror, in 1072AD. Lincoln at the time was both a wealthy town and strategically placed on the River Witham and at the junction of two roads, making it a desirable location for such a prestigious building. Remigius himself was not quite as saintly as his legacy would suggest; within his lifetime he was accused of both uncanonical consecration (for being consecrated by someone who had not themselves been consecrated) and treason against William II. He received papal absolution for the first crime after travelling to Rome to plead in front of the Pope, and was cleared of the second after one of his servants performed the ordeal of the hot iron and survived – meaning that God had found him free of guilt. Unfortunately for Remigius, he never lived to preach in his own Cathedral, dying two days before the consecration in 1092AD. The Cathedral at this time was not quite the majestic building it is today; indeed, it was described as a ‘grim, fortress-like’ building, modelled after the Cathedral at Rouen. The tower that was constructed as part of the building, once a keep tower that was possibly used as a bishop’s palace, is now incorporated into the West Front of the Cathedral.

1141AD: Fire

In 1141, the timber roofing of the Cathedral was destroyed by a fire, and renovation of the roof and extensions to the Cathedral were ordered by Bishop Alexander, or ‘Alexander the Magnificent’ as he was known. Whilst he was known for his ostentatious lifestyle and criticised for the method of his elevation to Bishop (through his uncle’s influence over the King), Alexander also founded a number of religious houses and monasteries, a hospital for lepers at Newark-on-Trent, held royal castles at Sleaford, Banbury and Newark and acted as royal justice in Lincoln. His work on the Cathedral included reroofing the building with stone following the fire, and began the construction of the West Front. His legacy still remains today in the carved doors and the frieze on the West Front. Henry of Huntingdon, writer of Historia Anglorum, declared that the Cathedral was ‘more beautiful than before and second to none in the realm’.

1186AD: St Hugh

Many Lincoln residents have heard of St Hugh, but probably aren’t sure why his name is in everything from school titles to village names. St Hugh of Avalon was born in Avalon and grew up in a priory near Grenoble, both in France, but took to monastic life well and was sent to Somerset at the age of 35 to become a prior at Witham Charterhouse. Following his successful tenure and securing of royal patronage for the Charterhouse, Hugh was elected Bishop of Lincoln in 1186, and set about repairing the Cathedral after it was heavily damaged in an earthquake the previous year. The repairs included a large extension to the Cathedral, with Hugh said to have overseen and contributed to the radical new architectural style incorporated into the Cathedral. This style was so new and different it was named ‘English Gothic’, deriving from the popular Gothic style used on the Continent. This style incorporated pointed arches instead of traditional rounded ones and flying buttresses and ribbed vaults that allowed the Cathedral to have a wider roof span and a greater height. Unfortunately, in 1200 Hugh was struck down by a mystery illness and never recovered, dying two months later and with the building work for the Cathedral still unfinished. St Hugh was remembered as a kind figure and an exemplary Bishop, being charitable and raising the quality of education at the Cathedral school, as well as protecting Lincoln’s Jewish population from persecution and violence. His contribution to the Cathedral is its beautiful Gothic style, and one particular point of note includes the matching Dean’s Eye and Bishop’s Eye windows on the north and south of the building, with the north-facing window keeping the devil out and the south-facing window letting the Holy Spirit in.

1237AD: Collapse and Rebuild

Whilst the Cathedral pioneered its new style of Gothic architecture and its new extensions and additions, it is believed that the new technologies that came with it didn’t quite run smoothly. In 1237, it is thought that some mistakes in the support of the central tower led to its collapse. A new tower was soon commissioned, and in 1255 the Dean petitioned Henry III to allow the removal of part of the town wall in order to make space for an extension to the Cathedral, including the rebuilding of the central tower and spire (as the tower all originally had spires attached to them). St Hugh’s small, rounded chapels were replaced with a larger, square east end, built to accommodate the rising number of pilgrims that came to worship at the Shrine of St Hugh. This was consecrated in 1280.

1300AD – 1549AD: The Tallest Building in the World

For 249 years, Lincoln Cathedral held the title of tallest building in the world, surpassing the Great Pyramid of Giza, which had held the title for 4,000 years. The central tower was raised to its present height of 83 metres (271 feet) between 1307 and 1311, along with improvements to the towers at the western end, and at this time a tall, lead-encased wooden spire sat on top of the central tower, giving it a total height of 160 metres (525 feet). To put this into perspective, the Blackpool Tower is 158 metres high – 2 metres shorter. Unfortunately, though, in 1549 the central spire collapsed, leaving the two smaller western spires in place.

1730AD & 1807AD: Becoming the Present

By 1730, the remaining spires were beginning to lean because of their weight, and improvements had to be made. The influential architect James Gibb created a Narthex for the Cathedral – a lobby area within the Cathedral that featured strengthened cross walls to try to support the weight of the spires. However, by 1807 the spires were considered too dangerous to stay and were removed, and this created the final form of the Cathedral that exists today.

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