There are thousands of beautiful historic and historical religious buildings, all with unique and fascinating aspects of interest, which represent thirteen centuries of Britain's history and heritage and which are found in every city, town and village.
Religious buildings are often considered to be the most expressive, permanent and the most influential buildings in any society and they are, at the same time, symbols of religion. Religious buildings, such as churches, temples, cathedrals and others, are places of worship and shelters for the images, relics, and holy areas of the cult. Moreover, these were the tallest buildings throughout centuries, clearly visible from a long distance, displaying power and splendour, offering dignity and sense of belonging, and requiring admiration and obedience.
2.3.1 Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury, Kent, England
(Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Christ at Canterbury)
Canterbury Cathedral represents the so called religious and/or sacred architecture. As one of the oldest Christian structures, Canterbury Cathedral was founded by St. Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, in 597 AD. Soon there was a community offering daily prayers to God and during the tenth century it became a community of Benedictine monks. The Cathedral was reconstructed, also completely rebuilt by the Normans, after the Norman Conquest, from 1070 to 1077 by Archbishop Lanfranc (Watkin 12) and there were new parts added during centuries. Highly valued by architects and scientists is the crypt of the choir built at the beginning of the twelfth century (Watkin 15). The crypt is the only remaining Norman structure in Canterbury Cathedral because the Norman nave was rebuilt by an architect Yevele in the fourteenth century. In 1174 a disastrous fire destroyed the entire eastern end which was in 1184 rebuilt by French architect William of Sens. It was rebuilt with an early example of fully developed Gothic design, represented mainly by ‘the rib vault, flying buttress, and pointed (Gothic) arch’ (Encyclopaedia Britannica). William of Sens and English architect William created at Canterbury a rich polyphony of French Gothic and Anglo-Norman themes bound together with a new decorative system of polished Purbeck marble shafts and string-courses (Canterbury pattern), which were very popular and widely imitated in many other cathedrals in those days (Watkin 36). These changes and a year-by-year progress of Canterbury Cathedral are recorded by the monk Gervase of Canterbury. In 1540 the Cathedral was closed on the orders of King Henry VIII, due to the Reformation during the Civil War in the seventeenth century the Cathedral was damaged by the Puritans and after the Restoration again rebuilt. In the nineteenth century a part of the Cathedral was replaced by a copy. Today the Cathedral offers daily prayers for the public and contains an extensive library.
The Canterbury Cathedral is best known because of the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket at the foot of the altar of Saint Benedict on the 29th December 1170 (Burnby 2). Becket was murdered by four knights of King Henry II while at prayer in the Cathedral. Becket’s murder was one of the great religious scandals of the Middle Ages, and his canonization as a saint led to a fantastic veneration of his life and death (Elder 1). Moreover, this event not only inspired a stained glass window made in 1220 and still present in the Cathedral but also contributed to regular pilgrimages. After his death, Becket’s shrine in the Cathedral became an important destination for pilgrimages. These pilgrimages are described by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales: “In felawshipe, and pilgrims were they alle, That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde...” (Chaucer 3). T.S.Eliot even composed a play based on Becket’s murder depicting a conflict between human and divine powers, called Murder in the Cathedral (1935), performed during WWII.
Canterbury Cathedral, in my opinion, is among powerful religious symbols connected to the English people and their national identity. Although there are thousands of atheists in England today, most people feel in some way reassured by the background presence of this religion, even if they do not wish to become actively involved with it (Childs 279). Through St. Augustine’s and his later follower Becket’s influences, the Cathedral remains a crucial symbol for the nation. The Archbishop of Canterbury is also the title of the religious head of the Church of England, bearing the official title Primate of all England. In this way, the post combines the symbolical, historical importance with the institutional aspect.
2.3.2 Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, England
(Cathedral Church of Paul the Apostle)
St. Paul’s cathedral is the Anglican cathedral and the present building is the fifth building on the site. St. Paul’s official web page introduces the cathedral as “the world famous centre of Christian worship and mission and heritage” (Hall). Except daily prayer, the Cathedral is one of the most visited places in London. St. Paul’s Cathedral serves as a place for important events connected not only to the Royal Family, such as weddings, coronations and funerals, as well as the Westminster Abbey. Moreover, according to its web page,
St. Paul’s Cathedral is a symbol of the hope, resilience and strength of the city and nation it serves.
As already mentioned, there were four other cathedrals on the site of St. Paul’s. The first one was built in the seventh century (Wheeler 206) and two following ones (from years 886 and 962) were destroyed by a fire as described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The fourth St. Paul’s cathedral, called Old St. Paul’s was begun by the Normans around the year 1087 and the works lasted for about two hundred years. The Old St. Paul’s was completed in the fourteenth century and soon became one the most famous buildings in England, however, it was decaying during the sixteenth century because of the Dissolution of the Monasteries which led to destructions of many parts of the building. One of the most valued parts of the Old St. Paul’s was the Cathedral’s west front facade designed and added between 1634 and 1640 by England’s first classical architect Jones2 (Watkin 100). The Old St. Paul’s was destroyed during the Great Fire of London in 1666 (Newbolt 14) and there was build completely new building on its site. The current Cathedral was built and designed by the court architect Sir Wren and built between 1675 and 1708 by a mason Strong. Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral is one of the most magnificent buildings ever constructed. The Cathedral is made of Portland stone in a late Renaissance style that represents England’s sober Baroque and its impressive dome was inspired by St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (Watkin 108-112). The Cathedral interior contains the nave, with three small chapels, and the inner dome with three circular galleries. Dominating features of Wren’s Cathedral are, concededly, the Great west door, west end Clock Tower and the Greek Cross. And it is certainly true that St. Paul’s Cathedral is one of the most important buildings of London.
The greatness of Wren’s Cathedral is celebrated by Newbolt: “Certainly, Sir Christopher Wren accurately caught the spirit of London, the genius of its streets, and the ethos of its traffic when he set the cross on top of the dome, as majestic as a cupola and as graceful as a spire” (8). The idea of monumentality and importance of St. Paul’s Cathedral is held by many scholars, architects and ordinary people and this only supports the statement that St. Paul’s Cathedral certainly is one of symbols of London, and consequently, of the whole English nation and its national identity.
2.3.3 Westminster Abbey, Westminster, London, England
(The Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster)
Westminster Abbey is mainly a Gothic church London governed by the Dean and Chapter of Westminster. According to official website of Westminster Abbey it is “the coronation church where the monuments and tombs of the country’s legendary kings and queens stand alongside the famous men and women whose stories are stitched into the history of Britain and the rest of the world” (Levy). This definition shows the connection between the Abbey, famous English people and the English nation and explains a greatness and importance of the Abbey. Westminster Abbey was described in detail by an American author Irving in his collection of essays The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, published in 1819. In the part called ‘Westminster Abbey’, the writer depicts his own contemplative tour of the Abbey and lets readers create their own image of the Abbey.
The Abbey’s history stretches back to 1065 when King Edward the Confessor established a new church dedicated to Saint Peter (Porter 20). After his death Edward became the first person buried in the Abbey, and the new king William the Conqueror became the first person crowned there. In the same way as Canterbury Cathedral, Westminster Abbey became a place of pilgrimage because of shrines of famous people, kings and queens. In 1245, under the rule of Henry III, king’s master mason de Reynes rebuilt the Abbey into the present appearance (Watkin 47) and architect Yevele rebuilt the nave of Westminster (Watkin 70). Yevele replaced the Norman nave by a new one and allowed himself to be influenced by the Decorated design of the choir (Richards 46). By the order of King Edward I the Coronation Chair was made in 1300 to enclose the Stone of Scone (Stone of Destiny brought from Scotland in 1296 and returned in 1996, Kumar 69). In 1503 Henry VII’s Chapel was added to the Abbey (Richards 36) and the following king Henry VIII gave the Abbey a status cathedral3 to spare it from destruction and dissolution in 1540 (Richards 34). In 1560 under the Queen Elizabeth I. the Abbey was made a Collegiate Church of Saint Peter. The most significant parts of the exterior of the Abbey are its two western towers. These were built between 1722 and 1745, designed by famous architect Hawksmoor (Watkin 118) and completed by his successor James. One of the most important events taking place in Westminster Abbey was the coronation of the contemporary Queen of the United Kingdom, Elisabeth II.
Westminster Abbey is a religious building where daily worship and prayers are held but it is mainly a symbol of the English nation and identity, regarding the fact that the Abbey is a huge burial of more than 3000 eminent people of England (Hall 13). These are buried in all parts of the Abbey, such as the main hall, the nave, North and South transepts, and so on. For instance, there are buried Edward III, Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, Aphra Behn and many others. Moreover, there are dozens more famous people from England and from all over the world commemorated in the Westminster Abbey, such as Austen, Drake, Shakespeare, Wilde or Martin Luther King Jr. The most popular part of the Abbey is Poets’ Corner which contains graves of many distinguished British authors and memorials of others whose remains are interred elsewhere. Poets’ Corner represents English literature from Chaucer to Kipling (Wheeler 58). Additionally, the Abbey is also ‘a treasure house of paintings, stained glass, pavements, textiles and other artefacts’ (Levy).
All the items of information mean that Westminster Abbey is the place containing hundreds of symbols of the English nation and its identity and supports the idea that buildings could have a symbolic meaning and could represent a nation and its identity. This idea is strongly supported by opinions of the Dean of Westminster Abbey, John Hall, in his text: “It (the Abbey) is part of us: for a thousand years, it has shared our country’s tragedies and celebrations. The Abbey is woven into our sense of identity and nationhood” (4). Hall also claims that Westminster Abbey ‘has not just passively witnessed a thousand years of history either. As the pinnacle of the relationship between church, state and monarchy, it has played an active role in the course of events’ (4). Therefore it could be stated that Westminster Abbey serves as a symbol of the English national identity.