The Medieval Collegiate Church of Manchester became Manchester Cathedral in Victorian times, and much of what we can see on the outside belongs to that period. However, the medieval parts are very much evident inside the building and can be viewed by the public today.
The site was once occupied by a small Saxon church, and the enigmatic angel stone on display inside probably dates from that time. In the thirteenth century the de Greste family built a fortified manor house next to the site. There was a Norman stone church already present there, and parts of the interior of the present tower are thought to date back to this time. The de Greste land was passed on to the de la Warre family through marriage, but their shield is still used as the cathedral crest today.
The story of the collegiate church starts with Thomas de la Warre , Rector and Baron of Manchester parish. In 1421 Thomas obtained permission from both King Henry V and the Pope to build a church with a college of nine priests, four singing clerks and six choristers, all under the supervision of a warden. The site of the de Greste manor house was given for the priests to live, and it is these buildings that form part of the present day Chetham’s Library. Thomas then set about rebuilding the church, laying out the plan of the structure we see today.
The new church featured eight chantry chapels, paid for by the town’s wealthy merchants. Each chapel would have a priest say prayers for the donor’s dead relatives. The chapels lined either side of the main part of the church, making it the widest church in England, both then and now.
Thomas appointed John Huntington to be the first warden, a job he carried out for 40 years. Inside the church at the Lady Chapel is a medieval rebus commemorating him, near where he is buried. A rebus is a picture of a word, so here we have an image of a man hunting with a dog and a second image of a man beside a couple of barrels or ‘tuns’ of ale, giving us “hunting-tun”.
Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, was married to Thomas Baron Stanley, who was to become the first Earl of Derby. She married at the church in 1473, and perhaps was the donator of the wooden angels which can be seen high up by the church’s roof. Each angel plays a golden instrument, wind instruments on one side, strings on the other. The golden instruments stand out well when viewed from the ground, but it is hard to see the angels as they are not well lit- perhaps binoculars would help !
Her stepson, James Stanley commissioned the intricately carved choir and misericords, which are surely some of the finest in England. In 1506 the carvings were completed, and they feature not only an image of himself during his time as warden, but also the legendary eagle and child motif. The misericords can be easily viewed if you stand in front of the choir and look through the gaps beneath the wooden ‘tables’. The choir screen (which separates the choir from the nave) is also medieval and has interesting faces carved into the doors. The painted angels are a later Victorian addition, but perhaps give us an idea of what the original painted screen would have looked like during medieval times.
The Tudor times were a turbulent period of history for the church, and two acts were passed to abolish the chantry chapels in the country. During Edward VI’s reign, the chapels in the church were demolished, adding to its huge width we see today. The valuables from these chantries were hidden and some were later sent away to Belgium for safe keeping. During Edward VI’s reign the college church was dissolved, only to be refounded under his sister Queen Mary, and then to be subjected to a damning inquiry under her sister Queen Elizabeth I.
During the civil war in 1642 the church had soldiers from the Parliamentary side positioned as snipers on the roof. Manchester was held by Parliament forces, against nearby Salford that was held by Royalist ones.
A hundred years later during the Jacobite uprising, Prince Charles Edward Stuart (“Bonnie Prince Charley-the Young Pretender”) attended a service at the church on his campaign south to capture the throne for the Stuart line. After the service he reviewed the Manchester contingent of his Jacobite army, some 300 men, before leaving to head south on his disastrous venture.
In Victorian times the church’s stonework was greatly repaired and restored. The old tower was demolished to make way for a new one. The nave was replaced “stone for stone”, which means we can still get an impression of what it would have originally looked like in medieval times. It retains its fifteenth century floorplan, and the columns show the strong vertical lines of the “late medieval perpendicular style”.
None of the stained glass remains from earlier times, as in 1940 the North East part of the church was hit by a German air force bomb.
The church has a host of other interesting features, some very old, others very recent. On your visit, do go and see one of the more recent ones: the Lancashire Madonna. She is on the outside of the church, on the exterior of the Lady Chapel, a gilded statue, complete with a mill worker’s shawl.
Opening Times: Manchester Cathedral is 0pen every day Monday to Saturday 8.30 am- 6.30 pm, Sunday 8.30 am- 7pm
Entrance is free, but you may wish to make a donation.
Visitor website click here : www.manchestercathedral.org/a-good-day-out/opening-hours-and-facilities. There are two guide books available- a short free one, with lots of excellent pictures to allow you to see the historical highlights, and a longer one you can purchase, with greater historical detail. See the references section below.
Parking: There is city centre parking at the NCP car park in front of the cathedral.
Welcome to Manchester Cathedral, free leaflet sponsored by Duchy of Lancaster Benevolent Fund, available at the entrance to the cathedral
Manchester Cathedral: The Old Church of the World’s First Industrial City, by Canon Andrew Shanks, (2010), Scala Publishers Ltd. Available at the entrance to the cathedral. Current cost of the guide book is £5.00