Southwark Cathedral

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Southwark Cathedral

Cathedral and Collegiate Church of
St Saviour and St Mary Overie, Southwark

Southwark, Surrey

Status: Cathedral
Southwark Cathedral, 24th floor.jpg
Southwark Cathedral
Church of England
Diocese of Southwark
Grid reference: TQ326803
Location: 51°30’22"N, 0°5’22"W
Built 1106–1897
Gothic / Gothic Revival

The Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie, Southwark, commonly known as Southwark Cathedral (ˈsʌðɨk), stands on the south bank of the River Thames in Southwark in Surrey, close to London Bridge. It is the cathedral of the Diocese of Southwark and the seat of the Bishop of Southwark.

The church has been a place of Christian worship for more than 1,000 years, but a cathedral only since the creation of the diocese of Southwark in 1905.

Between 1106 and dissolution in 1538, this was the church of an Augustinian priory, Southwark Priory, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Following the dissolution of the monasteries, it became a parish church, with the new dedication of St Saviour's. The church was in the Diocese of Winchester, as was the whole of Surrey, until 1877, when the parish of St Saviour's, along with other urban parishes, was transferred to the Diocese of Rochester,[1] then in 1905 a new diocese for eastern Surrey was created and St Saviour's became its cathedral.

The present building retains the basic form of the Gothic structure built between 1220 and 1420, but the nave is a late 19th-century reconstruction.

Borough Market is immediately to its south and the Hall of the Worshipful Company of Glaziers and Painters of Glass is on the riverside part of Montague Close on its north.


Legendary origins

The 16th-century London historian John Stow recorded an account of the origins of the Southwark Priory of St Mary that he had heard from Bartholomew Linsted, who had been the last prior when the priory was dissolved.[2] Linsted claimed it had been founded as a nunnery "long before the [Norman] Conquest" by a maiden named Mary, on the profits of a ferry across the Thames she had inherited from her parents. Later it was converted into a college of priests by "Swithen, a noble lady". Finally in 1106 it was refounded as an Augustinian priory.

The tale of the ferryman's daughter Mary and her benefactions became very popular, but later historians tried to rationalise Linsted's story. Thus the author of an 1862 guidebook to the then St Saviour's church suggested it was probable that the "noble lady" Swithen had in fact been a man – Swithun, Bishop of Winchester from 852 or 853 until his death in 863.[3]

In the 20th century this identification was accepted by the Revd Thomas P. Stevens, Succentor and Sacrist, and later Honorary Canon, of Southwark Cathedral, who wrote a number of guidebooks to the cathedral, and a history that was revised and reprinted many times. He went on to date the foundation of the supposed original nunnery to "about the year 606", although he provided no evidence to support the date.[4] Although recent guidebooks are more circumspect, referring only to "a tradition", an information panel at the east end of the cathedral still claims that there had been "A convent founded in 606 AD" and "A monastery established by St Swithun in the 9th century".

Saxon and Norman

The nave of Southwark Cathedral

The earliest reference to the site was in the Domesday Book of 1086, when the "minster" of Southwark seems to have been under the control of William the Conqueror's half-brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux.

It is unlikely that this minster pre-dated the conversion of Wessex in the mid-7th century, or the foundation of the "burh" c. 886. There is no proof for suggestions that a convent was founded on the site in 606 nor for the claim that a monastery was founded there by St Swithun in the 9th century.

The Anglo-Saxon minster was a collegiate church serving an area on the south side of the River Thames. In 1106, during the reign of King Henry I it became an Augustinian priory, under the patronage of the Bishops of Winchester, who established their London palace immediately to the west in 1149. A remaining wall of the palace refectory, with a rose window, survives in Clink Street.

The Priory was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, known since the Reformation as St Mary, but had the additional soubriquet of "Overie" ("over the water") to distinguish it from the many other churches in the City with the same name.

Some fragments of 12th century fabric survive.[5] The church in its present form, however, dates to between 1220 and 1420, making it the first Gothic church in London.

Gothic reconstruction

The church was severely damaged in the Great Fire of 1212. Rebuilding took place during the thirteenth century, although the exact dates are unknown.[6] In its reconstructed state – the basic layout of which survives today – the church was cruciform in plan, with an aisled nave of six bays, a crossing tower, transepts, and a five bay choir. Beyond the choir stood a lower retrochoir or "Lady Chapel", the form of which can also be interpreted as group of four chapels with separate gabled roofs, two opening from the choir, and two from each aisle.[7]

There was a chapel dedicated to Mary Magdalen, for the use of the parishioners, in the angle between the south transept and the choir,[8] and another chapel was later added to the east of the retrochoir.[6] This was to become known as the "Bishop's chapel" as it was the burial place of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes.[9]

In the 1390s, the church was again damaged by fire, and in around 1420 the Bishop of Winchester Henry Beaufort, assisted with the rebuilding of the south transept and the completion of the tower.

During the 15th century the parochial chapel was rebuilt, and the nave and north transept were given wooden vaults[6] following the collapse of the stone ceiling in 1469.[8] Some of the carved bosses from the vault (destroyed in the 19th century) are preserved in the cathedral.[10]

The 15th-century poet John Gower lived in the priory precinct and is entombed in the church, with a splendid memorial, with polychrome panels. There is also a recumbent effigy of a knight in timber (rather than brass or stone) and it is suggested by the church that this dates from the 13th century. If so then this is one of the oldest such memorials and some credence can be given to the suggestion by its lack of heraldic emblems.

16th and 17th centuries

A 1616 drawing - Old London Bridge with Southwark Priory in the foreground

In around 1520 Bishop Fox carried out a programme of improvement, installing a stone altar screen, a new west doorway with a window above[11] and a new window in the east gable of the choir.[12]

Along with all the other religious houses in England, the priory was dissolved by Henry VIII, and surrendered to the Crown in 1540. In that year St Mary Overie received the new dedication of St Saviour and became the church of a new parish, which combined those of St Mary Magdalen (the attached parochial chapel) and the nearby church of St Margaret, which was deconsecrated. The parishioners leased the priory church and rectory from the Crown until 1614, when they purchased the church outright for £800.[13]

During the reign of Queen Mary, heresy trials were held in the retrochoir. In January 1555, six high-ranking clergymen, including the Bishop of Gloucester, were condemned to death there.[13]

As the parish church for the Bankside area, St Saviour's had close connections with the great Elizabethan dramatists. William Shakespeare's brother, Edmund Shakespeare, was buried there in 1607. His grave is unmarked, but a commemorative stone was later placed in the paving of the choir. The Cathedral instituted a festival to commemorate this cultural history in the 1920s which endured into the late 20th century.

There is a large stained glass window dedicated to William Shakespeare, depicting scenes from his plays, at the base of which is an alabaster statue[10] representing the playwright reclining, holding a quill. Two dramatists, John Fletcher and Philip Massinger were buried in the church. Along with Edward Alleyne they were officers and benefactors of the parish charities and of St Saviour's Grammar School.

John Harvard was born in the parish, and baptised in the church on 29 November 1607. He is commemorated by the Harvard Chapel in the north transept, [14] paid for by Harvard University alumni resident in England. His father, Robert, a local butcher and inn-holder, was a business associate of Shakespeare's family and a parochial, school and church officer with the playwright's colleagues.

The connection with the Bishops of Winchester continued after the Reformation. One, Lancelot Andrewes, part-author of the Authorised Version, who died in 1626,[15] was buried in a small chapel at the east end that afterwards became known as the "Bishop's Chapel". After the destruction of the chapel in 1830, his tomb was moved to a new position, immediately behind the communion table.[16]

It was from the tower of St Saviour's that the Czech artist Wenceslas Hollar drew his Long View of London from Bankside in 1647, a panorama which has become a classic image of the city in the 17th century.

19th century

The tower and east end of the Cathedral

By the early 19th century the fabric of the church had fallen into disrepair. All the mediæval furnishings were gone, and the interior was as Francis Bumpus later described it, "pewed and galleried to a fearful extent."[17] Between 1818 and 1830, the tower and choir were restored by George Gwilt Jun.[6] In his efforts to return the church to its thirteenth century appearance, Gwilt removed the early sixteenth century windows at the east end of the choir and, lacking firm evidence as to the original design, substituted an elevation of his own invention, with three lancet windows, and a circular one in the gable above.[16] The transepts were restored, less sympathetically, by Robert Wallace.[6] The Bishop’s Chapel and parochial chapel were removed, but plans for the demolition of the retrochoir were averted, and it was restored by Gwilt in 1832.

At a vestry meeting held in May 1831 it was decided to remove the nave roof, which had become unsafe, leaving the interior open to the weather, and to hold all future services in the choir and transepts.[18] In 1839, the roofless nave was demolished to within seven feet of the ground,[19] and rebuilt to a design by Henry Rose.[6]

The new nave was at a higher level than the surviving mediæval eastern part, and closed off from it by a glazed screen. It had a plaster vault carried on iron columns, and a wooden gallery around three sides.[20] It was widely criticised, notably by Pugin who wrote "It is bad enough to see such an erection spring up at all, but when a venerable building is demolished to make way for it, the case is quite intolerable."[21]

On the initiative of Anthony Thorold, Bishop of Rochester, the nave was once again rebuilt between 1890 and 1897[19] by Arthur Blomfield, in a manner intended to recreate its 13th century predecessor as accurately as possible, and to preserve the few surviving mediæval fragments.[22]

The main railway viaduct connecting London Bridge station to Blackfriars, Cannon Street and Charing Cross stations passes only Error: mismatched units from the south-east corner of the cathedral, blocking the view from the south side. This was a compromise when the railway was extended along this viaduct in 1852; the alternative was to demolish the building completely to allow a more direct passage for the line.

Since 1900

The collegiate parish church of St Saviour was designated as a cathedral in 1905 when the Church of England's new Diocese of Southwark was created. The nearby early-18th-century church of St Thomas became the new cathedral's chapter-house.[23]

The cathedral stands in an area heavily damaged by German bombing during the Second World War. The total number of bombs dropped on Southwark between 7 October 1940 to 6 June 1941 alone was 1,651 High Explosive Bombs and 20 Parachute Mines.[24] On 20 February 1941 it was reported (after being unrestricted by the ministry of information) the cathedral had been damaged by a bomb.[25] Shrapnel damage is still visible on the outside of the building to this day.[26]


The Cathedral Choir

The Cathedral Choir is supported financially by the St Olave's & St Saviour's Schools Foundation, which stems from the two parochial schools set up in the 1560s which still hold their commemoration and annual services at the cathedral as their 'foundation' church.[27] As the cathedral does not have a choir school, the boys and girls of the Cathedral Choir are drawn from schools throughout London and surrounding areas. There are six Lay Clerks in the Cathedral Choir and up to six Choral Scholars. Three of the Lay Clerks are supported by endowments from The Ouseley Trust; the Vernon Ellis Foundation and the Friends of Cathedral Music.

The Cathedral Choir performed the theme song to the television series Mr. Bean.

Merbecke Choir

In 2004 the Cathedral founded the Southwark Cathedral Merbecke Choir. It is intended to be the place both for boys and girls who leave the Cathedral Choirs and also other young singers who wish to maintain their sight-reading skills acquired as choristers and explore a wide range of repertoire under expert tuition.

The choir sings Compline on the 4th Sunday of each month and performs a seasonal concert of music each term. It also sings for livery companies in the City of London and for other organisations. In 2006 it performed as part of the Queen's Christmas Broadcast, which was recorded at the cathedral.

The Choir is named after the Tudor composer, John Merbecke (1510–1585), who wrote one of the most popular settings of the Book of Common Prayer Communion Service. In 1543 during the reign of 'Bloody Mary', Merbecke and three other companions were tried for heresy in the retrochoir at Southwark. He was found guilty and condemned to death, but his sentence was commuted by Stephen Gardiner the Bishop of Winchester, who decided that, as a mere musician, Merbecke "knew no better".

Thursday Singers

The Thursday Singers are made up of people from the local community. There is no audition. They sing for Festival Eucharists which fall on a weekday. They also sing one service of Choral Evensong most terms and lead the singing at the Cathedral's Carol Sing-In before Christmas.


The Cathedral's organ was built by Lewis & Co of Brixton, and completed in 1897. Thomas Christopher Lewis, the company's founder, was renowned for building instruments that had a bright, vibrant tone which, in part, was due to his use of low wind pressures. Consequently, he was somewhat out-of-step with the trend at the time, which was tending towards high wind pressures and rather thicker tone. The instrument's action was, and is, electro-pneumatic with slider chests, and the main case was designed by Arthur Blomfield.

Apart from routine maintenance, the instrument remained untouched until 1952, when Henry Willis & Sons undertook a major rebuild, during which the wind pressures were increased. The balanced Swell pedal and the hitch-down Solo pedal were replaced by Willis's Infinite Speed and Gradation pedals. Some years after the rebuild it was thought that the Willis changes, though well-intentioned, detracted too much from the original concept, so it was decided to restore the instrument to the Lewis specifications.

On film

  • The Slipper and the Rose (1976) - The interior of the Cathedral was used for the filming of the wedding scenes.
  • Doctor Who – part of the episode "The Lazarus Experiment" take place at Southwark Cathedral but, although the exterior appears, the interior shots were filmed at Wells Cathedral.

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Southwark Cathedral)


  1. Worley 1905, p. 34.
  2. John Stow (1908), Kingsford, C. L., ed., A Survey of London, 2, Oxford: Clarendon Press, p. 56 
  3. Benson, Samuel (1862), A Guide to St Saviour's Church, London: W. Drewett, p. 5 
  4. Stevens, T. P. (1930), Southwark Cathedral 606–1930, London: Sampson Low & Co., p. 11 
  5. Cherry & Pevsner 1990, p. 566.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 Cherry & Pevsner 1990, p. 564.
  7. Bumpus 1930, p. 379–80.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Worley 1905, p. 17.
  9. Worley 1905, p. 29.
  10. 10.0 10.1 "Area 1 (Nave)". Southwark Cathedral. 
  11. Worley 1905, p. 18–9.
  12. Worley 1905, p. 30.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Worley 1905, p. 22.
  14. Worley 1905, p. 84.
  15. Worley 1905, p. 25.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Worley 1905, p. 43.
  17. Bumpus 1930, p. 305.
  18. Worley 1905, p. 32.
  19. 19.0 19.1 Bumpus 1930, p. 385.
  20. "XIX.— SATURDAY, MAY 1, 1880. Visit to St. Mary Overie". Transactions of the St. Paul's Ecclesiological Society 1. 1880. 
  21. Worley 1905, pp. 32–3.
  22. Worley 1905, pp. 57–8.
  23. Worley 1905, p. 36.
  24. "Bombs dropped in Southwark - Bomb Sight - Mapping the World War 2 London Blitz Bomb Census". Bomb Sight. 
  25. "Sarasota Herald-Tribune - Google News Archive Search".,4061707. 
  26. "Bomb Damage Southwark Cathedral - London". 
  27. see St Olave's Grammar School and St Saviour's and St Olave's Church of England School for Girls.
  • Bumpus, T. Francis (1930). The Cathedrals of England and Wales. London: T. Werner Laurie. 
  • Cherry, Bridget; Pevsner, Nikolaus (1990) [1983]. London 2: South. The Buildings of England. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-071047-7. 
  • Worley, George (1905). Southwark Cathedral. Bell's Cathedrals. London: George Bell & Sons. Retrieved 7 October 2011.