A Brief History of Southwark Cathedral

It might surprise you that Southwark actually has two cathedrals, one Anglican and one Catholic - the other is St. George's Cathedral. It's relatively remarkable that there is only one other Anglican cathedral (St Paul's) and one other Catholic cathedral (Westminster) in the rest of London. Southwark has two cathedrals alone, and it's just a part of London - there are only six other cities in England and Wales where this is also the case: Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle, Norwich, Portsmouth, and Sheffield. In this instance we're going to be talking about the Anglican Southwark Cathedral. Sat on the south bank of the River Thames, right next to Borough Market - which we also did a history of - Southwark Cathedral almost comes out of nowhere when one happens upon it. As you come off London Bridge you're just minding your own business and then...BLAM Southwark Cathedral. Though that effect is not uncommon for churches in London that are hidden amongst the towering office buildings that have grown up around them.

It is unclear when the first church in Southwark was built, and the first known clear recorded reference to a place of worship in the area is from the Domesday Book of 1086, which mentions a 'minster' in Southwark controlled by Odo of Bayeaux, the half-brother of William the Conqueror. However, the tradition goes that there was at least a community of nuns present in the area prior to the arrival of the Normans in 1066. Apparently that nunnery had been founded off the back of the profits of a ferry business that a lady called Mary had inherited from her parents - we've discussed the role that ferries have played and still play in crossing the Thames back in our history of the Woolwich Ferry. This may have happened as early as the 7th century, and this nunnery was then replaced by a college of priests by an individual called Swithen in the 9th century. In the earliest history of the cathedral, written by a geezer called John Stow in the 16th century, Swithin is described as a "noble lady", however later research suggested that this Swithin was the Saxon Bishop of Winchester (St. Swithun). The church was in the diocese of Winchester, which meant the Bishops of Winchester had considerable influence over its future

Southwark in fourground, St Paul's in background

Southwark in fourground, St Paul's in background

Now, in 1106 the church was 're-founded' as a priory by two Augustinian Norman knights by the names of William Pont de l'Arche (Archie to his mates) and William Dauncy (casually known as the Dauncatron). They were assisted in this escapade by William Gifford, who was the current Bishop of Winchester and set about rebuilding the priory in that same year - his successor Henry of Blois would later establish their London seat Winchester Palace very nearby in 1149. The newly re-founded priory was dedicated to St Mary, and called St Mary Overy to distinguish it from the countless other places of worship of the same name (the 'Overy' bit meant 'over the river' and referenced the connection to the nearby ferry - NOT, the other thing). This newly-built Norman church didn't last particularly long as it was rebuilt again after being severely damaged in the Great Fire of Southwark in 1212. It was at this point that it took on its present style, as it was reconstructed in the new 'pointed' style, and can therefore claim to be the first Gothic London church. Remarkably, the church was damaged again in the 1390s by another fire and had to be rebuilt again, though it retained the style that had been previously used this time.

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Let us move forward, dear reader, to the Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII during the 16th century - basically when England went from being a Catholic country to a Protestant country. St Mary Overy was surrendered to Henry VIII, and though the priory was dissolved, the building itself avoided destruction as the congregation, with the help of the Bishop of Winchester Stephen Gardiner, managed to strike a deal by which they rented it off the crown. The church was, however, re-named St Saviour's. Eventually, a group of merchants known as 'the Bargainers' who were part of the congregation were able to purchase the church outright from the crown in 1601 for £800. Southwark by this time had developed into a rather diverse area which was home to both a thriving dock and a number of popular playhouses like The Globe. This meant the congregation was made up of a wide variety of characters that included wealthy merchants (like the Bargainers), foreign artisans and actors like Edmund Shakespeare (brother of William) who was buried in the church in 1607. It would retain this curious diversity well into the 19th century at which point Walter Besant describes how the character of Southwark as an area was "one of dignity and ecclesiastical state [and also] the lowers depth of debauchery and licentiousness."

As time went on the church had a number of minor repairs and alterations, and it wasn't until the late 19th century that the church's existence would again become uncertain. When a new viaduct was proposed that would connect London Bridge station with Blackfriars, Charing Cross and Cannon Street on the other side of the river, it was suggested that the church be demolished and rebuilt elsewhere, but a compromise was reached and the subsequent viaduct constructed in 1852 passes only 18 metres from the cathedral. However, irrespective of the church being saved, its condition had deteriorated significantly and it was in desperate need of renovation. In response, the diocese of Southwark was created in 1895 and St Saviour's Church became Southwark Cathedral, while the building was renovated under the direction of Sir Arthur Blomfield, who also designed the Royal College of Music building in Kensington built in 1882.

In 2000, extensions designed by Richard Griffiths were added to the northern end of the cathedral and since becoming Southwark Cathedral, it has thrived as a place of worship on the southern side of the River Thames, renowned for its comparative inclusivity. Since the passage of the Civil Partnership Act of 2004 the cathedral has encouraged same-sex couples to approach the cathedral with regard to preparation and prayers, and for warm support and counsel for continuing their relationship. They are yet to be, however, authorised to either bless civil partnerships or same-sex marriages, in accordance with the policy of the House of Bishops of the Church of England.

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