Chapter House Carving, Southwell Cathedral, Southwell, UK by John Eaton

Chapter House Carving, Southwell Cathedral, Southwell, UK

The city of Southwell has the distinction of being the smallest cathedral city in England and the cathedral has been called the ‘village cathedral’, though from the outside the distinctive cladding on the spires of the western towers give it a particularly Rhenish look. Founded as a subsidiary seat of York and referred to as the Mother Church for Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, it was eventually elevated to a cathedral in its own right in 1884. The first church on this site was likely founded by Paulinus , the first Archbishop of York, early in the 7th century. In 956 King Eadwig gave a parcel of land in Southwell to the then Archbishop of York on which a new minster church was built. In 1108, the Norman rebuilding of this Saxon church was begun by Archbishop Thomas of York, as usual starting at the east end, and dismantling the old church and re-using much of the stone as work progressed. It is largely this Norman church that we see today in the rather heavy, severe Norman nave, contrasting with the light, elegant, later Gothic work in the quire and presbytery.

In 1234, Archbishop Walter de Gray of York decided it was time to rebuild and extended its east end. Designed in Early English Gothic, though only two-storied rather than the usual three, with fine shafts clustered in twos and threes contrasting with the unadorned drums of the nave piers. This produced a very serene and elegant example of the style and, benefitting from the prosperity of its farming community, was beautifully decorated. This was followed in 1288 by the construction of a Chapter House, closely modeled on that at York – an octagonal structure, without a supporting central column, but here with a magnificent stone vault (in contrast to the wooden one at York). To emphasize the prosperity of the church and its local community, the Chapter House was lavishly decorated with stone carvings, which were executed with great freedom, imagination, and supreme skill to produce very realistic depictions of local plants. This is one of the oldest and finest examples of the development of high-quality, decorative stone-carving, unsurpassed anywhere in England at the time.