Introduction to the Expression of Meaning in English Churches

by David Hamilton (May 2011)

This is a brief and discursive introduction to important aspects of history, art and literature, legends and stories expressed in English cathedrals and churches with reference to some I have visited recently. It discovers a constant interlinking of symbols, meaning, history, art and literature, legends and stories between cathedrals and churches. A walk round an English church is to enter a world of religous observance but also a world of continuity and expressions of meaning.

The loss of understanding of these symbols has caused deep cultural and spiritual impoverishment of contemporay men and women, boys and girls. The Culture Wars are replacing the striving for goodness and understanding with anarchy and decadence and benighting and deculturing people. Stories associated with images and artefacts are no longer so often heard and the symbols are ceasing to be part of a common culture.

Originally a cathedral housed the tomb of a Bishop: Durham has gone further and houses the tombs of two saints: St. Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede.

St. Cuthbert (c. 634 – 20 March 687) was an Anglo-Saxon monk, bishop and hermit associated with the monasteries of Melrose and Lindisfarne in what was then the Kingdom of Northumbria which covered what is now northern England and south-eastern Scotland up to the Firth of Forth. He became one of England's most important saints with a cult based at Durham Cathedral.

Legend has it that when Cuthbert's burial casket was opened eleven years after his death, his body was found to have been perfectly preserved and this miracle led to Cuthbert's posthumous cultus. Bede wrote both a verse and a prose life of St. Cuthbert around 720.

The legend originated in 875 when Vikings raided the monastery of Lindisfarne and the monks abandoned it fleeing and carrying St. Cuthbert's body with them. They journeyed around various places for seven years, finally, the body was laid to rest in the still extant St. Cuthbert's Church at Chester-le-Street in 995. Then another Viking invasion caused its removal to Ripon. It is said that when they sojourned in Durham the saint intimated that he wished to remain there. A stone church called 'White Church' was built on the site now occupied by the great Cathedral that is there today.

In 1104 Cuthbert's tomb was re-opened and his relics moved to a new shrine behind the altar of the newly built Cathedral. When the casket was opened, a small book of the gospels, measuring only three-and-a-half by five inches and now known as the Stonyhurst Gospel was discovered. His shrine was destroyed in the Dissolution of the Monastries but his relics survived where they remain. The original coffin in which the Community of St. Cuthbert bore their leader roundabout from Lindisfarne and finally to Durham is also held there.

One legend tells that, prior to the arrival of Henry VIII's commissioners, the monks covertly removed Cuthburt's body from the cathedral, re-burying it in a secret location within the grounds of Crayke Abbey. The legend endures with the true location reportedly known to only twelve monks. Its whereabouts only revealed to a brother when another dies. Cuthbert's treasures were also removed for safe keeping but have never been found!

The Venerable or Saint Bede (672  or 673 – 26 May 735), was a monk at the Nothumbrian monastry of Saint Peter at Monkwearmouth, which is now part of Sunderland, and its companion monastery, Saint Paul's, injarrow. Bede's monastery had a superb library which contained works by Eusebius and Orosius.

His famous work is the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, translated as An Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731). The first of the books begins with some geographical background, and then the history of England, beginning with Caesar's invasion in 55 BC. An account of Christianity in Roman Britain with the martyrdom of St. Alban and the story of Augustine's mission to England in 597, to convert the Anglo-Saxons.

The second book relates the death of Gregory the Great in 604, and traces the progress of Christianity in Kent and early attempts to evangelise Northumbria. These last led to tragedy when Penda, the pagan king of Mercia, killed the newly converted Edwin of Northumbria at the Battle of Hatfield Chase in c 632. It was a temporary set back and the third book relates the continued growth of Christianity in Northumbria under kings Oswald of Northumbria and Oswui.

The climax of the third book is the account of the Council of Whitby, traditionally seen as a major turning point in English history.

The fourth book opens with the consecration of Theodore as Archbishop of Canterbury, and tells of Wilfrid's efforts to bring Christianity to the kingdom of Sussex.

The fifth takes the story to Bede's time. It has an account of missionary work in Frisia, and of the conflict with the British church over the precise date of Easter which, as we shall see, was settled at The Synod of Whitby.

Durham cathedral had a Benedictine monastry attached. The bishops of Durham were preceded by the bishops of Lindisfarne who transferred their diocese to Chester-le-Street in 883AD. A Saxon minster was built and nine bishops reigned there until translating to Durham in 995A.D. A wooden minster was built and rebuilt in stone in 999 A.D then replaced in 1093 by the Norman cathedral. Durham is not only one of the best Norman cathedrals in England it is widely regarded as is the greatest Norman building in Europe. It has awe-prompting architecture and is in a magnificent setting on a promontory visible across the city. It is together with the Castle nearby one of Britain's first World Heritage Sites. These two buildings are within the loop of the River Wear. This massive cathedral was built to show the conquered Anglo-Saxons the power and prestige of their Norman overlords. Even so it was primarily built as a place of worship and as the shrine of the saint and for the glory of God.

The Synod of Whitby was a significant meeting and determined when the English church believed Easter fell. This took place in the seventh century at St. Hilda's double monastry where King Oswiu of Northumbria ruled that his kingdom would calculate Easter and observe the monastic tonsure according to the customs of Rome, rather than the customs practiced by Iona and its satellite institutions derived from the early Irish missionaries.

Hitherto Christianity in Britain had existed in two forms distinguished by differing liturgical traditions – the “Ionan” from Ireland and the “Roman” traditions. The “Ionan” practice was that of the Irish monks of a monastery on the isle of Iona;  the “Roman” that of Rome.

Edwin of Northumbria had converted to Christianity under the influence of missionaries sent from Rome by Pope Gregory the Great. He established Roman practice in his realm. After his death, and a year of political instability, Oswald of Northumbria took the throne. He had learned Christian practice from the monks of Iona during exile there while a youth, and encouraged Ionan missionaries especially Bishop Aidan to spread Christianity in Northumbria. Legend tells that Oswald's head is buried in St. Cuthbert's tomb in Durham cathedral.

Whitby Abbey is famous too for Caedmon, the first English poet who has come down to us. He was an Anglo-Saxon herdsman attached to the double monastery of Whitby (Streonaeshalch) during the abbacy of St. Hilda (657–680).

According to Bede he was unversed in the art of song until God inspired him to compose in a dream. Bede wrote: “In the Monastery of this Abbess a certain brother particularly remarkable for the Grace of God, who was wont to make religious verses, so that whatever was interpreted to him out of scripture, he soon after put the same into poetical expressions of much sweetness and humility in English, which was his native language.”

Cædmon's surviving work is Cædmon's Hymn, a nine-line, alliterative poem in honour of God. There is more to his legend: he died like a saint after a premonition of death. He asked to be moved to the abbey’s hospice, gathered his friends around him and he passed out of this world just before nocturns. (1)

There are many common features to cathedrals and churches like spires pointing to heaven, the holiness of the building is signalled by carvings around the entrance and the aisle leads to the alter, the origin of the church; the pews ranked on either side are, metaphorically the gangway of a ship carrying worshippers to God and are known as the nave, a Latin word meaning ship.

Lectern's on which the Bible rests for the lesson to be read from are usually of eagles. An eagle was thought to be the only bird that could look into the sun because of its habit of soaring high aloft and by extension an eagle lectern signifies the word of God directing the congregation towards the light of God.

The alter itself is the holy heart of the building and is within a separate and sacred space – originally churches were built round the altar to give shelter to the worshippers. Idioms have entered our daily usage like the popuar idiom “the weakest go to the wall” derives from the class structure within as the poor stood against the walls inside but the aristocrats and landowners had their own pews at the front.

Religious meaning is not accesible to the faculty of reason alone: Symbols express that other meaning and mystical concepts cannot be formulated; the Trinity is symbolised by a triangle which is a simplification of a complex explanation; it goes deeper than the conscious reason that rational argument appeals to.  It has been suggested by Carl Jung that these convy archetypes.

To the famous psychologist, archetypal symbols are inherant in myths, dreams, folklore and religion. They are universal and largely unconscious, expressing deep human truths, albeit only dimly understood consciously.

The Transfiguration window in Durham Cathedral has a beautiful effect when the sun shines through sending its transmitted and altered light onto the wall behind and recalls Keats description of Madeline being altered by moonlight passing through a stained-glass window in stanzas XXIV and XXV of The Eve of St. Agnes. This and The Millenium window show that contemporary art can convey meaning to the viewer.  

The Transfiguration window was such a difficult process it had to be sent to specialists in Germany. A method of putting acid between the glass had to be used to get the effect. The Millenium window depicts modern life in Durham and uses images of miners which was the main local industry until it was destroyed by political errors thus honouring local community people and their industry which is wholsome and positive. In the middle of these two contemporary works is a window made up of very old plain glass.

St. Pauls monastry church in Jarrow is where Bede was based. It has two features shared with Durham cathedral. One is the connection with Bede the other the old windows. There are three small Anglo-Saxon windows high on the south wall. Two of which have stone shutters which were presumably put there because of the difficulty of making enough glass in the monastries' workshop. The middle window is a link with our roots and is unchanged since A.D. 681. It holds a window of reconstructed stained-glass made in the Saxon monastry workshop and is the oldest glass in western Europe. It was found during excavations of the site in 1972-3 and inserted into the historic window in 1980. The glass has a profound affect on the staff:  one told me it gives them a spiritual experience when they think that it was there when Bede himself lived and worked there. That is the power of continuity. 

Rochester, like Durham, was Benedictine. It was founded in 604 A.D. by Bishop Justus and the existing cathedral began in 1080 by French monk, Gundulf. The glorious Norman architecture of the nave, parts of the crypt, as well as one of the finest Romanesque facades in England, and some fine examples of later Gothic styles as well as the magnificent 14th century Chapter Library door which is hidden from view but can be viewed by request.

It contains an inspirational fresco of John the Baptist which was the first real fresco to be created in an English Cathedral for 800 years. Dedicated on St. John the Baptist day 2004 it is a narrative painting by Sergei Fyodorov and attracts visitors to both admire the artwork and to meditate and pray.

There are smaller artefacts that link us to our history. The Wheel of Fortune in Rochester or the decapitated figures on the tomb of Sir John Neville in Durham cathedral tell a story when searched for. The Wheel of Fortune is a 13c wallpainting and discovered in1840 hidden behind a pulpit but only part remains: The figures on the up are there, but those on the down have vanished. (3)

The tomb of Sir John Neville in Durham cathedral has decapited figures all round and the figure atop of his tomb is also headless. The story runs: Lord John had fought with his father at the Battle of Neville's Cross in 1346 so the Scots were defeated at the Battle of Dunbar (1650) they brought prisoners to Durham and kept them in the cathedral along with their horses. They took their inherited grudge out on Neville's tomb and also put the spoils to practical use. It is told that it was so cold that the captives used to light fires to keep warm and used the heads of the figurines as hand warmers. 

While I was in Durham I got talking to a Korean lady who told me how much she liked the contemporary painting of Margaret and David by Paula Rego in the Chapel of the Nine Altars. Indeed, she stood transfixed before it for some time. St. Margaret is the only Scottish royal saint who was actually born into an English noble family.  Her son became King David 1 Of Scotland.

We find history in all historic churches even in small unsung churches like the little church of St. Mary the Virgin at the small village of Astley, just north of Shrewsbury in Shropshire. There are several scrape-like markings on the outside wall which are thought to have been made by soldiers sharpening their swords and arrows as on a whet stone, during the Battle of Shrewsbury fought nearby on 21 July 1403. In just three hours over 6,000 were killed. The bloody battle was immortalised by Shakespeare in Henry IV, part 1. There more respect for churches then and these were likely done during the English civil war between Oliver Cromwell and Charles1 which lasted nine years from 1642 to1651.

St. Lawrence's Church at Ludlow is a magnificent parish church. It is a very large church for a small town of below 10,000 inhabitants and as engrossing as some cathedrals. Towns like Ludlow were more more important before the Industrial Revolution than the Victorian cities like Birmingham and Manchester which burgeoned later. Ludlow was the seat of The Council of Wales and the Marches (1473-1689), a regional administrative body like The Council of the North. The Marches were the boundry between England and Wales. The Council was inaugurated to govern the lands held under the Principality of Wales, the lands directly administered by the English crown following the conquest of Wales by Edward 1 in the 13th century. It was in 1472 by Edward IV to counsel and act on behalf of his son, the infant Edward, Prince of Wales. Edward had recently been restored to the throne during the Wars of the Roses, and he and his supporters controlled what were known as the marcher lordships on the marches just within and adjoining Wales. He established his son at Ludlow Castle, and appointed his allies from the Woodvilles and Stanley's as leading figures in the Council. The Council continued after the death of Edward IV and the disappearance of his son under Henry VII. In Henry's reign the Council was responsible for acting on behalf of his sons as Princes of Wales, first Arthur then Henry (later Henry VIII).

The Council had been based on the king's prerogative until the second Laws in Wales Act of 1542 gave the Council statutory recognition. The full Council was composed of the Lord President and his deputy, with twenty members nominated by the king; these included members of the royal household, some of the bishops of Wales, and the justices of the Court of Great Sessions. It continued to sit at Ludlow, and had responsibilities for the whole of Wales together with the Welsh Marches.

In 1540 the King's agent John Leland described St Laurence's as: “Very fayre and large and richly adorned and taken for the fairest in all these quarters.”

It was mostly rebuilt in the 15th century but has parts  from a previous rebuilding in 1199-1200.  The site had been a revered place since the Bronze Age when a burial mound existed.  The  rebuilding in the fifteenth century was in the soaring perpendicular style of the time but retains features of the Norman, Early English and Decorated periods, including the hexagonal south porch. It holds an impressive collection of art, including excellent medieval and later glass, dexterously carved fifteenth century misericords and bench-ends a series of memorials and a superb Snetzler organ.

The Virgin Mary is portrayed in the 15th century Annunciation window in St John's Chapel. Her arms are crossed in humility as she receives divine rays from God the Father in Heaven. A story tells that during The Reformation this window became heretical in representing Mary was buried in the grounds and preserved. The Palmers window has the first representation of a Welsh harp.  There is a fifteenth century Pieta bench-end and the expressive look of suffering in Mary's face is deeply moving.

The misericords or Mercy seats tell stories. Under the seats are carvings such as a man warming himself by a fire with a cooking pot, a bare-breasted mermaid and a naked ale-wife holding her ale jug while being carried off to hell by a demon, presumably for selling short-measures. These figures often bawdy and fantastic were to instruct the clergy in morality.

Behind the seats around the wall are truly fascinating carved figures which tell stories of everyday life. The carved figures each have been given individual faces and represent everyday life such as drunkeness and there are even political messages.

One of the most profound stories that best explicates worldly vanity even more than Shelly's  piece on Ozymandias is the story of the opening of the tomb in France of John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury and 1st Earl of Waterford (1384 or 1387 – 17 July 1453). Talbot became a famous military commander during the Hundred Years War and the only Lancastrian Constable of France.

He began as a audacious Marcher Lord who later fought many times against the French in France until he was killed at the Battle of Castillon. His heart was buried in the doorway of St. Alkmund's Church in Whitchurch, Shropshire, his body entombed in France. When the tomb was opened in the late 1800s his skull had a hole in the top where he had been fatally injured. To the astonishment of the lookers a nest of mice was discovered inside.



 (2) I wish to thank Ruth Robson of Durham cathedral for kindly allowing me to take photographs.

  2. Keats describes this effect albeit in his sensous and graphic imagery in The Eve of St.Agnes stanzas xxiv and xxv

A casement high and triple-arch'd there was,
All garlanded with carven imag'ries
Of fruits, and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass,
And diamonded with panes of quaint device,
Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes,
As are the tiger-moth's deep-damask'd wings;
And in the midst, 'mong thousand heraldries,
And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings,
A shielded scutcheon blush'd with blood of queens and kings.

Full on this casement shone the wintry moon,
And threw warm gules on Madeline's fair breast,
As down she knelt for heaven's grace and boon;
Rose-bloom fell on her hands, together prest,
And on her silver cross soft amethyst,
And on her hair a glory, like a saint:
She seem'd a splendid angel, newly drest,
Save wings, for heaven:–Porphyro grew faint:
She knelt, so pure a thing, so free from mortal taint


The Wheel of Fortune governs the structure of Geoffrey Chaucer's great Troilus and Cressidda as Troilus fortunes go up then come down as he rises and descends on The Wheel of Fortune.  He had foolishly disdained loce so Cupid pushed him on to the Wheel.


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