One of the hidden treasures of the Church of England (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
When Robert Harvard, a London tavern owner, and his wife Katherine Rogers brought the fourth of their nine children to be baptised in Southwark 400 years ago on 29 November 1607, they could hardly have realised that their child would become the benefactor of one of the greatest universities in the world or that Saint Saviour’s Parish Church, formerly the Priory Church of Saint Mary Overie (“over the river”), would become one of the finest if least-visited cathedrals in England.
Southwark Cathedral has few visitors and tourists, compared with Saint Paul’s Cathedral on the other side of the River Thames, or Westminster Abbey, further west up the river. Known formally as the Cathedral and Collegiate Church of Saint Saviour and Saint Mary Overie, it is close to London Bridge and the Tower of London, but is almost hidden from view by the railway line, making it one of the hidden treasures of the Church of England.
Although it has only been a cathedral for little more than a century, this has been a place of Christian worship for over 1,400 years and is London’s first and finest Gothic church.
At one time, the Diocese of Winchester extended to the south bank of the Thames, and included Southwark. Legend says that the minster predates the conversion of Wessex and that a convent was founded here in the year 606. Others say a monastery was founded here by Saint Swithin, when he was Bishop of Winchester in the 9th century. Southwark Minister is named in the Domesday Book, and it became an Augustinian priory during the reign of Henry I in 1106.
Martyrs, poets and pilgrims
Thomas a Becket preached in Southwark before leaving for Canterbury, days before his murder in 1170. In the years that followed, the pilgrimage to Becket’s shrine in Canterbury became a high point of English popular piety. As Geoffrey Chaucer recalls in The Canterbury Tales, the pilgrim route began in the hostels and taverns of Southwark. The last surviving coaching inn, the George Inn, is in a cobbled yard off Borough High Street, a few paces from the cathedral.
Chaucer’s friend, John Gower (1330-1408), became known as “England’s first poet.” He is remembered primarily for the Mirroir de l’Omme, Vox Clamantis, and Confessio Amantis, written in French, Latin, and English. Chaucer dedicated his Troilus and Criseyde in part to “moral Gower,” and Gower reciprocated with a speech in praise of Chaucer delivered by Venus at the end of the Confessio Amantis.
At the end of his days, Gower lived in rooms in Southwark provided by the Priory of Saint Mary Overie. When he died in 1408, he was buried in an ostentatious tomb in the priory church, with a monument showing his head resting on his three books in French, Latin and English. He was once stood beside Chaucer as the father of English poetry, but Gower’s reputation declined over the years, although he received a minor revival in the 20th century and renewed recognition with CS Lewis’s The Allegory of Love.
Shortly after Gower’s death, the transept and other parts of the church were restored by Cardinal Henry Beaufort (1375-1447), Bishop of Winchester. The cardinal was a half-brother of King Henry IV and interrogated Joan of Arc at her trial in 1431. His niece, Lady Joan Beaufort, married King James I of Scotland in Southwark in 1424, shortly before his coronation, and they were feasted by the cardinal at Winchester Palace, which still stands in ruins beside Southwark Cathedral.
Bear-pits and theatres
At the Reformation, the Priory Church of Saint Mary Overie became the Parish Church of Saint Saviour, Southwark. But in the Tudor and Stuart days, Southwark was a disreputable side of the river, with its “Winchester Geese,” brothels, bull-pits, bear-bating rings, cock-pits and theatres. Although the Puritans condemned the theatres as “chapels of Satan,” Saint Saviour’s was the burial place of many of the Southwark dramatists, including John Fletcher and Philip Massinger, and when William Shakespeare moved to London, he founded the Globe Theatre in Southwark.
Shakespeare’s brother Edmund was buried in Saint Saviour’s, Southwark, 400 years ago on 31 December 1607. But it is William rather than Edmund who is commemorated there with a 19th-century stained glass window showing scenes from his plays. Below the window, a statue shows a reclining William Shakespeare holding a quill and there is a tablet to Sam Wannamaker, who founded Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, built close to the Tate Modern in the last decade.
Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), who helped translate the Authorised Version of the Bible, is buried in Southwark too. Despite his elaborate tomb by the high altar, he was a humble, pious and charitable Bishop of Winchester. He continues to influence religious thinkers and writers to this day, and had a strong influence on the poet TS Eliot.
From Cambridge to Cambridge
Like the Shakespeare brothers, Robert and Katherine Harvard hailed from Stratford-on-Avon. A month before Edmund Shakespeare was buried, the Harvards’ son John was baptised in Saint Saviour’s on 29 November 1607.
John Harvard (1607-1638) was educated at Saint Saviour’s Grammar School, where his father was a governor. Although John’s father, a step-sister and two brothers died of the plague, John survived and at the age of 20 he entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge, then a Puritan stronghold. Ten years later, in 1637, he left for New England and settled in Charlestown, near Boston, where many of his fellow students had arrived before him. He became the Puritan minister of Charlestown Church, but within 18 months he had contracted tuberculosis and he died on 14 September 1638.
Harvard left half his estate – the then princely sum of £779 – and his library of 400 books to the New College at nearby Cambridge, founded in 1636. In recognition of this bequest, the school was renamed Harvard College in 1639. Sadly, the original college building burnt down in 1674, along with all but one of Harvard’s original 400 books. Yet, despite having spent less than 18 months in Massachusetts, John Harvard from Southwark is still remembered as the generous benefactor of Harvard University.
Seven years after Harvard’s baptism, the concerned parishioners of Southwark bought the shabby old church from James I in 1614 and restored it. During the English Civil War, neighbouring Winchester Palace fell into disrepair. It included the original Clink Prison – a dungeon for disobedient and dissident clergy, and later a prison for heretics, prostitutes and debtors. But Southwark continued to attract literary figures in the 18th century, and writers commemorated in the cathedral’s stained glass windows include Oliver Goldsmith and Samuel Johnson, who received his doctorate from Trinity College Dublin.
The miracle of survival
As London expanded rapidly in the 19th century, Saint Saviour’s quickly found itself dropping below street level, dominated by new railway lines, bridges, stations and viaducts. The building was in such a sad state that many felt it should be pulled down. The east end chapel was demolished to make way for the building of London Bridge and the new rail lines, and it is almost a miracle that the church survived.
Thanks to a few enthusiastic parishioners the choir and retro-choir were extensively restored. When the new Diocese of Rochester was formed, Saint Saviour’s became the pro-cathedral for the South London area. Major building work between 1889 and 1897 saw a new nave designed by Sir Arthur Blomfield, and the new cathedral was soon recognised as one of England’s most successful Victorian Gothic buildings. Meanwhile, the Harvard Chapel was lavishly decorated with gifts from members of the university, including a window commemorating John Harvard and a Pugin tabernacle where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved.
With the formation of the new Diocese of Southwark in 1905, the church was renamed the Cathedral Church of Saint Saviour and Saint Mary Overie. The first Bishop of Southwark, Edward Stuart Talbot, was the first warden of Keble College, Oxford, and then Vicar of Leeds before becoming the 100th Bishop of Rochester and then Bishop of Southwark. He was one of the contributors to the volume Lux Mundi (1889), edited by Charles Gore, and his faith and life expressed all that was best in Anglo-Catholic thinking at the time.
Talbot’s grandfather had been Viceroy of Ireland, while his grandmother was a Lambart from Beauparc, Co Meath. While he was Bishop of Southwark, the worship in the parish churches – many of them newly-restored or newly-built – was marked by dignity and beauty that inspired the pastoral and social work of the “slum priests,” who were described by one writer as “the indignant spokesmen of the slum victim.”
Although Talbot later became Bishop of Winchester, he asked to be buried in Southwark Cathedral. His successor, Cyril Garbett, concentrated on rescuing his priests from their own poverty. He built 25 churches in the new housing areas, found the proper staff for the cathedral and campaigned for better housing for the people.
‘South Bank Religion’
The late Mervyn Stockwood, who was Bishop of Southwark from 1959 to 1980, was a committed socialist who threw himself with a resounding splash into the social difficulties in his diocese. After his consecration as bishop, he declared: “I have nothing but contempt for a church that sets out to be eclectic, that just wants to draw to itself the holy, holy Anglo-Catholics. I have every use for a church that sets out to draw all those living within its boundaries.”
The new life during his time as bishop was marked by radically adventurous theologians, priests in jeans out on the streets, protests and marches against war and racism, the charismatic movement, ecumenical co-operation, and the training of worker priests through the Southwark Ordination Course, set up in 1960. Although some critics dismissed this as “South Bank Religion,” Time magazine observed in 1963: “Measured against British coolness to the Anglican faith … the Diocese of Southwark is indeed bubbling.”
The cathedral’s musical tradition was established by its first and longest-serving organist, Dr ET Cook, who broadcast daily on BBC during the 1920s and 1930s. More recently, Southwark Choir has performed the theme song for the Mr Bean television series. The cathedral has a memorial to the 51 victims of the 1989 Marchioness disaster and monuments to Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, who opened a new northern cloister, with a refectory, shop, conference centre, education centre and museum in 2001.
Today, Southwark Cathedral is dominated by a railway viaduct and surrounded by warehouses, car parks and market stalls. They are hardly the most complementary surroundings for London’s oldest and finest Gothic building, and yet despite this setting the cathedral captures the hearts of so many people. To pass through the doors of the cathedral is to enter a place of peace and timeless tranquillity that continues to be culturally fascinating, pastorally caring and prophetically challenging.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College. This essay was first published in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough), the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory) and Newslink (Limerick and Killaloe) in December 2007.