Tuesday, 5 May 2009

A spiritual space in England’s north-east

The Black Gate beneath Newcastle Cathedral … the city has an interesting and lengthy history

Patrick Comerford

For most of my life, I linked Newcastle with grime, smoke and chimney stacks – the old adage about “bringing coals to Newcastle” seemed to say it all. I never thought of it as a place for a city break. But much has changed in the North-East of England since the Diocese of Newcastle was formed in 1882: in the past few decades, the mines and the shipyards have virtually closed, heavy industry has given way to the service industries, while, in the rural areas, farming has changed almost beyond recognition.

Today, there is no trace of coal, and Newcastle has a new reputation as an elegant, graceful and cultured city and a super-style, cool place that knows all about how to party into the early hours every weekend. There are new art galleries, a magnificent concert hall, fine restaurants, choice hotels and an interesting variety of bars and clubs.

The Millennium Bridge in tilt mode over the River Tyne

We were visiting Newcastle recently to see the cathedral, the bridges spanning the River Tyne and Saint James’ Park, the home of Newcastle United. But it was impossible not to feel the pulse of this vibrant, lively – irrepressible and almost irresponsible – city throughout the weekend.

The Sage at Gateshead … one of the many exciting arts centres on the banks of the Tyne

Apart from the night life, local attractions include the Quayside, with the Sage and Baltic arts centres, the bridges that are architectural masterpieces, the Laing Art Gallery, the science centres and museums, the 17th century Guildhall and the elegant classical buildings lining the streets of the commercial centre.

Visitors who think Newcastle owes its origins to coal and mining, are reminded that this region has deeper historical roots: Hadrian’s Wall, which starts five miles away at Segedunum, was built to separate Roman Britain from the Picts and Celts to the north.

This is also the “land of the northern saints.” From nearby Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, Saint Aidan, an Irish monk who died in 651, and Saint Cuthbert (died 687) introduced Christianity to this part of northern England. The Venerable Bede, or Saint Bede (died 735), was a Northumbrian monk and is best known for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which gained him the title “The Father of English History.” One of Aidan’s disciples was a Northumbrian princess, Saint Hilda of Whitby (died 680). The Synod of Whitby, which met in her abbey in 664, fixed the method of calculating the date of Easter, causing a rift between the Celtic and the Anglo-Saxon churches.

Most northerly diocese

The Diocese of Newcastle, where the Right Revd Bishop Martin Wharton is the eleventh bishop, is the most northerly diocese in the Church of England. It includes the historic county of Northumberland and the northern part of Tyne and Wear, stretches from the River Tyne as far north as Berwick-upon-Tweed on the Scottish border and as far west as Alston Moor in Cumbria, and includes 200 parishes and churches, the largest of which is the magnificent cathedral in the centre of Newcastle (www.stnicholascathedral.co.uk).

Saint Nicholas Church almost became a cathedral in 1553, when there were proposals to form a City of Newcastle, incorporating neighbouring Gateshead and to create a bishopric. But the plans fell through when the legislation was reversed after the accession of Queen Mary. And so, until 1882, the area now forming the Diocese of Newcastle remained part of the larger Diocese of Durham. Between 1801 and 1861, the population of Newcastle doubled to more than 100,000 as people converged on this new, important centre of industry and commercial.

It became clear that the Church of England was no failing the people of both Durham and Northumberland. In an attempt to cope with the rapidly expanding industrial areas, the 1878 Bishoprics Act formed four new dioceses, with Newcastle shaped from a large area that was once part of the Diocese of Durham. When the Diocese of Newcastle came into being four years later, on Saint James’ Day, 25 July 1882, the Parish Church of Saint Nicholas became the cathedral.

First diocesan bishop

Bishop Ernest Wilberforce, the first Bishop of Newcastle (1882-1896), was a son of Bishop Samuel Wilberforce of Oxford and Winchester, and a grandson of William Wilberforce, leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade. When he was consecrated in 1882, Wilberforce was the Church of England’s youngest diocesan bishop.

It had taken four years – the time between the Bishoprics Act and Wilberforce’s appointment – to raise the funds needed to support a bishop. The delay and difficulty in fundraising are explained partly by the Church of England’s long lack of interest in the industrial north. This neglect meant the non-conformists had become the dominant churches in the area. The 1881 census shows that less than 4% of the people in the area that became the Diocese of Newcastle were attending Anglican services.

Undaunted by the major financial crisis facing his new diocese, Wilberforce raised nearly £250,000 in his first five years as bishop, allowing him to build 11 new churches and seven new vicarages and to introduce 28 new clergy to the city in his first ten years. He made his presence felt right across the diocese with his long journeys across rural Northumberland, and in his first five years confirmed double the numbers that had been confirmed in the previous five.

Wilberforce drew attention to the squalid conditions of the working class and the slum dwellers of Newcastle, and became known as the “poor man’s bishop.” However, his unflagging work in Newcastle damaged his health, and in 1896 he moved to the Diocese of Chichester. He died in 1907 on the Isle of Wight.

The third Bishop of Newcastle, Arthur Thomas Lloyd (1903-1907), had been Vicar of Newcastle while Wilberforce was bishop. He is commemorated by a fine monument in Newcastle Cathedral, although he is buried in Saint James’s Church, Benwell, where the bishops of Newcastle had their official residence at Benwell Towers.

Saint Nicholas Cathedral

Newcastle Cathedral is named after Saint Nicholas – the patron of sailors and seafarers but affectionately regarded as Santa Claus. The seafaring tradition has another link through the cathedral’s most notable and distinguishing feature, the unusual Lantern Tower, which was built in 1448. This tower, with its Crown Spire and clock, has been a prominent landmark for over 500 years, serving as a navigation point for ships on the Tyne.

Despite Newcastle’s many modern buildings, the Lantern Tower remains the most daring architectural structure in the city.

Unlike other northern cathedrals, such as Durham and Carlisle, Newcastle never had either a monastic cloister or a cathedral close separating it from the town around it. Instead, for most of its history, Saint Nicholas’s was a simple parish church in the Diocese of Durham – albeit the fourth largest parish church in England.

The first church was built on this site in 1091, and the first reference to its dedication to Saint Nicholas dates from 1194. This early church was twice damaged by fire in the 13th century, and the church was rebuilt in 1359.

Historic memorials

Among the surviving mediaeval memorials in the cathedral, the oldest is a 13th or 14th century cross-legged effigy in the south wall of an unknown knight. Some say he was a member of King Edward I’s household, others say he was a standard bearer to King Edward III, others identify him as a Crusader, and some identify him as Peter de Manley, who died in 1383. The monument was rescued by a verger in 1783, when many tombs and monuments were being cleared out, broken up and sold as building material.

Saint Margaret’s Chapel contains the only known fragment of mediaeval stained glass in the cathedral, a 15th century roundel showing the Blessed Virgin Mary with the Christ Child at her breast.

The “Thornton Brass” is a memorial to Roger Thornton, a merchant who died in 1429, and his wife Agnes, who died in 1411. This is a particularly fine example of a Flemish Brass and dates from 1441, with over 90 figures, including angels, saints, the Thorntons and their seven sons and seven daughters.

Thornton is known as the Dick Whittington of Newcastle. He was very poor when he arrived in the city from Cumberland with just a halfpenny in his pocket and a lambskin to his name. But he became a successful merchant, was Mayor of Newcastle three times, and was MP for Newcastle for ten years.

The interior of the church was badly damaged by Scottish invaders during their brief occupation of the city in 1640. In 1644, during a nine-week siege, Scottish invaders threatened to demolish the church spire but they were deterred when Scottish prisoners were placed in the tower. Much of the original glass was broken during the Civil War, and most of the glass in the cathedral today dates from the 18th century on.

An early 19th century monument commemorates Admiral Lord Collingwood, a hero of the Battle of Trafalgar, who was baptised in Saint Nicholas’s in 1748 and married there in 1791.

The making of a cathedral

When the parish church of Saint Nicholas became a cathedral in 1882, the cathedral chancel was created specially by the architect Robert J. Johnson and the local artist and craftsman Ralph Hedley. The high altar depicts Christ in Majesty and the Four Evangelists, each with their special symbol. Johnson is commemorated in the Chapel of the Incarnation, where the Great East Window, dating from 1860, shows the church in heaven populated by saints, prophets and people around the Cross, all above a fine representation of the Last Supper.

Tyneside’s seafaring and shipbuilding traditions continued to be honoured in the cathedral in the 20th century. In Saint George’s Chapel, a window commemorating Andrew Laing (1856-1931), the shipbuilder, includes a depiction of the SS Mauretania, which was launched on Tyneside in 1907 and held the North Atlantic Blue Riband for 22 years. After the fall of Norway and Denmark in 1940, Newcastle became the home to the Danish merchant fleet, and a fine war memorial and memorial window recall the 4,000 Danish seamen who sailed from Newcastle, over 1,400 of whom lost their lives in World War II.

Today, Saint Nicholas Cathedral continues to tell the story of Newcastle in stone, wood and glass. Its monuments and art work bear witness to the great and good of the city. But Dean Christopher Dalliston points out that the cathedral is not simply a monument to the past: it also serves as a spiritual “symbol of hope for the future … a place where the Christian faith is lived out, in work and worship, in quiet and in joyful splendour, in song and silent prayer.” This is a holy place at the heart of the vibrant capital of England’s north-east.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay was first published in the May editions the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough), the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory) and Newslink (Limerick and Killaloe).