05 February 2023
On the Pugin trail again,
visiting Northampton Cathedral
with its 200-year history
During my visit to Northampton last week, I visited many of the churches in the town, and I found myself back on the ‘Pugin Trail’ again as I visited the Roman Catholic cathedral on Barrack Street.
Although Northampton is a county town and one of the largest towns in Britain, it is not a city. Indeed, Northamptonshire is one of the English counties without a city. Yet Northampton is big enough to be a city – and it has a cathedral too.
The Cathedral of Our Lady Immaculate and Saint Thomas of Canterbury is a Grade II building on Barrack Road. It is the mother church of the Catholic Diocese of Northampton, which includes Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Milton Keynes and Slough, and it is almost 200 years old, dating back to 1823, when a Catholic presence was established in that part of Northampton.
When the first small chapel was built on the site in 1825, it was in fields and orchards on the northern fringes of the town, and was partly intended to serve the Catholics among the soldiers based there and at Weedon.
The site was part of lands formerly owned by Saint Andrew’s Priory, a short distance south, from where Saint Thomas Becket escaped during his trial by Henry II in 1164. The first small Catholic chapel on the site was built using stones from Saint Andrew’s Priory, which was long-demolished.
Both the small chapel and a residence built in 1825 survive. A further church was built in the 1840s to designs by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, the architect most identified with the revival of Gothic church architecture in England and Ireland.
After the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in England and Wales and the creation of the Diocese of Northampton, Pugin’s son, Edward Welby Pugin, prepared ambitious designs for a new cathedral in 1860, but these were only partly carried out. AWN Pugin’s church survived until the 1950s, when it was demolished to make way for a new tower, transepts and chancel, built from designs by the architect Albert Herbert.
The cathedral dominates an important complex of buildings that form the nucleus of the Barrack Road Conservation Area. The church is of cruciform plan, consisting of nave with aisles and western apse – the sanctuary and nave of EW Pugin’s church – with eastern extensions in 1960 consisting of a tower over the crossing, transepts, chancel and south chancel chapel and north porch.
EW Pugin’s church is stone-built and was richly-furnished, and much of the detail remains. Herbert’s work is solid and dignified, giving the building cathedral scale and gravitas which it had been lacking. The interior has undergone a number of transformations, most recently in 1998, and there are notable furnishings and fittings from each phase of its development.
The Vicar Apostolic of the Midlands, Bishop John Milner, sent Father William Foley to establish a mission in Northampton 200 years ago, in 1823. Foley acquired the present site, then on the edge of the town, which had once belonged to the mediaeval priory of Saint Andrew.
A chapel dedicated to Saint Andrew was opened on 25 October 1825, and alongside this Foley also built a house and a small private school. The chapel survives as the cathedral sacristy, complete with its original altar, and the house as Cathedral House.
The congregation had outgrown this small chapel by 1840, and William Wareing, the newly-appointed Vicar Apostolic for the Eastern District, commissioned AWN Pugin to design a new chapel dedicated to Saint Felix in 1843-1844. This building stood alongside and to the south of the existing chapel, to which it was connected by a narrow link. It opened in 1844.
This chapel served a seminary that was then established in the old church, with an inserted upper floor to provide dormitory accommodation for the students. The space between this building and the 1825 house was infilled with a new building housing a library on the ground floor with a chapel above.
It is not clear whether Pugin was responsible for the design of this too. The Buildings of England says the oriel window on the front elevation of the chapel is ‘an original 14th century two-light window re-used.’ The projection now has a modern single light window.
After the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in England and Wales, Pugin prepared designs in 1851 for a new cathedral, but there were difficulties in acquiring further land. No further progress was made until the appointment of Francis Kerrill Amherst as the second Bishop of Northampton in 1858. Amherst had been taught by Pugin at Oscott, and Pugin had once proposed to Amherst’s sister Mary … and was rejected.
Pugin died in 1852, and in 1860 Bishop Amherst commissioned his son Edward Welby Pugin to prepare ambitious designs for a new cathedral in the Decorated Gothic style, with a tall north-west tower, slender spire and a long choir with side chapels. However, only the nave and apsidal chancel were completed.
EW Pugin reversed the orientation of the church, placing the high altar at the west end. The old chapel of Saint Felix at the east end was retained to give more seating accommodation, facing west. In this form, the cathedral, rededicated to Our Lady and Saint Thomas of Canterbury, was opened on 29 April 1864, when Cardinal Henry Manning preached.
The Bishop moved out of Cathedral House in 1877 until such time as he was able to move into the new Bishop’s House, built at the expense of Yolande Lyne-Stephens, a former ballerina at the Paris Opera and Drury Lane and the widow of a wealthy landowner. She also paid for the Church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs, Cambridge, and other churches in England. The architect was Samuel Joseph Nicholl, and moved into the house in 1885.
After World War II, Bishop Parker put forward plans for the completion of the building along more fitting, cathedral-like lines. He had been impressed by designs by the Leicester architect Albert Herbert for a tower for Pugin’s church at Mount Saint Bernard’s Abbey in Leicestershire.
Plans were drawn up to once again reverse the orientation of the cathedral and to build a new east end with tower, transepts and sanctuary in the Early English style. This required the demolition of AWN Pugin’s 1844 chapel. The foundation stone was laid Cardinal Griffin on 15 June 1955 and the completed building was consecrated by Bishop Parker on 21 June 1960.
Further modifications were made in 1975-1976, when a forward altar was placed in the crossing under the tower. At the same time, a large pulpit that had been installed in 1881 was removed to open up views of the sanctuary from the south aisle, the bishop’s throne and font were repositioned in the sanctuary area, and the interior was re-lit and redecorated. The Greenhalgh and Williams Partnership of Bolton were the architects. A new organ made by Hendrik ten Bruggencate was also installed.
There were further changes to the sanctuary in 1998 to allow more room for concelebration, with a new timber altar and seating. New shrines to Our Lady and Saint Thomas were set up in the south transept, the font was re-sited to the north transept and a large triptych by Stephen Foster was installed at the east end.
The EW Pugin building is in the Decorated Gothic style, built of rock-faced Ancaster and Ketton stone, with a banded slate roof. It consists of a nave and aisles of five bays, with an addition of 1960 at the west end of the south aisle, faced in brick and built as a baptistery. Paired clerestory windows with Decorated tracery, surmounted by hoodmoulds rising as pointed gables, the pinnacles of which now break though the extended eaves of the roof – Pugin designed a parapet there, but this proved problematic.
At the apsidal west end there are taller windows to the former sanctuary, two lights then three, the larger windows with taller gables. There is a Gothic west doorway in the centre of the apse, formed in 1960 when the building was reorientated.
The 1960 work is in a plainer Early English style, and is faced in Stamford brick, with stone plinths and reconstituted stone for the dressings. At the junction with Pugin’s nave there is a broad, squat crossing with clasping corner buttresses, narrow lancet windows to light the interior and shorter windows on the upper belfry stage; above these is a semi-embattled parapet.
Short transepts with corner buttresses and high-level circular windows project to the north and the south, and the south transept links to the 1825 chapel. The tall gabled chancel also has corner buttresses, and stepped lancet windows; it is flanked by a chapel on the north side and entrance porch on the south side, each recessed behind the line of the east front, with single east lancet windows and raised parapet gables.
Inside, Pugin’s nave is broad and high. The arcades of clustered columns on high plinths have capitals of richly carved naturalistic foliage, with polychrome figures of bishops and saints at the springing of the hood moulds. A moulded band runs from east to west at clerestory sill level, upon which sit wall posts rising to a fine and complex timber roof with an open raised section with scissor braces and multiple rafters.
The clerestory windows are paired trefoils with circular quatrefoil tracery lights; the aisle windows are circular, with elaborate Decorated tracery set within pointed arch recesses. There are arched bay divisions in the aisles, with circular openings in the spandrel adjoining the nave arcading. Confessionals give off the north aisle, and the 1960 baptistery at the west end of the south aisle has since been converted to WCs.
Alongside this, at the west end of the nave or EW Pugin’s sanctuary, a choir loft was inserted ca 1960. Tall two-light and three-light west windows with Decorated tracery and stained glass, and carved polychromatic corbels to the wall posts, with angels bearing musical instruments.
At the crossing, arches with plain chamfered mouldings date from 1960. The raised crossing is lit by two windows on each side, there is a flat ceiling divided into compartments, with a central circular trap to allow for the lowering of the bell. As in the nave, the walls are plaster and painted, but in the northwest corner is an attached internal stone turret providing access to the belfry stage, a quirky touch.
The short transepts project to the north and south, and the north transept has an organ gallery.
The sanctuary is square-ended and has a painted ceiling decorated by Hardman Powell & Co of Birmingham, who worked on many of the Pugin churches in England and Ireland.
The tall flanking Blessed Sacrament chapel is to the south. The entrance porch from the car park is to the north.
The stained glass at the west end or EW Pugin’s chancel is by Hardman, and dates from ca 1864. It includes depictions of saints with local associations: Saint Crispin patron of shoemakers, Saint Edmund, Saint Dorothy, Saint Hubert patron of hunters, and Saint Thomas Becket. At the bottom of the central window are notable ecclesiastical antiquities of Northampton: the Eleanor Cross, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Saint Peter’s Church. The 19th-century stained glass in the chancel is from the former Catholic chapel at Ashby St Legers.
A south clerestory stained-glass window, erected to the memory of Bishop Wareing by the clergy of the diocese, shows the bishop presenting the chapel of Saint Felix to Saint William.
In the Blessed Sacrament chapel, the east window by Joseph Nuttgens (1998) depicts the Last Supper, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection scene Noli me tangere. The altar in the chapel, with an inset panel of the Agnus Dei, is the cut-down surviving portion of the altar from Amherst’s cathedral.
A brass memorial to Bishop Amherst, possibly by Hardman was once in the centre aisle but has been moved to the wall at the west end under the gallery. There is a brass inscription over the tomb of Bishop Parker, who died in 1975, in the Blessed Sacrament chapel.
The Ancaster stone font has an inset low-relief carving of the Holy Spirit descending, a painted ogee cover and chain mechanism. It probably dates from ca 1960. The font has had several locations and is now located beneath the organ gallery in the north transept.
Hendrik ten Bruggencate built the organ in 1976. The former chapter seating in the chancel has been placed under the north transept gallery. Near here is the entrance to the sacristy, housed in the 1825 church and retaining its original altar and the choir stalls from the pre-1976 chancel.
The large crucifix hanging from the chancel arch is a gift of the Holy Cross Sisters at Hayle.
At the east end, a polychromatic carved timber triptych depicting the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, in the manner of Giotto, was made by Stephen Foster at the time of the reordering of the sanctuary in 1998.
There are 19th century pine pews in the nave. In the tower, a single bell, struck by Taylor’s of Loughborough, dates from 1956. The modern Stations of the Cross, carved in Austrian oak, were donated by parishioners.
The cathedral has a regular choir that sings in the 10:30 Sunday Mass and other major cathedral liturgies. The cathedral also serves as a parish church and hosts various voluntary parish organisations, such as the local Society of Saint Vincent de Paul.
Ann Comerford, who is the hub administrator at Northampton Cathedral, volunteers her time with the Good Loaf, C2C Social Action and the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul. She was nominated for the ‘Inspirational Woman’ awards in Northamptonshire in 2020.
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A very extensive history!Very interesting.
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