03 December 2011

Visiting Newcastle and its cathedral

Saint Nicholas Cathedral, Newcastle, dates back hundreds of years, although the diocese was formed only in the late 19th century

Patrick Comerford

I am back in Newcastle-upon-Tyne for a second visit, and staying in the cultural heart of this northern city on the Quayside, with great views over the River Tyne and of its magnificent bridges.

I am here for a football match at Saint James’ Park and to visit Newcastle Cathedral, but the cultural attractions along the Quayside include the Sage and Baltic arts centres and the bridges that are architectural masterpieces spanning the Victorian to the modern age. Nearby are the Laing Art Gallery, science centres and museums, a 17th century Guildhall and elegant classical buildings lining the streets of the commercial centre.

Newcastle Cathedral, above the Black Gate and close to the

The Diocese of Newcastle is the most northerly diocese in the Church of England, and includes the historic county of Northumberland and the northern part of Tyne and Wear, stretching from the River Tyne as far north as Berwick-upon-Tweed on the Scottish border and as far west as Alston Moor in Cumbria. The Diocese includes 200 parishes and churches, the largest of which is the magnificent cathedral in the centre of Newcastle (www.stnicholascathedral.co.uk), which is close to the hotel where I’m staying this weekend.

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.

In a legislative attempt to respond to the rapidly expanding industrial areas in the North of England, the 1878 Bishoprics Act formed four new dioceses, with Newcastle shaped from a large area that was once part of the Diocese of Durham. The Parish Church of Saint Nicholas became the cathedral when the Diocese of Newcastle came into being four years later, on Saint James’ Day, 25 July 1882 – I wonder is that where Saint James’ Park got its name?

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

The first Bishop of Newcastle, Bishop Ernest Wilberforce, was a son of Bishop Samuel Wilberforce of Oxford and Winchester, and a grandson of William Wilberforce, the anti-slavery campaigner. Bishop 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.”

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.

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

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.

The oldest surviving mediaeval memorial in the cathedral is a 13th or 14th century cross-legged effigy in the south wall of an unknown knight. 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, who is known as the Dick Whittington of Newcastle. He was very poor when he arrived in the city but became a successful merchant, was Mayor of Newcastle three times, and was MP for Newcastle for ten years.

The parish church of Saint Nicholas became a cathedral in 1882. The high altar depicts Christ in Majesty and the Four Evangelists, each with their special symbol. In the Chapel of the Incarnation, the Great East Window shows the church in heaven populated by saints, prophets and people around the Cross, all above a fine representation of the Last Supper. In Saint George’s Chapel, a window commemorating Andrew Laing (1856-1931), the shipbuilder, includes a depiction of the SS Mauretania.

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. 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.”

The Millennium Bridge in tilt mode over the River Tyne

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