04 June 2023

Saints and kings together
in the gilded Great Screen
in Southwark Cathedral

The High Altar in Southwark Cathedral and the Great Screen above, first erected by Bishop Richard Fox in 1520 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023; click on images for full-screen viewing)

Patrick Comerford

Sitting in the Choir in Southwark Cathedral during Evening Prayer late one afternoon last week, I was fascinated by the detail in the carvings in Great Screen above the High Altar.

I have often wondered during visits to the cathedral about the detail and the figures in this Great Screen, erected in 1520 by Richard Fox, Bishop of Winchester. Although the general appearance of the screen, with three broad rich bands of carvings, is that of the original, most of the details are from later periods.

It is doubtful that all the original planned statues were ever installed, as the screen was completed within a decade of the Reformation when statues like this were prohibited.

The small carvings of the Lamb of God and the pelican, a badge of Bishop Fox, immediately above the rows of angels are probably original, as are some of the bases of the niches. The small carvings in the corners of the two doorways, showing hunting scenes, may also be original.

The Great Screen was concealed in 1703 by a painted wooden screen on which were inscribed the Lord’s Prayer, Creed, the Ten Commandments. This wooden screen was removed in 1830, the niches were restored and three rows of carved angels were added.

The lower portion was gilded in 1930 and a new panel showing the Greek and Latin Fathers of the Church was added, inspired by a panel in Saint Mark’s Basilica, Venice. The central figures of Christ in Majesty (Saint Saviour) and the Blessed Virgin Mary with the Christ Child (Saint Mary Overie) were gilded in the 1970s.

The majority of the figures in the screen were carved by Messrs Nicolls of Lambeth from 1905 onwards. They tell the story of the cathedral, the church and priory that went before it, and the links of the Diocese of Southwark with the dioceses of Winchester and Rochester.

The 11 figures in the upper row of the Great Screen in Southwark Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023; click on images for full-screen viewing)

1, The upper row (left to right):

1, Bishop Anthony Wilson Thorold (1825-1895) was the Bishop of Winchester in the late Victorian era and was responsible for of Saint Saviour’s becoming Southwark Cathedral. Thorold became Bishop of Rochester in 1877, the year the church was moved to the Diocese of Rochester, and identified the need for a separate diocese in the area around Saint Saviour’s. The church was the obvious choice for a new cathedral because of its size, long history and central location. Saint Saviour’s became the Pro-Cathedral of South London in 1896, and the new Diocese of Southwark was formed in 1905.

2, Saint Olave (995-1030) was King of Norway and converted Norway to Christianity. He is depicted in the screen holding the axe and shield of a Viking. In his youth, he led a raid on London, pulling down London Bridge and restoring Ethelred the Unready to the throne. A church by London Bridge dedicated to Saint Olave existed as early as 1096, but was demolished in the 1920s. Older maps noted the church as Synt Toulus, Toulas, Toolis, and Toolies, and it gave its name to Tooley Street.

3, William Wykeham (1324-1404), Bishop of Winchester, founded New College Oxford (1379) and Winchester College (1382). As Bishop of Winchester from 1366, he was responsible for Saint Mary Overie Priory (Southwark Cathedral) in the Diocese of Winchester. He sent Simon, Bishop of Achonry, to reconcile the church of Saint Mary Overie and the annexed church of Saint Mary Magdalen in 1390. He is seen in the screen holding models of Winchester Cathedral and Winchester Palace, Southwark.

4, Cardinal Henry Beaufort (1375-1447), a half-brother of King Henry IV, became Bishop of Winchester in 1404. He commissioned Henry Yevele to extensively repair the priory building. His niece Joan married James I of Scotland in Saint Mary Overie in 1424, the only royal wedding in the church. Beaufort was one of the wealthiest and most powerful figures in his day. He appears in Shakespeare’s Henry IV parts 1 and 2, involved in bribery and murder plots, greedy and deceitful.

5, Saint Paul wrote almost half the books in the New Testament, and the Acts of the Apostles is largely an account of his ministry. He is also one of the patrons of the Diocese of Winchester. His symbol, the sword, is intertwined with the key, the symbol of the other patron of the diocese, Saint Peter.

6, Christ the Saviour is the central figure in the screen. After the dissolution of the monastic houses by Henry VIII, the Priory Church of Saint Mary Overie became the parish church of Saint Saviour, Southwark.

7, Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430), as a theologian and philosopher, influenced the development of western theology and philosophy. When Southwark Cathedral was established as a priory in 1106, it was as a house of the Canons Regular of Saint Augustine (Augustinians). On the screen, Saint Augustine is holding a copy of his Confessions.

8, William of Giffard (died 1129), as Bishop of Winchester, supported William Dauncey and William d’Arche, who built the Augustinian priory in 1107 that became Southwark Cathedral. Giffard offered the first home in England to the Cistercians at Waverley Abbey, near Farnham, Surrey, in 1128.

9, Aldgood (died 1130) was the first prior of the Augustinian priory at Southwark, although little more is known about him.

10, Saint Justus (died 631) was sent to England as a missionary to the Anglo-Saxons by Pope Gregory in 601. Saint Augustine of Canterbury consecrated Justus in 604 as the first Bishop of Rochester, which then included Southwark. Later he became the Archbishop of Canterbury, and his feast day is on 10 November.

11, Bishop Edward Talbot (1864-1948) was the first warden of Keble College, Oxford, and helped to set up Lady Margaret Hall, the first college for women in Oxford. He was involved in the Settlement Movement and Oxford House, which opened in Bethnal Green in 1884. He was Vicar of Leeds before becoming Bishop of Rochester. He became the first Bishop of Southwark in 1905, and then Bishop of Winchester in 1911.

The Second Row of saints and martyrs on the Great Screen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023; click on images for full-screen viewing)

2, Second Row (left to right):

1, John Rogers (1505-1555) was the editor of ‘Matthew’s Bible’, an English Bible printed in Antwerp in 1537. He continued William Tyndale’s work in translating the Bible into English. Rogers returned to England in 1548, and became a prebendary of Saint Paul’s Cathedral. During Mary I’s reign, Rogers was imprisoned and his trial was held in Saint Saviour’s Church, now Southwark Cathedral. He was burned at the stake at Smithfield on 4 February 1555, and is regarded as the first martyr of Mary Tudor’s reign.

2, Saint Swithun (800-862) was an Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Winchester (852-862). It is said he set up a college of priests in Southwark. As Bishop of Winchester, he built new churches and restored old ones. When he died, he was buried in the churchyard at Winchester Cathedral. In the screen, he is seen holding a bridge he built over the River Itchen.

3, Saint Thomas Becket (1119-1170) became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. A series of conflicts with the king led to his exile in France. Henry II issued a command for the murder of Becket, and four knights assassinated him in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170. The canons of Saint Mary Overie built a hospital dedicated to Saint Thomas of Canterbury, and the pilgrim route to his shrine in Canterbury began at Southwark, inspiring Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

4, Saint Margaret of Antioch (289-304), also called Saint Marina, was tortured when she refused to marry a powerful Roman governor and to renounce Christianity. Legend says that when the devil disguised as a dragon swallowed her, the cross she carried scratched his throat and he spat her back out. In mediaeval England, over 250 churches were dedicated to her, including one near Borough Market in Southwark. During the Reformation, Saint Mary Overie became the church for the old parish of Saint Margaret’s.

5, Saint Peter is represented in the Great Screen as one of the twelve apostles, the first builder of churches, and as one of the patrons of the Diocese of Winchester. His symbol, the keys, is intertwined with the symbol of the other patron, Saint Paul.

6, The Blessed Virgin Mary takes a central role in the second row. The original priory on the site was dedicated to her. Saint Mary Overie (meaning ‘over the river’) existed from 1106 until 1538, when the church became known as Saint Saviour’s.

7, Saint John the Evangelist is the author of the Fourth Gospel and the Book of Revelation. He died in his old age in Ephesus. The Harvard Chapel, off the north choir aisle of Southwark Cathedral, was originally dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist.

8, Saint Mary Magdalene is the first witness of the Resurrection and the appearance of the Risen Christ. The chapel that once served as a parish church and that occupied the space now filled by the cathedral organ pipes was dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene.

9, John Gower (1327-1408) was an early-English poet and friend of Chaucer. He lived in the later years of his life at the Priory of Saint Mary Overie. He is buried in an elaborate canopied tomb in the north aisle, one of the remaining mediaeval monuments in the cathedral. He is remembered for three long poems in French, Latin, and English.

10, Peter des Roches (died 1238) was Bishop of Winchester from 1205. When he was bishop, a great fire swept through Southwark in 1212 and badly damaged the Priory of Saint Mary Overie and the Hospital of Saint Thomas Beckett. He arranged for rebuilding the priory, adding the chapel of Saint Mary Magdalene, which served the local parish. He rebuilt the church in the Gothic style and also carried out major works at Winchester Palace.

11, Randall Davidson (1848-1930) was Bishop of Rochester (1891-1895) and continued Bishop Thorold’s work in shaping the Diocese of Southwark. He became Bishop of Winchester in 1895 and was then Archbishop of Canterbury (1903-1928).

The High Altar and the bottom row of the Great Screen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023; click on images for full-screen viewing)

Bottom Row (Beneath):

1, Henry I (1068-1135) was king when the Priory was founded in Southwark in 1106.

2, Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626) is the only Bishop of Winchester buried in Southwark Cathedral; his tomb is to the right of the Great Screen. He was Bishop of Chichester, Bishop of Ely and then Bishop of Winchester in 1619. He was part of the team that translated the Authorised Version of the Bible.

3, Richard Fox (1448-1528) became Bishop of Winchester in 1501. His legacy to Southwark is the Great Screen. He also founded Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

4, Edward VII (1841-1910) was king when Southwark Cathedral was dedicated. He laid the foundation stone for rebuilding the nave and was present at the inauguration.

The lower stage of the screen was coloured and gilded by Sir Ninian Comper in 1929.

Immediately above the High Altar, the altar piece of the Risen Christ was designed by Sir Ninian Comper in 1929. Near this central figure are the symbols of the Four Evangelists.

To the left are figures depicting the Four Latin Fathers, Saint Jerome, Saint Gregory the Great, Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine of Hippo; to the right are the Four Greek Fathers, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, Saint Athanasius, Saint Basil and Saint John Chrysostom.

Four angels hold the arms of the Province of Canterbury, the Diocese of Rochester, the Diocese of Winchester and the Diocese of Southwark.

The small figures above represent the twelve Apostles and were designed by Oldrid Scott and made by Messrs Farmer and Brindley.

But who is missing from the screen? There is no Geoffrey Chaucer, although is buried in Westminster; there is no Cardinal Wolsey, although he was Bishop of Winchester in 1529-1530; there is no William Shakespeare, although he has an effigy in the cathedral; there is no Samuel Johnson, although he is commemorated in the window above the north-west door; and there is no Samuel Wilberforce.

The choir, Great Screen and High Altar in Southwark Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023; click on images for full-screen viewing)

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