05 February 2023

On the Pugin trail again,
visiting Northampton Cathedral
with its 200-year history

The Cathedral of Our Lady Immaculate and Saint Thomas of Canterbury on Barrack Road, Northampton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

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.

Inside the Cathedral of Our Lady Immaculate and Saint Thomas of Canterbury in Northampton facing east (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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.

Inside the Cathedral of Our Lady Immaculate and Saint Thomas of Canterbury in Northampton facing west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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.

The site was acquired in 1823, and traces of some of the earlier buildings have survived (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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.

EW Pugin designed the apsidal west end of the cathedral and reoriented the building (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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.

Cathedral House was built in 1825, at the same time as the first church on the site (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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.

A statue of Saint Thomas Becket in the cathedral … he escaped during his trial by Henry II in Northampton in 1164 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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.

In the side aisles in the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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.

The Blessed Sacrament chapel and the window by Joseph Nuttgens depicting the Last Supper, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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.

The polychromatic carved timber triptych by Stephen Foster depicts the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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.

The Bishop’s House, designed by SJ Nicholl (1885) was built at the expense of Yolande Lyne-Stephens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Praying in Ordinary Time
with USPG: 5 February 2023

‘Let’s praise the organist who tries / To make the choir increase in size’ (John Betjeman) … the ‘Father Willis’ organ in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Third Sunday before Lent, known traditionally as Septuagesima. Later this morning, I hope to be part of the choir at the Choral Eucharist in the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles in Stony Stratford.

This is a united benefice Eucharist for Saint Mary and Saint Giles, Stony Stratford, and All Saints’ Church, Calverton, and the guest preacher is the Right Revd Paul Thomas, who was consecrated Suffragan Bishop of Oswestry in Canterbury Cathedral on Thursday.

Of course, Septuagesima is not 70 days until Easter, but 63. Dom Prosper Gueranger, writing in The Liturgical Year, suggests that the numbering is due to the biblical practice of rounding numbers up (for example, 40 days), rather than using specifics.

He also suggests that a pre-Lenten season originates with the Greeks. These weeks, between the end of Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, are known as Ordinary Time.

In these days of Ordinary Time before Ash Wednesday later this month (22 February), I am reflecting in these ways each morning:

1, reflecting on a saint or interesting person in the life of the Church;

2, one of the lectionary readings of the day;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

We are starting the preparation for Lent, which in turn is a preparation for Holy Week and Easter. We have only three Sundays to go before the season of Lent begins: Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima are names that provide a countdown to the great Paschal event of Easter – 70, 60, 50, then of course 40 days in the wilderness.

Instead of reflecting on a saint this morning, I am reading the poem ‘Septuagesima’ by John Betjeman, in which he praises these Sunday names, which are unique to the Anglican tradition.

This poem was first broadcast on BBC West of England Radio in February 1954, and was recited some years ago by the then Prince Charles to mark National Poetry Day.

‘Let’s praise the ringers in the tower / Who come to ring in cold and shower’ (John Betjeman) … the bells in the tower in All Saints’ Church, Calverton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Septuagesima, by John Betjeman:

Septuagesima—seventy days
To Easter’s primrose tide of praise;
The Gesimas—Septua, Sexa, Quinc
Mean Lent is near, which makes you think.
Septuagesima—when we’re told
To “run the race,” to “keep our hold,”
Ignore injustice, not give in, and practice stern self-discipline;
A somewhat unattractive time
Which hardly lends itself to rhyme.

But still it gives the chance to me
To praise our dear old C. of E.
So other churches please forgive
Lines on the church in which I live,
The Church of England of my birth,
The kindest church to me on Earth.

There may be those who like things fully
Argued out, and call you “woolly”;
Ignoring Creeds and Catechism
They say the C. of E.’s “in schism.”

There may be those who much resent
Priest, Liturgy, and Sacrament,
Whose worship is what they call “free,”
Well, let them be so, but for me
There’s refuge in the C. of E.

And when it comes that I must die
I hope the Vicar’s standing by,
I won’t care if he’s “Low” or “High”
For he’ll be there to aid my soul
On that dread journey to its goal,
With Sacrament and prayer and Blessing
After I’ve done my last confessing.

And at that time may I receive
The Grace most firmly to believe,
For if the Christian’s Faith’s untrue
What is the point of me and you?

But this is all anticipating
Septuagesima—time of waiting,
Running the race or holding fast.
Let’s praise the man who goes to light
The church stove on an icy night.
Let’s praise that hard-worked he or she
The Treasurer of the P.C.C.
Let’s praise the cleaner of the aisles,
The nave and candlesticks and tiles.

Let’s praise the organist who tries
To make the choir increase in size,
Or if that simply cannot be,
Just to improve its quality.
Let’s praise the ringers in the tower
Who come to ring in cold and shower.

But most of all let’s praise the few
Who are seen in their accustomed pew
Throughout the year, whate’er the weather,
That they may worship God together.
These, like a fire of glowing coals,
Strike warmth into each other’s souls,
And though they be but two or three
They keep the church for you and me.

‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste how can its saltiness be restored?’ (Matthew 5: 13) … ‘Sal Sapit Omnia’ (‘Salt Savours All’), the motto of the Worshipful Company of Salters at the former gates of Salters’ Hall in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 5:13-20 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 13 ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

14 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

17 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

‘No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket’ (Matthew 5: 15) … ‘Let’s praise the cleaner of the aisles, / The nave and candlesticks and tiles’ (John Betjeman) … candles in the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Rethymnon on the island of Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

USPG Prayer Diary:

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is ‘Christianity in Pakistan.’ This theme is introduced today by Nathan Olsen, who writes:

‘Earlier this year, USPG hosted a meeting with bishops from the Church of Pakistan and mission agencies based in the UK. The bishops from the Church of Pakistan were keen to emphasise their hopes for the future, as well as the limitations they currently face as representatives of a minority faith. Amongst the issues raised were the lack of education and employment opportunities that Christians face in Pakistan, as well as explicit issues such as the forced conversion of Christians and repressive blasphemy laws.

‘In the country’s most recent census, the Christian population has fallen in number and there is widespread feeling amongst the Christians that it is a struggle to speak out on such issues. On a more positive note, the bishops spoke of their clear passion for theological education and their desire to train clergy and laity in political advocacy. While it can be incredibly challenging to sustain and grow a church in a restricted environment, their faith in Jesus Christ and the power of prayer was evident for all present to see. Let us keep our brothers and sisters in Pakistan in our prayers.’

The USPG Prayer Diary today invites us to pray in these words:

Uphold, O Lord, all those who suffer for their faith.
May they know you as a rock to stand on
and a light to guide the way.
May their hearts be filled with grace
and their voices be raised in song.

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil’ (Matthew 5: 17) … the Ten Commandments above the altar in the Guild Church of Saint Martin-within-Ludgate, Ludgate Hill, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org