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Progress, Change and Curiosity in Chester: The Victorian Era 

Victoria’s reign is often linked to the industrial revolution that it spanned. So what physical changes happened in Chester Cathedral during this time?

Sir George Gilbert Scott (1868 –78)

Sir Arthur Blomfield (1880 – 99)

General Appearance: Today the Cathedral shows its clean stone walls inside, with coloured glass filling many of the windows. Outside an army of grotesques sit around the windows and the pinnacles. The Cathedral of the early 19th century was very different. Inside the walls would have been covered in limewash, some of which may have covered pre-reformation wall paintings. Outside the walls would have been pitted and scarred, the stone mouldings blunted by age and the more decorative stonework had often been robbed away.

Tower: During the Sir Giles Gilbert Scott restoration, the tower was completely reclad in red sandstone from Runcorn. Now the tower boasts delicate blind tracery and beautiful carvings, as well as two of the Cathedral’s still functioning Gargoyles. But before its restoration, the Tower was a robust yet plain feature. Only the tracery of the Belfry survives from before the Reformation.

Lady Chapel: The Lady Chapel was extensively changed during the Victorian Restoration. For example, the windows you now see had stone tracery similar to the Nativity window in Saint Werburgh’s Chapel.

Quire and Nave Roof: The Quire and Nave had always been intended to have stone vaulting, but funds and fortune didn’t allow this to happen during the medieval period. Until the mid-19th century visitors to the Cathedral would have been able to see through the underside of the Roof.

South East Chapels: During the 15th Century, two perpendicular chapels were constructed at the East End of the Cathedral. These allowed for a route for pilgrims to walk around the Quire – closed off to all except the Clergy – into the Lady Chapel which was where the Shrine of Saint Werburgh was located, before returning to the main body of the Cathedral. By the Victorian Restoration, these Chapels had suffered from a great deal of subsidence and Sir Giles Gilbert Scott demolished the South Side Chapel, amid a great deal of controversy, and built Saint Erasmus Chapel. The current Saint Werburgh’s Chapel is the twin of the demolished South Chapel.

Removal of Pulpitum / Moving of Quire Stalls / Building of Organ Loft: Today the Quire Stalls are separated from the crossing by the timber Rood Screen but prior to the Victorian Restoration, the Quire stalls were located under the crossing with a tall stone screen called a pulpitum separating the Clergy in the Quire from the townspeople in the Nave. During the Victorian Restoration, the Quire Stalls were moved, cleaned off the paint that had been applied to them, and a new Cathedra (the throne of the Bishop that gives a Cathedral its name) was placed at the head of the Stalls.

With the removal of the Pulpitum, the Cathedral also required a new location for its Organ. The organ loft, built in 1875, was constructed and is a fine example of Neo-Gothic ecclesiastical architecture. Gracefully marrying function and aesthetics in imitation of the Decorated period.

South Transept: The Great south Window was originally constructed in the perpendicular style during the mid-14th century. Sir Arthur Blomfield replaced the plain but robust grid-like window with a curvilinar-styled window in 1887, inspired by the East Aisle Windows. He also added the wooden high vaulting and paved the floor in York flagstones. Prior to the Victorian Restoration, the South Transept housed the Parish Church of Saint Oswald and it was divided from the Abbey of Saint Werburgh by a wall or screen and featured wooden galleries on the West Clearstory to house the congregation.

With thanks to Chester Cathedral Foreman Stonemason, Tom Livingstone.