Whether you’re visiting London for the first time or have lived in the capital your whole life, you should definitely visit the historic Southwark Cathedral. With a mix of historic and modern architecture, coupled with a long and storied history — including the residence of William Shakespeare — there’s plenty to see and learn. In this blog post, we’re taking a look at the history of Southwark Cathedral and learning about some of the famous faces that have graced its halls, as well as how it has developed over the last millennium.
Southwark Cathedral or, more formally, the Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie, has a long and storied past, though its true origins remain unknown to this day.
The site is located at the River Thames’ oldest crossing point, which was once the only entrance to the city of London from the south. Stories passed through generations claimed that the site was originally established by a community of nuns as far back as the 7th century, but there is no historical record of a religious site until the Domesday Book of 1086 listed it as a holy site.
In 1106, the church was officially founded as a priory by two Norman knights under the Diocese of Winchester. The church suffered extensive damage during the Great Fire of Southwark in 1212 and was rebuilt over the following years under the oversight of a succession of bishops. During the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s, when Henry VIII took control of the country’s religious buildings and wealth to fund his war campaigns in France, the church was taken under the King’s control and rented back to the congregation.
Going it alone
Eventually, the worshippers grew tired of this arrangement and, in 1611, several merchants decided to purchase the church back from King James I for £800. For the next few hundred years, the congregation was able to attend the church unhindered but, by the 19th century, the building had fallen into disrepair. Plans for a new London bridge meant that some Londoners felt the church should be demolished and rebuilt on another site. Ultimately, it was decided that the church should be restored, and many parts of the cathedral you see today are still standing because of this decision.
Becoming a cathedral
Though it has been a place for Christian worshippers for over a millennium, the Southwark holy site only became a cathedral in 1905, with a diocese covering the area from Kingston-upon-Thames to Thamesmead. At the turn of the 21st century, new extensions were added to the north of the Cathedral, providing meeting and conference rooms, a library, an education centre, a museum, a shop, and a refectory. This new cloister was opened by Nelson Mandela in 2001.
The holy site has played host to many famous individuals over the last 1000 years. Its first and only Royal Wedding took place in 1423 when King James I of Scotland married Joan Beaufort on the site. Famous court poet and contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower was a resident of the church at the beginning of the 15th century until his death in 1408. William Shakespeare was also a resident of the site for a time, and celebrations are still held on his birthday each year. To add to the list of famous writers who graced the church’s halls, Charles Dickens attended meetings and bellringing practice there before his death in 1870.
As you can see, Southwark Cathedral is absolutely bursting with history. If you’re looking for an interesting way to explore this site, and many others around London, then the Foxtrail London treasure trail could be the adventure for you. Our unique take on sightseeing will have you take on the cunning fox by cracking clues and deciphering codes across London.
If you’re looking for other things to do in London or want to find out more about this great city, why not take a look at the Foxtrail blog? Whether you’re new to the area or are London born, there’s a whole host of exciting history to discover.
Visitor information: Entrance to the Southwark Cathedral is free, although a voluntary donation is welcomed. The cathedral also offers various services and tours throughout the week, and photographs can be taken for a small fee. Visit the cathedral’s website for full visitor information.