Wakefield Cathedral History

Built: First church built by the Normans in the 11th Century

The Saxons

Worship almost certainly began to take place on this site in Anglo-Saxon times. This replica of a Saxon cross shaft (the original is now in Wakefield Museum) stands in the Walsham How Chapel and strong tradition has it that St Paulinus baptised converts in the River Calder at nearby Dewsbury in the seventh century. There may have been a wooden church on this site, similar to the one still existing at Greensted in Essex.

The Normans

The Normans put up the first stone structure here, sometime in the 11th century. The completed church was cruciform in shape, with a central tower and squat pyramid spire, possibly looking a little bit like the one shown here. A north aisle was added in about 1150 and a south aisle about seventy years later.

The Fourteenth Century

Central towers were often unstable, and Wakefield's was no exception. It collapsed in the early 14th century, causing considerable damage, and worship took place in a small chapel during the rebuilding. The church was re-consecrated by the Archbishop of York in 1329. This rebuilding did not include a central tower.

The Later Middle Ages

Wakefield as a town prospered during the 15th century, thanks to the wool trade, and during this period many alterations were made to the building, including extending the aisles and putting in the clerestory windows in order to bring in more light. The replacement panelled roofs with carved and gilded bosses remain intact today. A new tower, surmounted by a spire, was erected at the west end. This spire rises to 247 feet, making it the tallest in Yorkshire and is the fourth loftiest spire in England. Much of the work took place during the Wars of the Roses, even while the Battle of Wakefield was being fought nearby in 1460. 

The Reformation

Very little appears to have happened to destroy most of the imagery here until the reign of Elizabeth I, when Robert Robinson became the first true Protestant Vicar of Wakefield. Out went the statues and most of the stained glass was destroyed, along with the Rood Screen. In 1585 the first pulpit was installed and a year later the wall paintings were whitewashed over. Galleries were erected under the tower in 1592 and by the end of the century the church had taken on the form of a preaching house, with galleries inserted to cope with the increased numbers of worshippers. These remained until Scott’s nineteenth century restoration.

The Seventeenth & Eighteenth Centuries

By the reign of Charles I the church was looking rather bare and in 1635 Francis Gunby of Leeds was commissioned to make a screen to go across the entrance to the Chancel. He had recently carved all the woodwork at the new St John's Church in Leeds. The screen had gates across until a three decker pulpit was installed in 1708. These gates were put back into the cathedral only in the 1930s. A new font appeared in 1661, but in the Eighteenth Century, as was so often the case in our churches, the building was in some ways neglected.

The Nineteenth Century

Wakefield continued to expand during the Industrial Revolution. The canal and, later the railway, came to the town, which established itself as a busy industrial settlement, conveniently situated between the textile areas of the Pennines and the Yorkshire coalfield. Wakefield was also the County Town of the West Riding. The population of the Archdiocese of York had become too large and in 1836 a large slice of it, including Wakefield, was transferred to the new Diocese of Ripon. Religion was taken seriously by the Victorians and it was here that the great architect, George Gilbert Scott, was brought in to repair the neglect of the previous century. C E Kempe, a highly regarded stained glass artist was commissioned to replace the medieval glass. Here at Wakefield we have an almost complete set of  Kempe windows, spanning over 30 years of his life.

The Diocese of Wakefield

The population of the West Riding continued to grow throughout the Nineteenth Century and in 1888 a new diocese was created to serve much of the industrial area south of Leeds and Bradford. Wakefield was chosen as its centre and All Saints Parish Church became the Cathedral. The first bishop chosen was William Walsham How, then working as a priest in a poor part of South London. He is widely remembered as a hymn writer and a great lover of children. He was also the only bishop respected by Queen Victoria. The card accompanying flowers that she sent for his funeral is kept at the cathedral.

Cathedral Extensions

Almost ten years after the church became a cathedral and immediately after Walsham How’s death, John Loughborough Pearson, then currently working on the new cathedral at Truro, was commissioned to design and carry out extensions in memory of the first bishop and in order to give cathedral scale to the building. Pearson died almost immediately and all the building work was carried out by his son, Frank. Here we have some of the finest of all Pearson architecture. New Eastern transepts, which include the Walsham How Chapel, lead into the exquisite St Mark's Chapel, so dedicated because the service of consecration took place on the 25 April 1905, the Feast of St Mark and the Tuesday of Easter week.

The Cathedral Today

The Cathedral is the focal point for a busy Northern diocese, eighteenth in size of population that contains towns such as Halifax, Huddersfield, Dewsbury, Barnsley and Pontefract. People come not only for our regular worship but also for the big services that every cathedral and civic church has to provide. They also come individually from the adjacent shopping precinct to light a candle and pray or simply just to soak up the peaceful atmosphere.
The building itself has not remained unaltered during the last century. In 1950, the artist J N Comper completed his last major work, the imposing set of rood figures that surmount the 17th century screen. George Pace made a new Bishop's Throne for Eric Treacy (the railway bishop) in the 1970s and in 1986, Ian Judd produced a lovely stone carving of a cross-legged Madonna and Child.

Image Gallery: mouse over the thumb nails below to see a larger image.

Mouse over the images below to view the title. Wakefield Church
replica of a Saxon cross shaft
Normans: stone structure
collapsed in the early 14th century
The Later Middle Ages The Later Middle AgesThe Seventeenth & Eighteenth Centuries
Kempe windows Cathedral Extensions
William Walsham
Ian Judd: stone carving of a cross-legged Madonna and Child

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