Westminster Cathedral | Look Up London

Westminster Cathedral

Poor old Westminster Cathedral, forever being confused with Westminster Abbey and even once being mistaken for a mosque, it’s well worth admiring this stripy brick beauty set back from Victoria Street

Built on the site of a prison and still incomplete after over 100 years, Westminster Cathedral might not be as famous as the area’s other major church, but it’s still well worth a visit!

History of Westminster Cathedral

Westminster Cathedral is the largest Catholic church in the country and the seat of the Archbishop of Westminster. 

After the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 allowed Catholics to freely practise their faith and the Catholic hierarchy was re-established in 1850, 13 new diocese were established by Pope Pius IX and Nicholas Wise was appointed as the first Archbishop of Westminster then made a Cardinal (the first new Cardinal since the reformation).

It was in memory of Wiseman that a plot of land was bought and a Cathedral planned.

The cleared plot as seen in the Charles Booth Poverty Maps c.1895-1906 (Image from layersoflondon.org)

The area chosen was – somewhat inauspiciously – close to the site known as the ‘Devil’s Acre’ and previously the site of Tothill Fields Prison.

A Bridewell shown on the C and J Greenwood Map of 1828 (Image from layersoflondon.org)

The only surviving bit of the prison stands on Little Sanctuary by Westminster Abbey. You can learn more about that history here.

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Architecture 

As mentioned earlier, the plot of land for the Cathedral was purchased in 1885 and John Francis Bentley, a devout Catholic, was chosen as architect.

After securing the commission from the newly appointed Cardinal Vaughan, Bentley travelled through Italy. He visited Rome, Ravenna and Venice but was prevented from seeing Hagia Sophia thanks to a Cholera outbreak in Istanbul.

Unbothered by this hiccup in the plan, Bentley claimed that a the book The Church of Sancta Sophia, Constantinople: A Study in Byzantine Building gave him all the information he needed!

Inside there are direct references to Constantinople in some of the mosaic decoration.

The final designs follows Bentley’s plan apart from one major change. He wanted two campanile either side of the entrance however Vaughan said ‘one would be enough for me’!

Although newer construction methods like steel frames were available, it was built traditionally, entirely from brick (which was also an economical choice). The completed building is a massive of striped brick and portland stone, one of the more striking buildings in London.

It took a while though, construction – after a couple of false starts – was only complete by 1903, with Bentley dying a year before its completion.

The Cathedral was consecrated in 1910, but the interior was still unfinished. In reality Cardinal Vaughan had always planned that decoration would be secondary to getting the actual structure complete.

The Interior

The Cathedral is built as a massive Byzantine-inspired basilica (large, singe room or hall) and to enter the cavernous space for the first time is quite overwhelming.

Although some may feel that the bare walls give it a derelict look, for me the darkness makes the interior all the more atmospheric.

The bare ceilings contrast with the side chapels which have been gradually decorated, like a colouring in book in progress.

Because of the ad hoc nature of progress, they’re quite an eclectic bunch. You can have one of the more traditional; The Blessed Sacrament Chapel.

Then the tremendously jazzy ceiling of the Chapel of St George and the English Martyrs.

True to its name, look a little closer at each of the fireball bursts and they contain the names of an English Catholic Martyr. Forty names are listed on the ceiling along with a depiction of the Tyburn Tree, where many met their unfortunate end.

Climb the Campanile

Another reason to visit is for the views. The campanile contains a lift to the top where you can soak up fabulous panoramic views over London.

Westminster Cathedral | Look Up London
Looking South
Westminster Cathedral | Look Up London
Looking East

These images are from when I visited in 2018, back when skyscrapers like The Scalpel and 22 Bishopsgate as well as the Battersea Power Station complex were in their infancy.

You can get a taste of the views by using the 3D tour feature from their website here.

Visit the Cathedral

Westminster Cathedral is free to visit or attend a service, their opening hours are and they run highlight tours during the Summer Months. You can find out more here.


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3 Comments

  • Kathryn Boyle

    Reply

    the Catholic Hierarchy was not restored until 1850.

    March 23, 2022 at 11:22 am
  • Geraldine Beare

    Reply

    I always walk up from Westminster round the back streets, light a candle and then sit in one of the beautiful side chapels. It has an incredible atmosphere of peace as it is rarely overly crowded – but never been up the tower!

    April 7, 2022 at 10:42 am

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