Southwark Cathedral is the mother church of the Anglican Diocese of Southwark and it has been a place of Christian worship for more than 1000 years, but a cathedral only since the creation of the diocese of Southwark in 1905. The present building retains the basic form of the Gothic structure built between 1220 and 1420, although the nave is a late 19th-century reconstruction.
Southwark Cathedral, or the Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie, as it is formally know, lies on the south bank of the River Thames close to London Bridge. The cathedral is used by London South Bank University for its annual honorary degree ceremony, by Regent’s College for its graduation ceremonies, and by King’s College London for its medical and dental degree ceremonies, an association stemming from its merger with Guy’s and St Thomas’ teaching hospitals, St Thomas’ having started as an infirmary attached to the Priory of St Mary. The cathedral also hosts the London Nautical School’s annual Christmas Carol Service.
The church dates to between 1220 and 1420, and it was the first Gothic church erected in London. Between 1106 and 1538 it was the church of an Augustinian priory, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Following the dissolution of the monasteries, it became a parish church, with the new dedication of St Saviour’s.
The earliest reference to the site was in the Domesday Book survey of 1086. The Old English minster was a collegiate church occupying an area on the south side of the Thames. In 1106, during the reign of Henry I it became an Augustinian priory, under the patronage of the Bishops of Winchester, who established their London palace immediately to the west in 1149. Some fragments of the 12th-century fabric have survived. The church was severely damaged by fire circa 1212. Rebuilding took place during the 13th century, although the exact dates are unknown. In the 1390s, the church was again damaged by fire, and in around 1420 the Bishop of Winchester Henry Beaufort, assisted with the rebuilding of the south transept and the completion of the tower. During the 15th century the parochial chapel was rebuilt, and the nave and north transept were given wooden vaults following the collapse of the stone ceiling in 1469. Along with all the other religious houses in England, the priory was dissolved by Henry VIII, being surrendered to the crown in 1540. In that year St Mary Overie received the new dedication of St Saviour and became the church of a new parish. By the early 19th century the fabric of the church had fallen into disrepair and all the mediaeval furnishings were gone. Between 1818 and 1830, the tower and choir were restored by George Gwilt Jun. In his efforts to return the church to its 13th-century appearance, Gwilt removed the early 16th-century windows at the east end of the choir and, lacking firm evidence as to the original design, substituted an elevation of his own invention, with three lancet windows, and a circular one in the gable above. The collegiate parish church of St Saviour was designated as a cathedral in 1905 when the Church of England Diocese of Southwark was created. The nearby early-18th century church of St Thomas became the new cathedral’s chapter house.
The church in its present form dates to between 1220 and 1420, which makes it the first Gothic church in London. In its reconstructed state – the basic layout of which has survived – the church was cruciform in plan, with an aisled nave of six bays, a crossing tower, transepts, and a five-bay choir.
In 2004 the cathedral founded the Southwark Cathedral Merbecke Choir. It is intended to be the place both for boys and girls who leave the Cathedral Choirs, and also other young singers who wish to maintain their sight-reading skills acquired as choristers and explore a wide range of repertoire under expert tuition.
As the cathedral does not have a choir school, the boys and girls of the Cathedral Choir are drawn from schools throughout London and surrounding areas. The Southwark Cathedral Merbecke Choir sings on the 4th Sunday of each month and performs a seasonal concert of music each term. It also sings for livery companies in the City of London and for other organisations. In 2006 it performed as part of the Queen’s Christmas Broadcast, which was recorded at the cathedral.
The Cathedral’s organ was built by Lewis & Co. of Brixton, and completed in 1897. Thomas Christopher Lewis, the company’s founder, was renowned for building instruments that had a bright, vibrant tone which, in part, was due to his use of low wind pressures. The instrument’s action was, and is, electro-pneumatic with slider chests, and the main case was designed by Arthur Blomfield.
During the reign of Queen Mary heresy trials were held in the retro-choir of the cathedral. In January 1555, six high-ranking clergymen, including the Bishop of Gloucester, were condemned to death there.