Westminster Cathedral in London is the mother church of the Catholic community in England and Wales, the Metropolitan Church and Cathedral of the Archbishop of Westminster. The cathedral opened in 1903 and the construction was heavily influenced by the neo-Byzantine style. Today it is the largest Catholic church in England and Wales.
The cathedral is located in the City of Westminster. It should not be confused with Westminster Abbey of the Church of England. Westminster Cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of Westminster, currently His Grace The Most Rev. Dr. Vincent Nichols. As a matter of custom, each newly appointed Archbishop of Westminster has eventually been created a cardinal in consistory.
The site on which the cathedral stands originally belonged to the Benedictine monks, who established the nearby Westminster Abbey, and was purchased by the Archdiocese of Westminster in 1885. It is often presumed that Westminster Cathedral was the first Catholic place of worship to be built in England after the English Reformation.
In the late 19th century, the Catholic Church’s hierarchy had only recently been restored in England and Wales, and it was in memory of Cardinal Wiseman (who was the first Archbishop of Westminster from 1850) that the first substantial sum of money was raised for the new cathedral. The land was acquired in 1884 by Wiseman’s successor, Cardinal Manning, having previously been occupied by the second Tothill Fields Bridewell prison. After two false starts in 1867 (under architect Henry Clutton) and 1892 (architect Baron von Herstel), construction started in 1895 under Manning’s successor, the third archbishop Cardinal Vaughan with John Francis Bentley as architect. The cathedral opened in 1903, a little after Bentley’s death. For reasons of economy the decoration of the interior had hardly been started and still much remained to be completed. Under the laws of the Catholic Church at the time, no place of worship could be consecrated unless free from debt and having its fabric completed, so the consecration ceremony did not take place until June 28, 1910. On May 28, 1982, the first day of his six-day pastoral visit to the United Kingdom, Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass in the cathedral. On Saturday 18 September 2010, on the third day of his four day state visit to the United Kingdom, Pope Benedict XVI also celebrated Mass in the Cathedral.
The whole building in the neo-Byzantine style covers an area of about 5017 square metres. The dominating factor of the scheme, apart from the campanile, is a spacious and uninterrupted, 18.3-metre nave, covered with domical vaulting. In planning the nave, a system of supports was adopted not seen in most Gothic cathedrals.
The huge, yet narrow, buttresses are projected at intervals, and stiffened by transverse walls, arcading and vaulting. At Westminster they are limited to the interior. The main piers and transverse arches that support the domes divide the nave into three compartments. The domes rest on the arches at a height of 27.4 metres from the floor, with the total internal height being 33.8 metres. In selecting the pendentive type of dome, of shallow concavity, for the main roofing, weight and pressure have been reduced to a minimum. The domes and pendentures are formed of concrete, and as extraneous roofs of timber were dispensed with, it was necessary to provide a thin independent outer shell of impervious stone. The concrete flat roofing around the domes is covered with asphalt. The sanctuary is essentially Byzantine in its system of construction. The eastern termination of the cathedral suggests the Romanesque, or Lombardic style of Northern Italy. The crypt with openings into the sanctuary, thus closely following the Church of Saint Ambrose in Milan, the open colonnade under the eaves, the timber roof following and the curve of the apex, are all familiar features. The main structural parts of the building are of brick and concrete, the latter material being used for the vaulting and domes of graduated thickness and complicated curve. Following Byzantine tradition, the interior was designed with a view to the application of marble and mosaic. Throughout the exterior, the lavish introduction of white stone bands in connection with the red brickwork (itself quite common in the immediate area) produces an impression quite foreign to the British eye. The main entrance façade owes its composition, in a measure, to accident rather than design. The most prominent feature of the façade is the deeply recessed arch over the central entrance, flanked by tribunes, and stairway turrets.
The central feature of the decoration in the cathedral is the baldacchino over the high altar. This is one of the largest structures of its kind, with the total width of 9.5 metres, and the height of 11.58 metres. The upper part of white marble is richly inlaid with coloured marbles, lapis lazuli, pearl, and gold.
Despite its relatively short history (in comparison to other English cathedrals), Westminster has a distinguished choral tradition, and the choir is considered to be a very fine one. The cathedral’s musical traditions have been upheld by successive distinguished Masters of Music.
The choir has commissioned many works from distinguished composers, many of whom are better known for their contribution to Anglican music, such as Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams. However, the choir is particularly renowned for its performance of Gregorian chant and polyphony of the Renaissance. Unlike most other English cathedrals, Westminster does not have a separate choir; instead, the members are hidden from view in the apse behind the high altar. This, with the excellent acoustic of the cathedral building, contributes to its distinctive sound. Westminster Cathedral Choir has recently undertaken a number of international tours, including visits to Hungary, Germany and the US. The choristers participated in the 2003 and 2006 International Gregorian Chant Festival in Watou (Belgium) and the full choir performed twice at the Oslo International Church Music Festival in March 2006. In April 2005, 2007 and 2008 they performed as part of the “Due Organi in Concerto” festival in Milan. In October 2011, they also sang the inaugural concert of the Institute for Sacred Music at Saint John’s in Minnesota.
In 1977, as part of her Silver Jubilee Celebrations, the cathedral was visited by Her Majesty The Queen. Although there was no religious service (the visit was to a flower show), it was highly symbolic as the first visit of a reigning monarch of the United Kingdom to a Catholic church in the nation since the Reformation.