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History of the Cathedral
The actual location of the first parish church of St Nicholas is not known. It is possible that a church was built close to the Castle (which was created in timber just after the Norman occupation then in stone by 1180) and served the growing community which grew up around this important defensive structure. It is likely that once the early settlement around the Castle out-grew its location and the burgeoning town of Newcastle (named after the ‘new castle’!) started developing further up the hill northwards, a new parish church was created in the current location.
It is dedicated to St Nicholas, the patron saint of a variety of groups including sailors, children, brewers and surgeons. There is little evidence of the early church inside and most of the current building is of the Perpendicular style (fashionable in the 14th and 15th centuries). It is likely that the town’s early business-people funded the building of the church; Robert and Alice Rhodes paid for the iconic Lantern Tower to be built in the 14th century and their coats of arms can still be seen on the inside of the tower and round the font. By the end of the 15th century the structure of the church was much like it is today. There are very few surviving accounts of the interior of the church but we know from 19th century historians such as Eneas Mackenzie that there was a remodelling of the interior of the church in 1777 when it is possibly some fittings and furniture may have been removed.
A library had existed in the church since possibly the 16th century, hugely augmented by the donation of over 7000 booked by Revd Thomlison, Rector of Whickham and part-time ‘lecturer’ at St Nicholas. The Mayor of Newcastle, Walter Blackett, provided funds to create a new building on the south side of the church to house the library and it opened in 1741 as the town’s very first subscription library.
The church of St Nicholas was the largest of the four parish churches in the town and evidence of its importance and influence can be seen in the many hundreds of wall and floor memorials which commemorate notable figures in the town’s history including leading industrialists and business-people. These were individuals who in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were shaping the rapid growth of the town through mining, commerce and international trade – the names of Ridley, Bewick, Blackett, Thornton and Clavering can be seen not only on the walls of the Cathedral but in the street names around Newcastle.
In 1553 an attempt was made to create a City of Newcastle, incorporating Gateshead and dividing the Diocese of Durham, by creating a Bishopric of Newcastle based at St Nicholas Church. Alas, Queen Mary, on her accession, reversed the legislation and St Nicholas Church had to wait for 329 years to pass before becoming a Cathedral Church (and England’s most northerly cathedral) on 25th July 1882, when the new Diocese of Newcastle was created.
Following the creation of the Diocese of Newcastle, the interior and particularly the chancel area was much altered under the supervision of the new Cathedral Architect Robert J Johnson.
A hall, library, vestry and subsidiary rooms were added on the north-east side of the Cathedral in 1926 to the design of architect W H Wood and extended in 1984 by R G Sims.
In 2020, Cathedral Architect Jane Kennedy has overseen the design of a new nave floor, the relaying of the ledger stones and the removal of pews, a new east entrance and visitor facilities and improved access to the font, north porch and churchyards.
Newcastle Cathedral is the only English Cathedral which is dedicated to St Nicholas.
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