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NEWCASTLE CATHEDRAL
SEE US IN A NEW LIGHT

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Opening times

  • Sunday
    Closed
  • Monday to Friday
    Closed
  • Saturdays and Bank Holidays
    Closed
  • FREE ENTRY

The Place to be Seen!

The Very Revd Geoff Miller, Dean of Newcastle, writes…

Newcastle Cathedral has always been the place to be seen: dead or alive!

This ‘cool place to be’ syndrome was one of the key strap lines that our last interpretation consultants identified as a possible theme on which to hang our story for visitors. To be honest I was always a bit uneasy with it. Not that I don’t think the Cathedral is a really great place to be but the more you look at who (and how) people have left their marks on the place, apart from the odd bit of graffiti and the imaginative and often hidden creativity of some craftsmen, it is the rich and powerful who have bagged the most prominent places.

Some people accredit Winston Churchill with the phrase ‘History is always written by the victors’ though I’m told such sentiments at least go back to Robespierre. I think I prefer the African proverb, ‘Until the lion learns to write, every story told will glorify the hunter.’ Both remind us though that the rich and the powerful have the firmest handle on history-telling and the Cathedral was (no, is) a canvass on which they have liked to write. So, for the record, I certainly don’t approach Cathedral stones and artefacts as if they tell the whole picture or even the best or most important stories but I have to admit that there are fascinating past people who have long enjoyed the status of being marked in the best ‘place to be seen’ – in Newcastle! There are other voices, tales and lives more ‘ordinary’ and often more significant to tell, if you look for them – but hold that thought as its worthy of another, more full post at a later date.

What inspired me to start on this line of inquiry was a surprise telephone call just two weeks ago from the Lord Lieutenant’s Office. To cut a long story short (not a habit of mine!) the Duke of Kent’s people had noticed the building works when they were here to prepare for his visit and after chatting with him were requesting a private tour of the works when he came to Newcastle this week. We had not requested or expected such interest but for me it was sure sign that we were being noticed and in unexpected places. Of course, we readily agreed, even though it meant some nifty changes of plans on all our behalf.

Now this wasn’t the first occasion of royal interest in St Nicholas’ Newcastle. Digging into the past I found no less than 11 events worth a mention – and that doesn’t include the non-royal (but national leader) Oliver Cromwell!

  • There was Halfden, the Danish Chief, who wintered here, spreading death and destruction in the region. Perhaps that’s an interest in us best forgotten.
  • Robert Curthose, William the Conquerors eldest son, and his brother Rufus who became King had there Newcastle moments. And Rufus’ Bishop in Salisbury, Osmund, is often accredited with instigating the first St Nicholas Church being built in 1091. Though it as later burnt down.
  • In the early 1100’s it was a Royal Charter from Henry I that gave the church to Carlisle.
  • In 1451 a ratification of the truces of Scotland was signed in the vestry of the church,
  • In 1503 Margaret, daughter of Henry VII and fiancé of James IV of Scotland, visited on the way to Scotland. She worshipped in Church
  • On 13 August 1513 James IV body rested in the church as the cortege moved south.
  • In 1600 -1649 Charles 1 was imprisoned in Newcastle and worshipped at St Nicholas.
  • In 1648 Oliver Cromwell passed through – (did he personally clip the eagle’s talons?)
  • At the Restoration Charles II commanded the introduction of a Royal Coat of Arms in South Transept.
  • There are great descriptions of the celebrations to mark the coronation of George II on Oct 10 1727
  • In 1882 Queen Victoria’s Royal Mandate finally gave the city its charter. She had, it appears, quite an ambivalent relationship to the city and the Journal newspaper account of her visit in 1846 …. But the bells of St Nicholas’ rang. Since April 1903 Queen Victoria has graced us with her presence though looking slightly askance!
  • 1990 Queen Elizabeth II made a memorable visit to distribute the Maundy Money and there is stone laid to mark the occasion just near the north porch.

So, all in all I shouldn’t have been that surprised with the Duke’s interest, I’m still delighted though, and delighted too that we are getting noticed in unexpected places. During his visit the Duke was really engaged, as were his staff. Paul our site manager had arranged for one of the ledger stones to be lifted on his arrival. It was huge, thick and heavy, weighing somewhere in the region 1.2 tonnes and the lads delighted in cranking it up onto the hoist and lowering it onto some railway sleepers ready for the conservator to begin her work. So far about a dozen of the 140 (or so) of the stones have been prepared for conservation work. We are hoping that people can observe the conservator at work through the west end viewing windows once the floor there is levelled following the removing of a stone.

With nearly 200 monuments and 150 ledger stones the inside of the Cathedral is a veritable container of memories of people of the past, even if they are rather a select grouping. That figure doesn’t take account of those stones that were removed, thrown away or sold off during the refurbishment of the 18th Century – apparently some of them are to be found in the foundations and cellars of buildings on Mosely Street. Neither is the number even a true reflection of the great and the powerful of the Newcastle of their day. Many women are only briefly referred to and then often just in relation to their husbands, even though on deeper digging we have found some of the women to be more than the power behind the thrones – some were powerful business women, entrepreneurs in themselves. One woman ran nearly all the mines in the town for thirty years after her husband’s death. Some stones are to ‘lesser folk’ such as artisans – coopers and shipwrights, haberdashers and makers of false teeth and surgical instruments.

We are learning lots about all those named mainly through the work of some dedicated volunteers. One, Pat who I have mentioned before, talks about them all as if they were old friends …. though just occasionally not so nice ones at all. I heard her express some distaste for at least one of them recently, just like I heard her giggling with joy about some of them who turned out to be rascals or charlatans. Our Archaeologist, along with Pat and others have also been able to find out more about where many of the ledgers were originally laid. Many have been moved about over the years but it seems like a simple principle was usually in play – the more you paid the nearer you got to the Quire. The reverse seems to be true too, the less wealthy you were the further your stone was from the centre of things and the more likely you would end up outside in the churchyard. That is of course if you were to be remembered at all!

In our interpretation plan I’m afraid all of that is unlikely to be reversed. The grand memorials will of course stay untouched – except where it is possible for us to commission cleaning and restoration. We’ve researched (as best we can) the original placing of the ledger stones and we hope to return them there, well as near as possible, though definitely not because of any financial considerations. We will also have to take some other things into account such as maintenance and preservation and of course the developing interpretation schemes. The present idea is that they will all be placed into the aisles and along the crossing. CORE (our interpretation designers) are looking at an ambient lighting scheme which will invite us to look more carefully at some of them and then give us an imaginative way of discovering the people whose lives they mark. We hope the people and their stories – the good, the bad, the funny, the sad, the successes and the failures will cry out to be heard. And hopefully by some left field connections the stories we reveal will not be limited to adulation of our rich, powerful and male antecedents – Pat knows too much about them.

‘The place to be seen’ was the strap line that was my jumping off place. Remember I confessed that I was uneasy with it. In the end we won’t be using it in our interpretation memes but two reflections on it this this week gave me cause to wryly smile.

Over the last few weeks some children from two schools in our region (Choppington and Alnwick) have been researching some of the characters of our ledger stones. They have produced a set of really fun, exciting and vibrant representations of the characters. Now they are displayed on the outside of the Cathedral. They came with great joy to see their work on the hoardings, it is bold fun and very large, impossible not to see! Strange irony that these ledger stones paid for by the rich and powerful to mark their places have provided these young enthusiastic people with a great opportunity to have their names written large – now it is their turn ‘to be seen’ and for that I am prepared to shout ‘Alleluia’, even in Lent.

There is another lesson I have been taught by the uneasy phrase. We have spent some time trying to articulate the values that we as a Cathedral community hold dear, (perhaps I’ll share more about this later). However, for now, enough to note that, as well as promoting the Cathedral as a place of ‘radical welcome’ and ‘inspiring worship’ we are seeking our community to be a place and a community that gives all who come into it a dignity, value an ‘empowering worth’. I suppose, in short, a place where they are not overlooked but seen.